Kevin Klinkenberg guest writes for OneKC Voice about maintaining and developing a healthy downtown.
Who doesn't want a healthy downtown? After all, isn't that like mom and apple pie?
The truth is, universally people declare that they wish their immediate downtown was vibrant and healthy, as well as other downtowns in the region. And yet we seem to struggle to achieve this in so many of our communities. Why is this? Do we not mean what we say?
Of course, the answers are complex. In some cases, we have willfully presided over the demise of the hearts of our communities, but most of the time it's unintended consequences that have caused so much damage. We've created big roadways that bypass or cut off our downtowns, land use policies that make redevelopment difficult, encouraged or subsidized their competition in shopping centers with free parking, and in general not realized the appeal that these places have to so many people. But the good news is threefold:
First, we still have good bones to work with in many of our communities. Any community in the area older than the 1950s (and that's most of them) has some semblance of a downtown that is still functioning today. Some are doing quite well. So it's not like we have to start from scratch like some other areas.
Second, we have a collective history of vibrant places connected by rail as well as by road. In fact, we often forget that all of our communities, pre-World War II, were the kinds of places we seek to create now: walkable, mixed-use and transit-oriented. Too often we've let myth overtake us, and forget that healthy downtowns are part of our history.
And most importantly, after decades of hand-wringing, we now know what to do about it. Some places are farther along than others, but the recipes are not that complicated: a substantial and diverse residential population; streets and civic spaces that make walking enjoyable; a professional management agency with steady funding to promote and advocate the importance of urban areas; transportation policies that bring people downtown; land use policies such as form-based zoning codes that make mixed-use, walkable development easy and predictable; parking plans that manage use rather than prescribing unnecessary over-supply; and most importantly, connections. Our downtowns need connections to their surrounding neighborhoods, and also to each other. The vibrancy of a downtown Overland Park is only enhanced by a direct connection to a vibrant downtown Mission.
If it sounds easy, it isn't. We still have to overcome politics, baggage of past issues, skeptical residents, and most often inertia. And these things certainly don't happen in a year or two or even five. It took many of our downtowns decades to decline, and we can't expect them to immediately recover. But recover they must, for if we are truly to become"America's Green Region" we must begin with how we live and work in our communities.