Designing downtown for women benefits everyone

            On Friday, the book Design Downtown for Women (Men Will Follow), was released. David Feehan, president of Civitas Consultants LLC and the mastermind behind this project, describes it this way:

“Downtown is the heart and soul of every city. Yet, despite improving conditions in many cities, downtowns have failed to achieve their full potential. Why? This book argues persuasively that those who are responsible for the design of the downtown experience have failed to understand the needs and desires of their most important demographic – women. Here is an opportunity for those who plan, design, construct and manage downtowns and business districts to learn from experts in the field – to look at downtowns through fresh eyes, through the eyes of women, and understand what makes so many downtowns dull and unappealing to more than half of our population. 

            “This is not about painting the bathrooms pink, although color is important. This is about changing the way architects, urban planners, developers, brokers, lenders and in particular, downtown managers design an experience that serves the needs of a group of users who make more than 80 percent of retail decisions and residential decisions, and who are increasingly well-educated and wealthy. This is about attracting entrepreneurs, shoppers, visitors and residents to a place that is truly clean, safe, attractive, friendly, and exciting. This book can change the way we think about our most vital asset – our downtowns.”

            David, being acquainted with my work as editorial director for the Downtown Development Center, invited me on as editor for this project. The book is a compilation of chapters addressing the many ways downtown could be more attractive and accommodating to female customers, written by a wide variety of respected experts from various disciplines. While wrangling so many different writing styles into one document was challenging, it was an honor to help move this project forward.

            Not every observation or suggestion in this book resonates with me, because women are not “one size fits all” any more than any other group of people. The authors also come not only from different disciplines, but cities of varying sizes, and are of both genders and a variety of age groups. Being in my 50s, and having lived in rural areas for most of my life, my expectations and perceptions of city centers are bound to be different than those of a life-long city dweller, a male, or a woman of a different age.

            That said, what did come through loud and clear is that the recommendations in this book could make downtowns better not just for women, but for everyone. Who doesn’t want a safe, clean city center with plenty of parking? And adaptations to make wayfinding signage more readable, buildings more accessible, and street furniture more suitable for persons of different sizes can benefit not only women, but the elderly, visitors unfamiliar with the area, and any person trying to juggle packages or a stroller/carseat.

            I had not given a lot of thought to the lack of color downtown, but I have always thought downtowns lacking in attractive landscaping and public art were boring and utilitarian in appearance – not places I enjoyed walking or would have cause to linger. In contrast, a downtown featuring interesting art, beautiful flowers, and maybe a street performer or two, will keep me in the vicinity all day long and into the evening – which means I spend money for lunch, dinner, drinks, and maybe a little shopping along the way. It also means there are fun things to photograph and share on social media, thus providing free marketing for that particular destination.

            The book is available at


            I hope if you have anything to do with the design and operation of a downtown, you will give the recommendations careful consideration. Meanwhile, meet our editorial team:


Carol Becker recently completed her doctorate in public administration at Hamline University. She is also an elected official in Minneapolis, serving on the Board of Estimates and Taxation, and is former chief of staff to Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.

Stefani Danes is an architect and urban designer whose practice focuses on neighborhood-building. Since 1979, she has been teaching in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon, where she is an adjunct professor. She also serves as a Fellow of the Remaking Cities Institute. Formerly a principal in the firm of Perkins Eastman, her work has been recognized with awards from the American Institute of Architects and the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

David Feehan is a world-recognized expert in downtown revitalization. For more than 40 years, Feehan has provided leadership and management to successful downtown and business district organizations, founded and directed a technical assistance center for community development organizations and a public policy organization, and taught at two universities. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and meetings, and has provided consulting services to many government agencies, organizations and associations. He has served on numerous boards of directors, and has chaired the boards of the International Downtown Association and other organizations. As the chief executive of three downtown organizations, Feehan managed major real estate and infrastructure projects, successful business attraction and retention programs, and an award-winning parking system. As a consultant, Feehan has helped downtown and business district organizations as well as units of government develop visions and missions, strategic plans, innovative programs and transformational processes. As an author and professor, he co-edited and wrote the most recognized textbook on downtown management, “Making Business Districts Work,” and is a frequent writer for journals and trade publications.

Virginia Gehshan, FSEGD, is a principal at Cloud Gehshan, a design firm known for placebranding, wayfinding and storytelling. Her clients include cities and towns, universities, medical centers, public gardens and parks. Virginia graduated cum laude from Cornell University with a BS in Design & Environmental Analysis.

            Sheila D. Grant was the editorial director of the Downtown Idea Exchange and the Downtown Promotion Reporter, publications of the Downtown Development Center, for the past seven-plus years. Sheila has also served as a community development specialist with the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council, and has been writing about downtown revitalization issues as a freelancer for more than 20 years.

 Allison Harnden is the nighttime economy manager for the city of Pittsburgh, PA, overseeing and advising nightlife planning and managing strategies citywide and coordinating with the city’s departments, services, policies and resources needed to assure safe, vibrant and sustainable opportunities to socialize. She was formerly the vice president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute, and has conducted RHI forums in nighttime economy issues in numerous cities.

 Jessica Mathews is the outreach coordinator for Consider Biking, an organization that promotes all forms of bicycling by providing educational resources, as well as advocacy to improve safety and conditions for cyclists. Mathews has also presented on the topic of women bicyclists for TEDx Columbus. 

             Drew McLellan is the co-founder of the award-winning McLellan Marketing Group. Founded in 1995, MMG offers national expertise in creating, launching and invigorating brands, as well as client retention/growth, social selling/content strategies, and more.

 Karen Nelson has been a commercial real estate agent for 16 years. She regularly works as a consultant with the Washington, D.C. Office of Planning and Economic Development, advisory neighborhood committees and community development corporations. Nelson is a member of the District of Columbia Building and Industry Association, and a founding member of the Retail Committee, as well as being a member of the International Council of Shopping Centers and the Urban Land Institute.

Alicia Scholer is the associate director of the Responsible Hospitality Institute, and is recognized as an international expert in the nighttime economy. She has coordinated logistics and developed summary reports for more than 20 Hospitality Zone Assessments and seminar services throughout North America.

Vanessa K. Solesbee is president of The Solesbee Group, and the Parking Matters Committee co-chair at the International Parking Institute.

 Ken Stapleton is president of both Ken Stapleton & Associates and The SafedesignTM Institute. He is a nationally recognized expert in urban revitalization, economic development and urban safety programs.

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