M e t r o p o l i t a n Po l i c y P r o g r a m
The Brookings Institution
Steps to Revitalization
Christopher B. Leinberger1
Since the rise of cities 8,000 years ago, humans have only wanted to walk about 1500 feet until they begin looking for an alternative means of transport: a horse, a trolley, a bicycle, or a car. This distance translates into about 160 acres—about the size of a super regional mall, including its parking lot. It is also about the size, plus or minus 25 percent, of Lower Manhattan, downtown Albuquerque, the Rittenhouse Square section of Philadelphia, the financial district of San Francisco, downtown Atlanta, and most other major downtowns in the country.
But the willingness to walk isn’t just about the distance. Certainly no one is inspired to stroll from one end of a super regional mall parking lot to the other. People will walk 1500 feet or more only if they have an interesting and safe streetscape and people to watch along the way—a mix of sights and sounds that can make a pedestrian forget that he is unintentionally getting enjoyable exercise. Depending on the time of day, the day of the week, or the season of the year, the experience of walking downtown will be entirely different, even if you are traveling along a well trod path. A new experience can be had, in fact, nearly every time you take to the streets.
Fostering such walkable urbanism is the key to the revival of any struggling downtown. But doing so can be a challenging process, requiring the development of a complex mix of retail boutiques, hotels, grocery stores, housing, offices, artists’ studios, restaurants, and entertainment venues. A “critical mass” of these pedestrian-scale uses must be established as quickly as possible, before the initial revitalization efforts stall for lack of support. This means making certain that visitors can find enough to do for 4 to 6 hours; that residents daily needs can be comfortably met; and that rents and sales prices continue to justify new construction or renovation.
Ultimately, reaching critical mass means that the redevelopment process is unstoppable and cannot be reversed. At that point, an upward spiral begins to create a “buzz,” increases the number of people on the streets, raises land and property values, and makes the community feel safer. More activity attracts more people which increase rents and property values creating more business opportunity which means more activity and people on the street, and so on. Simply put, in a viable downtown, more is better.