Last month would have marked the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, the influential writer who challenged traditional urban planning in the 1950s and 1960s. A central part of Jacobs’ view of a city is embracing the vibrancy and diversity that makes city life unique. Her most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, challenged the standardization of American urban life through highways and planned developments conceived of on paper rather than through the natural and organic life of a city.
Three years earlier, Jacobs wrote an article in Fortune magazine, Downtown is for People. In that article, Jacobs discussed the importance of walkable streets, activated sidewalks (including outdoor cafes, displays, and flower beds), a mixture of new and old buildings, small businesses, pedestrian-oriented façades, focal points of activity, individual identities for streets and locations, and activity throughout the day. Jacobs concluded, “Downtown has had the capability of providing something for everybody only because it has been created by everybody.” In short, “Let the citizens decide what end results they want.”
In our city, many discussions have been taking place over the past several months, if not longer, over the future of our downtown. Recent demographic changes and a number of years of redevelopment activity have brought a new energy and vibrancy to our downtown. That has involved changes to the built environment downtown and the demand for different types of businesses and services downtown. People have differing opinions on the causes of those changes and whether those changes are beneficial for our city in the long-term.
Regardless of your view on the changing face of downtown Madison, one thing we should always keep in mind is that first and foremost “downtown is for people.” Not long ago, downtown streets lacked vibrancy and activity and most of the people working downtown during the day were not staying downtown to live and recreate. So much has changed in the past decade for our downtown for the better. In short, people have returned downtown.
The future of downtown Madison remains to be seen, but we should be optimistic about the influx of new downtown residents and the creation of new downtown businesses. I encourage you to attend our annual meeting on Monday, June 20, 7:00 p.m. at Monona Terrace, where we’ll welcome Tiffany Kenney, the Executive Director of the Central Business Improvement District, as our guest speaker.