The “Science” of Downtown Planning and Placemaking

After several months off, I am pleased to re-launch the Downtowns Plus blog in a new format and start writing again about topics that are close to my heart: downtown planning and placemaking. My previous blog entries have examined these topics through the lens of both a practitioner and academic. I want to develop a space where government officials, design and downtown professionals, private developers, business owners and workers, academics, residents, and the public can examine how different types of downtowns and other places work and then use this information to develop and enhance planning and placemaking tools for specific areas. Downtowns Plus is rooted in theory and research while providing practical guidance for decision-making.

This desire to combine principles supported by research with action has led me to be a fan of a reality television genre that could be called business resurrection. My favorites are Hotel Impossible, Restaurant Impossible, and Bar Rescue, though there is also Kitchen Nightmares, Car Lot Rescue, and even Tattoo Rescue. These shows feature small businesses that need significant professional help to stay afloat. The businesses are typically outdated, poorly managed, and lack adequate resources. The owners are often deeply in debt and the workers’ employment situation is precarious. The shows give a business expert (and often an interior designer) just a few days to reshape and rebrand the business in an effort to achieve profitability. The episodes feature conflicts between the expert, owners, and staff, business and management lessons, and frequently a successful conclusion where the business is re-launched.

Mission Inn, Riverside, California

Mission Inn, Riverside, California

Those involved in downtown planning and placemaking can learn from these shows. The Impossible and Rescue brands discuss the importance of customer service, appealing products, and modern and functional design. Bar Rescue, in particular, emphasizes principles supported by the “science” of the bar business, such as how lighting, customer and worker circulation, presentation of products, food service, the pouring of drinks, menu design, and industry-tailored software, can boost productivity and profits.

Of course, there are key differences between the businesses featured in these shows and downtowns. First, the timeline for downtown and community revitalization is certainly much longer than the three or four days set aside for the shows’ teams. Second, a hotel, restaurant, or bar has a single owner or ownership team. Downtowns have many property and business owners, many interest and user groups, many opinions of what is needed, and often many layers of jurisdictional authorities regulating air quality, biological resources, contaminated properties, land use, streets, and transit. Third, public agencies have control over the condition of public lands, but not private properties. Finally, downtowns do not actually sell a product, but they seek to attract sellers and buyers.

The business resurrection genre illustrates the importance of developing a science of downtown planning and placemaking, a science that is a work in progress. Future research can build on the existing knowledge developed through federal, state, and academic institutions and organizations such as the Downtown Research and Development Center, International Downtown Association, National Main Street Center, and the Project for Public Spaces. As previous entries show, the Downtowns Plus blog is focused on encouraging and nurturing the science of downtown planning and placemaking. I look forward to continuing this effort in the weeks, months, and years to come.

One Response

  1. Jean Baronas
    Jean Baronas January 9, 2014 at 5:39 am | | Reply

    Hi, I really like your site. I think that the GHG emissions saved by well-designed downtown layouts —- people walking instead of driving — is really important! Until we have zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) as a mainstay, main street should be a walker’s paradise. 1/8/2014

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