A City is Only as Good as its Downtown

 

Coolsounds

I do the bulk of my writing in an office in downtown Bangor. (I also write on buses, but that’s a story for another time.) Recently I needed to replace an ink cartridge in my printer. I also needed to get my glasses adjusted, for they kept slipping down my nose. This is a problem for someone who never learned to properly type and must look at his hands on the keyboard.

The good people at Bangor Optical, on Mount Hope Avenue, will fix the glasses I bought there any time I need them to, free of charge. The closest place to get an ink cartridge is at Staples, out by the Bangor Mall. The bookstore at the University of Maine also carries them.

Neither of these items weighs more than a few ounces. Yet the infrastructure is ordered in such a way that one is encouraged (can we say “steered” or “coerced”?) to get into a 2,000-pound vehicle to procure them. And I thought, why aren’t these items and services available downtown, within walking distance of my office?

I’m happy to see the recent revival of downtown Bangor. I try to support the small businesses that have established a toehold there. I can buy books, beer and bread within a small, walkable radius. I bank downtown, and buy vegetables at the Sunday farmer’s market. But my favorite hardware store, in Penobscot Plaza on the site of the old train station, closed a couple of years ago. My optometrist left the same complex for a larger but more distant facility out on the Brewer strip. Life’s necessities still require trips to outlying commercial areas. And while I can make those trips by bus or bicycle, that’s not what most people do.

Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation, writes that traffic engineers refer to these sorts of errands as “trip-chaining.” This phenomenon accounts for fully one third of the miles Americans drive. When the nearest ink cartridge or tape measure is several miles out of town, people will sooner hop into their cars than onto a bus or a bicycle.

The demise of downtowns all over the country was hastened in the 1960s and 1970s by the development of shopping malls and commerce centers in outlying areas. As businesses left city centers, public transportation failed to keep pace, forcing people who lived downtown to drive out of the city for work. Those who could not afford cars were left in hollowed-out city centers without jobs or the means to get to them.

It’s easy to see why this happened. Undeveloped land was cheaper than old buildings, and provided ample space for free parking, which, as I’ve pointed out, constitutes a massive subsidy for the car culture. Gas was cheap then, too, and few city planners foresaw the social, economic and environmental problems of forcing people to drive for the basics of day-to-day life.

Now, several decades down the road, it’s clear that our quality of life has suffered. Bangor doesn’t really have traffic, but larger cities are ringed with clogged freeways that once were bypasses. More driving means more pollution and more land given over to pavement. And perhaps most importantly, we’ve lost what Kay calls “the public square,” a gathering place for the free expression and exchange of ideas. It’s hard to have a political rally at a shopping mall, whose owners can kick you out at any time for any reason.

We need – to use a word I dislike – a new paradigm. We need to encourage basic services in downtowns, by means of tax breaks and other economic incentives. We need to stop accepting as normal the practice of trip-chaining in cars, especially for small things like glasses and ink cartridges. We need to stop planning everything around the availability of free and convenient parking.

A functioning downtown improves the life of an entire city. People walk more, which improves their physical health. They encounter each other face-to-face instead of car-to-car, which encourages civil interaction and fosters a sense of community. And it connects a city with its history. A shopping mall looks and feels basically the same everywhere, but every downtown is unique.

I took the bus to Bangor Optical and picked up my ink cartridge at the University. The inconvenience was only minor. And I’m glad that the bars and restaurants downtown seem to be thriving. I only wish it were as easy to find everyday items there as it is to find a cold beer.

 

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