Some Key Aspects of the New Normal for Downtowns: the “good news” ©

Article 1

N. David Milder

Author’s Note for Downtown Curmudgeon Blog and Newsletter Readers

A number of readers of the Downtown Curmudgeon blog have asked me to write an article on the new normal for downtowns that I have referred to in many of my blog postings in recent years. In response, I have planned a series of articles that will be posted over the coming six to eight months.

This is the first in that series and focuses on providing a description of the critical characteristics of the new normal and some of the emerging challenges downtown organizations now may face under it. Proper treatment of this subject requires sufficient space and cannot be done within the usual short take format of most blog posts and email blasts. While I have tried to be economical in my use of words, this article is almost 12,000 words long, even when I have skimped on examples and skipped using data tables and other illustrations. I have divided it into two parts. Each part will be posted to my blog and emailed separately.

Later articles in this series will cover such topics as the arc of downtown revitalization, the potential implications of the new normal for downtown development projects and BID programs.

Part 1 – What’s Now Normal for Downtowns: The Good News

1. The Expectation and Ability of Downtowns to Prosper.  When I first became involved in downtown revitalization issues back in the mid 1970s, downtowns across the nation were weakening and often visibly decayed because of the impacts of business and residential flight, suburban residential growth, suburban sprawl, the rise of shopping malls, the creation of suburban office clusters, the fear of downtown crime, business flight, reduced investment, etc. (1). Civic and business leaders often despaired that their downtowns were literally going to hell, with few prospects of salvation in sight.

While these declines were most easily noted in cities after the urban riots of the late 1960s, the decay soon also was being found in many non-rioting big cities as well as in many of our older and well-established suburbs, large and small.

Early downtown revitalization efforts that used urban renewal, office growth or physical improvement (“beautification”) strategies were almost complete and disheartening failures. In too many instances they created sterile fortress dominated environments that were antithetical to pedestrian activity and multi-purpose downtown trips – and very hard to rectify – or “decorated coffins,” prettier, but still devoid of activity and growth.

However, about 15 to 20 years ago, our downtowns started to tell a far different story, one that has grown stronger and stronger with each passing year. More downtowns appeared to have bottomed out and then established an upward thrust on their revitalization arcs. Today, the increased flows of pedestrian traffic, the after five o’clock activity levels, the new or rehabilitated buildings, the shops and entertainment venues, the influx of businesses and jobs, and the growing numbers of downtown residents all signal that many of our downtowns have advanced quite far on their revitalization arcs and are doing quite well. Still other downtowns, often inspired by and following the best practices of their more successful brethren, are rapidly improving.

These prospering downtowns are large (e.g., Midtown Manhattan, Center City Philadelphia, downtown Chicago), suburban (e.g., Wellesley MA, Old Pasadena CA, Englewood NJ) and even relatively small (e.g., Cedarburg WI, Galena IL, Durango CO, Brattleboro, VT).

The new prosperity of our downtowns is powerfully described by Paul Levy and Lauren Gilchrist in a recent publication they prepared for the International Downtown Association:

“Downtowns across the United States are thriving. From Boston to San Diego, Seattle to Miami, cities are diversifying their economies and land use, restoring and enlivening public spaces. During the last three decades, city centers have been adding  arts, culture, dining, education, medical, and research institutions, along with hospitality, leisure, and sports venues. Simultaneously, there has been a dramatic and sustained increase in residents, living both within business districts and adjacent neighborhoods.

Places once shunned as empty and unsafe at night are being redeveloped at higher density and are thriving after dark. They  have become preferred places for work, entertainment, and living. Patrons of downtown regional destinations mingle with office workers, resident young professionals, empty-nesters, and, in many cities, an expanding number of families with children. The trends of diversification, animation, and residential revival are occurring as well on and around urban colleges, universities, medical centers, research parks, and other urban commercial zones” (2).

This trend of resurgence has been accompanied by the appearance of a capable cadre of downtown leaders, managers and professionals.  If all the answers to our downtown problems are not yet known, today’s downtown leaders seem confident they can develop viable solutions to them as they emerge in their districts. The 1,000+ BIDs and numerous local Main Street operations provide these leaders with the needed organizational vehicles.

We certainly have come a long way, and it is important that the progress that has been made be amply recognized and celebrated. However, there is still a way for our downtowns to go. While downtowns overall have been strengthening, the pattern is understandably uneven.  Downtowns started their revitalization arcs in different places, with some facing many more serious problems than others. Furthermore, downtowns also differed in the types and levels of redevelopment assets and financial resources they could mobilize. Finally, if a downtown’s revitalization is to really take hold and last it must be viewed as a perpetual process.

