What creates downtown vibrancy?

Stefano Grande

Recently I was as asked to tackle this question as a guest speaker of the Downtown Boise Association Annual General Meeting. What I thought would be a quick 15-minute PowerPoint presentation became a deep-dive, soul-searching exercise that lasted for days!

A vibrant downtown, as I understand it, is defined differently by different people. I believe vibrancy is the interaction between lots of diverse people in an incredible collection of unique places. A vibrant downtown is where people come home to, go to work or hang out with friends.

The “lots of people” part is all about density: people living, working, going to school or even shoppers and out of town visitors and convention goers all hustling and bustling in a specific area. Vibrancy is not about the number of cars zipping by on the street, but the number of feet on the street, the number of transit riders on and off loading onto sidewalks, bikes whizzing by, and yes, even cars, looking for parking spots!

An incredible place is hard to define, but we can all feel it once we’re there. The Forks is an incredible place, so too is the Exchange District, Corydon Avenue, Osborne village, Times Square, Robson Street, SoHo, Piazza Novanna and Old Quebec. Each area is a unique place, a place for people to stroll, a place to find something to eat, patios to hang out at, billboards and art installs to gawk at, cool and authentic retail stores to shop at, a square to sit and people watch, or a place to absorb culture. The soul of these places is also so important. In fact, the essence of a vibrant downtown is the people that actually live there.

Downtown Boise is an interesting place. It’s smaller than Winnipeg, a vibrant city half our size and is ranked as one of the “top ten best places to live” across the United States. Its downtown is only comprised of 15 to 20 blocks and is home to numerous local retailers and restaurants, each concept unique and authentic. Its historic quarter is lined with preserved historic buildings, fresh cobble stone sidewalks which notably tells people you are in a special place. While walking I noticed sidewalks lined with patios on every block, planters, trees, unique seating arrangements, sandwich boards, all orchestrated as if a master design was in play.

What was evident is how business owners play an important role in activating and creating inviting storefronts with their creative businesses. Parking spots are converted into places where dozens of cyclists can park. The cycling culture is big despite there being little or no cycling paths with cyclists and pedestrians sharing the sidewalks. It’s quite a sight to see and interesting to know that government just lets it happen. Local control and local pride definitely stood out.

While I was there, it seemed as though every new building was used for mixed use purposes and were integrated nicely into the sidewalks where people’s paths crossed. An emerging housing market, all clustered together was even enough to stimulate the need for a Trader Joe’s and a Whole Foods.

Downtown Boise clearly has a set of values and an identity that transcends any other downtown, but like anything, there are lessons to be learned.

I truly believe that downtown vibrancy creates more vibrancy driven by economic development. Downtown vibrancy seeks more people to live, work, shop and play. More buildings, more incredible spaces and in a place where infrastructure already exists creating a series of districts which people seamlessly walk to and come together.

Downtown Winnipeg is vibrant. Yes, not all the time, and not in every district but the vibrancy today is evident, and driven by the same values and principles seen to have benefited Boise. For this to continue we need to press forward on hard questions, which could lead to an even better and vibrant place. Can opening an intersection lead to vibrancy? What value will building with no storefront on an important pedestrian street add to a downtown seeking vibrancy? Does that tall building on that important street have housing, is it mixed use? Will that street closure allowing tens of thousands of people attract people to a vibrant place? Will those 20 bikes taking over one parking stall add more butts to a local patio? Will taxpayers benefit twice, not having to build more pipes, roads, bridges, fire halls and other essential community assets?

If we seek vibrancy, we will need to continue make the right decisions.

If not, Boise is an incredible place for our youth to visit, open a business and live.

The choice is ours.

Stefano Grande is executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

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