Building A Foundation, Not A Destination

Yesterday I read an exciting piece featuring a proposal for a bevy of beautiful and reasonable improvements to the pedestrian experience in downtown Binghamton, New York. Beyond amenities, an emphasis on artistic accent features and colorful additives will surely add to the overall look and feel of the area in focus. The elements of this proposed initiative are key to creating a downtown that has tremendous potential for growth, showing that Binghamton is ready to reclaim its former glory in New Urbanistic fashion.

While all of this sounds amazing, and it is, the article featured a quote from the mayor that silenced the choirs in my mind…

“It’s about taking an area of the city, and making it a destination.”

And there went my buzz. OK, not completely, but it certainly made me roll my eyes.

In all seriousness, no one can blame Mayor David for dreaming of his city as a place where people want to visit. I myself have thoroughly enjoyed visiting Binghamton over the years. But the amenities being proposed here (increased walkability and art installations) have little to do with the city being a destination and everything to do with building a strong foundation for further growth.

Say it with me… foundation, not destination.

IMG_7060Tourism is important to our cities of all sizes, but we must stop trumpeting it as the focus, and the reason we look to accomplish our urban goals. Instead we need to start communicating to people that increasing walkability enhances our economies, property value and overall happiness. We must make the connection between a walkable downtown and the re-definition of our cities as complex centers of entertainment, comfort and productivity. What Binghamton is really doing is building a strong base on which it can build a downtown that satisfies a plethora of wants and needs… yes, one of these dimensions is attracting visitors, but there’s so much more than that.

The word “destination” simply implies that we are building an attraction for outsiders to enjoy, then leave when they’re done. In a world where perception is everything, the word “destination” means that the people we have aren’t good enough… we need people from outside to make us better. I’m sure that’s not what the good Mayor meant (he’s doing some very positive things!), and I’m sure he has all the greatest intentions, no harm done! But we have to stop talking about our cities like theme park rides and start talking about them like self-sustaining centers of multi-faceted growth that also invites others into our urban nests.

To sell our cities, our worthwhile revival projects as destinations or attractions cheapens what Binghamton and all smart cities are actually trying to do… become places where people, employers and creatives want to be. There’s nothing wrong with creating a destination, but what Binghamton is really doing is building a strong foundation for the future of its residents.  It’s a harder sell, but a much more rewarding outcome, and one that Binghamton is well on its way to making a reality.