June 11, 2011

A brief history of downtowns in the United States



Staff Reporter

"For a long time, downtowns were healthy, vibrant places," Kennedy Lawson Smith said at the beginning of her speech on Friday during the Vital Maine Communities Conference.

But after the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, the construction of highways bypassed downtowns, Smith said. Around the same time, new zoning rules separated industry from places where people lived, and gradually towns became less walkable.

The GI Bill after World War II provided money for new housing developments, and subdivisions were built for veterans returning home. They created more development outside of town centers, Smith said, and boosted the growth of the automobile industry.

Credit cards became available, she said, making it possible for people to spend more than they were earning. That, tied with the advent of air conditioning, which allowed for cooler temperatures in larger buildings, led to the rise of large, suburban shopping malls.

Traffic shifted toward the malls and away from downtown centers, Smith said. As people began to move away from downtown, grocery stores, dry cleaners and fast food restaurants followed them. Downtown businesses struggled to compete.

In 1950, consumers were willing to travel an average of 15 miles to get to a retail center, she said. By 2000, that number grew to 50 miles.

"We've created this downward spiral of disinvestment in downtowns," Smith said. With downtown vacancy rates dropping, some property owners have deferred building maintenance, leading to shabbier appearances.

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