Urban Design: The Importance of Vibrancy in Downtown Centers

Downtown centers of your favorite cities are not arbitrary placements on the map.   Aside from the obvious tangible aspects of your favorite downtown locations which offer: places to live, shopping, dining and other forms of entertainment, downtowns are created for one very important reason- vibrancy.

Before we explore vibrancy, these questions may come to mind- what is involved in the makings of a downtown center? What makes a downtown area more livable? These are the questions urban planners and designers attempt to answer. Some of the best downtown locations in the United States are vibrant not only because of their strategic planning, but also the mingling and engagement this planning introduces into a city.

What is vibrancy and why does it matter?

A Vibrant downtown center is one that offers social interaction and engagement to its residents. Most city planners describe a vibrant center as an environment which is walkable, liveable and offers the residents an opportunity to play.

View of downtown Denver, Colorado

To put this in further perspective, a well designed downtown center offers what Emily Talen in her 2012 book City Rules: How regulations Affect Urban Form describes as: “Good urbanism that covers generic features of vibrant places quite well”.  Talen further explains a well designed downtown center as a, “compact urban form that encourages pedestrian activity and minimizes environmental degradation; encourages social, economic, and land use diversity; . . . connects uses and functions; has a quality public realm that provides opportunities for interaction and exchange; offers equitable access to goods, services, and facilities; and protects environmental and human health.

One important feature of a vibrant downtown center is walkability.  Another important feature of a vibrant center is the installation and development of parks, waterfronts and places for play. These places have an impact on the vibrancy of a downtown area because they increase the opportunities for interaction between residents. Planners and designers also see an increase in vibrancy when an area features historical or cultural landmarks.

If vibrancy is so important to the growth and sustainability of our downtown regions, how can the state and planning bodies promote vibrancy to add to make the lives of residents sustainable?

Here are some examples of the ways we can promote vibrancy:

Encouraging the development of higher-density housing in urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Most people adhere to the increase in higher-density option due to the consequential increase in property value, higher rent, and an increase in tax base.

Gentrification of lower income neighborhoods is also common fear when considering this option. To create a positive living environment for residents, it is also important to provide sustainable housing for low income residents who work in customer service or labor jobs, because their proximity to the city job market is important in driving revenue and developing the workforce. This can be enforced through inclusionary zoning laws and density bonuses .

Staying away from suburban development prototypes.

Suburban prototypes imposed on urban centers have been linked to a decrease in urban density, which as mentioned above is a possible key to vibrancy. Placing more importance on walkability, planners need to veer away from designing adjacent surface parking, drive-through lanes, lack of sidewalks in downtown areas,  if they aim to build a city which is walkable and subsequently vibrant.

To learn more about Vibrancy in downtown areas, visit the this article on Urban land Magzine