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Downtown Revitalization in the United States (challenges and cost)

Updated on December 29, 2011

Today, cities of all sizes, New York, New York to Bluffton, Indiana have implemented plans to revitalize, re-grow, and reinvent their downtowns. Many cities are trying to rebuild their downtowns because downtowns are considered the heart of a city, and everyone wants a healthy heart. The city of Houlton, Main has a vision statement that explains why its downtown is the heart.

"Houlton’s downtown is the heart of the community. We envision the downtown as a vibrant place for entertainment, shopping, dining, and community events. We envision it as a great place to live and do business, to meet people, to walk around, to see art and local history, to hear music and concerts, to enjoy holidays, festivals, and events. The downtown shall be a unique place that draws people to it" (Baker 2005 p3).

City downtowns played a vital role in the urbanization in America. Their growth started with the industrial revolution. After 1950 the importance and influence of American downtowns decreased. This was due to mass transportation and the development of suburbs. By 1908 many downtowns seemed like ghost towns, and urban planners saw a need to revitalize America’s downtowns.

There are many reasons for the redevelopment of downtown areas in the United States. Most cities have implemented revitalization plans and have future plans for continued redevelopment. Although downtown revitalization is seen as a positive for a city, it can have some negative effects on a city’s citizens. Most city leaders do agree that there are many more positives of revitalization than there are negatives and that the current generation must improve America’s downtowns for the next generation. Because America’s downtowns are a vital part of a cities economical growth and provides a connection to people’s past and future heritage, the importance of downtown revitalization in the United States is a necessity for city planners.

History of Downtowns

America’s downtowns were a place for all economical needs, entertainment and commercial needs. This started after the industrial revolution. In the first half of the twentieth century it was the hub for shopping, social gatherings, and a place to conduct business. It was also the place where people went to the movies and received news from around the world.

Downtowns started to decline after World War II. This was mainly due to the fact that soldiers returning from the war needed new housing. This led to the growth of suburbs. To support the people, businesses moved to strip malls to be closer to suburbia.

Kent Roberson (1983) conducted a study on the fall of retail activity in American downtowns from 1954 to 1977. His study showed that between 1954 and 1977 American downtowns, regardless of location or population size, experienced a decline in retail sales and the greatest loss took place during the 1970s.His study also showed that retail activity declined in small cities a lot faster than in large ones.

The city of Chicago was one of the first cites to see the downtown decline and one of the first to act on it. In 1958 Chicago adapted a plan called Development Plan for the Central Area of Chicago. This plan included recommendations for the use of Chicago’s land and improvements in transportation. The plans also included transit and parking facilities. Key building plans included a new university campus, several new government buildings, and housing for 50,000 middle-income families (Rast, 2009).

Current Redevelopment

In order to create a plan for redeveloping downtowns, city planners must understand the concept of urban planning. Levy (2011) summarizes the urban planning deals with specific concerns of “shaping the pattern of growth to achieve a sensible and attractive land-use pattern” (p.3). Within the scope of public administration planning is the foundation for all community life.

The father of modern administration and planning, Woodrow Wilson, stated that there are three concerns that one must realize before starting the planning process.

I. To take some account of what others have done in the same line; that is to say, of the history of the study.

II. To ascertain just what is its subject-matter.

III. To determine just what are the best methods by which to develop it, and the most clarifying political conceptions to carry with us into it (Wilson 1887 p. 197)

These steps are extremely important for redeveloping America’s downtowns. This is how Wilson’s concerns would fit in to the planning for revitalizing downtown areas.

I. Concern one, planners must look at what other city’s have done. For example the city of Toledo, Ohio had success in revitalizing their downtown in the 1990’s by building a minor league baseball park in the center of town and asking businesses to build around the park. Fort Wayne, Indiana saw this and moved their ballpark from the edge of town to the center of downtown. Since then, there are eight new businesses and a condo that has moved close to the ballpark (City of Fort Wayne, 2011).

II. Concern two, “Downtowns represent who we are and who we have been” (Gratz 2004 p 367). That quote is a demonstration of the subject matter; that downtown reflects the people. This guides city planner in ensuring that each downtown is a representation of the people.

III. Concern three, it is the city planers responsibility to implement the revitalization plans, and keep the citizens and politicians informed and happy. Understanding planning and anticipating needs with continued research will meet the need of the people and keep in line with the political agenda (Charbonneau, Johnson, & Andrey, 2006).

Between 1980 to the present, 2011, is when most cities started to rebuild their downtowns. In the city of Fort Wane, Indiana, by 1980 buildings where unoccupied, shops that had been around for over 80 years were gone, and the surrounding housing was empty. Fort Wayne created a Downtown Improvement District to cope with this problem.

