10 Elements of a Great Downtown

By July 15, 2012Culture

Cheryl and I love to travel. We’ve always enjoyed great downtowns, so usually when we visit a new city that’s the first place we head. We love it so much we even moved downtown when we became empty-nesters. When we moved to Lexington, KY recently, we looked for a place as close to downtown as we could find. We found a “downtown feel” less than a mile to downtown.

Recently we were on vacation and visited numerous different downtown cities in the upper Midwest. As Cheryl and I compared cities, we made a list of our favorite attributes of a downtown area.

Here are 10 elements of a great downtown:

Ample parking – We prefer free, but it needs to be plentiful and for at least 2 hours. We’ll stop, eat, and spend if we can find it.

Bicycle racks – Bicycle racks are almost a symbol to us of what to expect in a downtown. If people can ride their bike, park it and shop, you’ll attract a young, active crowd. They love downtowns and keep it vibrant.

Outdoor seating – People love to people watch. (Okay, maybe I’m alone, but I don’t thinks so.) Downtowns are perfect places to sit for a while and relax. It is one thing that separates downtowns from other more commercial retail developments.

Restaurants – A great downtown has several choices of locally owned, unique restaurants.

Gift shops – Okay, this is not for me, but I’m not carrying the checkbook. Places to shop and find unique items will keep her shopping and me nicely parked on a bench.

Benches – How is she going to shop ver long if I don’t have a place to sit? Benches downtowns…benches!

Churches – We love the steeples and the architecture of downtown churches. It also shows the community still believes in their downtown. The more churches, the more people are coming to downtown on a frequent basis.

Flowers and trees – The best downtowns have found ways to build in nature spaces.

Downtown living – If it is a great downtown, people will want to live there.

Grocery market – To sustain downtown living, a place to buy basic essentials needs to be in walking distance. It doesn’t have to be where people buy everything they consume, but it should include the staples.

Do you love downtowns? Where is your favorite? What elements do you look for in a downtown?

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 23 Comments

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  • Deborah says:

    This may sound silly, but I find even things like Building Wraps give it a good 'official' downtown feel. I was in Los Angeles last weekend and despite being advertisements, most of them just made me go "wow" – made me want to live there for some weird reason

  • Parking is HUGE. Free or not, if I know I can find a place to park, it takes the stress out of going to a new city.
    Twitter: jonathanpearson

    • ronedmondson says:

      Yes, unless I'm riding a train to town and walking (which I do in Chicago and cities like that) ease of parking is key.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • Becky says:

    I would add some shade, a park, at least one bus route, not too much distance between bus stops, and a fun place for the children too. Love all of yours as well!
    Twitter: tijuanabecky

  • Steph says:

    I'm very biased to the downtown where I grew up in St. Joseph, MI. It has all of the things you mentioned plus a bluff overlooking a beautiful beach on Lake Michigan.

  • Josh Wagner says:

    For me, a downtown has to be navigable! If it's a bunch of winding roads with no rhyme or reason, I just don't go because I can't figure out how to get anywhere. If I miss a turn, I'm hosed! If it's laid out logically, I can get lost without getting lost, and maybe even find a hidden gem in the process!

  • Shari R says:

    To the #1 "ample parking", I would add a PS: Signage is important!
    Having recently moved to Raleigh, I learned the hard way ($20 parking ticket) that what looked like free parking down an entire block on a street was actually some new metered parking thing. I saw later that at the far end of each side of the street were odd-looking boxes that apparently corresponded to a number painted on the spot (which I did not see). It was my error that I simply asked a girl walking by if it was ok to park there and she just said yes without mentioning how/where to pay.

    Since I did not see the boxes, and there was NO SIGN anywhere that it was 2 hour metered parking or where to feed a meter, I was greeted with a ticket when I returned. Anyway – thanks for the great list . I hope you enjoy your new home!

  • Even though we've now moved away from there, our favorite downtown remains Fort Worth's. Not only is its expanding central business district an exciting place to live, work, shop, eat, and and be entertained (you may have heard of Sundance Square), but Fort Worth has laid out plans for mini downtowns spread throughout the city. They call these Urban Villages, and they're smaller, fun, and more accessible places than downtown proper. Way superior to Dallas. I don't know of any place in Colorado Springs (where we now live) that can compete, based on the criteria you describe so well.

    • ronedmondson says:

      I've been to Dallas's downtown but not Fort Worth that I recall. Been to the seminary there though. I'll check it out.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

      • Years ago Dallas routed all their downtown pedestrian traffic underground. And therefore all the eateries, etc. close at night. In prep for last year's disastrous Super Bowl (caused by Green Bay weather in the Sunbelt), ESPN scouted the whole area and chose Sundance Square for their venue. And they were glas they did, because when the ice and snow came, they still had complete accessibility to hotels, entertainment, and eating. Meanwhile, the journalists stuck in Dallas were confined to their hotel restaurants.

        Here are some pics:

  • Ray Strauss says:

    Charlotte and OKC have amazing downtowns with most of what you shared. Both are clean, rich in charm and culture, the things my wife and I love. OKC has the river walk and Charlotte has the fountains with pick up games of chess. Numerous mayors and council persons from many cities and states visit OKC's downtown to learn how to reinvent the long abandoned city regions and turn them into economic opportunities. Now, OKC has the Thunder.
    Twitter: raystrauss

  • As a new owner of a Nissan Leaf, we are also always looking for electric charging stations. This is one of the things we love about Franklin, TN where we live. The charging stations are plentiful. I also look for bicycle racks.

    Great list!

    • ronedmondson says:

      Interesting. Hadn't thought of that but it makes sense. Didn't make the list, but I also like when Zip cars are available and they have the pay by machine bicycles for rent on the streets.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

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