“The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

With our first son born in July and now a 3-week-old newborn, my husband and I stayed much closer to home this summer than usual — having a child is the ultimate new adventure, I suppose. But during cool-down sessions on the sofa at nine months pregnant (hello, second hottest July on record!) and while nursing our tiny babe, I’ve been perusing social media accounts and live vicariously through the warm-weather travels of friends and family. And there’s a common thread woven through each of these trips: human scaled environments.

Whether it’s quaint beach towns, metropolitan cities or European villages, we’re longing for tangible urbanism wherever we go. The ingredients that make for a thriving urban environment ― walkable/bikeable landscaped streets, fresh new businesses and restaurants, arts and culture, youthful energy, well-kept public spaces, hidden local gems, hints of civic pride ― don’t have to be reserved for hip travel destinations. We can enjoy all of these things right here in downtown Bakersfield. Yes, Bakersfield.

This kind of granular urbanism, the fine-grained details that define a place and make it unique, add up to a web of connections we call the city. What I love about our downtown and what outsiders love as well, are these details. These unique features make a city more livable and resilient. Cities are made by, and are for, people. And as soon as a city stops changing and growing and molding to fit the needs of its people, it dies.

A city’s “downtown” is not just another neighborhood. Downtowns are not only centers of housing, arts, commerce, and entertainment. They also serve to represent the entire city to the outside world. Like it or not, cities are judged by their centers, and the future of a city is inextricably linked to the health of its downtown. The more downtown flourishes, the more skilled workers we will attract, and the more the rest of Bakersfield will benefit.

In this space, I hope to highlight the economic, social, and lifestyle currents that will shape the future of our downtown. I’ve lived in some of our nation’s great cities, yet I see so much untapped potential in our own city center. Bakersfield has nearly half a million people in its metro area. It has small-town charms, sure, but to be a great city, we must begin to think bigger and draw inspiration outside of our boundaries. And momentum is building in our “emerging” downtown; we are at the beginning of an urban renaissance in Bakersfield.

My husband and I moved back to this place after many years away not only because we saw it as both a great place to grow our family and raise children, but we also saw an opportunity to be a part of a cultural shift and growing momentum downtown. I am inspired every day by the entrepreneurial spirit of people who own local businesses, support charitable causes, contribute to arts and culture, and give back to the community by adding their unique mark. So join me on an adventure of sorts to peer at this place anew with fresh eyes, and I think you will see (perhaps for the very first time) immense unrealized potential and beauty.

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Why downtown matters: “Downtowns are iconic and powerful symbols for a city. ... They foster business creativity, neighborhood activism, nonprofit entrepreneurs, economic diversity, and attract visitors and young talent. … There is a growing understanding that a strong downtown can be a major stimulator for economic growth and a key revenue generator for local government. Downtowns throughout North America are making a major contribution to the bottom line of their municipalities. In most cases downtowns serve as the engine for local economies.” — Andy Kitsinger, architect, urban designer, city planner and teacher

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Downtown Bakersfield, by the numbers:

  • 1.737: square mileage in the downtown core.
  • 28,000 people work downtown every day.
  • Downtown is the largest employment center in Bakersfield.

Source: Kern Council of Governments; number is approximate

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Top 10 most livable downtowns:

  • Alexandria, Va.
  • Santa Monica
  • Greenville, S.C.
  • Bellevue, Wash.
  • Pittsburgh
  • Boise, Idaho
  • Tempe, Ariz.
  • Plano, Texas
  • Colorado Springs, Colo.
  • Evanston, Ill.

Ranking Criteria: Vacancy rate, projected population growth, affordability, recent housing gains, number of parks, number of arts-related businesses, resident engagement, population density, WalkScore, daytime population.

Source: Livability.com (2016)

Anna Smith writes a weekly column about downtown Bakersfield. She can be reached at anna@sagebakersfield.com.

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