Bottom line: in the new normal for downtowns, they prosper!

2. Significantly Reduced Fear of Crime. For several years I have been writing about the apparent significant reduction in the fear of crime or its effects on our downtowns. However,  the “crime problem” still exists in some districts, usually those where nighttime activities are not well established or that have problems associated with gangs or the use and sale of methamphetamine.

I came to this conclusion not on the basis of any series of systematic research or solid opinion surveys, since I could not find any to analyze, but because my visits to many downtowns indicated that consumers, investors and businesses no longer seem to be engaging in the downtown injurious behavior patterns that the fear of crime previously caused. The thriving downtowns with vibrant after dark activities noted by Levy and Gilchrist above are consistent with this conclusion.

The crime problem did not cause the post WWII decline of our downtowns. That was the result of greater auto use, the move to the suburbs by residents and shoppers, followed by the move of retailers and office based businesses and the consequent downtown disinvestments. However, for about three decades, crime did make downtown revitalization extremely difficult. Crime became one of the most important factors corporations looked at when considering new locations for offices, retail stores, restaurants and entertainment facilities, and all too often downtowns were deemed too dangerous and undesirable. The fact that Levy and Gilchrist can state that downtowns “have become preferred places for work, entertainment, and living” means that the avoidance behaviors of shoppers, residents and businesses are no longer occurring, making the crime problem moot.

It is important to understand why the downtown crime problem has diminished so substantially, because it can shed light on the effectiveness of the policies and programs of our municipalities and downtown organizations and the processes by which they were formulated and implemented. Nationally, since about 1993 or 1994, FBI statistics have famously shown a continuing decline in the number of criminal acts normalized by population, i.e. the crime rate. Its abeyance in our large cities has received much media attention because it has been so significant, though it also has been uneven, with our poorer cities showing fewer declines. Statistics on the number of crimes occurring in and around our downtowns, when available, reflect that trend. However, our downtown crime problem was less a result of the number of crimes perpetrated in a district or its crime rate, but more about downtown users’ fears of becoming victims of criminal acts while in the district. For example, in the 1970’s, 80s and most of the 90’s, the leaders in many of the large downtowns I visited reported their frustration that the fear of crime was a very damaging problem, although their crime rates were average or even low compared to other parts of their communities.

Academic research findings supported this disconnect: statistically the fear of becoming a crime victim in the downtown is not strongly associated with how many criminal acts occur within the district:

“Evidence provided by many studies suggests that the relationship between the fear of crime and actual crime rates is very loose and indirect. One study, for example, found that although the likelihood of being robbed was actually 20 times greater in Washington, D.C. than in Milwaukee, the residents of Milwaukee only felt slightly safer than did the residents of Washington. Another study concluded: ‘the patterning of fear across areas does not match the patterning of crime levels. Although some studies do find that actual victims of crime are more fearful than non-victims, it is not the case that areas with higher crime or victimization rates have residents who are more fearful.’ There is a weak correlation between fear levels and crime rates” (3).

The fear of crime hurt downtowns by causing the residential, worker and visitor avoidance behaviors and lack of investment described above that strangled the economic and social life out of these commercial districts — even when crime rates were low. For example, a study I did of three outer borough downtowns in NYC showed that how safe trade area residents felt in their downtown during the day had a stronger impact on their visitation rates than how they felt about the merchandise they could buy there, the physical attractiveness of the downtown or the ease of getting there (4). The fear of crime also impacted on those who did visit their downtowns by influencing where and when they would walk and how many destinations they would visit. That diminished a key competitive advantage of downtowns: multifunctional multi-destination visitor trips.

The programs needed to reduce the number of crimes can be quite different from those that can effectively reduce fear. Our downtowns most needed programs that could reduce fear and such programs were not easy to fund, design or implement.

