As we continue to develop visions for a new downtown, let us review a few ideas. What should downtown be? What should it look like? Familiar images tell of charming streets and clean sidewalks, teaming with people weaving in and out of shops and cafes. Old brick buildings have been restored and repurposed into elegant restaurants, aromatic gift stores and minimalist galleries. The rendering is indeed lovely and we should wish for at least an element of it. But it is also fake.
Downtowns aren’t what they used to be, unselfconscious and largely sustained because we rely on them. They haven’t been that way for a long time, probably since the 1920s when 8 million Americans bought cars and decided to live dispersed lives. News continued to worsen throughout the 20th century, reaching a critical level in the 1970s, when more Americans lived in the suburbs than in the urban core. A by now famous sign in Seattle said it well, admonishing those last to leave town to please “turn out the lights.”
The internet didn’t help, not so much spelling the end of downtown as turning it into a necessary mask with which to grace an otherwise soulless existence. No matter how much we may like the ease and comfort of online shopping we simultaneously realize that without the promise of direct encounters we might just disintegrate as a civilization, lose our capacity for empathy and the ideals of a democratic society.
Ecommerce should have obliterated brick and mortar retail by now but it hasn’t, not because it can’t but because we won’t allow it. Last February, “clicks” did outlast “on-site” sales but not by much, 11.813 percent to 11.807, making it clear that while the digital world is winning the day it hasn’t quite eliminated its physical counterpart.
Indeed, we continue to need downtown but less to buy books and clothes and more to congregate and engage each other. Might this mean, for us, the translation of downtown into a site on which key local forces come together and intersect, say, between the university, the farming community and the K-12 educational system. Why not? Streets, sidewalks and old retail spaces could, under this scenario, become the surface on which ideas, hatched in the lab and the studio, are explored and demonstrated. Much of our urban core now is limited to one function at a time, held back by old narratives of property rights and private vs public.
Might we think of the sidewalk as an opportunity for urban farming, now a multibillion dollar industry serving 10 percent of the world population, connecting farmer and student, art and science, abstract and hands-on learning, and more. Our downtown is woefully empty of meaningful K-12 presence, largely limited to “hanging-out.” Which is fine but what if hanging out was also coupled with an opportunity to tend a garden under the auspices of those who can advance it as science and art. Even designing and building the planter itself can be turned into a teachable moment, in this case working with local designers and carpenters to put things together.
The same can be said of the street. An otherwise sacred property for cars and trucks, can here be redesigned to host-farmers market style-recent development in STEM education. Not only to showcase advancement in technology but bridge gaps in the digital divide. The crisis of computational empowerment isn’t limited to knowledge but involves factors associated with access to people and equipment but also understanding of scope.
What information is told on the street can be debated and workshopped on the inside, in rooms, previously limited to selling merchandize, now contain tables, chairs and projection equipment, among other things, turning ideas into actionable products. What good is our advanced age if its ware can only be understood by a limited cadre of engineering elite. It must become distributed and part and parcel of our cultural unconscious, shared between children and adults alike, expert and layman.
In all this, nothing short of democracy will acquire a new meaning. If previously held to be the clash of values, each developed independent of the next and in isolation, here it becomes a function of our collective participation in the common good. Man in this scenario is no longer the passive spectator ready to consume without question, but the active agent implicated in the project of her own self making. What void Walmart and Amazon may have created at the center of our soul, now can be filled with meaningful collaboration.
Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.