In "Connecting the Dots Downtown," published by the International Downtown Association on its home page throughout 2003, I discussed how the systems thinking that improved industrial product quality and customer satisfaction was gradually being used to improve downtowns. Here, I expand on that theme to discuss the elements of most downtowns and the dynamics created from their interaction.
Urban analysts as early as the 1960's believed that a downtown functioned not as a collection of independent elements but as a complex and dynamic social system with interacting elements. Among them: Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961), Victor Gruen (The Heart of Our Cities, 1964) and Jay Forrester (Urban Dynamics, 1969).
Bertram Gross (The State of the Nation,1966), a former Harvard University Business Professor and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, wrote that:
"Any social system consists of people and non-human resources, grouped together into subsystems that interrelate among themselves and with the external environment and are subject to certain values and a central guidance system that may help provide the capacity for future performance."
Systems thinking became a fundamental of the quality improvement revolution that began in manufacturing first in Japan in the fifties, led by Edwards Deming (Out of the Crisis, 1986), then in the U.S. in the eighties. In The Toyota Way in 2004, Jeffrey Liker quoted Toyota President Fujio Cho:
"…what is important is having all the elements together as a system. It must be practiced every day in a very consistent manner - not in spurts - in a concrete way on the shop floor."
Toyota was a Deming client.
Jim DeLucca, Manager of the General Motors truck plant in Indiana, told The Indianapolis Star:
"In the old days, a defect would show up and the manager would chew someone out. Now you ask ‘How has the process broken down.'"
John Evans, Professor of Business at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and former Examiner and Chairman of the Baldrige national quality awards program, told me in 1999:
"Organizations that have developed a natural foundation that recognizes linkages are qualitatively different from those organizations that treat the various components of their approach to quality as merely independent building blocks."
A number of consultants contributed to the industrial quality revolution, but Deming was perhaps the most active and well known, training 10,000 managers a year up to the time of his death in 1993 at 93. To improve product quality and customer satisfaction, he believed that cross-functional teams of empowered employees should manage production as an integrated system with goals, performance feedback and a penchant for continuous improvement. Customers, he said, were the most important part of the production process. Though the Deming Prize for quality in manufacturing has been given in Japan every year since 1950, his views were not accepted in the U.S. until about 1980, when companies such as Ford Motor Company hired him as a consultant.
When he was President of the International Downtown Association in 1992, Richard Bradley said in The Downtown of the 21st Century that in most cases downtowns are not managed as total systems. Then, IDA developed a public-private partnership model based on systems thinking and the industrial experience that has been adopted in some U.S. downtowns. He told me in 1999:
‘While few people think about downtown as a system, much less talk about it as such, the way in which some organizations are growing their downtown proves that it is."
System interactions produce consequences that are often surprising and can be delayed, sometimes for years. Some consequences may never be known - e.g. the reasons why some potential customers and visitors drive through a downtown and keep going without getting out of their cars.
The elements in most downtowns include a compact layout, controlling vehicles, attracting customers, the pedestrian experience, diverse mix of uses, local history, planning-design-development, natural resources, maintenance, alternate modes of transportation, public safety, public spaces and year around events, working with street people, housing and a public-private management partnership. They form the downtown system and they interact with the external environment.
To achieve quality in a downtown requires a passion for continuous improvement in each of the elements, with attention to both the elements and their interaction with each other and the external environment. In every downtown, as in every sector of society, there is a hierarchy of needs. They must all be addressed incrementally from the bottom to the top. I've seen downtowns with attractive, well-maintained streetscapes but few customers indicating that other needs are not being met. Installing brick on the sidewalks should not be a high priority if customer service and parking are poor or graffiti is not being removed from walls.
In a pioneering management book (Eupsycian Management, 1963), psychologist Abraham Maslow said business was a "web" in which "every part is related to every other part" and teams benefited employees and organizations.
A compact layout not only uses infrastructure efficiently; it encourages discretionary shoppers to explore. Many people don't understand its importance. William H. "Holly" Whyte (The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 1980) was famous for using time-lapse photography to study how people behaved in downtowns. He criticized blank spaces, which interrupt the compactness in a downtown - surface parking lots, convention center or theater blank walls--even tinted glass. In one downtown, buildings were razed to create office landscaping, off-street parking and now a passive plaza, yet some officials don't understand why retail is not successful there.
A compact building cluster means that off-street surface parking should be located on the perimeter of the building cluster or in structures with what planners call a "retail wrap" at ground level. A 1968 plan for one downtown that recommended off-street parking on the north and south edges of the retail core was not approved by local officials who permitted a new jail and automobile dealership to locate in those spaces without knowing the long term consequences for the downtown. The Hamilton County government in Indiana appropriately located its new Jail, not in the downtown, but next to a State highway outside of downtown, where it has more space and security.