Fort Wayne received 70 Million dollars to help revitalize the downtown area. The first step Fort Wayne took was to create a task force to determine how the 70 million dollars would best help the city. Therefore The Legacy Fort Wayne Task Force was created. Mayor Tom Henry of Fort Wayne stated. “These funds are unique for the people of Fort Wayne. Let’s look to the future, with wisdom and boldness. Let’s use this treasure to strengthen our community and make it a place of pride and opportunity for all” (cited from Legacy Fort Wayne, 2011).The mission of the task force included an investment philosophy, defined desired community impact areas, and engaged the public in the process of developing recommendations for the use of the 70 million dollars.

It was decided that the use of the funds should directly benefit the people of city; and the funds should be used for purposes which would promote the cultural, recreational, public, civic, and economic well being of the community within the downtown area. Also, the funds should be used for the long term best interest of the community by:

1. Providing for catalytic investment

2. Leveraging additional resources

3. Developing 21st Century Talent

4. Encouraging a competitive business

5. Providing entrepreneurship

6. Improving infrastructure and quality of life

As a rule, budget planning and preparation should be at the heart of good public expenditure management. This should be a main concern for the task force, and city officials should not approve any programs that do not fill the needs of the community. To be fully effective, public expenditure management systems require four forms of fiscal and financial discipline:

  1. Control of aggregate expenditure to ensure affordability; that is, consistency with the macroeconomic constraints
  2. Effective means for achieving resource allocations that reflect expenditure policy priorities
  3. Efficient delivery of public services
  4. Minimization of the financial costs of budgetary management

A well planned development plan must have defined responsibilities, and be carried out within an established amount of time. City planning must follow local and national legal and regulatory framework. Cities must know where to find the rules governing the planning preparation process, and identify who has the responsibility for the elements of the planning preparation process.

Most cities have the same goals when it comes to improving the downtown areas. This can include but is not limited to improving the downtown landscape, drawing in new business, creating distinctive and special events, and inviting people to move back to the center of town. Cities must have a strong management plan to achieve this (Walker, 1989). The key goals to the plan are:

· Directly linking asset investment with required service delivery outcomes to the people

· Maximizing the benefits to be gained from the government's purchasing power such as using eminent domain and zoning laws that have the best outcome for the people.

· Improving the standard building and road quality to ensure longevity, and maximizing use of all government property.

· Achieving cost savings while maximizing the benefits of city government planning (Government Asset Management Committee, 2011)

Future redevelopment

One of the important features of urban planning is ensuring a sustainable development program. This is where cities use ways to stretch their means by using the best plan possible. For example it is cheaper to use 50 watt light bulbs rather than 100 watt light bulbs. Therefore by using sustainable development it would save money to use 50 watt light bulbs. Sustainable development is the driving force in how “resources are being allocated and how decisions are made” ( Wilbanks,1994).

Today, many cities have plans up to 2030 and one of those plans is how to make cities greener. Green has two different meanings when it comes to city planning. Green can mean the color of the downtown area i.e. plant and trees. For example to improve the sight of its city and downtown Boston has a plan to plant 100,000 new trees.

One goal of the plan is to make Boston beautiful; people are more likely to move and visit downtown if it is pleasing to the eye. The other goal is to improve the health of the city and downtown area. Trees provide shade that can cool downtown areas and lower energy costs. Trees are also a natural air filter. It will provide the people with fresher and cleaner air.

The other meaning of green is to eliminate pollution. Downtowns were once a collection point for pollution. This would include anything from trash in the street, pollution in the sewers, and smog in the air. Part of revitalizing downtowns is to clean them up. This would take good environmental planning even though it is difficult to accomplish.

One of the best ways to ensure an environmental plan will work is to ensure the plan includes sustainable development. Haughton G. & Counsell D. (2004) state:

The difficulties experienced in operational environmental policy tools were the emergence of the 'Third Way' philosophy of New Labour… The new government published its sustainable development strategy with the title a better quality of life defining sustainable development according to four objectives which should be met at the same time: (1) social progress which recognizes the needs of everyone; (2) effective protection of the environment; (3) prudent use of natural resources; (4) maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth (p.141).

Senge, Glavas, & Cooperrider, (2010) published a study on how the city of Cleveland, Ohio is going green. They created a community action plan to help the city center go green. One of the ideas is for the city to use electric cars and buses. This would reduce air pollution in the city center. A second idea is to build or renovate old structures to increase the energy efficiency of buildings. The plan also calls for making changes to the city’s infrastructure issues that waste energy, such as reducing the amount of energy that street lamps use.

Moving into the future downtowns are becoming more important and globalization has brought city centers. It is estimated that 20% of new business in downtown areas will be because of globalization. City centers must adapt to the new environment and the influx of new culture. (Rypkema, 2003).


There are a lot of issues city planners must overcome to revitalize a downtown area. Levy 2011) list some challenges city must overcome.