In a later article in this series, I will present an analysis of the causal factors I think best explain the reduced fear of crime problem in our downtowns. Because of limitations on the existence or availability of needed data, this analysis will not claim to be definitive, but it hopefully will be received as thoughtful and provoke discussions and research on this topic within the downtown revitalization community. At this time, as “teasers,” here are some of the points I will expand upon in the upcoming article:

— What the cities and BIDs did definitely had strong impacts on reducing the fear of crime, but some programs were probably not as important as many might think, while other effective actions may have gone unnoticed or under appreciated

–Jane Jacobs was very probably correct when she argued that more pedestrians on the streets would help reduce the fear of crime and that, in effect, successful urban revitalizations self-heal their fear of crime problems. But, how were the crime problem’s impacts overcome in the initial revitalization stages before the pedestrian flows were sufficiently strong to heal the fear of crime problem?
— Much anecdotal evidence suggests a destination’s magnetism can offset fear of being a crime victim in a downtown user’s decision-making calculations. With revitalization, a downtown gains numerous destinations with stronger magnetism, so the impacts of fear may be meaningfully offset by them
— In 1970s and 1980s, a lot of the fear of becoming a victim of a downtown crime among the downtown’s trade area residents was generated and/or validated by downtown residents, workers, merchants, etc. or those who had fled their downtowns, who sent negative messages through their personal social networks. By now, they have either died off, shut up, or been drowned out by the new downtown users who instead are sending very positive messages through their personal social networks
— Today’s downtown users are often wealthier, better educated and younger than those in the 1970s and 1980s. These characteristics tend to make people feel more empowered and less likely to be fearful.

Bottom line: in the new normal, in downtowns well along on their revitalization arcs, during daytime or after dark, downtown users do not frequently engage in avoidance behaviors associated with the fear of becoming crime victims.

3. The Emergence of Downtowns As Their Communities’ Central Social District.  For decades, the terms Central Business District, CBD and downtown were used almost interchangeably because, functionally, downtowns were dominated by retail stores, office based businesses, professionals and government agencies, along with some hotels and maybe entertainment venues. Early downtown revitalization efforts were able to attract office tenants and –aside from the impacts of fluctuations in our economy — downtowns have continued to grow office-based activities. Retailing was far more difficult. By the late 1970s and through the 1980s, national retailers might locate in enclosed downtown shopping centers or off-street networks, though these centers seldom met expectations and did little to liven downtown sidewalks. By the late 1980s major retail chains began to again consider downtown street level storefronts, and this interest picked up considerably over the 1990s.

Levy and Gilchrist have argued convincingly about the importance of people working downtown wanting to live in or near the downtown. However, to my mind, equally important to the resurgence of downtowns has been the emergence of a group of interrelated functions focused around the downtown being the community’s Central Social District (CSD): housing, restaurants and watering holes, vibrant public spaces and other locations for informal entertainments, and formal cultural and entertainment venues (5). These CSD functions establish a downtown as a place to relate to and play with significant others and makes living and playing variables as important as working, selling and buying in any viable formula for downtown success. The interrelatedness, the “dynamics,” among the CSD functions is important. For example, living downtown would be far less attractive without these other CSD functions being present. Conversely, without the downtown residents many of these CSD functions would have far fewer customers and less pedestrian traffic after dark to help reduce the fear of crime.

Underlying all of these CSD functions is the ability to spend quality time with loved ones and significant others. For example, a recent report on participation in cultural events found that: “The level of enjoyment and the opportunity to spend time with loved ones play the most influential roles in deciding whether to attend a cultural event (6).

Below are a few comments on some of these CSD functions that I believe are most important.

Housing. Without a doubt, housing in and very near to downtowns has had a huge beneficial impact. Its importance has been noted by countless others in recent years. The strength of downtown housing was amply demonstrated by how well it did, comparatively, during the Great Recession.

As Eugenie Birch noted in her seminal study, in the 1970s and 1980s, downtown residential populations declined in America’s larger cities. But, in the 1990s, downtown populations grew by 10 percent, a marked resurgence. Furthermore, in these downtowns homeownership rates more than doubled during the thirty-year period, reaching 22 percent by 2000 (7). Since then this growth has continued.

Overall, these new downtown residents contain higher percentages of young adults (Millennials), empty nesters, and the college-educated than other communities in their regions (8). They often have created subcultures characterized by creativity, hipness, tolerance and a sense of being empowered in downtowns and nearby neighborhoods.

The growth of downtown housing is not restricted to large cities. In New Jersey, for example, significant downtown housing projects have been constructed in such communities as Cranford, Englewood, Hoboken, Livingston, Morristown, New Brunswick, Rahway, Somerville and South Orange. Much of this also has been stimulated by a work connection: the downtown housing’s proximity to a commuter rail station.

