What is a Downtown? Changing Definitions for Changing Times

Discussions about downtowns rarely ask the question: What is a downtown? The concept of a downtown is so ingrained in American culture that we can identify one much better than we can define it, bringing to mind Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote about obscenity: “…I know it when I see it.” The process of defining the term “downtown” will help to provide us with a common language and a common set of characteristics.

The typical dictionary definitions of a downtown, whether “the main business section of a city” or “the main commercial area”, better reflect the downtowns of sixty-five years ago rather than contemporary ones. Office and retail activity today is much more dispersed than in the first half of the 20th century. Contemporary downtowns frequently seek out a “24-hour” mix of retail, office, government, entertainment, and residential uses.

The role and character of downtowns has changed dramatically since the first half of the 20th century (Downtown Anaheim 1923)

The role and character of downtowns has changed dramatically since the first half of the 20th century (Downtown Anaheim 1923)

Carl Abbott of Portland State University has discussed the transformation of downtowns, specifically large city downtowns, and downtown policy since the end of World War II. He writes that downtowns were initially considered the undisputed center of the American metropolis but, as metropolitan areas grew in land area and fragmented, downtowns struggled to reinvent themselves – first through clearance of “slums”, then as a set of distinct subdistricts, then as a place for enjoyment and tourism, and then as high-rise financial and professional centers. (Abbott 1993)

Our conception of downtowns has continued to change in the 19 years since Abbott published his history. Efforts to reduce the harmful effects of sprawling development, including the emergence of planning and design movements such as New Urbanism and Smart Growth, have sought to focus growth into higher-density, mixed-use nodes, whether these nodes are traditional regional and city downtowns, redeveloping auto-oriented strips, neighborhood centers, or village centers. The definition of downtown that I use stresses the similarities between traditional and non-traditional downtowns:

A downtown is the perceived commercial center of a community. It is typically characterized by:

  • Compact form;
  • Higher densities;
  • Historic buildings and infrastructure;
  • Uses that serve the community and region, particularly civic and public uses;
  • A mix of uses; and
  • Emphasis on multiple transportation modes.

This definition recognizes that commercial uses serve as the foundation for a downtown, but that contemporary downtowns are distinguished from other commercial areas through transit- and pedestrian-friendly design and a variety of commercial, residential, and public uses. Abbott referred to these characteristics as the “urban advantages of variety and intensity” and “social inclusiveness” that are not found in many auto-oriented office clusters, which may comprise a commercial area, but are not functioning as a community center.

“Community” is used in this definition instead of city or town because there are downtowns that serve different types of places and because sprawling development can blur the distinction between political jurisdictions. The different types of downtowns will be discussed in the next blog entry: “Types of Downtowns”.


Abbott, Carl. 1993. Five Downtown Strategies: Policy Discourse and Downtown Planning Since 1945. Journal of Policy History 5(1): 5-27.

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