Economic Development News & Insight


Interaction and experience: the keys to downtown revitalization

Neil O'Farrell / September 14, 2015

Interaction and experience: the keys to downtown revitalization

Innovation produces both winners and losers. Over the last 50 years, modernization in the retail industry from big-box stores, strip malls and online shopping has improved purchasing efficiency and lowered prices for millions of consumers. However, the flip side of economic change has resulted in the decline of other areas. In this case, it was felt predominantly on the main streets and in the downtowns of many North American towns and cities, where businesses closed and people relocated. While some larger urban areas have recently enjoyed a renaissance in their cores, many smaller entities are still struggling.

In response to these issues, many downtown leaders have looked to their competition – the malls and box chains and even online stores – and sought to emulate them as part of an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mentality. But this ignores the fundamental roots of success of these retailers, which include plenty of cheap land, easy vehicular access, and lots of parking. For our continent’s congested downtowns and historic main streets, this is simply not feasible.

Instead, what needs to be done is exactly the opposite. Simply put, the flourishing downtown core lies not in the successes of the modern retail industry, but in its failures. What the new types of retailers do badly (or don’t do at all), downtowns do fundamentally well. In today’s context, the key to downtown revitalization in many cities and towns should rest on two main elements – interaction and experience – and the rest will follow.

How the consumption-centric retail model has forsaken interaction and experience

Think of two separate scenarios, one involving a large department store and the other comprising of an online purchase. Both examples are centred on efficiency and anonymity. In the former instance, a large box store which may service an area of 100,000 people usually necessitates an experience absent of human relations. A consumer is indeed shopping in the midst of others, but rarely does that involve any interaction with them. Indeed, even the cashier, the only source of human contact for many shoppers, is an increasingly automated position.

Meanwhile, the latter example is even more potent. Through most online purchases, a buyer can order almost any product without ever leaving his or her home. Consequently, for both these circumstances the experience is centred on the end result, the good or service acquired, and the means to that end is reduced to its most efficient minimum. The event is thus sterilized of interaction and experience, two important features of human life.

You shall not pass: limits to innovative technology

At the same time, the internet and other communication technologies have proven limited in their ability to replace close human contact and create memorable experiences. Since the 1990s, for example, the world has not become flat as was widely predicted. It has become ever more geographically pronounced, with the pull factors of agglomeration vastly outweighing the push factors associated with high land costs and communications technology. People simply love to live, network, and interact with one another. Moreover, while online shopping has helped to decimate independent storefronts, places where people congregate together – such as restaurants, cafes, and bars – have continued to thrive. Sharing a beer with an iPhone is simply not the same as being with a real human.

So what do we do now?

Based on this perspective, what is needed is not to emulate competitors – such as large box stores and online retail – but to fill the gaps left by their shortcomings. Two elements should be prioritized during this process. First, revitalization efforts should emphasise human interaction, whether by encouraging cultural activities or helping to promote businesses that bring people together. Second, success will require an eye to positive and memorable experiences, including events and companies which stand out from their counterparts. The idea is to foster an area which is a sensorial experience: one that is vibrant, different, and anything but sterile.

The following is a list of recommendations to promote revitalization through interaction and experience:

  • Encourage businesses to combine human interaction and experience with the procurement of goods. One of the most popular businesses in Prince George, BC, where I currently live and work, is 1/3 bookstore, 1/3 coffee shop and 1/3 music venue. The three components complement each other perfectly to help generate revenue, while bringing people together and creating an experience that is unlike any other in the city.
  • Create incentives for locating restaurants, cafes, and bars downtown. As mentioned earlier, technology has still proven unable to dethrone the human need for interaction. Where there are restaurants and bars, people come. This in turn creates an environment for retail to thrive. Incentives may include start-up grants or information – putting entrepreneurs in touch with the resources they need to set up a successful business. Conversely, enticements can also comprise limiting red tape and lowering business license costs or taxes in the core.
  • Locate cultural, arts and entertainment industries downtown. A cultural venue can attract hundreds or even thousands of people to a downtown area. However, a venue on its own will act as a remote destination island. It is important here to link the artistic venue with clusters of complementary amenities which create experiences and bring people together, such as those mentioned in all of the other recommendations.
  • Promote regular downtown cultural programming. This may include street fairs, outdoor air markets, live music festivals, outdoor plays, etc. The ideas and opportunities are simply endless, and the more locally-specific, the better.
  • Advocate for public art. Public art can be a point of attraction in itself, or it can serve as a backdrop to a downtown or main street setting. Either way, it can help to foster human contact and create an experience that is both unique and thought-provoking.
  • Encourage activity on the street on a daily basis. As Jane Jacobs and others have noted, the street is the classic and most valuable arena of city life. A vibrant street with people and activity can become a destination in itself. In this way, cities must encourage street life to thrive, through plentiful beer gardens and restaurant patios (with low costs and restrictions), vehicular street closures, encouraging businesses to bring their wares onto sidewalks, and allowing buskers to operate with limited barriers.

Certainly, downtowns and main streets must thrive by differentiating themselves from the forces that once caused their decline. The argument of fostering interaction and experience is quite simple, and the list presented here is far from exhaustive, but it is an excellent start and is worth a try.

Neil O’Farrell is passionate about urban economic issues and holds a Master’s Degree from the London School of Economics in Regional and Urban Planning Studies.

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