Recently I had the opportunity to interview center city expert Jamie Licko to glean her thoughts on the future of downtowns. Jamie is the founder and president of Denver based consulting firm Centro.

Jamie Licko

1. By all accounts there has been a resurgence of interest in downtowns as places to work, live and play? What sorts of factors are driving this?

I think there are a couple of trends driving this, one financial and one demographic. On the financial side, the recession was a wake up call to Americans that living big isn’t sustainable. Sprawl, big houses, big cars, big commutes… these things all costs big money. Center city living provides an alternative to this. If you live in or around downtown, you have access to amenities and resources that are extraordinary, but that can be reached on foot, by bike, by bus, by streetcar, by lightrail. It’s a more sustainable form of living, economically and in many other ways too. As we all learn to downsize and live within our means, city center life gives us a chance to still have all that we want and need, but in a more sustainable way.

The other trend is simply demographics. We now know that baby boomers are taking to downtown life… they like the active, social lifestyles that downtowns allow. To the Boomer generation, downtowns provide a social return to the past. There is activity and life and people on the streets. There is easy access to activities and goods. I think the other trend driving the downtown and urban neighborhood resurgence is the Millenial or Gen Y generation. They are nearly equal in number to the Boomers and they are ushering in a new way of thinking that is conducive to what downtowns offer. These individuals are global thinkers. They’ve been raised in a multi-cultural society and have had access to the world via technology since the day they were born. They think big and dream big. And they don’t follow the rules. They are creating their own ventures, dreaming their own dreams, starting companies and driving brands. Perhaps most importantly, they crave authenticity. This is a group that shuns, and will continue to, big box retail, sprawl, suburbia, and anything mass produced. They look for places that are real, and gritty, and have a story to tell. In our cities, only our downtowns and urban neighborhoods can truly serve these needs.

2. Despite the social and cultural amenities offered in many of our nations center cities, many residents in outlying suburban area seems reticent about venturing into urban core to enjoy its advantages. What sorts of misconception come into play here and how can they be overcome?

You know, I do a lot of research and surveys and forums as part of my work, and regardless of where you are working (big city or small town) there is always a group of people who say they will never come downtown voluntarily. And their reasons are very consistent: they see cities as dirty and crime-ridden and a parking nightmare. Their perception is that the hassles downtowns offer aren’t worth what’s there. And to be honest, these people rarely know what tremendous value our downtowns boast. So there are a couple thoughts I have to this question. First, there is always going to be a core group of people who will never be convinced of downtown’s value. For a variety of reasons, downtown just doesn’t offer what that group of folks needs and wants. And that’s okay. I, for example, love cities and downtowns and could never imagine living in suburbia. And many in suburbia feel the same about cities and downtowns. That part is sociological and perhaps psychological too. I think getting people to our cities means we have to tell the story of our downtowns. We have to invite people into our downtowns. We have to give them compelling reasons to come. We have to serve a variety of markets and make sure our downtowns are designed for people of all demographics. This is one place where I think downtown management organizations such as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have really excelled. While there are always lots of issues to address in a city, sometimes the biggest is perception. If you can use marketing, public relations and perhaps more than anything else special events to break down those perception barriers, it’s the first step to getting people there and overcoming those perceptions.

The second challenge is delivering on an experience once they arrive. Our cities need to be user friendly. They need extraordinary signage, accessible parking (and a friendly customer service experience), they need a strong visual landscape (flowers, trees, colorful banners and art) and they need a place people perceive as clean and safe (no litter, great lighting, etc.). You can’t change everybody’s mind, but if we want to change habits, we need to make a compelling case for them to come, and then we need to make them feel welcome once they arrive.

3. The Business Improvement District (BID) concept is a popular one among many downtown leaders? What sorts of advantages are there for cities in establishing a BID, particularly with their efforts to rebound amid tough economic times?