While the demand for downtown residential units is substantial, and downtown living has its ardent fans, not everyone wants to live in a big city downtown. For example, a national survey done for the National Association of Realtors found that only 8% of the respondents preferred a city downtown residential location, while 11% preferred living in city residential areas. Another survey found that Millennials preferred living in a suburb (43%) to living in a city (17%) by almost a three to one margin (9).  Creative Millennials, however, may well have a greater preference for urban living than their non-creative brethren. Whatever the situation, there plainly are a sufficient number of them living in and near our downtowns to have an undeniably positive impact on housing and other functions. The same point is true looking at the overall demand for downtown housing: most people may not want to live in a downtown, but the demand has sufficient numerical strength and emotional depth to continue to be a very viable engine for downtown economic growth. Indeed, the demand is strong enough that in many downtowns only those who are fairly well off or able to share rents can now afford downtown residences.

Restaurants. Restaurants not only provide food, but also entertainment in the forms of people watching and observing restaurant operations as well as providing felicitous opportunities for social interactions. If clustered, they also can help bring downtown streets to life after dark. Furthermore, they bring in a lot of customers that retailers can benefit from if they are open for business and sufficiently proximate.

Developing restaurant niches has become an essential, if too often underappreciated, ingredient in the revitalization strategies of most downtowns, especially those that are of comparatively small or medium size. They can be especially important in suburban downtowns, e.g., Cranford, Englewood, Hoboken, Morristown, Ridgewood and Teaneck in NJ, where niches of 20 to 35 restaurants are not uncommon. There is usually strong demand in suburbs with affluent, time-stressed residents. They also often play important roles in small rural or metro fringe communities, e.g., Sherwood, WI. One reason is that it is often possible for some type of downtown eatery or watering hole to be economically viable in communities with populations in the 1,000 to 5,000 range, where a GAFO retail operation would likely have far less viability (10). Restaurants also are often urban pioneers. Drawn by lower rents, they may succeed because, as research has shown,  “a poor (restaurant) location can be overcome by a great product and operation” (11). Restaurant niches can also be large and extremely important assets in downtowns where retail is not very strong, e.g. downtown Austin, TX and downtown Morristown, NJ.

Downtown merchants can benefit from lunchtime restaurant customer traffic, but from the eateries’ dinner traffic only if they are open after 6:00 p.m. The stores of retail chains are more likely to be open in the evenings than the small merchants.

Vibrant Public Spaces and Informal Entertainments. Formal entertainment venues such as museums, theaters, movie houses, concert halls have long been located in or very near their downtowns. Our national downtown resurgence has witnessed countless successful projects that have created or strengthened formal entertainment venues, such as:

  • The refurbishment of grand old theaters, e.g., the Pantages and El Capitan in Hollywood; the Paramount in Rutland, VT; the Ohio Theater in Columbus, OH;
  • The revitalization of theater districts, e.g., Cleveland OH, Houstoun TX, New Brunswick NJ
  • The creation of performing arts centers, e.g., Newark NJ; Raleigh NC; Englewood NJ; White Plains NY; Carmel IN; Greenville SC;
  • New or expanded art museums, e.g., Berkeley CA; Los Angeles CA; Chicago IL; New York, NY; Roanoke VA; Seattle WA; San Antonio TX;
  • The revival of small town movie theaters, e.g. Crosby ND; Bucksport ME; Clayton NM; Old Forge NY.

While the contributions of such projects to their downtowns’ economic health is undeniable, it strikes me that the emergence and strength of what I have come to call “informal entertainments” is of equal and possibly greater importance.

During the decades of our downtown “troubles,” countless pedestrian malls were built and closed, and many of the public plazas built by office developers in exchange for greater building densities turned into playgrounds for drug dealers and sleeping places for the homeless. Other plazas were so badly designed or located that absolutely no one used them. Also, during the “troubles,” many of our parks were vandalized and/or badly maintained.

Today, our downtowns increasingly have attractive, well-activated public spaces, be they parks, public squares, building plazas and even some pedestrian malls. Here are some examples of the places I have recently visited that quickly come to mind: Bryant Park, Central Park, The Highline, Paley Park, Herald Square, Times Square and Madison Square in Manhattan; Millennium Park in Chicago; Discovery Green in Houston; Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia; Mitchell Park in Greenport, NY; Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn; Division Street in Somerville, NJ.

A lot of this is due to the influence of William H. Whyte and his numerous apostles (12).  The emergence of organizations such as the Central Park Conservancy and the BIDs and municipal agencies that placed a high value on the creation and/or maintenance of vibrant public spaces also stoked this movement.

