Developments dubbed “town centers” have become centers of attention while springing up here and across the country.
One of the first is Westhaven Town Center in Franklin. Now, there’s McEwen Town Center under construction in Franklin, and others have been proposed, the largest of which is May Town Center, targeted for Bells Bend.
“Villages” are the derivatives — conceptually similar though — just a different name and created in the suburbs just as a town center is.
But what is a town center?
Answers vary and few outside the world of land-use planners, architects and developers really know.
A local real estate developer recalled being asked by a government official about buying property to build a town center. When the developer asked what the official’s idea of town center was, he pointed to Hill Center in Green Hills.
Hill Center isn’t a town center, the developer noted. He said it is dense mixed-used development. It’s one street and the development happens to be infill in an increasingly urban area of Nashville, which at one point was a suburb.
No official definition truly exists. Today’s concept resembles the original model of a town square that served as the marketplace and the government.
“It was a creation of a very old model,” said Constance Bodurow, a professor of architecture at the University of Detroit who heads up a regional and urban planning design committee the American Institute of Architects.
Bodurow is referring to Agora of Ancient Greece. The Agora was the heart of a city. Shops surrounded a square, which might have a statue of something in the middle of it. It was the center of commerce and government.
Citizens would sit and chat about politics or it’s where they got their news. The government delivered pronouncements. Plato philosophized there.
Those squares evolved over time but function stayed relatively the same. Government sat at one edge and shops were around other edges.
Changes in transportation from foot to horse to streetcar to the automobile spread out everyone. The town square became less convenient as the suburbs grew. Government grew and offices moved to different parts of the city. Retail shops followed the people.
Over the past decade, “new urbanism” has taken root in the suburbs. Urban developers have called it “new suburbanism,” indicating that “new urbanism” is a misnomer.
If developments were new urbanism, there would be infill development in urban areas, not dense development in the suburbs. But there apparently was a yearning for that urban experience without going to an urban area.
Today’s function of the town center differs greatly from the original Agora or the successors.
Reston Town Center in Reston, Va., became the model and won plenty of awards. The first phase was built in 1990. Visitors parked in a large parking lot on the outside of the center and walked to one of the chain restaurant or shops.
Politics may be discussed but there is no government other than the property management and leasing office or the homeowners association for the residential piece.
Cities can have more than one town center as well. In the case of Brentwood, however, a town center development could create an actual town center since no square exists like Franklin’s.
The idea of a walkable, compact and convenient place has appeal but a growing number of people say it lacks the organic elements of a true urban area.
Bodurow said the younger generation is increasingly more interested in the urban experience.
“We may see a swing back,” she said of the urban focus.