Well, in my response to the last question, I speak to the merits of a BID in their strength as a placemaking organization. BIDs have fundamentally changed our downtowns in that as somewhat of a microcosm of the city they can take downtown to the next level. Their autonomy and flexibility make them an extraordinary tool. Perhaps even more important is that because they are funded by downtown stakeholders who want to see a return on investment, they inherently unite disparate groups and ownership entities in an effort to work towards common goals. But I mentioned the BIDs flexibility and I think this is an important point. While BIDs really were created initially as clean, safe and marketing funding and management tools, increasingly they have ventured into the economic and community development realm. Many BIDs now have economic development and research arms within their organization, for example, that keep comprehensive tabs on downtown data (development, sales, vacancies, pedestrian traffic, etc.) and package that information as a powerful sales and incentive tool for helping development and business occur downtown. But BIDs are also venturing into retail development efforts too, offering programs to incentivize the growth of local, independent retail in the city core. Increasingly BIDs are just one arm of a multi-faceted downtown organization that has lots of tools and resources it can bring to bear. One area that is growing and is expected to grow is in the creation of community development corporations (CDCs) that can help facilitate development of otherwise difficult projects, both by acquiring land and property and by offering start up loans and incentives to small businesses.

4. Can you identify a few cities that are uniquely poised to create prosperous, sustainable urban cores over the next ten years? What are they doing differently from cities that are languishing?

I personally think all cities are going to have to rethink the way they do things to stay competitive in the next decade. We’ve come a long way in the last 10-20 years in making our cities cleaner, safer more welcoming places. But the emerging Millenial generation (and the generation behind it) are going to demand more. We need to be careful of gentrification, we need to make sure the local, indepedent businesses can afford to stay in our downtowns, we need to start integrating technology into everything we do (on this front, I think IBM’s Smart Cities initiative is critically important for all of us to get on board with) and we need to make sure we keep our cities “authentic” places. We need to guard against cities that offer the same chain stores on every corner. Our downtown leaders need to hold on to what is unique and real about the places they serve, and not veer from the path of sticking to authenticity. Cities who do these things, who invest in themselves and the things that make them real and unique, will succeed. You know who I actually think may become a leading community in doing things differently? Detroit. The city built on the automobile is in such dire straights that they are having to completely rethink how they do everything. I encourage you to read Time’s Detroit blog. They’ve purchased a houses in Detroit and have reporters living there telling some great stories. Not only are the people of Detroit looking at new ways to survive and thrive, but young people, smart young people, from all over the world are going there to try their hand at doing something out of the box in a place they can afford to do it. I think we need to keep on our eye on Detroit. I think we’ll see big things out of it. I’ve always believed that those places and people in the most dire of situations are the ones that end up being our leaders. They have to fight harder, and in that fight they generally have to find new and innovative ways to do things to succeed.

5. So what is the driving force behind your passion for cities? And what sort of contributions do you hope to offer to theĀ  center city movement?

I grew up on an Iowa farm in a small town of 250 people. I was the sixth generation of my family to be born in this town. For six generations, my family had been involved in building a community they believed in. My earliest relatives were responsible for everything from platting the land, building bridges, running the post office and working for the railroad when it came through town. For a majority of the time I was growing up, my dad served as a council member and eventually as mayor. I was taught early to take pride in the “place” that I called home. I was taught to respect the land, and the environment and the amenities we were blessed to have. I was also taught that it takes lots of people working together, bringing to bear their unique talents, to make a place better. Without people and place, my childhood and my life today would be much different, I believe. The line between where I come from and where I am is not necessarily a straight one. My family rarely visited big cities when I was growing up and I never took great interest in them at a younger age. But somewhere along the line my belief in people and my passion in place led me to downtown. Perhaps its that I saw in a city’s downtown a microcosm of what I experienced growing up. Individuals, families trying to building something better, greater, different, unique and doing so in a way that respected the history of where the community began. I saw, in my downtown work, the power of uniting people. I traveled – the country and the world – and began to gain a tremendous appreciation of the city center as the space that defines a place. The Piazza San Marco in Venice is no different than Main Street in my small Iowa town. Both serve a need as gathering space, as the heart of the community, for the community they serve.

My hope and goal in this work is that we never forget this core purpose of our downtowns. That we never forgo the goal of creating authentic and gritty and real places that serve as the heart of the community. That we remember that building great places isn’t about bricks and concrete, it’s about people. Our cities are our heart and our history. If we want to hold onto this (and I feel that, perhaps more than ever, it’s critical that we as humans do) we must fight for it. And we must continue to grow and evolve to meet the needs of both young and old, men and women, people of all races. That means bringing people together, listening, working together and building accessible, meaningful and real places.