Great public spaces are not just attractive; they also broaden and strengthen a downtown’s entertainment niche (13). They do so by providing opportunities for people to engage in activities that they enjoy and that also interest and amuse nearby people-watchers. Think of the ice skaters drawing the ever-present crowds above the rink in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. Similarly, in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, you’ll find young men and women seated and watching each other and chess players, who always attract an audience. Greenport, NY, a much smaller community, has used a carousel and waterfront location to create a wonderful public space where people can watch and be watched by other people. Other downtowns have fostered entertainment with facilities such as:

  • A model boat pond
  • A children’s pony ride
  • Tables where people can play chess, checkers, or dominoes
  • A Wi-Fi hotspot to access and cruise the Internet on a laptop
  • A place to catch the sun — a favorite pastime for office workers and young tourists in the spring and summer
  • Places to buy food and eat lunch alfresco
  • Outdoor cafes for sipping coffee and eating snacks
  • Slot car racing for kids
  • An interactive surface that passersby can not resist looking at to see their reflections – and how people next to them react when they see their own.

Visitors will “perform,” if the opportunities are there. To sail a model boat, a suitable pond or pool is required. To sit in the sun and people watch requires an attractive place with benches and chairs to sit on.

Sometimes an informal entertainment requires special personnel. For example, in Meredith, NH, local residents, hotel guests and second homeowners are really into bird watching; birding tours for them of the Meredith area might require a knowledgeable and experienced “birder” to guide them.

Nationally, households in the top income quintile account for about 50% of consumer entertainment expenditures, while long term forces have been reducing the ability of middle-income households to afford formal entertainments. In contrast, Informal entertainments are usually public and priced right – either free or, when there are fees (e.g., to ride a carousel), affordable. They are also “sticky” activities. Retailers can feed off of the traffic the informal entertainments bring in, as demonstrated by the busy pedestrian traffic on the street next to Mitchell park in Greenport, NY and the hotel that was built next to it. Informal entertainments are also liable to be open when the public would want to use them as opposed to theaters, concert halls etc. Most often they are children friendly – and therefore mommy friendly, too.

The Creatives Connection. Richard Florida has made the “Creative Class” and its association with dense urban environments so well known and widely accepted that there is no need to expand upon it in this article. However, it is mentioned here because the interrelated CSD functions are what draws creatives so strongly to downtowns and their nearby neighborhoods. Of course, a downtown’s density and compactness also facilitate the social networking, interactions and collaborations that have become so essential in the innovation process.

Bottom line: in the new normal, downtowns are great places to live and to play as well as work.

4. There Are Behavioral and Attitudinal Trends That Now Support Strong Downtowns. Besides the increasing numbers of downtown residents, the growing pedestrian counts and popularity of downtown venues, etc., here are just some of the societal level behaviors and preferences that are making more people increasingly eager to live, work and play in our downtowns:

  • Americans are very time pressured and this has heightened their appreciation of such things as: short and easy commutes and living close to their work places; having lots of shops, restaurants, parks and entertainment venues within a reasonable walk of their abodes and being close to mass transit (14)
  • Most households in the US do not have children. Such households are much more likely to prefer urban living than households with children as demonstrated by the numbers of singles and empty nesters who now live in downtowns or nearby neighborhoods. However, if cities cannot improve their educational systems, then the outflow of young parents to the suburbs will likely continue (15). Their perceived alternative choices are unpalatable: either paying $20,000 to $30,000 in after tax dollars a year per child for a private school or risking their children being badly educated in a public school
  • America’s infatuation with the auto, which helped fuel the post WWII population flight to the suburbs and suburban sprawl, appears to be on the decline. Recently the U.S. Pirg reported that, after 60 years of annual increases in driving, in the middle of the 2000s, the number of miles Americans drove began to drop. Part of this is caused by retiring Baby Boomers who are no longer commuting, but more influential are the Millennials who “aren’t driving cars” and soon will be our largest age cohort. Moreover, another study at the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan found that these young people are getting driver’s licenses in smaller numbers than previous generations (16).
  • Conversely, a 2013 study done by APTA found that:
    • “Millennials are multimodal, they choose the best transportation mode (driving, transit, bike, or walk) based on the trip they are planning to take.
    • Communities that attract Millennials have a multitude of transportation choices, as proven by Millennial hotspots, popular zip codes where residents have self-selected into a multi-modal lifestyle” (17).
  • The end of suburban sprawl? Our cities are now growing faster than our suburbs. Furthermore, John K. McIlwain, an ULI senior resident fellow, has argued that the Great Recession just may have triggered the demise of sprawl: “Suburban sprawl, that seemingly inexorable, inevitable spreading of the population to the outer edges of metropolitan areas, may well be over in the United States.” The major thrust of his argument is that: 1) there is no large demographic group to drive suburban housing demand; 2) there is a large supply of available suburban housing, and 3) consequently, these factors were more causally responsible for was the recent low rate of single-family home production than the recession’s housing crash (18). While the end of sprawl may be debated – some argue that the pivotal behavior of the Millennials will alter as they age, nest and procreate – it seems safe to conclude that, minimally, it probably has been substantially weakened.

