‘Choice Amenities’ and the Reimagined Urban Landscape

New ideas and players are coalescing to provide attractive options for the livability of cities. That's good news for economic development.
August 21, 2015
By Michael Gaughan  |  Contributor
A director with the National Development Council

Few landmarks are as obvious in the American city as those created during the City Beautiful movement of the late 1890s and early 20th century. From grand plazas to magnificent parks, the imprint of this movement shaped many cities.

More recently, a new movement has taken hold that is creating an equally powerful set of amenities for today's city-dwellers. A hallmark of this transformation has been an interdisciplinary approach in which transportation departments and public/private developers are as important to recreation as parks departments have long been. For economic-development professionals, this evolution requires further expansion in the definition of what constitutes an urban amenity as well as who should be recruited for growth partnerships.

New York City's High Line, which transformed an abandoned elevated railway into a celebrated linear park, is perhaps the best known example of this new movement. A close second is also found in New York City's use of the right-of-way for new public space; think of the closing of streets around Times Square to create vast pedestrian plazas.

The trend is hardly limited to the Big Apple. Other examples include projects as diverse as the revitalization of Washington Park in Cincinnati, the transformation of Race Street Pier in Philadelphia and the establishment of bike sharing in Indianapolis. Collectively, these amenities have centered on new forms of recreation and mobility that often have a blurry distinction. Is bike sharing recreation, or is it mobility? Is a café table in the middle of a former busy intersection recreation?

Regardless of the answers to those questions, both bike sharing and café tables are connected in that they provide residents with new options for the ways in which they live, work and play. These "choice amenities" have the effect of improving livability, and they are created by reimagining spaces as disparate as historic parks and abandoned industrial warehouses for uses that often diverge wildly from their traditional functions.

Consider indoor climbing facilities, which are most often found in light-industrial zones adjacent to center cities, as a largely private-sector example. In the last two years, more than 50 of these facilities have opened across the United States, challenging conceptions of the after-work trip to the gym.

On the public side, the changing nature of amenities has resulted in cities large and small reorienting their economic-development efforts. The unlikely candidate of Chattanooga, Tenn., serves as a prime example. Over the past several years, this city of less than 200,000 has become a leader in choice amenities with investments in projects ranging from a bike-sharing program to a public-private partnership that facilitated the transformation of a vacant movie theater into a multimillion-dollar downtown climbing gym.

The obvious downside of allowing economic-development actors to prioritize these amenities is the potential for a narrow elite to define the choices available to all of a city's residents. In the knowledge-based economy, however, the importance of livability is an undisputed driver of the modern workforce's location preferences. Recognizing the importance of choice in the evolution of urban amenities is critical if cities are to succeed in pursuing livability-based economic-development strategies.