The Myth of the Urban Core

Samuel Staley's picture

Question: What do Keybank Tower in Cleveland, the Kettering Tower in Dayton, and One Seagate in Toledo have in common?

Answer: They are their respective city's tallest buildings, and they were built after their city's population peaked.

There is probably no mantra more ubiquitous in the Smart Growth movement than the one claiming we should revitalize our central cities and direct new growth into areas where the infrastructure already exists. But what if that infrastructure was never economically sustainable to begin with?

That's a question planners and economic development professionals need to begin pondering much more thoroughly. Consider the following facts as they relate to Ohio cities, perhaps the nation's most important cluster of industrial centers during the early and mid-twentieth century:

·        20 of Cleveland's 26 tallest buildings were constructed after the city's population peaked at 914,000 in 1950;

·        12 of Cincinnati's 20 tallest buildings were built after the city's population peaked at 503,998 in 1950;

·        13 of Dayton's 20 tallest buildings were built after the city's population peaked at 262,619 in 1960;

·        6 of Toledo's 16 tallest buildings, including the 32 floor Seagate One, were built after the city's population peaked at 383,062 in 1970.

Most of these modern office towers were built in the era of urban renewal, with significant subsidies from artificially cheap land, streamlined property acquisition through Eminent Domain, lengthy tax abatements and subsidized interest rates on urban renewal loans. Thus, the skyline of the modern downtown likely doesn't rest on a solid economic foundation. Rather, these projects may have been founded on a myth of the central city, and downtowns, in particular, as being the economic core of an urban region.

Arguably, the modern downtown and its dense surrounding neighborhoods were the product of three converging, but historically unique, four forces: innovation that allowed dramatic increases in vertical mobility (the elevator), unprecedented increases in wealth (the industrial revolution), low horizontal mobility (requiring walking to access jobs, goods, and services), and limited transit (primarily trolleys) that served wealthy neighborhoods and high volume corridors. Combined, these forces led to a highly centralized urban form with a very dense downtown core surrounded by dense, mixed use neighborhoods. As wealth and individual mobility increased, the raison d'etre for the traditional downtown dissipated.

Thus, the traditional notion of an urban core, lionized in urban economics textbooks through the "monocentric city," may be a myth. Outside of a few exceptions, such as New York (and possibly Chicago), most cities that have high levels of mobility tend to have a relatively flat density gradient. The density gradient of London, for example, is much more common than New York. (For more on this, see the gradients estimated by Alain Bertaud but scroll down to the bottom.) But even New York's downtown (lower and mid-town Manhattan), may best be characterized as a cluster of niche neighborhoods with unique historical roots that traditionally had little to do with modern ideas of how a downtown functions; Little Italy, SoHo, the Garment District, the Financial District, China Town, etc. each served an important specialized function at one time, and it wasn't as the single focus of the New York economy.

All this suggests that planners and urban development policy analysts shouldn't put too much stock in existing infrastructure as an indicator of what is sustainable over the long run. Our eyes may perceive the architecture of space accurately, but not the underlying economics that ultimately determine the long-term economic sustainability of place.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.



NU premises and arguments.

Sam, can you quote from a NU instructional, motivational, educational or evangelical passage that thinks the monocentric model is still extant, that existing infrastructure dependencies include 20+-story buildings, and that building new infra from the ground up is more economically sustainable that using extant infra?

Your using these premises as arguments against NU is confusing, as I'm not aware they existed.

Thank you in advance.




Dano, could you first point out where New Urbanism was even mentioned? The subject is clearly urban renewal and incentives.
As to your question; "...passage that thinks the monocentric model is still extant..." One word answer: Transect.

Transect Label/Article Premise

Perhaps its the "urban core" label on the densest sector of the Transect. By the way, is the transect necessarily monocentric, or can a city have multiple areas with the Transect's denser shades?

But that's a bit off-topic -- anyway, I agree, the premises the article uses to argue against Smart Growth need work. Especially how one moment "urban core" means "downtown district," while later it means "entire central city," then the former, then the latter again. In effect, the advice of "don't put all focus on the core" alternates between two meanings -- "let the rest of the central city grow" and "forget the central city, break new ground."

Mike Lydon's picture

A few points

The Transect may be applied and encouraged in the polycentric city. Moreover, it may be applied in single city with multiple centers, though typically we find that cities have one T-6 zone with multiple T-5 zones at the various neighborhood centers or around the most active corridors.

Another point, New Urbanism is Smart Growth, but not all Smart Growth is New Urbanism. Nonethless, the two are used interchangeably in most contexts and developers, politicians, activists and citizens constantly co-opt the term without truly understanding the principles of each.

Someone cataloged all NU projects, New Urban News or Laurence Aurbach I believe, and found that the majority (60%) of NU projects are actually infill, redevelopment or urban extension projects...not greenfield. The common misnomer is the opposite because the "headline" NU projects tend to be greenfield because they are the most noticeable and demarcate such a drastic visual change on the suburban greenfield landscape (they are also the oldest and therefore the most mature and easily measured of the NU projects). Unfortunately, this means the sensitive infill work we new urbanists conduct all over this country, and indeed, around the world is slightly under the radar.

