Curiosity and artistry: 6 takeaways on downtowns

November 28, 2018 Phil Schaeffing

The 2018 International Downtown Association conference inspired a renewed love of place—and the desire to make downtowns better

 

Attending professional conferences gives you a chance to reconnect with what excites you about your work, learn about the latest best practices, and meet interesting like-minded people. The 2018 International Downtown Association (IDA) conference in San Antonio was no different for me.

As I traveled back to Boston after the conference, I found myself returning to some striking comments from speakers over the three days. In particular, a call to action from Tim Tomkins, Times Square Alliance president and immediate past chair of the IDA board, stood out as a statement on how urban designers and anyone working to make downtowns better should look at cities. He said: “Look at cities with the curiosity of a child and the eyes of an artist.”

In fact, these themes—curiosity and artistry—wove through many of the sessions and conversations in San Antonio.

 

Downtowns must give shoppers an engaging and one-of-a-kind experience that online shopping can’t match. 

 

Curiosity—From love of place to main street stores

_q_tweetable:Remembering to look at new places with the curiosity of a child and the eyes of an artist helps us create and strengthen great, walkable urban places._q_

  • Are you a topophiliac? Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper introduced us to topophilia, or “love of place.” Those who work to make downtowns better for everyone—place-management organizations, urban designers, and many more—possess this quality and want to share it with the residents, workers, and visitors who experience their downtown. Creating places with both everyday usefulness and moments of wonder, places where communal celebrations and chance interactions take place, can help foster this love of place.
  • “When we look at our downtowns, who do we see? Perhaps more importantly, who do we not see?” This question came up in at least two sessions. At their best, downtowns welcome rich diversity that gives them character and makes them successful. Too often, though, design and policy unintentionally exclude groups within our communities. The homeless. The elderly and the very young. The disabled. Women, people of color, and immigrants. When working in downtowns, designers have a responsibility to engage with these often-marginalized groups to design spaces that welcome all people.
  • “How do I make my main street retail more successful?” This question comes up frequently in the age of online shopping. To compete, downtowns must give shoppers an engaging and one-of-a-kind experience that clicking on a screen can’t match. Artistry plays a critical role, from telling the story of a place through public art, to beautifully designed streetscapes and storefronts that encourage people to linger.

 

Colorful sculptures like those in San Antonio’s Yanaguana Garden shows how the story of a place can be told through design.

 

Artistry—What makes your downtown unique?

  • “What is the soul of your city?” Find the story of a place and tell it through design. Anchor downtowns with thoughtful public-realm design that digs into the history of a place, its people and culture, and expresses the defining threads that make it unique. San Antonio’s own Yanaguana Garden does this by using colorful sculptures to tell the creation story of the Payaya Native Americans who inhabited the land long before the San Antonio Mission was founded.
  • “Collaborate at the speed of trust.” People who work to improve downtowns need to master the art of collaboration, building productive relationships with a broad array of stakeholders who have varying motivations to work toward a common goal. Downtown development can be slow and arduous, and changing “business as usual” doesn’t come easily. Getting the right people around the table to share ideas and listen with respect builds the relationships that make positive change happen.
  • “A picture is worth a thousand words.” A discussion about the economic productivity of downtown buildings reminded me of how important this is. Start talking about “taxable value per acre” to a room of public officials or residents and watch their eyes glaze over. Compare pictures of a downtown mixed-use building on a small parcel and a big box store and its huge parking lot on a much larger piece of land, and then compare the data for both (the downtown parcel is much more financially productive per acre). That will catch people’s attention and make them sit up. Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Durham, North Carolina, are two cities doing this to convey the importance of focusing investment downtown.

 

The sculptures in San Antonio’s Yanaguana Garden, including the PanterAzul (blue panther), tell the creation story of the Payaya Native Americans who inhabited the land before the San Antonio Mission was founded.

 

Topophiliacs like me came away from the conference with a renewed sense of energy for and excitement about helping the downtowns and urban neighborhoods where we work. Remembering to look at new places with the curiosity of a child and the eyes of an artist helps us create and strengthen great, walkable urban places.

About the Author

Phil Schaeffing

Phil Schaeffing, AICP, LEED AP, is a senior planner and urban designer with our Urban Places team. He’s interested in helping communities reach their potential as equitable, distinctive, walkable places.

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