A day in Columbus, Georgia

Last week I visited Columbus, Georgia for the first time. Between sessions of the Georgia Planning Association’s (GPA) fall conference I had a chance to explore the downtown.

Public Spaces

I was surprised by the quantity and variety of public spaces in downtown Columbus. Some of these were attractive and well designed. Yet, in spite of this, I witnessed only a few people taking advantage of these spaces.

I would be interested to see these places at their most active times. It appears that the city can host quite a large crowd throughout its downtown and adjacent riverfront.

Walking the streets of Columbus felt like a city wearing over-sized clothes.  (Strangely, this trend was even present in my hotel room which felt vast and lonely.) In this respect it resembles many rust belt cities that have lost industry and population over a span of decades.

Peak Parking

Wow, this city has a lot of parking. While I listened to Ellen Dunham-Jones explain how autonomous vehicles may soon eliminate our need to build these vast car apartments in a GPA session, no fewer than four major parking garages occupied prime real estate in our host city.

I cannot confirm that it is all free – however during my visit I did not see a single parking meter. I understand the temptation for a city that feels like it needs to attract visitors: by charging people for parking you will steer them away from all the great stuff downtown (see above).

However there is a cost. Even in my short stay, I witnessed people cruising for prime parking spots on Broadway. The street allows drivers in the left lane to make U-turns before intersections – this little convenience allows endless looping around the core downtown blocks. I suspect that this driver (and many like him) would be willing to pay a small fee for parking rather than spend time circling the block.

(Someday I will review Donald Shoup’s manifesto: The High Cost of Free Parking which explains why your city should treat its most valuable curbside parking spots like your most valuable real estate.)

None of the parking garages I saw had any active first floor uses. For a city looking to revitalize its downtown, this is a major missed opportunity.

Small is the new big

Columbus is fortunate to have several major institutions in its core: Columbus State University, the Convention Center,  a Center for Performing Arts, and several well preserved historic buildings.

Based on the appearance of the downtown, it seems that Columbus needs to fill in some of the gaps between these anchor structures. There is room in this city for small businesses and creative entrepreneurs to flourish. I don’t know enough about the region’s economy or politics to say whether or not this is a priority.

If I were advising the city’s planners and leaders, I would encourage them not to imagine the next “big thing” for the city. There are plenty of these already for a city of this size. Instead, I would advise them to consider how to attract (and retain) a tremendous number of very small investments. In my view, this is the pathway to making the city viable for the next generation.