Transforming Downtowns Into Functional Neighborhoods

Rather than ‘monofunctional’ business districts or urban playgrounds, American downtown districts could become multipurpose neighborhoods.

2 minute read

May 25, 2023, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Colorful high-saturation view of downtown Houston, Texas with pink and blue dusk sky

Nate Hovee / Houston, Texas

Writing in Wired, Amit Katwala suggests that the future of the American downtown, which has been by and large designed as “uniquely monofunctional” to serve 9-to-5 business purposes, is in not in attracting tourists with new amenities, but rather by transforming into real neighborhoods where people can live, work, and play. 

As Katwala explains, “Strict zoning laws, combined with the widespread leveling of city centers in the 1960s and 1970s to build multilane highways, have created downtowns that are difficult to use for anything other than white-collar work.” 

To revitalize struggling downtowns, some cities are reorienting their central business districts as “playground cities,” defined in the article as “downtown areas will be remodeled to attract leisure visitors as well as workers” but that urban scholars like Yonah Freemark warn could be a passing fad.

According to Freemark, “block-wide skyscrapers can also stifle life at ground level,” offering little interaction for pedestrians. “The park space is minimal. Roadways are horrible and extremely car-focused. All those things have to be thrown out if you want to create a neighborhood.” 

Katwala writes, “Perhaps the answer to saving downtowns is actually a simple one: Transform them into neighborhoods in their own right that actually cater to the needs of the people who live there.” To start, city leaders can change policy to make it easier to convert offices and other downtown buildings to housing and other uses and reorient transit schedules to reflect post-pandemic ridership patterns.

Friday, May 19, 2023 in Wired

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