Cores Defined



Doing Cores Right




Blog Discussion


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Following a few clear, strong principles will produce much better cores than we have generally produced in the past fifty years.



Joel Kotkin, The New Geography

Why Cores?

"We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." - Winston Churchill (http://www.winstonchurchill.org)

What Churchill said about the effects of buildings could be said equally about neighborhoods, communities, cities or regions. And they all need good cores to be successful.

Churchill is only one of many historians, philosophers, scientists, architects, planners and students of cities, life, economics and the environment to discuss the importance and value of cores, centers or downtowns. A few who are especially important include Lewis Mumford, Margaret Mead, Victor Gruen and Richard Meier.1

The historical perspective provided by these thinkers makes it clear that attractive, highly accessible and compact downtowns, cores and village and community centers -- and similar concentrations of mixed use – will build community, increase personal opportunity, reduce costs and improve the environment more than any other strategy for city or regional growth.

More recently, Donovan Rypkema summarized this better than anyone: 6

"...(T)he future of downtown and the importance of downtown are two different things. I do not know what the future of downtown is, but here is what I am certain of:

  • If we are to have an effective environmental policy, downtowns are important. 
  • If we are to have an effective transportation policy, downtowns are important.
  • If we are to have meaningful historic preservation, downtowns are important.
  • If we want Smart Growth, downtowns are not only important but irreplaceable.
  • If a local official wants to claim the treasured mantle of fiscal responsibility, downtown revitalization is imperative.
  • If we want to avoid Generica, downtown is essential to establish differentiation.
  • If the community is going to compete in economic globalization without being swallowed by cultural globalization, downtown revitalization has to be central to the strategy.
  • If new businesses, innovative businesses, and creative businesses are going to be fostered and encouraged, a community will need a downtown where that can take place.
  • If we are to have buildings with meaning, buildings with value, buildings with values, they will be downtown.
  • If we are to have public places of public expression, we need a downtown.
  • If a community is going to embrace diversity instead of hide from it, celebrate diversity instead of deny it, then that has to take place downtown, it ain't gonna happen anywhere else...."

A Pro-Core Core Strategy is Positive

Cores are compatible with market forces and environmental imperatives. There is a good chance for success. A pro-cores strategy does not require highly specific standards or a rigid plan. Pro-core strategies should leverage and harness natural forces and tendencies to create healthy cores and maximize their beneficial impacts on the economy, environment and the cultural and social fabric of their regions.

There is also renewed interest in trying to "do things right." This stems from three things. First, the spread of news about accumulating successes, techniques and experience. Second, the widening understanding of the costly results of a lack of planning or poor planning. And third, growing awareness that resource limits will no longer allow the continued waste of development patterns and practices of the past. The need to use cores as a strategy becomes apparent when we see the futility of so much of the debate about urban sprawl. Endless material from magazines, conferences, workshops and talk shows decry the environmental, economic and social costs of the smothering of our cities, suburbs and rural areas by costly, wasteful and disorganized sprawl Yet, all of this agonized discussion produces few meaningful or realistic solutions. Many of the supposed "answers" - growth limits, moratoria, withholding of utilities and access and the application of ever larger home and commercial site requirements - only aggravate the problems they are intended to solve and they often make them worse. At best a pro cores strategy would be far more than just an accumulation of mixed-use projects. Rather, it would be part of a new vision of how we are to deal with growth based on use of cores as a key tool for its implementation. Anthony Downs made the case for such a vision in his book New Visions for Metropolitan Areas, (Brookings, 1994). The development, adoption, and pursuit of this vision is the goal of this site.

Both History and Current Trends Support Cores

Principles for the development of downtowns and centers are old. They go back to a time when walking was the principal method of movement. They were codified in ancient cities and have been applied to various degrees throughout history, often with great success.

But the dominance of the auto and the growing impact of computers and electronics have made many feel that downtowns and cores are no longer relevant or important The value of these principles - is discussed elsewhere in "Benefits of Cores?". However, more people are making the case that downtowns and cores are more important now than ever.

Munich is just one of many cities

to establish “pedestrian zones” to

make its downtown more attractive.

This case is made well by Joel Kotkin in his book The New Geography7 . He says that people increasingly select places to work and live that provide a variety of rewarding experience and opportunity. Growing energy costs are also increasing the energy advantages of cores by leaps and bounds.

Cores Support Values

Good downtowns, cores and corridors generate tremendous value in all of the areas listed above: creation of opportunity, providing better access to that opportunity, and optimizing efficiency, economy and conservation.

Communication is the best known and the most historic function of cores. It is the communication of the crossroads, the river crossing, the agora. It is the communication provided by the coming together of people in villages and towns and then cities. This very elemental communication is that of easy and informal face to face contact of the kind that can only be obtained in cities, and especially in relatively concentrated cores and activity centers. 

