Healthy Downtown Trends: Beyond the Buzzwords

April 19, 2017

Tommy Lowmon, Communications & Training Coordinator, Georgia Department of Community Affairs

This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Tommy Lowmon
The question is often asked, “What do you see trending with healthy Downtowns across the state?” The trend in some of our top performing communities lies in their use of technology to en­hance “effective” communication. What was once a one sided press release or publication, from which citizens received information about things happen­ing in their communities after the plan was in mo­tion, is now becoming more of a conversation to which people have the opportunity to add valuable input. This “exchange of information” is a necessary component of the communication process. In order for communities to promote healthy growth and citi­zens to be able to effect social change, they must be part of the initial conversation.
Innovative uses of technology, as a means of fa­cilitating conversations, has helped people become more engaged in not only the planning phase but also in the implementation process of community devel­opment. While effective communication has been the key to success for many years, the way in which it is happening is evolving. Cities are using social me­dia groups, electronic surveys, mass text messaging services, emails, interactive apps and much more to communicate quickly and involve more people. In­creased public engagement allows communities to take advantage of their most valuable resource, their citizens. They are the innovators, the problem solvers and the untapped potential needed to create a better future while still preserving the past.
A few trends that continue to have staying power can be enhanced as the “tech-communication” trend evolves. For example, over the past decade we have seen the taste of Millennials merge with that of Baby Boomers as well as Gen Xers in choosing how to live their lives. While trends come and go, basic human nature remains the same. Most of us are looking for authentic, walkable and safe communities where we can do more than just “live, work and play.” Although these buzzwords have been the moniker of healthy downtowns for years, they fail to adequately describe what is currently happening in our communities.
People want to do more than simply exist. As they have for thousands of years, people want to connect and be part of something larger than themselves, and they want to have a purpose that outlives them. They want to be ingrained in the fabric that molds and im­pacts the world around them no matter their age or social label, and many have a desire to make a differ­ence. Not only do they want to live in an amazing downtown, they also want to be involved in the de­velopment and evolution of their environment. The same could be said for the businesses community. We have evidence of this reality around the world with the continued growth of the social purpose business model that takes the for-profit business mixed with a social mission at its core and creates both social and economic value in the community.
As people continue to come together we see an­other trend that has staying power, that of urban­ization. Urbanization by definition is the process by which towns and cities are formed and become larg­er as more and more people begin living and work­ing in central areas. This creates the population den­sity necessary for restaurant and retail development, which tend to be market followers. What we see trending in successful downtowns is that those who properly plan for this growth are witnessing amaz­ing results. Thus the creation of one of the newer buzzwords that has been popping up lately: place­making. This is a multi-faceted planning approach to the management and design of public spaces that incorporates people’s health, happiness and well-being, all while trying to make the best use of the community’s resources.
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs has done a great job of keeping up with the trends and acknowledges communities that are using a simi­lar placemaking planning approach through their PlanFirst Program. This program promotes public involvement with development of the Community’s Comprehensive plan, active engagement in plan im­plementation, and proven progress with achieving the community’s stated vision or goals within that plan. This can only be accomplished through ef­fective communication and utilization of communi­ties’ greatest resource, its people. I think Plato said it best with, “This City is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” If it’s good enough for Plato it just might be good enough for Georgia cities as we con­tinue to make our own communities great by evolv­ing in our communication efforts. After all, we know what all the buzz is really about.

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