In the urban planning field, downtowns seem to be either portrayed as prolific new urbanist havens, or gritty, dilapidated messes that fail to breathe life into their communities. This time round, the latter perspective requires attention.
Downtown cores in America tend to have a couple running themes to them; only minimal housing options are offered, they’re food deserts, and they typically lack proportionate public services in some way. Fire stations, police stations, schools, and the focus of this piece - libraries - are not common sights in downtown cores that are surrounded by suburbia.
Cities require these public services in their cores in order to flourish. Without these basics, a downtown will never be viewed as a neighborhood - just a place.
Downtown housing and socioeconomic status seems to be very black and white in my experience as well: either you’re wealthy enough for the “good part” of downtown, or you’re left filing a Section 8 assistance request to live over a bar. This harsh divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” in downtown cores leave very few opportunities for intermingling - especially without a neighborhood grocery store.
One place everyone goes, if not just for their children, is the library. Regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status, gender, or personal history, anyone can get a library card. Libraries allow people to better and improve themselves as libraries guarantee access to knowledge.
Libraries provide continuing education for all ages: a place for early literacy classes and puppet shows for children, a place for students to immerse themselves in their studies, a place for art exhibits and skill building classes for adults.
But perhaps best of all, each local library branch is bound to provide some connection to the area's history. Maps, diaries, books, and archaeological finds from the surrounding area may all be found in a local library. Where would all of these opportunities call home if not for residing within our public libraries?
I believe that for these reasons, downtown libraries are essential to help grey the regrettably black-and-white reality we’ve created for ourselves in too many of America’s downtown cores. This is particularly true of my current city, Spokane, Washington.
Does your city have a downtown library? Why is it an important part of your CBD, or central business district?
Credit: References linked to sources. Images taken by Aascot Holt.