The Future of Downtown: the Next Step Summit report

Population growth in New England cities 2010-2012 – from the Boston Globe

A few months back, we wrote about the Next Steps Summit being put on by Intown Manchester to chart a course for the future of downtown.

Earlier this month, Intown released its summary report based on the summit, and while there’s nothing too groundbreaking in the report, it does pull a lot of great ideas for downtown into one document, and sets the stage for realizing many of those ideas.

The overall goal is to create a stronger sense of place, and strengthen downtown Manchester’s position as a prime location for business, as an urban residential area, and increasingly as a destination for the creative and tourism economy in New England. To that end, the report identified four overarching priorities:

  • Develop & implement a multi-year branding and marketing initiative, to strengthen the identity of downtown (and the city as a whole) throughout the region and within the city
  • Create a variety of outdoor amenities aimed at pedestrians, bicyclists and families, ranging from bike paths and lanes, walking trails, ice skating, public art, and access to the river
  • Increase residential density downtown, including a range of market-rate housing options from affordable to luxury units (an increased retail presence will follow an increase in residential population downtown)
  • Build supportive cultures for growing business sectors, such as technology and creative fields, and to support artists and artisans

The report also notes that while New Hampshire’s population growth and productivity overall have been declining, putting the long-vaunted “New Hampshire Advantage” in question, mid-sized cities like Manchester are actually poised for growth. For the first time in recent decades, exurban growth has slowed, while infill development in inner-ring suburbs and central cities has increased, reflecting “a change in preferences to more livable, walkable urban areas with transit alternatives, first adopted by the younger generation and now starting to include other demographic groups.” The report concludes that the renewed interest in cities is not limited to places like Boston and New York:

“This draw to urban character is not limited to the largest cities, but can also be seen in smaller urban areas such as Providence and Portland. The opportunity for Manchester, therefore, is that if it can improve on its livability, walkability and urban lifestyle, it can also tap into this new urban demand.” (emphasis ours)

Manchester needs City Hall and private businesses–not to mention members of the community–involved if it’s going to realize the future outlined in the Next Steps report – photo by John Blower

The report acknowledges that most new development and investment will come from private entities–businesses, developers and so on–but in order for Manchester is going improve its urban appeal, the City will also have to play a critical role. There’s obviously the infrastructure components, many of which could be funded through public-private partnerships, but there’s also the need for improved public policy: the City needs to update its zoning, for instance, and make sure that it commits more strongly to improving Manchester’s appeal as an affordable, but still vibrantly urban alternative to places like Boston, Portland and Providence.

There are lots of other ideas outlined in the plan, but the next step now is the creation of four task forces, each focusing on one of the priorities identified in the report. The task forces will work to create a more detailed plan to guide the future growth and development of downtown, which Intown hopes to have in place by December.

Assuming that detailed plan will stay true to the outlines in this report, it could represent a vision of a very bright future for downtown and the whole of Manchester. But we need to make sure it’s not just another plan sitting on a shelf–the plan needs to be implemented and followed, by the City, by developers and businesses, and by the community, all of whom helped shape the Next Steps vision in the first place. So take a look at the report, make your voice heard, and let’s push Manchester to the next step.

Jazz & Blues Festival, Hanover St - photo by James E.D. Cook
In addition to infrastructure improvements & better support for businesses, Manchester needs to present itself as an exciting place to visit, live and work, like it was during the Jazz & Blues Festivals of the early 2000s – photo by James E.D. Cook
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