'Back to the City' Takes Off

Urban Revival

Ten years ago, Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue was the urban equivalent of a no-fly zone.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the district had been a cosmopolitan enclave. But when Turkey's capital was moved from Istanbul to Ankara in 1923, the neighborhood started a steep decline, bottoming out in the late 1980s when it became a run-down, red-light district.

Then the city's mayor accepted an action plan to revitalize the avenue. It was closed to traffic in 1989, and horn-honking cars were replaced by lines of trees alongside a bell-dinging trolley.

Today, students, artists, and tourists pack the clubs and cafes. The pedestrian walk is jammed with shoppers.

The "back to Main Street" movement started in America, but is quickly spreading abroad, with cities renovating historical districts and encouraging commercial and residential development downtown.

Following years of urban decay and a nearly half-century exodus to the suburbs, people are returning to nest in revitalized city centers.

"All over the world, people are rediscovering the city center and what it can offer," says Aykut Karaman, an architect and city planning professor at Mimar State University in Istanbul. "Central areas have great potential that hasn't been used." In Istanbul, the effect is obvious.

"It used to be that even men were afraid to walk down the street," says Nusret Bayraktar, head of city government for the district. "Now men, women and teenagers walk there even after midnight."

Events and outside forces have motivated the urban renewal of some cities. Toronto, ranking high as an all-around livable city, became the place to be in Canada in the 1970s when many English-speaking Quebeckers migrated away from French-speaking Montreal. Lisbon is hoping that its successful Expo bid will do for it what the Olympics did for Barcelona, which has been praised for refurbishment that has lasted.

Living where the action is

Often the motivator is a search for a new lifestyle. In New York, bankers and businessmen are gobbling up apartments on once dead-after-dark Wall Street because they like walking to work. "It's a big trend," says John Gosling, director of planning and urban design at the Washington office of RTKL, an international consulting firm. "It's happening in Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta - cities that are booming, where commute time has gotten so long that people are saying ... 'I'm moving back.' "

Downtowns abroad can also be compelling places to call home. Centuries old, they have picturesque public squares, historical monuments, and unique residential spaces. Rents for central apartments in global business centers such as Moscow and Singapore have jumped to several thousand dollars per month.

Mixing housing with employment and culture are crucial to revitalizing life downtown. Being isolated in suburbia has worn thin for many people, according to planners who endorse the "new urbanism" movement of returning to the city center, or else emulating it in suburban developments by creating common squares and mini-Main Streets.

"People are by nature gregarious," Mr. Gosling says. "They like a lot going on at once and miss a rich, visual, public environment that is alive day and night."

Understanding the need for multiuse city centers, local governments are coming up with policies to encourage residential as well as commercial developments. The city government of Sydney, Australia, gives incentives in the form of floor-space bonuses to developers who build residential complexes.

"It's to increase the population in the center to make the city more lively," says Glen Searle, a professor in the design and architecture faculty of the University of Technology-Sydney. In Melbourne, the provincial government's "Agenda 21" includes opening new museums and developing the docklands next to the business district. New waterfront housing is expected to bring 5,000 residents by 2005.

In Athens, the historic Psyrri district just below the Acropolis used to be full of run-down buildings, but in the past five years has been reborn as the hippest nightspot in town. The transition started when several theaters moved into formerly vacant lots or abandoned industrial buildings, then clubs and restaurants followed. Real estate prices have gone from cheap to some of the most expensive in Athens, and the government has to protect development with strict building codes.

Closing streets to traffic is becoming one of the most successful ways to reinvigorate an area. Avenues that were once loud, dangerous, and polluted are becoming pleasant promenades. The pedestrian zones so popular in Germany and the Netherlands have also been carved out of Athens, Copenhagen, Budapest, Jerusalem, and Johannesburg.

Quality-of-life issues in city centers are increasingly on the political agenda. "The ruling Independent Group party came to power in Sydney in 1991 with the central policy of making the city center a place where people wanted to be," says Mr. Searle.

The "Living City" policy includes protecting sunlight access, making laws that preserve Sydney's traditional architectural style, and expanding cultural facilities, including renovating the historic Customs House on the waterfront at the Circular Quay as a cultural center.

"There is a trend to develop recreational spaces around landmarks, where the culture and symbolism are very strong," says Maria Kaltza, an architect in Athens.

Rio de Janeiro is working on its "Corredor Cultural" project that is restoring cultural quarters and buildings significant to the city's heritage, as well as improving the public spaces and invigorating commerce around Plaza Tiradentes, the center of the old district.

"In Latin America, the city center is still the place to be," says Hemalata Dandekar, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "The city core is attractive economically, so both the private sector and commercial developers are investing in it."

Ms. Dandekar points out that elsewhere, as in Eastern Europe, the facades of Old Towns have been restored to their original states more for tourism than for functional purposes. And as in some American cities, many cities are clearing slums from the inner city.

Drawbacks of development

But when local residents are displaced suddenly by bulldozers, cities beautify the centers at the cost of more homelessness. In Cairo, for example, the government's rapid urban renewal program mandates relocating residents of a third of the city's ghetto areas, some of which surround historic monuments and are being developed as tourist attractions.

More successful models can be found. In Suzhou, China, a 2,500-year-old city on the delta of the Yangtze River - where 360,000 people were crammed into less than 5-1/2 square miles 10 years ago - residents, factories, and government departments alike have been relocated toward the city's edge.

When Mao Zedong made Beijing the capital of his communist dynasty, he tore down many of the structures that were considered relics of feudal rule. The destruction of China's architectural legacy has been speeded with China's rapid modernization of the past two decades.

Only in the past few years have Chinese cultural conservationists been permitted to voice their concerns in state-run media over the razing of landmarks.

In recent years, Shanghai has felled four- and six-story historic buildings in its center at a rate of one city block per day. Office development that has spilled over into the Pudong district across the river from the old town has been criticized for lack of planning.

Still, the Chinese Land Administration has been consulting with American planners on how to solve its urban development challenges, and there have been several exchanges of planners between the two countries in the past year.

Professor Karaman, who helped develop the revitalization plan for Istiklal Avenue, calls the worldwide urban focus inevitable. "Public spaces are the stage for social activities," he says, "and those universals, found in the traditional city centers, are what you need in life to be satisfied."

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