This story was originally published by Scripps Media on Sept. 26, 2022
SEATTLE, Wash. — There is nothing quite like the hustle and bustle of a city. No matter where you are, you know when you’ve made it downtown.
Jon Scholes, the president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, has watched this downtown drastically change over the years.
“Well, the town square or the urban center or the downtown, has always been about bringing us together for shared human experiences, understand our shared humanity,” Scholes said. “Downtowns have gone through a lot over these last two and a half years. They felt the disproportionate impact of this pandemic because our downtowns have always been about bringing us together in a pandemic. Of course, were told to stay apart.”
That got us thinking— since downtowns have changed so much in the past, what will they look like in the next decade? Well, in order to predict the future, we must go back to the past.
“So, if you go back in time at the time of the European colonization of this country, in the eastern seaboard cities, downtown were mixed districts,” said Manish Chalana, an associate professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington.
The rise of economic power in this country during the 19th century helped shaped downtowns as we know them.
“They had emerged as these uh centers for global capital and commerce,” Chalana said.
Changes in transportation and technology led to the 20th century, which included clogged streets of traffic. Spaces were designed and built with crowds in mind.
“We didn’t have the technology to go high and we didn’t have the transportation technology to spread out too much, so these were just very dense, mixed-use districts where everything was happening,” Chalana said.
Chalana will be the first to tell you that this concept of mixed-use districts is coming back.
“Multiple sort of ideas that are floating around in the way downtowns will transform in the next decade. One of these is that, they are saying, there will not just be one central business district, CBD, there will be multiple CBD type places in different neighborhoods,” Chalana said.
Scholes also agrees that in some ways the past needs to influence the future.
“So lite rail, we’re investing about $50 billion or so across the region, all trains leading to and from downtown Seattle,” Scholes said. “As a city in the mid-1990s, that took our streetcar rails and ripped it out and built a lot of parking. We’re sort of going back to the future to some degree with a real commitment to transit.”
“You’ll see in our lifetime, downtowns are going to look more like some of the European downtowns where people live and they buy their vegetables and groceries as they are walking down the street, grab a beer, and then go to perhaps their small efficiency and one room apartment,” Chalana said.
One main focus in the years to come is focusing on communal spaces.
“Investing into your public spaces and creating public parks and plazas and open spaces that are of substantial-high quality is really I think a key strategy for us and it’s gotta be for any city coming out of the pandemic,” Scholes said.
Inevitably, shopping looks very different today than it ever has.
“The brick-and-mortar retail landscape in our cities and in our downtowns was changing before the pandemic. We have a lot fewer larger-scale retailers in our country,” Scholes said. “But the size of the stores, the amount of space, that is being offered, that’s going to change I think and get much smaller in scale. There’s just not as many 20,000 of retailers anymore in our country.”
That, specifically, could allow downtowns to be more accessible spaces for new or small business owners.
“I see this as an opportunity to make downtowns more equitable and more welcoming to all types of people,” Chalana said.
“We want the cost of entry and the barriers to entry to be as low as possible. That’s how downtowns really came about in the US in the early 1900s,” Scholes said.
Predicting the future is never easy but these experts say there is a successful way forward and they are pushing for it.
“Downtowns are going to have to readjust and reimagine what they want to be and I see them as becoming more mixed-used,” Chalana said.