Central space downtown can add value to a city

January 29, 2015

By John Bing - Guest Columnist The Advertiser-Tribune

Why should all of us in the Tiffin area be concerned about the quality of Tiffin's downtown, particularly about what goes on at the "center" of our community? It matters for all of us because, when people make best use of a city's center, it improves the quality of life and puts money in the pockets of almost everyone who lives in the community.

The right kind of activity at the center will attract people from all neighborhoods. People who are not acquainted will meet and talk. They will build trust, share information and gain respect for their fellow citizens. Normally, our orbit of travel is relatively fixed - the neighborhood store, bar, restaurants, particular parks and regular paths to church, work and perhaps the mall.

Activities at the center cross these boundaries and bring together people who otherwise would not meet. Separations, whether neighborhood, schools, churches or areas of a city, create suspicion and sometimes animosity.

When people instead meet their wider community neighbors, especially under the right conditions, they develop friendships and learn respect for each other. They exchange information about jobs and sales, about baby sitters and medical services. They learn faces and names for future projects or enlist members and volunteers for existing activities and come to see themselves as more and more part of a wider welcoming whole.

This is what experts on urban life call "social capital," a different and important kind of community wealth, an important investment that keeps paying off down the road.

Shopping at a farmers' market or watching grandchildren skate, we meet new people and come to feel more positive about our lives and our community. We are likely to talk about our community and likely to share positive information about its parts and its whole, its present growth and future potential.

We are likely to find reasons for shopping locally, to retiring locally, to join local organizations, to volunteer locally. And we share these reasons with family, friends, visitors and in chance meetings outside of our own town. Such feelings and information gets passed on, perhaps to an uncle in Toledo, perhaps to an old college friend in Akron. Ten thousand individual encounters are multiplied across the range of our lives.

And it means, as well, that there will be more to do, more for youth, for children, for seniors. Quality of life is increasingly defined by the extent and value of leisure activities available in a community. Central locations maximize exposure to such entertainments (creating a sufficient market for individual entrepreneurship), as well as to unique commercial venues. If you have something great to offer people, putting it in the right place, a place central to your market, is essential for success.

Furthermore, the quality of the downtown of any city defines how a community looks and feels to outsiders and visitors and to even residents. For many, and often as a first impression, the downtown is the town.

We cannot attract residents and commercial business if the downtown is seen as the home of the unemployed, the drifters or people suffering from addiction and depression.

But if the downtown is alive with positive activity? This begins a domino effect. More shops and more positive investment, more upscale apartments and condominiums, more income and more activity. Growth! Development! Higher property values! More, and well-paying, jobs! Better life for all of us!

John Bing is a professor emeritus of political science and anthropology at Heidelberg University.