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A New Urban Vision 

12-09-2015 17:35

Preservationists have long worked to revitalize historic cities, towns, and neighborhoods. While disinvestment continues to sap central cities and wasteful urban sprawl still grows, we also have seen shining successes in preservation-based initiatives in a number of central cities. Now the challenge for preservationists and our partners is to expand upon these successes and to create a new urban vision to guide us into the future.

On June 9th and 10th in St. Paul, Minn., a small group of urban preservation leaders and experts in related disciplines gathered to address just this challenge. We shared examples of what is working and what is not working in revitalizing central cities, identified relevant trends, and began to craft a vision for cities in the future.

Sponsored by the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation of St. Paul and the National Trust, the Urban Symposium brought together, among others, nonprofit preservationists Arthur Ziegler and Howard Slaughter of Pittsburgh, preservation developers Dana Crawford of Denver and Art DeMuro of Portland, Ore., city council member Mai Bell Hurley of Chattanooga, Tenn., neighborhood coalition director Larry Schmidt of New Orleans, foundation leader Michael O`Keefe of St. Paul, Christine Burdick, who chairs the International Downtown Association, and Robert Engstrom of the Urban Land Institute. Weiming Lu and Bob Hess, president and chair respectively of the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, hosted the meeting, while George Latimer, a former mayor of St. Paul, served as facilitator. The syndicated columnist Neal R. Peirce, as well as experts on technology and economics, also participated. Representing the National Trust were President Richard Moe, Programs Vice President Peter Brink, and Main Street Director Kennedy Smith.

Neal Peirce opened the workshop by reading his list of ingredients for urban success--"the nice, the necessary, and the obnoxious." Urban empowerment zones and large-scale inner-city retailing, for example, are nice. Competition in public services and schools, new policing techniques, widespread availability of information technology, multi-purpose inner-city agencies, long-term funding, and historic preservation tax credits are necessary. Public subsidies to attract businesses from one city to another are obnoxious.

Richard Moe elaborated on the crucial nexus between healthy cities and countryside preservation. Strategies to curtail disinvestment from cities to sprawl development must include both revitalizing existing communities and state-level land-use management, such as the Smart Growth initiative in Maryland. A key to this strategy is reinventing downtowns along the lines of the successes represented at the workshop: Lowertown in St. Paul, Lower Downtown in Denver, downtown Portland, Ore., and Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

Arthur Ziegler warned that some apparent successes may be deceptive. Cleveland, for instance, has made great progress in building mega attractions, improving its image and boosting tourism. Yet public school graduates there continue to lack basic skills, businesses are considering importing employees from elsewhere, and areas of tremendous poverty remain. Similarly, Pittsburgh is considering investing $1 billion in a new stadium, while education and neighborhood renewal receive less attention. Mega projects, subsidized retail, and new expressways are not the answer, he noted.

Dana Crawford concluded that the key to revitalization is creating an environment that encourages individual initiative, promoting small-scale entrepreneurship rather than mega projects. Historic preservation is particularly valuable in this area, she noted. In Denver the resale prices of lofts in old warehouses have doubled; indeed, developers now are building new "old lofts."

Participants also recognized that, clearly, large numbers of people like living in suburbs, regardless of the costly subsidies that underlie the things they like. Thus, research and education are required so that, informed of the true costs of development, people can choose to spend public dollars more wisely. Preservationists should be part of this effort.

A further obstacle to urban revitalization is the bureaucracy that dominates many urban public school systems and other agencies. We need to support competition and such innovative approaches as charter schools and voucher systems to attract people to cities. The vested interests of bureaucrats, school architects, engineers, and contractors have led to guidelines that ensure the demolition of valuable school buildings in order to spur new construction.

Meeting participants identified a number of relevant trends that suggest both opportunities and obstacles, the following among them.

  • The income gap between the well-to-do and the poor is growing. For cities to thrive, we need to reduce the gap and encourage mixed-income neighborhoods.

  • Housing is becoming more affordable and home ownership among African-Americans is increasing. In some cities the median house price is lower now than in 1979, when adjusted for inflation. The danger is that financing may become more difficult, especially given threats to the Community Reinvestment Act.

  • Demographic trends suggest new markets. Next year one American will turn 50 every seven seconds. Will this group return to the city? People now under 20 will also form an important buying segment.

  • We live in an era of extremes. For much of the past, marketing focused on the mainstream. Now the market is increasingly segmented, and the technological ability to reach each segment has arrived.

  • Technological changes alter communication patterns, increasing "molecularization." Governments will deal with each neighborhood and individual, not general groups. Schools will tailor education to each student. Even small businesses, regardless of location, can access detailed information. In retail, customers will be able to select products in their homes and receive delivery the next day, an alternative to existing Wal-Mart-style shopping centers.

Participants identified a need to address the range of factors that will influence people`s decisions to live and work inside or outside the city once they are freed of the usual current locational factors. Some factors fall within the preservation domain, but most involve issues, such as crime and education, where preservationists need to join with others to be part of the solution.

Weiming Lu then challenged participants to think boldly and creatively about the future. The identified trends, he said, underline the fact that we live in a global age characterized by rapid technological advances and demographic changes. Preservationists and other urban leaders need to understand changing ideas about community, technology, life styles, arts and culture, economic development, and infrastructure. If we are to strive for renewed cities, he stressed, we must have a vision and then create the strategies to realize it.

Participants discussed a draft statement prepared by Weiming Lu that sets forth a new urban vision. It identifies several important components of successful urban areas in the future, including diversity within neighborhoods, a vital electronic "cyber city" accompanying the physical city, a vibrant arts community, sustainable neighborhoods, distinctiveness of place, and accessibility.

Other ingredients essential to success, the statement stresses, include job creation, the availability of soft (start-up) financing for planning and feasibility studies, and a strong urban identity created through preservation and good contemporary design. Finally, the statement sets forth implementation strategies.

Participants recognized the importance of developing a powerful vision based on shared experience to guide and inspire future efforts. Some recollected Mayor Federico Peña`s "Imagine a Great City" speech, which charted a successful course for Denver.

Participants also recognized that among the vital ingredients in success is a strategy preservationists are good at: using relatively few dollars close to the market to produce successes and develop solutions out of one`s own city. A helpful aid to this approach is visiting with fellow urban leaders and developers to learn of their successes, then deciding if their strategies would fit one`s own community.

The National Trust, the International Downtown Association, and the Urban Land Institute will continue to discuss the vision and implementation statement. They also are exploring ways to broaden the network for sharing experiences relevant to success in revitalizing and sustaining cities for the future.

Publication Date: September/October 1997

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Author(s):Peter Brink