Although modern electronic communication has eliminated much of the need for such contact, that need still exists. This point was strongly argued in 1968 by Barton-Aschman in their research on patterns and densities of development in cities. They said:

"Failure to permit or encourage higher densities of development in certain locations is a source of many urban frustrations and shortcomings; it is a major obstacle to the achievement of high levels of opportunity."8

Families have lots of fun and build community spirit at the Easter egg hunt on this village lawn each year

Kotkin says good downtowns or cores, as they are defined here, are one of the most important potential attractions to the kind of "knowledge" workers who will determine what parts of the world and of individual regions will thrive and which will fail. His book is essential reading to anyone who wants to better understand this point of view.

Downtown dwellers in Chicago at

one of their several weekly farmer's markets


Core Benefits

Cores welcome everyone

Here is a summary of the benefits that cores, centers and corridors provide: 

  • Access to the widest possible range of opportunities: This has always been an essential role of cities and especially their cores.
  • The reality and “sense” of community: Few cores do this well. Yet this goal is becoming more important in view of the increasingly diverse and transient nature of society and the lack of unifying forces.
  • The ability to regenerate themselves and their communities: This is mainly achieved by assuring a healthy mix of land uses. It is difficult for single-use developments to adjust to economic, social and technological change. They are most often the first to become obsolete.
  • Compatible with transportation: Capacities and locations of roads and transit must be matched with land use. Well planned cores will do this, provide densities and destinations that support transit, and minimize traffic impacts on residential neighborhoods.
  • Housing within and near cores, especially affordable and senior housing: Growth in the number of seniors unable to drive and of areas hostile to pedestrians make this a goal of major importance.
  • Opportunities to walk: The Federal Center For Disease Control says that a major cause of disease is lack of exercise. Good cores often provide the best opportunities to walk in their communities. (Note the walkers in shopping malls.) These should be increased to improve the functioning of cores as well as public health.

  • Preserve and communicate the community’s history and culture: Features reflecting the culture and history of a community are often embedded in their cores. These should be preserved, enhanced and made available to all.

  • Optimize efficiency of infrastructure: Cores do this in two ways. First, by reducing demands on infrastructure, for example, by reducing the need for travel or shifting travel from auto to pedestrian and transit modes. (Studies show potential savings in the billions of dollars for a region from widespread development of good cores.) Second, by serving more users with infrastructure already provided and by more intense use and sharing of infrastructure, such as open space and parking.

  • Reduce the negative effects of sprawl and achieve conservation and efficiency in both urban and rural environments. Wide spread application of core concepts and principles could have a major impact on reducing the negative impacts of sprawl, especially the scattering of job and commercial destinations.

Pro-core policies should be an important part of any effort to deal with sprawl and to create sustainable environments.

Who this Site is For

This website provides information and ideas from many sources to help understand the value of these concepts, especially those of "downtowns and cores" - and how to implement them.

Specific site objectives are to:

  • Tell about the value of cores, downtowns, village centers and similar activity centers in both urban and rural areas.
  • Make information on these subjects more available
  • Encourage sound principles to be widely used. 
  • Give examples of both good and bad examples. 
  • Encourage website visitors to share their experience with others.

Here are some who we hope will find this site useful:

  • City officials and citizens looking for a highly effective way to strengthen existing cities and neighborhoods 

  • State or regional officials looking for meaningful tools to deal with problems of sprawl and growth management 

  • Planning professionals wanting to follow proven principles of core planning and design and to learn more about implementation 

  • Business and community leaders concerned about the health of the community’s business environment 

  • Persons working to preserve and improve our environment

  • Boards of business, governmental, health and educational organizations looking for healthy mixed-use location 

  • Persons and organizations looking for good locations for housing 

  • Transportation organizations who want transportation systems to work better


1Lewis Mumford was perhaps the world’s most influential historian and analyst of the history and culture of cities. Margaret Mead one of its most important sociologists. Victor Gruen the acknowledged “father” of the modern shopping center as well as its sharp critic. And Richard Meier an insightful writer about the driving importance of communication in the conduct and evolution of human affairs and in the shaping of cities.


2Mumford, Lewis, The Culture of Cities, Harcourt Brace, 1938.

3Gruen, Victor, Centers for the Urban Environment, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973. 

4Mead, Margaret, Values for Urban Living, The Annals of the Society of Social and Political Science, 1957. 

5Meier, Richard, L., A Communications Theory of Urban Growth, Joint Center for Urban Studies of MIT and Harvard, 1962.

6Rypkema, Donovan, The Importance of Downtown in the 21st Century, The Journal of the American Planning Association, Winter, 2003.

7Kotkin, Joel, The New Geography, How the digital revolution is reshaping the American Landscape. Random House, 2000, 2001.

8Barton-Aschman Associates, Guidelines for New Systems of Transportation, U. S. Department of Transportation, 1968.

See Linked Pages and Sources for further information and references.

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