Below is a photo of downtown Utica, New York, a city of 60,000 people that’s slowly climbing out of hibernation and realizing its potential once again.
Like so many cities, Utica has seen a transformation, based mainly around creative small business owners and pro-downtown boosters who are once again excited to wear their love for their town on their sleeve. Amazing new restaurants, bars, even a shop sprinkled in here and there. Plans for large scale development have many residents split when it comes to direction, but there is no doubt that Utica is a small city on the move.
As our cities big and small take the first steps toward a brighter future, there is a key element that often goes overlooked and underappreciated. This key to supporting the weight of an emerging downtown is public space, green space, and flexible space. Unfortunately, these are three things that downtown Utica has in very short supply.
Below is a Google Maps image of downtown Utica, specifically the Genesee Street corridor. At first glance, it might appear that this is a healthy, high density downtown with a lot going on.
But as we look closer, we see it is a downtown dominated by parking (circled in red) and road (marked in yellow). When you add it all up, there’s likely almost as much concrete and asphalt as there are buildings, a construct that is notoriously disruptive for city centers, and a problem that is difficult to address (forgive the three year-old lines!).
When we build downtowns around an overabundance of automobile infrastructure, we turn revenue-generating space into a revenue-draining liability. We negate the chance to build parks and squares, places where people can gather, and as importantly, we diminish walkability, which has been shown to be the economic artery for our cities.
But in a city dominated by parking lots and roads, Utica has almost no significant, dedicated public space in the midst of its downtown. Take a look at the image again… there is almost no discernible green space, save a couple private residences and businesses. Utica is a rare downtown where, other than a few small exceptions, there is no space for residents to gather for programmed events, outdoor concerts or festivals.
The outdoor Farmers Market is held in the Train Station parking lot. Saranac Thursdays draws thousands of Uticans each week to… a parking lot. Indeed, it seems as if every major outdoor event in downtown Utica takes place in a temporary area that otherwise houses cars.
Public space can be the heartbeat of a city. It can be a gathering place, a flexible venue, even an economic generator for nearby businesses. It is space where downtown workers can take their lunch break and enjoy the sun, or a place where downtown residents (a population that is growing in Utica) can walk their dog or read a book.
For Utica, the possibility of a downtown hospital or an entertainment district are important conversations to be had… but moving forward, one of the most important topics must be addressing the lack of significant and dedicated public space and green space in the city’s center. Residents and visitors need to feel their city is a place for people, not cars, and public space is one of the most vital components in the implementation of this human-centered, urbanistic narrative.