Clustering and the 'Three C's' of urban revitalization

Successful urban revitalization projects of all scopes and sizes rely on a simple three-pronged principle: the clustering of complementing uses within a compact setting. It's a tried and true formula for bringing life to urban streets that doesn't rely on massive new developments.

The “Three C’s”

Park Street through the heart of Riverside’s Five Points district is a Jacksonville example of clustering complementing uses together within a compact, pedestrian scale setting. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

We at The Jaxson have long advocated the “Three C’s” of urban revitalization: the clustering of complementing uses within a compact setting. This is the simple idea that it doesn’t take big, expensive silver bullet projects or the span of generations to revitalize urban streets, but rather just a bit of coordination to concentrate amenities within easy walking distance of one another.

This is the principle behind vibrant big city downtowns and small town commercial centers alike, and there are several millennia worth of examples of its efficacy. Still, some communities have a hard time grasping or implementing the Three C’s. Downtown Jacksonville is one such example, and its vibrancy suffers as a result, despite billions of dollars spent there.

Fortunately, the Three C’s are easy to implement once a city embraces them. Here’s how it works.

1: Clustering

Clustering a mix of uses at the Pratt Street Power Plant in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (Ennis Davis, AICP)

Articulated in 1990 by economist Michael Porter, the concept of clustering has been around since the beginning of civilization. Early work on clustering focused on the significance of similar businesses being located close together but the idea has since been applied much more widely.

In urban planning, clustering is an important element in bringing life to urban areas void of consistent activity and energy. The concept is simple: residents, businesses and amenities benefit from being in close proximity to one another, feeding off each other’s foot traffic and creating a draw bigger than any individual component could do on its own.

Failing to embrace clustering is where some areas that struggle with urban revitalization go wrong. In Downtown Jacksonville, there’s an amount of clustering in the Northbank core, the heart of Downtown, with office buildings, streetfront retail, some housing, and amenities like the Main Library, MOCA Jacksonville, and the Times-Union Center. But other “Downtown” amenities are spread across Brooklyn, LaVilla, the Southbank, and the Stadium District. These locations aren’t close to each other; in fact some are miles apart. This is why the other two C’s are so important.

2: Complementing uses

A wide sidewalk filled with a line of sidewalk cafes in Paris is an example of clustering complementing uses together. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

Clustering is only as effective as the individual uses that are clustered. Naturally, a cluster that includes, say, an apartment building, a factory, and a car dealership next to each other isn’t going to create much vibrancy. The uses need to complement each other for clustering to work, and in terms of a downtown or urban neighborhood, this means uses that encourage walkable, street-level activity.

Some streets or districts may benefit from having a great concentration of restaurants, bars and retail. Parks, entertainment venues, museums and galleries would be other complimenting uses in such an area. Offices or residential units on the street level may not contribute to vibrancy in a commercial district, but those located above or nearby the commercial strip certainly would. In the Jacksonville area, vibrant districts like Five Points, San Marco Square, Downtown Jacksonville Beach, and St. Augustine all show the effectiveness of complimenting uses clustered together.

Next page: 3 – Compact setting