At Urban3 we seek to uncover the power of good urbanism. You might think our insights are relevant only to large cities. But even in places like Covington, GA–a city of 14,000 people at the edge of the Atlanta metro–the power of good urbanism is clear. Here are a few lessons we’d like to share from our work there.

1. Town squares are timeless

At the center of Covington lies a town square: a central park flanked by an historic courthouse and narrow low-rise commercial buildings. This urban typology is typical of development in the late 18th and early 19th century, and it can be found across the country. These developments are typically the historic center of a community and, if they last, they are often also incredibly productive.

Our analyses typically focus on productivity from a tax standpoint: how much property taxes a parcel produces for its size. This is an important metric for local governments to understand if they are to fund their infrastructure and public services sustainably. In an ideal world, any parcel fronting a street should cover the costs of the road it has access to. Historic town squares cover those costs and then some, often subsidizing other, less productive areas. But what’s also important to consider is the value these town squares offer their communities in a less quantifiable way.

What’s incredible about Covington’s town square is not only that it’s one of the most productive areas in the city but that it is still very much the center of the community–and has been for over a century. Its buildings have served numerous businesses and services that have kept parking spaces full for decades. And the green space at the center of the square still succeeds at hosting community social events and celebrations.

It’s the space where a community can come to convene, to celebrate, to organize, and even to grieve. It’s where neighbors catch up, check in on each other, and shoot the breeze. Its contribution to Covington’s social and cultural scene hasn’t changed, and neither has its contribution to the city’s budget. The design is timeless in both qualitative and quantitative ways.

2. Walmarts aren’t built to last

Consider in contrast the history of Walmarts in Covington. It’s known locally that there is the old Walmart and the old, old Walmart. The former is now an Ace Hardware and the latter is slated to be redeveloped. Along with the existing, newer Walmart, this small city has been through three iterations of the same store, at different locations, for the last forty years. Covington’s town square has stood for twice that long. Walmart’s cycle of investment and abandonment is a well known strategy it employs to keep property tax costs low. And while, yes, these buildings are also being re-used, they leave behind forms that are singular in function and purely utilitarian. They leave no lasting legacy nor foster any sense of community. 

3. Location is not destiny

Downtowns tend to have the most potential for highly productive uses because their location is highly valued. And areas farther away from downtown tend to drop in productivity. But location is not destiny. Downtowns can suffer from underutilized land in the form of surface parking lots and non-taxable uses. Covington has its fair share of both, but with our work they’re now thinking creatively to make the best of this under-utilized land. And, on the contrary, suburban and even rural locations can develop in ways that defy expectations. No matter where you are, location is what you make of it.

The Clark’s Grove development in Covington is a wonderful example of this principle. Located just outside of downtown in what was once a residential neighborhood with relatively low productivity is now an incredibly productive mixed-use district that rivals downtown. What Clark’s Grove in Covington illustrates is that the right kind of development can create new places of value. Location is important, but it’s often what someone does with that location that makes it valuable.

What should never be left out is the fact that the places that are most financially productive are also the places with incredible social and cultural value. Not only is it important to take care of these places, but also to ask what is lost without more of them. For fiscal sustainability, we need to protect and build more of these places. But perhaps we should also ask what our communities could gain from more of them.

Billy and his colleagues are eager to help you better understand your city’s finances so that you can grow with resilience and responsibility. Contact us to learn what we’ve done for other communities and what we can do for yours.