The need for more downtown parking is often debated in communities. It shouldn't be. The competition knows the importance of parking. All shopping center and big box store developers provide parking for peak, as in holiday, periods and they all provide at least 5.0 spaces per 1,000 square feet of store space. Smart cities, such as Corning, NY, locate off-street parking behind the downtown buildings and most businesses have rear entrances. Downtown Santa Monica, CA turned its Third Street pedestrian mall that was in decline into a vibrant Promenade that attracts two million visitors a year by establishing a public-private management partnership that coordinates all of the elements and approving a bond issue that built three large parking structures behind each side of the Promenade with lighted, well-marked pedestrian connectors to the mall.
Historically, while traffic engineers preferred one-way streets to speed traffic flow, the trend in smaller downtowns today is toward traffic calming (to enhance the pedestrian experience) using two way traffic, sidewalk bulb-outs at intersections and other devices. Two-way traffic is also easier for visitors to understand and negotiate.
Most people seem to think that marketing just means promotion and events. But, the textbook definition of marketing involves the four P's - product, place, price and promotion - everything that the customer experiences en route to an engagement, which relates to all of the other downtown elements. This means that all of the details of the products - "programs" and "services" for nonprofits like museums and community centers - and the facilities are just as important as the prices and promotion. See Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations, the 1996 book by Philip Kotler and Alan Andreasen.
I have tried without success to persuade the Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to substitute "Marketing" for the "Promotion" component in its four-point strategy (Design, Promotion, Economic Restructuring and Organization). Main Street corporations should adopt "marketing" voluntarily. The main markets for a downtown include downtown employees, city residents and employees, those living in the downtown's trading area and tourists.
The Urban Land Institute, the developer's association and think tank, and others believe that the quality of the pedestrian experience is the single most important key to a successful downtown. That experience is related to all of the other downtown elements and has a hierarchy of needs. In the mind of a pedestrian, downtown must first be safe (e.g. from crime and traffic), then walkable and attractive (e.g. compact with streetscape amenities), then socially accommodating (e.g. dining with friends in a tree-shaded restaurant patio), then enlightening (e.g. by attending a concert or lecture).
A Diverse Mix of Uses:
Analysts recommend that downtowns have, not just one type of use such as business or government, but a diverse mix of uses to give people a variety of reasons to come downtown. The tricky part of this recommendation is in where those uses are located downtown. For the reasons noted above, retail and restaurant uses should be clustered at ground level in the core. Retail stores and restaurants should have transparent storefronts that are inviting to customers. And, restaurants should post their menu in their front window for customers to study before deciding whether to enter. Offices, which often do most of their work by computer and phone, should be on the edge of the retail core and/or on the second floor. A few years ago, a study of bank customers showed that they did 65% of their business away from the bank and that number may be low today. A cineplex is a popular pedestrian generator in a downtown today but its blank walls are not desirable unless they are "wrapped" or fronted with ground floor retail that reduces the view of the cineplex to its entrance as in downtown Lodi, CA. Downtown Boulder, CO wrapped a huge parking structure with retail to be consistent with the retail on its Pearl Street Mall. Symphony hall in downtown Seattle is fronted by retail boutiques that are open to the public even when the hall is dark.
The establishment of specific new businesses and nonprofits in a downtown should not be left to chance but should be influenced by general guidelines and specific recommendations based on the opinions of downtown owners and operators and the consumers at large. The guidelines should be known and used by those recruiting new organizations.
Downtown historic sites, structures and stories should be identified, researched, maintained and promoted to inform residents and visitors of the past. The SBC phone company in Lodi, for example, placed ceramic panels of sepia-colored, historic photo enlargements related to its business and employees along one of its blank walls next to the sidewalk in the downtown.
Cities that choose to not employ professionally-trained city managers and city planners and or make public investments downtown, do not understand the long range, city-wide impacts of those decisions. You can drive into a city that has had professional planning and public investment and immediately know it and know that it is growing. Such cities attract new residents, businesses and visitors.
Planning and design should be executed professionally and with an eye on coordinating all of the downtown elements, public and private. Professionals should be hired to produce a downtown design manual for public and private property, a manual that would encourage voluntary compliance at the least. Feasibility studies should be conducted before development is implemented. Experienced fundraising and design consultants teamed with staff to determine the feasibility of The Honeywell Foundation, Inc.'s theater-gallery-restaurant-plaza development in downtown Wabash, IN.
Some natural resource considerations, such as street trees, public space landscaping and recycling, should be common to every downtown. Special natural features in different downtowns are being turned into amenities. Examples include the stream by the Mission in downtown San Luis Obispo, CA, rivers and lakes that front many downtowns, and the old Indianapolis Water Company canal that has been reinvented to become a major amenity. The Rouse Company acquired the old Union Station in downtown St. Louis and turned it into a vibrant mixed-use festival center, creating a lake under the old train sheds for paddle-boats and an adjacent beer garden and hotel.
