This post was written as I awaited my flight from Dublin back to the States. I have been fortunate to visit Dublin on two occasions and find it to be one of the most enjoyable places to visit. In this instance, I had the opportunity to travel directly from Baltimore - where I attended a conference - offering me the opportunity to notice comparisons between an older, large American port city, a European port city, and our Star city.
Upon arrival in Europe—really just about anywhere outside of North America—it is instantly noticeable that we have arranged our cities very differently. Cities across the globe have weathered the post-industrial era and the recent recession quite differently. In Dublin, the density, compactness, and layers of transportation alternatives—auto, bus, light rail, subway, bicycle, and most commonly pedestrian—are immediately apparent. In Baltimore, one could also find buses, light rail, and subways, though none were as plentiful, efficient, or pleasant (nor as crowded) as that in Dublin. Of course, in Roanoke transit is present, but limited and a bit scarce, largely due to our city's population. In our downtown and neighborhoods, pedestrian options are actually quite plentiful.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between Dublin and Baltimore is their vibrancy. Baltimore has some wonderful areas. Camden Yard is rich with history and Fell’s Point and Little Italy are two areas that any city would be proud to have. But downtown Baltimore feels like a place where the people are there either because they must be to work, or they are tourists concentrated along the Inner Harbor. By the end of the day, the city is packed to the point of gridlock with cars leaving downtown to head to suburban homes. By contrast, Dublin is vibrant and busy throughout the day and evening. Many arrive in the City Center for work, but just as many live adjacent to it, and Dublin's many visitors are also scattered throughout the center. As a result, Dublin is filled with retail and entertainment options, many of which are locally based alongside the expected chains. As the evening arrives, pedestrians abound, boarding transit and stopping in pubs on the way home. Tourists, of course, begin to congregate in the Temple Bar area.
Roanoke currently benefits from a vibrant downtown during the day and early evening and is increasingly becoming more active as more residents move downtown. While dining and entertainment options are increasing in Roanoke, retail has struggled to retain a presence.
European cities can be quite expensive to visit and live in, however, there is no question that first impressions of Dublin convey a positive view of the city and its future. For most who visit downtown Roanoke, the experience is the same.
Weathering the Storms
Each of these three cities suffered in the post-industrial era, losing many jobs and a major element of their identity. The recent recession was not much kinder: tens of thousands left Ireland to seek employment elsewhere, Baltimore’s downtown suffered even further, and Roanoke struggled to keep its recently found renewal going. Both Dublin and Baltimore suffer the ills common to urban areas, such as homelessness, crime, litter, and decay. On its own scale, Roanoke suffers from these as well.
Dublin and Roanoke have signs of recovery everywhere you turn. Cranes and gleaming new tech office buildings in Dublin and the Innovation Corridor in Roanoke are examples. Baltimore is not without examples, but parts of downtown gives the appearance of an area still struggling to free itself from the grasp of disinvestment and abandonment.
Lessons to be Learned
So, what can we learn from these examples for Roanoke? One, is that the built environment matters. The way we arrange our cities, mix our uses, and offer transportation options matter a great deal as to how a city “runs”, how visitors and residents experience it, and how vibrant it is. Another lesson, is that we must continue to celebrate our downtown as the center of our region. To treat it as a place we only visit when we need to, or worse, a place to be ignored, only creates problems for the entire region. Often, a community is assessed by visitors and investors by evaluating whether its downtown appears to be a relic of the past or a sign of a hopeful future.
Fortunately, we have already recognized these opportunities in Roanoke and have taken very deliberate action in each area. We have, and I believe will continue to, reap the benefits of such actions for years to come. Cheers!
- Bob Cowell