Bottom Line: In the new normal there now are strong behavioral and preference patterns within our population that support successful downtowns.


1. Small rural downtowns also went into decline, but because of other economic factors.
2. Paul R. Levy and Lauren M. Gilchrist , DOWNTOWN REBIRTH: DOCUMENTING The LIVE-WORK DYNAMIC IN 21ST CENTURY U.S. CITIES. Prepared for the International Downtown Association By the Philadelphia Center City District. October 2013 – pp. 57, p.8
3. N. David Milder, “Crime and Downtown Revitalization,” Urban Land, Sept. 1987, pp. 16-19
4.  N. David Milder, et al. Downtown Safety Security and Economic Development.  New York: Downtown Research and Development Center. 1985 – pp. 141, pp.38-39.
5. I first came across the term Central Social District in a paper by Richard Rosan some years ago. Unfortunately, I cannot find it either in my files or on the Internet, so I cannot say that my use here concurs with his. Borrowing from factor analysis in statistics, I see the central social district as the underlying dimension or factor and housing, restaurants, public spaces, etc., as the constituent strongly inter-related and measurable variables
6. LaPlaca Cohen /AMS Planning & Research Corp, Culture Track 2011 Market Research Report, pp.87, p.7. Italic emphasis added in quote.
7. Eugenie L. Birch, Who Lives Downtown, November 2005, Washington, DC, The Brookings Institution, Living Cities Census Series. pp. 20
8. See Birch above and Richard Florida, ghost-towns-of-the-new-economy/309460/
9. Belden Russonello & Stewart LLC, “The 2011 Community Preference Survey: What Americans are looking for when deciding where to live”, Analysis of a survey of 2,071 American adults nationally conducted for the National Association of Realtors. March 2011, p. 16; Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, “The Millennial Metropolis” 04/19/2010 .
10. Bill Ryan, Beverly Stencel, and Jangik Jin, “Retail and Service Business Mix Analysis of Wisconsin’s Downtowns,” Center for Community & Economic Development, University of Wisconsin – Extension Staff Paper, Sept. 1, 2010.
11. H. G. Parsa,  John T. Self, David Njite and Tiffany King, *Why Restaurants Fail,” Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Quarterly, August 2005.
12. William H. Whyte, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”. Conservation Foundation. 1980.
13. This section on informal entertainments is taken from: N. David Milder, “Rethinking Downtown Entertainment Niches,”  Downtown Trends 2008: Part II
14. N. David Milder, “The Nexus of Time Pressure, Downtown Proximity, Convenience And Customer Service: downtown retailing’s best friend,”  Downtown Trends 2008: Part II 
15. See: Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, “The Millennial Metropolis” 04/19/2010 and William Sander and William A. Testa, “Children And Cities,” 08/23/2013
16. John Schwartz, “Young Americans Lead Trend to Less Driving,” New York Times, May  13, 2013
17. APTA, Millennials & Mobility: Understanding the Millenial Mindset, 2013 –pp.47
18. John K. McIlwain, “The Great Recession: A Slayer of Sprawl,” Urban Land, April 5, 2012,

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Crime Downtown: Does Anything Work?

Editors’s note: The Downtown Curmudgeon is very happy to welcome Lawrence Houstoun as a guest columnist. Larry is well known for his two books on downtown BIDs as well as for his many articles on a wide variety of downtown subjects ranging from housing and office workers to public spaces and bicycle ridership. I think you will find his column on downtown crime — as is usual with his writings — thoughtful,  provocative, well written and worth reading. Without further ado, here’s Larry:

Crime Downtown

In the 1970’s, many of the  business centers of America’s older cities had reputations for widespread crime. The media–news as well as fiction– contributed greatly to the scary reputations. One evening TV news director was said to set priorities with this slogan—“If it bleeds, it leads”. As customers and businesses abandoned the traditional places to shop and run their businesses a great deal of commercial real estate was marked down and / or abandoned. Few believed that central business districts would ever recover. Long neglected buildings, dimly lighted blocks, empty stores—all contributed to the negative images of America’s downtowns.  Various remedies were suggested.