Street trees help soften the otherwise hard surfaces of the built environment downtown and add shade for pedestrians and sidewalk diners. They should be deciduous, not coniferous, with no thorns or berries or leaves so large and opaque that they hide windows and signs. They should ideally be placed where they will not block store entrances or display windows or be subject to damage from opening car doors. So, coordinating their placement with stores, parking space striping and other factors is important. Defunct coal bins below sidewalks can be another factor to consider.
Recycling, subsidized or not, should be mandatory nationwide.
Downtown public and private property needs to be maintained on a regular basis. Improvements look good when first established but in time they require maintenance. Without maintenance, the street trees on both sides of the main street in one downtown have grown so large and bushy that they connect at the top, creating a dark tunnel, making it difficult to see the storefronts. When a building comes down for some reason, the vacant space can remain in place for years with the old, soft interior brick sidewalls and stucco remnants exposed, creating an eyesore. Stucco is probably the most cost-effective material to cover such walls; it is a masonry material that coordinates with brick and it can be painted to blend with adjacent colors. It is more appropriate to fill such a space with a new building to enhance downtown compactness or at least to use the space for a landscaped patio for an adjacent restaurant. In downtowns like that in Santa Monica, CA. power washing is done during the morning and maintenance workers pick up trash in the busier afternoons and evenings.
Alternate Modes of Transportation:
If more people commute to and from downtown by alternate modes to the single-occupancy car, there will be less downtown congestion and a need for off-street parking. Normally, downtowns should provide at least 3.0 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of store and office space. In Boulder, more than 40% of the commuters use buses, or bikes or walk, reducing the need to 1.8 spaces. Bike lanes and racks and public transit are important downtown needs.
Customers perceive downtowns are relatively safe if pedestrian and parking spaces are well lit, well maintained, free of graffiti and patrolled. Some downtowns use unarmed but uniformed "Ambassadors" on foot to provide information to pedestrians and serve as a conduit to appropriate public and nonprofit leaders. When I asked the two officers in the police substation in the middle of the Third Street Promenade mall in downtown Santa Monica, how quickly they could obtain back-up, they said "Four minutes."
Public Spaces and Events Year Around:
Events attract people to the downtown. They can take many forms from festivals and parades in the summer to Octoberfests in the fall and gallery walks in December. They should have a net positive financial impact on the downtown businesses and public facilities. An event on a closed downtown street will attract visitors but may discourage same-time sales for the businesses on that street. I have seen that in several downtowns. A flea market of outside vendors may attract people but present a negative image of the downtown. I prefer events that do not cause the closing of all of the major streets in a downtown with the exception of a few parades each year. A weekly farmer's market would be more appropriate on a parking lot or in a park near the downtown. In a city park near downtown Davis, CA, a permanent metal canopy several hundred feet long provides shade for farmers who back their vehicles up to each side for a well-organized, successful market twice a week. Parks and plazas in a downtown that are not programmed with regular activities just become blank spaces.
Working With Street People:
Street people, be they skate-boarders, transients or homeless, can intimidate mainstream customers and employees. City ordinances should be adopted, for example, to prohibit such behavior as sleeping, loitering and skate boarding on the sidewalk or panhandling within a certain distance of an ATM machine. Santa Monica raises funds through receptacles on the Promenade for services for the homeless.
Market rate rental and for sale housing adds to the life and customer base downtown during the day, evening and weekends and provides "eyes on the street," as Jane Jacobs observed. Cities such as Indianapolis, Santa Monica and Cleveland have demonstrated that if downtowns are revitalized with amenities and partnership management, a housing market will follow. But, downtown housing raises a number of needs that must be addressed - e.g. parking, children's play areas, schools, markets, cleaners, dogs, and noise.
Since downtown has many interacting elements, each with public and private dimensions and since no one organization is responsible for all of the tasks in downtown, it is clear that downtown needs a coordinating, public-private management partnership. At the partnership's core, should be a joint business improvement district, which engages the downtown property owners, and 501 C 3 charitable corporation, which can attract volunteers, dollars, opinions and ideas from the entire city and beyond. They should have overlapping boards with public and private members, and share office and staff. Ex officio members of boards should be able to vote to give them a stake.
The cross-functional team is an important organizational vehicle to identify problems, recommend solutions and implement projects. A team should include the best mix of talent in the community, not just in the downtown, members should leave their personal biases at the door and focus on the team mission and engage in dialogue, not just discussion. The team leader should be a facilitator, not someone who inhibits comment. See The Wisdom of Teams, the 1993 book by Jon Katzenback and Douglas Smith.
Continuous feedback about all aspects of the downtown performance should be sought to help produce continuous improvements. Feedback can be from many sources - from the monitoring of sales tax receipts and vacancy rates to the opinions of city consumers, downtown businesses and property owners.
A downtown is important for a number of reasons: it has a large combined infrastructure that should be utilized; it has a large tax base that should be maintained; it is a vital first impression for prospective residents, business leaders and visitors and it is a center for business and civic life. When all of the downtown elements are managed proactively and in a coordinated fashion, they will create a high quality downtown and the perception of that image in the minds of locals and visitors.