Posted by: Francis Koster Published: April 16, 2015

Rebuilding America’s Aging Downtowns Needs to Anticipate the Future

Rebuilding America's Aging Downtowns Needs to Anticipate the Future

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

14 smaller “mom and pop” stores died each time Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart opened a new store.[1]  Between 1962 and 2013 alone these giants established more than 8,000 stores.[2] Most of these “car accessible” big box stores were located on interstate exits; most of the walkable smaller shops were located in the older “downtown”.   Good-by downtown.

While this was going on, one out of every two United States manufacturing jobs vanished [3]  - either overseas, or due to automation, or both.  This was a double whammy, because each highly paid local worker circulated enough money throughout the local economy, to “trickle down” another 4.6 local jobs.[4]  When the manufacturing jobs vanished, so did the many of the other 4.6 local jobs.  Good-by downtown.

All across America groups are meeting to plan next steps in re-creating downtown.  In many cases they will be tripped up by something they are not looking for.

They don’t see it because they are designing a new basketball to go through a hoop that they think of as standing still, when in fact the new basketball has to go through a hoop that is moving. So around the planning table the word “manufacturing” will be used, and many people will have a mental picture of their dad on a factory shop floor holding a tool – not an office worker programming a 3 D printer.   Or if one thinks about jobs in food production, bucolic images of red barns pop into mind – not in-door fish farms, or hydroponic lettuce grown in currently abandon factories, delivered by electric cars.  

To paraphrase Jack Welch, famous CEO of General Electric, “If the world outside your organization is changing faster than your organization is changing, you lose”.

The world outside is changing faster than we recognize. The internet as we know it started to be widely used just 20 years ago.   The first smartphone was introduced just over 20 years ago - today the United States has more cellphones than citizens.[5]

In the breadbasket of America, the worst drought in 1000 years is already underway, and beginning to disrupt food supplies. [6] The cost of beef has doubled since 2009. [7]   Renewable energy prices (down 50% since 2010) [8] are predicted by Deutsche Bank to be competitive with all historic sources by 2017,[9] resulting in much more locally built and maintained renewable energy.

Think of your downtown in 2035. 

In 20 years, our population will grow 20%.[10] The number of us over 65 will be almost double what it is today[11], and 4 in 10 of those will need long-term care for 2 or more years.[12] The number of 85 year olds will triple.[13] Since around a third of all lifetime healthcare costs are spent in the last 6 months of life[14] there will be a massive need for expanded healthcare for the elderly, located close to home.

Household size, which was 3 people living under one roof in 1960, and now sits at 2.5, is anticipated to be around 2.[15]  We can say with some certainty 20 years from now we will see vastly more interconnected electronic devices, individualized medicine instead of “one size fits all” pills, more medical care delivered at the pharmacy, education delivered to individual students electronically, and more neighbors who speak English as a second language. Fewer people will own cars, instead using rent-by-the-hour cars picked up at some parking spot identified by a cell phone search. Industry is planning on introducing driverless cars. Many more people will work multiple part-time jobs from home.   More people will commute by high speed rail built along existing train lines.

Most of this change is already surfacing, but not integrated into community planning for the future.

We can see that downtowns should have elevator equipped small apartments with walk-able access to life’s basic needs like groceries and pharmacy.  Many of these can be located above stores.  All buildings (including those spec built to spur economic development) should be built to be energy efficient and “renewable ready”.  Medical care should be close by, not near the large hospital miles away.  Broadband should be everywhere, and cheap. 

A good local example is Birkdale Village, located just north of Charlotte, North Carolina.  A second example is Village Homes, just outside Davis California.   You can read more about Village Homes here:  Village Homes 

If we do not anticipate this future, there is great risk that our creatively designed basketball will miss the rapidly moving hoop. 


[1] Social Science Quarterly, Business Churn and the Retail Giant: Establishment Birth and Death from Wal-Mart's Entry Carlena Cochi Ficano  24 APR 2012

[2] Social Science Quarterly, Business Churn and the Retail Giant: Establishment Birth and Death from Wal-Mart's Entry Carlena Cochi Ficano  24 APR 2012

[5] CTIA- The Wireless Association.

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Francis P. Koster Ed.D.

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