In reviewing the types of measures tried, this article focuses on business improvement districts (BIDs) which are functioning in 1500 downtowns in North America. Their mission is simply to strengthen economically the business prospects of private enterprises  operating in a shared environment. Business led boards of directors share the costs and set the priorities. At that time, no priority ranked higher than reduction of crime and fear of crime.

The numbered sections below are approximately in order of the period in which each remedy was popular.

  1.  More Cops

Often, the first attempt at economic  recovery was  an appeal to the affected municipalities to increase police presence downtown. The common response to these requests was that there was not enough money in the local budgets for even a token police expansion. Police departments added that business districts had less crime than many residential neighborhoods and did not warrant priority.

  1. More People

Writing in 1961 (“ Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Vintage) , urbanist Jane Jacobs noted the frequently expressed desire to increase the number of police  in order to reassure pedestrians. Jacobs wrote that there would never be enough police  for this purpose. She argued instead that the most successful technique to reassure pedestrians in cities is the presence of more pedestrians. She   observed that empty sidewalks, not ones packed with people ,are the most frightening.

In the 1970’s, crime and fear of  crime had induced many businesses to move to what appeared to be locations  less frightening. Downtowns lost businesses and their former convenience as places to work and shop. The media were full of reports of “urban crime”, widely believed to be concentrated in the downtowns, places which were familiar to shoppers and office employees. Fewer shoppers induced more people to avoid traditional commercial centers.

  1. More Patrols: Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)

Wearing distinctive uniforms, these radio equipped men and women were invented by the early BIDs to reassure pedestrians that the  downtown is safe because official-looking  “Ambassadors” were watching. Although they lack police powers, they were sold as being the “eyes and ears” of police departments. If something is wrong, the uniformed “Ambassadors” have cell phones and can reach the police through the BID central office.

A lot of BID assessment dollars have been directed toward this crime “remedy”. The University City BID in Philadelphia, for example, has “42 Safety Ambassadors patrolling neighborhood streets on bikes and on foot seven days a week from 10am to 3am.” BIDs typically believe that these staff members provide a measure of protection to persons on sidewalks. In addition to the safety benefits, these men and women may also provide walking escorts, vehicular services and homeless outreach. In 2012, this totaled 120,571 patrol hours in University City.

In practice, these  BID patrollers probably do reassure some uneasy pedestrians simply by their visible presence. Visibility comes with  a price, however. To be effective, there must be enough of them throughout the business districts to be readily seen by pedestrians, including during evenings  when pedestrians are  going home  from entertainment and  dinner after dark. To meet this challenge requires  more than two shifts to maintain coverage ,  accounting for holidays, vacations, sick leave, etc. This implies a substantial personnel payroll, including the costs of management and staff training, and often  amount to a third of BID total budgets. ( While BIDs emphasize their security role, these men and women may also be assigned to count homeless and code violations or assist drivers in emergencies.

Unfortunately, there is no reliable research revealing the extent to which  the uniformed personnel succeed in their primary mission—lessening fear on the sidewalks. For example, do otherwise fearful pedestrians actually shop or dine more often because uniformed BID employees patrol the district? No one knows.

Unhelpful Research

Much that appears to be research, however, provides little or no useful information to guide subsequent downtown leaders.  With a quarter century of experience, there is surprisingly little qualified examinations of any aspect of BID functions. Some research studies lump all  BID services together, in which case groups planning such organizations cannot profit from this experience; eg  what BID services actually make a significant difference? Some observers believe that simply keeping sidewalks  clean is a sign to criminals that the district is a bad place for them, who then may avoid it. Some researchers see the existence of a BID itself as sufficient to reduce crime. The announced completion  of a study in Los Angeles, for example, suggested that any shape or content of BIDs cuts crime in the study  areas, regardless of the nature of its services. Apparently, if a BID existed in or near an area where the study team worked and crime was lessened it seemed that the existence of any form of BID contributed to that improved condition. Did strolling “safety” Ambassadors or substantially enhanced lighting ,for example, make a difference? What about keeping shop windows lighted after normal hours? These and comparable alternatives are not reported.

