It’s easy to get lost in the very cool music, urban street scenes and funky people and forget that the city offers great opportunities to get your inner nerd on. All my favorite people are nerds in some way or another and no where were they more evident than last Thursday at the symposium (even the word exudes “nerd”) on “Ageless Downtowns: Creating Walkable Downtowns for Residents of All Ages.” The idea seemed to be that if we make a great walkable downtown it will be cool for the hip set and comfortable for the hip-replacement set.
Sponsored by the Community Design Center and held at the East Tennessee History Center, the auditorium was packed with probably two to three hundred people. From responses to questions from the front, it appeared the audience consisted of about fifteen percent or so downtown residents and probably forty to fifty percent from out of town. Why so many people so eager for this topic? It’s a hot development topic. It appears a migration into cities is underway and it includes young people who want the urban experience and older people who see a walkable city as a place they might extend their independence. The cities that are ready to give the urban experience to all ages – and has the infrastructure to welcome them will be the cities that win the migration sweepstakes.
Mayor Rogero made opening remarks and talked extensively during breaks with Jeff Speck. Jeff, author of the amazing book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, gave the keynote address and Helen Foster, a marketing and development strategist in age-qualified real estate discussed the “Principles of Ageless Communities.” All this was followed by a panel discussion which included the speakers as well as some of our better known citizens, most of whom are involved in downtown development in some way.
It was the kind of meeting that energizes people to tackle the difficult problems with the hopes of making a better city. I wish Knoxville would hire Jeff Speck to develop a plan for downtown. I suspect it would include a lot of the things we discuss on this blog. What his book has done for me is helped me pull together the threads that connect random concepts I’ve had running around in my brain about cities in general and ours specifically. His ideas might come as no great revelation to others who actually know something about development, but to me they were very helpful.
His book is essential reading, in my opinion, for anyone interested in the topic of cities and making them livable places. If we could incorporate some of his ideas at this point in our development – and I think we have – we’ll be served very well in the future. He talked about road diets, for example and we are doing just that on Cumberland and Magnolia, but we missed our chance on Henley and the jury is out on Chapman Highway. You will be hearing quite a bit from this book in the coming months as I digest it a bit more. Buy it at Union Avenue Books. I did and you should, too.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the prologue, just to whet your appetite and to encourage you to nurture your inner nerd.
” . . . since mid-century, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers – worshiping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking – have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at. . . America will finally be ushered into “the urban century” not by its few exceptions, but by a collective movement among its everyday cities to do once again what cities do best, which is to bring people together – on foot.”