SG = NU.

Dano, could you first point out where New Urbanism was even mentioned?

    There is probably no mantra more ubiquitous in the Smart Growth

The terms are becoming interchangeable. SG is easier to usurp by developers and opponents (devaluing the term), hence my use of NU.

And the T5-T6 transect is not monocentric.




I read your first comment and now your second. Dano, could you first point out where New Urbanism was even mentioned? Look, you built a strawman by putting words in Staley's mouth that he never uttered and got caught. The thing to do is say you got caught and THEN explain you meant (but didn't say) that there is a tendency to conflate New Urbanism (NURB) and Smart Growth (SmUG) and you were deceived into going along with that attempt. That some are conflating the two is a fair assessment IMO.

The real failing in your argument is that most NU developments are greenfield. Seaside, Celebration, Kentlands?

Opinion-wise I see no particular difficulty exposing the failings of either NU or SG. I doubt any serious critic needs conflate the two in order to make legitimate critical observations.

OK, SG then.

OK, fine. You wish to pout at my labeling for advantage. Well then, simply replace NU with SG in your mind. Carry on. Do the points change with the shiny, new, and accurate re-label? No? Great!

Can YOU, Robt, quote from a SG instructional, motivational, educational or evangelical passage that thinks the monocentric model is still extant, that existing infrastructure dependencies include 20+-story buildings, and that building new infra from the ground up is more economically sustainable that using extant infra?

I do not presume, BTW, that you'll answer for Sam, just yourself. And let us trust that Sam doesn't need to take false umbrage over a label in order to have a reply.



Urban Core Not "Myth" But Perhaps Misunderstood

Is the idea of the urban core truly a "myth," which basically means it's a falsehood—or is it merely an oversimplification of the downtown-nondowntown relationship?

The "converging forces" paragraph partially answers this question—yes, a sort of urban core did exist before the pre-Urban Renewal era. No, it wasn't a collection of mirrored-glass towers, and and the buildings might not have even been very tall, but it was a center where people and trolleys converged. The city would typically have other areas of density and activity, but the level would have been greatest in that center. So, the author gives an answer—the urban core is not a mythical creature.

What we mean by "core" might be misunderstood, however. Is it a place where density and activity occur to the exclusion of all other neighborhoods? No, and I doubt that's really a common idea. Even as downtowns are treated as places of priority for economic development and revitalization, that's not a simplistic statement in favor of ignoring all nondowntown areas.

The point of this piece has to do with misunderstanding of urban cores. Unfortunately, I think the piece itself misunderstands urban cores as well, especially in the final paragraph, which conflates core-as-priority with existing-infrastructure-as-sustainability. Yes, making the most of existing infrastructure is sustainable, but that's an issue separate from prioritizing the traditional downtown.

It appears the article tries to conclude that because cores are "existing infrastructure," and because cores are "myth," then we should put less emphasis on cores and create new infrastructure. In other words, bring on the greenfield development.

But pro-downtown policy does not follow logic that simple, and the conclusion of this piece implies that it does. A misrepresentation.


With all due respect to Mr. Staley, I think that he's weakly grasping at whatever he can to derail Smart Growth, and that is borne out with the almost amusing lack of intellectual rigor in this column.

First, the facts regarding skyscrapers in decaying Ohio cities are great and all, but I don't think that they prove anything about the Smart Growth movement in the slightest. Although he is correct that these were projects that were essentially built through government subsidies, this phenomenon was definitely *not* a byproduct the Smart Growth movement. In fact, you could make the argument that the nascent movements that would later begin to develop the principles of Smart Growth strongly objected to government-funded downtown commercial redevelopment, which tended to wipe out functioning local businesses communities in these areas in favor of new monolithic structures in a commercial monoculture that would be profitable solely for developers.

Second, I don't think that anyone believes that we live in monocentric metropolitan areas any longer. The property price gradient *is* flatter than in the past, when not everyone would take a car to work. But who is to say that this leads into the idea that development needs to sprawl across the landscape? Encouraging smaller-scale, clustered development closer to local neighborhood cores where there is already much of the needed hard and soft infrastructure in place is the goal of Smart Growth. I've never read *anyone* that's said that we all need to live within walking distance of the glass towers of a downtown.

Finally, it seems like Mr. Staley's ire is solely (yet implicitly) reserved for those planners that are attempting to promote livable, walkable, and dense neighborhoods in urban areas. Why not target those developers, planners, and local officials that are keen on pushing tax incentives and public-private partnerships? They seem like they're the ones that are even now continuing what he deems to be unsustainable commercial development in urban cores. In effect, the problems that he's identified in this column are not quite related to Smart Growth in the exact way that he'd like it to be.

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