The Higher ED Blog: Embracing your downtown’s “Second-Tier Cool” status
Beth Davies / October 24, 2016
If we are being honest, when we think of “cool” or “trendy” places to live, the downtowns of mid-size cities rarely spring to mind. We might think of these cores as being quaint or picturesque, or, in other cases, as depressed or in decline. Economic developers and planners are always devising ways to make their centres more vibrant, but is this what downtown residents actually want?
As part of my graduate thesis research, I decided to interview residents of Kitchener, Ontario’s inner city neighbourhoods and ask about their experiences living downtown and their perspectives on Kitchener’s revitalization. As I started interviewing residents, 15 in total, I wanted to look at the differences between residents’ perceptions of the downtown and Kitchener’s revitalization plans and policies.
Kitchener’s revitalization plans
For decades, Kitchener, a mid-size city of 204,668 residents, was in the same boat as other similarly sized Canadian cities. After the post-WWII boom and the suburbanization that followed, mid-size cities spent decades attempting to revitalize their cores. Here I define mid-size Canadian cities as those with between 50,000 and 500,000 residents (admittedly this definition is somewhat limiting as it fails to take into account the role of a municipality’s political and economic reach). However, unlike so many other mid-size cities, Kitchener’s downtown is beginning to successfully revitalize. It is currently in the midst of significant redevelopment, and the City is actively working to rebrand the city centre as an “awesome” place to work and live. At the start of the new millennium, the centre of this mid-size city began to undergo noteworthy changes including the opening of three satellite university campuses, a handful of successful loft conversions, the growth of the downtown’s technology sector, and more recently, a resurgence of trendy bars and restaurants along the core’s main thoroughfare, King Street. Here a number of factors including the city’s proximity to Toronto, its closeness to several university campuses, as well as a burgeoning tech sector have contributed to the downtown’s successes.
The city’s most recent incarnation of its revitalization plan is focused on creating a downtown environment that will continue to attract a young, talented workforce. In fact, the very goal of the Downtown Kitchener Action Plan (2012-2016) reads: “To establish downtown Kitchener as one of the best downtowns in North America that offers a complete sense of community while offering cool, unique, vibrant, and eclectic experiences.”
This goal, clearly influenced by Richard Florida and The Rise of the Creative Class, underlies the city’s view that successful downtown revitalization rests on rebranding the core. For those unfamiliar with Florida, his work posits that cities’ economic success rests largely on the existence of a successful tech industry as well as a concentration of talented workers AKA the Creative Class. These Creative Class individuals, including people from a variety of professions such as educators, health professionals, and tech sector workers, play an essential role in driving the economy forward. Florida has argued that cities can make themselves more attractive to these professionals by improving urban neighbourhoods and by cultivating a sense of culture. Beyond Kitchener’s downtown goal, Florida’s reach is evident in the ways the City of Kitchener highlights the city centre’s culture in its policy documents, whether in the form of street festivals, new dining options or its live music scene, as well as through its emphasis on the city’s technology sector.
What Kitchener and other mid-size cities need to consider in their revitalization plans
Before talking to residents of Kitchener’s downtown area, I read through some of Kitchener’s revitalization documents and developed questions to gauge how residents felt about Kitchener’s downtown policies. Based on the responses I received, I ultimately determined three recommendations for economic developers and municipal planners of mid-size cities:
- Embrace your smallness
- Know your residents
- Create downtowns for everyone.
Embrace your smallness
Most of the people I spoke to valued downtown Kitchener precisely for its smallness. Notably, participants enjoyed the sense of familiarity and community that came along with living in a smaller downtown. Katherine, a millennial apartment dweller, remarked, “I feel like it’s a small town in a city.” Emmanuel, who owns a house just outside the city centre, felt similarly. He said, commenting on Kitchener’s downtown, “It’s a nice size when you can see people you recognize.” For the most part, the residents did not want Kitchener to attempt to emulate much larger urban cores like Toronto, New York or London. Participants recognized that Kitchener would never be “one of the best downtowns in North America.” As Nicole, a professional, millennial apartment dweller noted, “… you can put some cafes and patios out, but that doesn’t make it Paris.” Here it is important for mid-size cities to embrace their size and to move away from the notion that smaller cities are only worthwhile if they are emulating larger municipalities.
Know your residents
When Richard Florida published the Rise of the Creative Class, his revitalization strategies were soon cropping up in downtown plans throughout North America. However, applying policies as if they were one size fits all solutions makes little sense. When this happens, planners and other policy makers fail to acknowledge their municipality’s unique context. Participants were generally in favour of the downtown street festivals and its remodelled streetscape. Yet these features were not at the forefront of participants’ minds when they reflected on living downtown. Instead, residents were more likely to talk about walkability, safety, their opposition to the suburbs and affordable housing. Festivals and attractive bicycle parking certainly improve people’s experiences of the downtown; however, these measures do not necessarily improve residents’ overall quality of life.
Create downtowns for everyone
Perhaps one of the most surprising results of my research was residents’ desire for the downtown to remain accessible to people from diverse backgrounds. Although gentrification research often depicts middle class residents as pioneers, intent on colonising the existing cityscape, residents were mindful that Kitchener’s downtown has been home to low-income and marginalized residents for decades. Lori, a middle aged homeowner, remarked that Kitchener’s revitalization has created an uncomfortable juxtaposition in the core. She remarked, “I just don’t think it plays well having high-end stores and high-end restaurants and having bums sitting out front. They’re not dealing with what needs to be dealt with. Where are you going to put these people?” Many of my participants expressed the importance of continuing to offer social services for the community’s more marginalized residents and to provide housing. In contrast, Creative Class revitalization strategies often create spaces targeted to a specific demographic that may exclude more marginalized residents.
Ultimately, residents were not concerned with whether Kitchener would ever become “cool.” When I asked Kelly, a millennial apartment dweller who is passionate about living downtown, to reflect on the city’s downtown goal, she asked me rhetorically, “Why not make it liveable for the people that live here?” Liam, another millennial apartment dweller, facetiously noted that downtown Kitchener should not try to become “the absolutely coolest, most mind numbingly cool” downtown. Instead, Liam said he would be okay if downtown Kitchener was only “second-tier cool.” Here it is particularly important for revitalization plans to reflect the needs and desires of all residents and to promote the existing strengths of downtown communities.
About the author
Beth Davies is a recent graduate of the Master’s of Urban Planning program at the University of Waterloo. Her research interests include affordable housing, community driven economic development, social policy and creating inclusive communities. Beth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and her full thesis is available here
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