What Is a Downtown?

By Christina B. Farnsworth | 10/24/2013

According to the Census, downtown might be more than you think it is—or not.


Last week’s Vantage story about Detroit focused partially on Dan Gilbert’s revitalization of Detroit’s downtown nucleus. Much media coverage of successful urban renaissance focuses on the resurgence of cities without defining exactly where downtown is.

For those who want to live and build green, knowing where downtown employment/hubs are, or could be, is part of green. Public transportation does not always have to be a key part of transit oriented developments—but walkability does.

The article, “The Problem With Defining Downtown,” in the October 7 issue of The Atlantic, demonstrated the downtown definition problem. When writing the Detroit article, we noted discrepancies in the city size. We went with the lower number because it turned out that the larger number included water. The same is true in other cities, such as Baltimore and New York. New York, as article points out, includes parts of New Jersey. Why is this? It is because the Census defines downtown as the area within a two-mile radius of city hall. Under this scheme, it is best to hope that city hall is in the middle of town.

If it’s not, there is another way to define downtown, according to the article. Center City Philadelphia released a report prepared for the International Downtown Association by authors Paul R. Levy and Lauren M. Gilchrist, which was based on Local Employment Dynamics dataset produced by the Census Bureau and state labor market information agencies.

The information helped researchers create heat maps counting jobs and measuring where the people who hold those jobs live. New York and Chicago do very well by this measure as roughly half of the people who live there also work downtown. Overall, the results are neither necessarily in circles nor are they two-miles wide. The data enables comparison across and among cities.

According to The Atlantic article: Seattle is pretty much a classic downtown with a single center; Cleveland shows two nodes, one near downtown and a separate near the city’s famous Cleveland Clinic; Atlanta has multiple, nearly equal nodules, while Jacksonville is really decentralized.

Click here to read the report “Defining Downtown”


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