By Robb Davis
Public health practitioners have developed “proximate determinants” models for key health outcomes to focus attention on the most critical factors that, together (and often in complex ways) determine or precondition key health outcomes. In the same way we can use a proximate determinants model to more critically analyze the factors that are most directly responsible for developing and supporting a vibrant downtown.
Defining these proximate determinants takes on special meaning at this time as a group of Davis citizens—the Downtown Plan Advisory Committee—begins its work in acting as a community “sounding board” with an outstanding consulting team led by Opticos to update the plan for downtown.
“Vibrancy” is the most apt description of what we are trying to achieve in the downtown. Focusing on the ends we are trying to achieve is the first priority in any endeavor of this nature and vibrancy builds on the idea of “vitality” found in prior core area plans.
Vibrancy implies a place that is alive and active—a place people will naturally be drawn to. Indeed, vibrancy in the case of our downtown really has two components. First, vibrancy implies that our downtown is not merely a “space” in our city but rather a “place” with meaning, attraction, and life—an important piece of our collective identity. A core area plan is not an action designed to more efficiently arrange a “space”, but rather to lay the groundwork for the creation of a “place” to which people are drawn—a destination of choice. But a second point is also important; we not only want our downtown to be a place that is central to our identity, but also one that provides economic benefits to the community that are greater than its relatively diminutive
size would indicate. We expect it to be a place that provides broad economic benefit to the entire city.
I would propose five proximate determinants of a vibrant downtown (see chart). The five are not factors that work independently of each other, and the lines between them indicate they interact in complex ways. While there may, theoretically, be some optimal mix of the five it is not something we can define or work towards in any meaningful way. Rather, we acknowledge the complexity of their interactions and move forward without seeking some optimal combination.
We define what we would like each to accomplish and work towards balancing the five in reasonable ways. Some may be easier to effect in the short term, while others require more time and more effort to move forward. The point in calling them out is to assure we stay focused on the determinants that are most likely to move us towards the goal.
This is important because, as the left side of the diagram indicates, the determinants themselves are brought into being by the application of a variety of tools. The list of tools in this diagram is indicative, at best, and not meant to be comprehensive. However, we know that there are experiences from other locations and best practices deemed necessary to bring about/enhance the determinants’ ability to create vibrancy. One challenge we face is in focusing too quickly on this or that tool and becoming enamored with the tools as if they represent ultimate ends themselves. In my experience, most conflicts revolve around which tools to use or invest in (or not), rather than asking what the evidence suggests about their efficacy in helping achieve the ends we desire.
What should be clear from all of the determinants I have listed is the central place of people in our downtown. Transportation demand management is about bringing people smoothly into our downtown, providing them with multiple options for moving around in the downtown space, and assuring they can do so in a timely way. Housing, obviously, is about making it possible for more people to be permanent residents of the core. The diversification of retail and commercial spaces is to provide more opportunities for meaningful work and more varied shopping options for people. Safety is about making sure people feel relaxed and able to enjoy fully their time in the core. And entertainment and art are to provide beautiful and engaging spaces for people.
A vibrant downtown is made for people and is made vibrant by their presence.
We all want to be in welcoming spaces and vibrant downtowns draw us because they are home, because they are special shopping spaces, and great places to work and play.
Of the five, one that has received special attention in previous core area plans is housing. Previous plans called for finding ways to bring 1600 new residents to our downtown, and if there is a cornerstone to the five determinants, an argument could be made that it is housing. More people living in the downtown opens up new possibilities for retail, greater safety (24-hour residents means more eyes on the street), more audiences for events, and relatively fewer people who need to relocate to come into the downtown. Creating more housing, however, is probably one of the most challenging determinants to make happen.
I have noted that vibrancy builds on the concept of vitality found in earlier plans and a reasonable question might be: “are we undertaking a whole new planning process merely to change one word?” “Why do we need a core area plan update?” My answer to these reasonable questions is “yes,” and I would posit at least five reasons why an update now is called for.
First, urban revitalization and redevelopment has received much attention in the past 10 years with many new experiences and the emergence of best practices from which we can draw. This means that our toolkit on the left is greatly expanded over what it was in the past.
Second, with the “Amazonization” of our retail sector nearly complete, we face a new landscape with many questions about whether any meaningful retail can survive at all in our urban cores (or even in our peripheral shopping spaces). We must wrestle with what a renewed retail space will look like and seek ways to incentivize the kind of retail that meets the needs of residents and is inviting to visitors.
Third, emerging work arrangements require new kinds of highly flexible work spaces. The need for commercial space upgrades abounds and, just as is the case with retail, we need to discover how to incentivize the development of new and the redevelopment of older commercial spaces—be they for the existing service industry or emerging research needs.
Fourth, we have an aging population—one that is interested in downsizing, aging in place, and living in walkable and bikeable places. Providing options for this population and these needs is best done in dense urban cores. Even as we remain a “young” university town, our aging population will benefit by the creation of a vibrant downtown.
Fifth, we are more aware than ever of the financial challenges of creating a vibrant downtown. Our current process looks explicitly at the cost of redevelopment—everything from how to redevelop the many small plots in our downtown, to how to incentivize any redevelopment given the costs of doing so. These financial challenges are especially challenging in the post-RDA world in which we find ourselves.
This is a propitious moment for us to review and update our core area plan with a clear focus on the proximate determinants of the vibrant downtown we desire. My request to you is that you join us in this endeavor. We have already begun, and will continue, a series of community input opportunities. Visit http://cityofdavis.org/city-hall/community-development-and-sustainability/planning-and-zoning/downtown-davis-plan for more information on upcoming opportunities.
I would also ask for your feedback on the proximate determinants themselves. What would you add? How would you change the way they are written? What other tools would you add to the list for each one? I look forward to your feedback on this article and your active participation in the upcoming participatory community forums. Please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your critiques and ideas.
Robb Davis is the Mayor of the City of Davis