Unanswered Questions

Another university based  study team, also working in Los  Angeles, studied the effect of zoning in eight  relatively  high crime areas with different forms of zoned land uses. The team found that “mixed commercial and residential zoned areas are associated with lower crime rates than are commercial-only zoned areas. “ This report reads in part: “Our results suggest that mixing ‘residential only’ zoning into commercial blocks may be a promising means of reducing crime”. Readers can come to their own conclusions regarding the utility of this advice as a tool for minimizing crime– zone it away? Move the commercial district?

Do walking patrols during daylight hours make pedestrians feel safer or reduce crime as many BIDs claim? Does maintaining walking patrols all night warrant the substantial added cost?  If the BID can generate sufficient pedestrian traffic, does this make a difference in fear or crime levels?  There is no reliable evidence to justify any of these substantial BID expenses. If police could lessen crime or fear at something like half the unit cost of armed officers, would this not be a popular police option in commercial areas?

For a brief while a Rutgers University based social scientist, George Kelling, put forward an attractive theory, suggesting that poorly maintained urban properties sent a signal to criminals that such an area of social disorder was a good place to operate—that is, the existence of “broken windows” and poor  maintenance, encourages more misbehavior. BID expert David Milder, countered that an excessive amount of attention to sidewalk sanitation often distracted BIDs from fundamental requirements such as redeveloping  commercial centers, business recruitment, facade improvements, etc.

Positive Results

If social science research provides little guidance in designing programs to overcome  crime and fear of crime , there are scattered examples of successful working programs that warrant examining. One or two bars in the East Falls, Philadelphia neighborhood were generating a rash of hold ups. The BID purchased and installed a half dozen motion detecting cameras.  Periodically or when a problem was reported, the local police checked the cameras for evidence. It turned out that the responsible people lived in the neighborhood. The sight of the camera installation scared off the bad guys and the crime wave ended. On the assumption that it might come back, several merchants volunteered to monitored the cameras. Among the selling points, the BID leadership stressed that the cameras were “on duty” 24 hours a day .

Downtown Washington DC BID was among the earliest districts to offer closed circuit tv  as well as uniformed patrols as part of  their public safety services. Noting the effect of the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, the BID has issued a “leadership paper” designed to enhance property owners, managers and businesses ability to respond to “natural and man made disasters.”

An area on the Brooklyn,  NY  waterfront long known for its crime, organized walking patrols in the early days of the BID (Brooklyn Navy Yard.) The board felt that reducing crime was its sole need and proceeded on that basis. Some years later, it was agreed that the patrols were no long heeded and the program was ended or “mothballed”.

The Circumstances Have Changed; Have the BIDs?

Crime is not what it used to be in America’s cities. Far from the days when  fear was widely seen as the ultimate obstacle to urban recovery, most Downtowns are now filled with stores and places to eat and they have managed that transformation without traditional department store anchors. Old office buildings, converted to attractive, middle income places  to live , brought customers closer to stores and restaurants for their mutual benefit. People are enjoying places that were written off not long ago . BIDs are formed  and properties are attracting investments in commercial centers without worries about fear of crime. A new optimism has replaced the old pessimism. The reduction of fear in shopping districts as implied by the growth of residents in central cities has been part of a broader change in public attitudes about cities.

In a paper published in 2000 (http// 2000Env Res author Manuscript.pdf)(PDF),  Rick Nevin found that America’s crime rates correlate closely  with the use of lead in gasoline. As  lead emissions increased, crime increased. As the use of lead declined, crime rates declined. Nevins wrote that use of Tetraethyl lead in gasoline explained 90% of the variations of violent crime in America and explained comparable results in a half dozen  other countries.  America has been looking in the wrong places and at the wrong manifestations of urban crime and therefore  solutions  to this important problem remain beyond our grasp. Patrolling Ambassadors, more cops, rezoning, the mix of BID programs seem not to matter, nor does their location.  If Nevins’ research  continues to hold up, the success has been the direct result of Federal regulation

One sees fewer BID reports claiming that  Ambassadors or other BID programs were responsible for a decline in crime or fear during the period when urban crime had improved nationally. These claims of success included a great many downtowns without BIDs. Indeed, the “urban crime” that was once seen as downtowns’ insoluble economic problem has attracted none of the merchant hysteria or the urban flight of earlier years. Did BIDs correct the problems of crime and fear? Certainly not.

Nevertheless, for the most part the walking patrols continue. What message are downtown leaders sending?

Lawrence Houstoun