1. Transportation, Most downtowns are betwenn100 and 200 years old and it is difficult to add new transportation without removing existing structures.

2. Water supply and sewers, new technology make older systems in downtown areas unsafe; adding to the cost of revitalization.

3. Air quality. Downtown areas are made of stone and steal in a compact area trapping pollution. Making space to vent pollution is a challenge.

4. Parks, outdoor recreation, and open space. The more a downtown can add these features, the more attractive the town center will become. Unfortunately, because of space issues, it is more costly to build the features in town.

5. 5. Economic development. It takes a dedicated plan to reach out for new business. Companies can be reluctant if the town does not meet their needs.

6. Housing. To fully revitalize the downtown area people must move there. Once points 1 through 2 are met, people will move in to the new or renovated housing.

Two of the biggest challenges of any project is funding and getting the people’s support for the funding. The elected government must convince the people of the importance of their downtown. Funds usually come from raising property taxes, raising city fees, or taxing local goods and services. It takes time and effort to convince people that raising taxes and fees to reenergize downtown is beneficial to all people of the city; even those that will never go downtown.


“When you're alone and life is making you lonely you can always go -Downtown
When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry seems to help, I know - Downtown
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city, Linger on the sidewalks where the neon signs are pretty How can you lose? The lights are much brighter there, You can forget all your troubles, Forget all your cares, and go Downtown”
(Petula Clark 1664)

The song above portrays the importance of downtowns in the history of America. It is funny though that ten years after this song was written downtown areas would only be a shadow of their former self. Today that song fits most downtowns. Most of today’s downtowns have the importance that they did in the 1960’s, but still a long way off from the importance of pre WWII.

There are many reasons for redevelopment of downtown areas in the United States: but one that sums up all of the reasons is to restore a city’s glory and keep the connection to the past. America’s downtowns are a vital part of a cities economical growth. It provides a connection to people’s past and to their future. To accomplish this, it is a great challenge for city planners but it is an important aspect of urban renewal.

Most cities have implemented revitalization plans and have future plans for continuing redeveloping. Although downtown revitalization is seen as a positive for a city, it can have some negative effects on city citizens. Most city leaders do agree that there are many more positives of revitalization than there are negatives and that the current generation must improve America’s downtowns for the next generation. Because America’s downtowns are a vital part of a city’s economical growth and provides a connection to people’s past and future heritage, the importance of downtown revitalization in the United States is a necessity for city planners.


Baker K. (2005) Houlton Downtown Revitalization Plan, Associates Planning & Design Policy- One Research Wright-Pierce Engineers

*Charbonneau, Johnson, & Andrey. (2006). Characteristics of university student housing and implications for urban development in mid-sized cities, Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 15(2), 278-300. Retrieved from Research Library.(Document ID: 1314324501).

City of Fort Wayne (2011) Downtown Improvement District, retrieved from

*Gratz R. B. (2004). America's new downtowns: Revitalization or reinvention? American Planning Association. Journal of the American Planning Association, 70(3), 367-368. Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 657612691).

*Haughton G. & Counsell D. (2004) Regions and sustainable development: Regional planning Matters The Geographical Journal , Vol. 170, No. 2, Environment and Development in the UK pp. 135-145 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society Article Stable URL:

Legacy Fort Wayne, 2011 retrieved from

*Levy J. (2011) Contemporary Urban Planning, 9th Edition. Pearson Learning Solutions NY.

*Rast J. (2009) Critical junctures, long-term processes: Urban redevelopment in Chicago and Milwaukee, 1945–1980,Social Science History, Volume 33, Number 4, Winter 2009, pp. 393-426

*Robertson K. (1983) Downtown retail activity in large American cities 1954-1977American Geographical Society Vol. 73, No. 3 (Jul., 1983), pp. 314-323 Article Stable URL:

*Rypkema D. (2003). The importance of downtown in the 21st century. American Planning Association. Journal of the American Planning Association, 69(1), 9-15. Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 277434951).

*Senge, P., Glavas, A., & Cooperrider, D. (2010). Building a green city on a blue lake: A model for building a local sustainable economy, People and Strategy: Special Issue: Transitioning to the Green Economy, 33(1), 26-33. Retrieved October 24, 2011, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 2024554891).

*Walker L. (1989) Woodrow Wilson, progressive reform, and public administration, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 104, No. 3 (Autumn,), pp. 509-525Published by: The Academy of Political ScienceStable URL:

* Wilbanks T. J. ( 1994)Presidential address: "Sustainable Development" in geographic perspective Annals of the Association of American Geographers , Vol. 84, No. 4 pp. 541- 556 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Association of American Geographers Article Stable URL:

*Woodrow Wilson (1887) The study of administration, Political Science Quarterly , Vol. 2, No. 2 pp. 197-222 Published by: The Academy of Political Science Article Stable URL:


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