Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Long Island, New York and suburban revitalization more generally

Levittown House, 1948Levittownhouse, 1948.  Long Island, New York, comprised of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, benefitted from outmigration from New York City to the suburbs and is the location of the first major postwar subdivision community, Levittown.

The title of the blog is "Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space," and while I write a fair amount about metropolitan areas, I focus on center cities.  That being said I write from time to time about rural issues--how sprawl affects land use etc., and list a bunch of "rural" resources in the right sidebar, because the field of community development has in large part derived from the profession of rural development and agricultural extension--improving farm yields and communities.

Similarly, suburbs and suburban counties are complex places with interesting issues of their own, with a complex relationship to cities, the core of a region, race, and land use.

The First Suburbs Consortium in suburban Cleveland is an interesting organization, focused on revitalization of inner ring suburbs.

Cities like Philadelphia are actually "city-counties" and counties like Arlington County, Virginia are more like a city.  The land use intensification initiatives in the metropolitan area in Montgomery County (the Growth plan, transit orientation, redevelopment of White Flint) and Fairfax County (Silver Line transit, redevelopment of Tysons into a walkable community, the Mosaic development at Merrifield) are illustrations too that revitalization and land use issues of all sorts are important to pay attention to and consider.

Really then, what this blog is about is community revitalization of all types, and while I will continue to focus on center city revitalization, I do need to separate out suburban revitalization resources as a separate category on the right sidebar.

Rebooting the Suburban American Dream

What spurs this entry is that I got an email from the Long Island organization Build a Better Burb," and I had already been meaning to write about Long Island, the suburbs abutting the New York City borough of Queens, because of the recent announcement that the New York Islanders hockey team will be moving to the new Barclays Arena in Brooklyn, and how this is a kind of indicator of suburban decline--the hockey team wants a new arena and the budget-beleagured Nassau County Government couldn't provide it (see the AP story "Long Island voters reject $400M plan for arena").
Build a Better Burb website screenshot
Long Island, the location of the first large post-war subdivision community, Levittown, built by William Levitt, is probably a good place for reassessment to start.

The Build a Better Burb initiative is a recognition that the Suburban American Dream needs to be rebooted for the 21st Century, that an aging population, if not replaced, means continued decline, and that younger demographics are looking for different kinds of housing and living experiences, and to be competitive for those potential residents the right kinds of places need to be provided (this is at the heart of the creation of places like Bethesda Row in Bethesda or the Mosaic District in Fairfax County) to capture those residents who want an "urban" experience without necessarily having to live in the center city.

And it is a response to the fact that New York City, Manhattan of course but Brooklyn and Queens as well, is on the rise and more successfully capturing residents than is Long Island.  

Note also that the "suburban retrofitting" initiative of New Urbanism is focused on this problem as well.

-- Review of the book Retrofitting Suburbia, Urbanophile blog
-- "The New Look of the American Suburb," Urbanophile blog
-- Revitalizing Distressed Older Suburbs, What Works Collaborative
-- The Next Frontier: Retrofitting Suburban Commercial Strips, Local Government Commission
-- "The Quest to Confront Suburban Decline: Political Realities and Lessons," Thomas J. Vicino, Urban Affairs Review, 43:4 (2008)
-- Reinventing Suburban Business Districts, Urban Land Institute
-- Reinventing America's Suburban Strips, Urban Land Institute
-- (and I have written plenty about these issues, in particular about White Flint and Tysons, such as "Short term vs. long term thinking: transit, the Washington Examiner, Fairfax/Loudoun Counties vs. DC")

From email:

The Long Island Index, a project of the Long Island-based Rauch Foundation established in 1961, created the Build a Better Burb site to create awareness of the Long Island community. In November 2002, Nancy Rauch Douzinas, president of the Rauch Foundation, brought together a small group of Long Island’s civic, academic, labor, and business leaders for a conversation about Long Island’s challenges and ways to create change and move the region in a new direction. Realizing the need for a regional understanding of our issues, an Advisory Committee was formed to create a project that would help educate all Long Islanders about these issues facing our continued growth. 
The Committee identified goals for the Long Island region, including:

  • A growing economy that nurtures innovation
  • Vibrant communities and downtowns, offering affordable places to live
  • An improved regional transportation network
  • Quality affordable health care for all Long Islanders
  • Educational readiness for all students at every age
  • Improved air and water quality, open space preservation, and natural resource conservation
  • Fiscally responsible government that provides quality services
The character of a community is built upon all those assets that make a place the place that we love. Our main streets are where the best of Long Island comes together in one place: parks and village greens, unique shops, irreplaceable historic buildings, theaters, cultural life. Many of our downtowns are right by the waterfront, too.
Levittown Photographs from the Tekula Family.jpg
Levittown Photograph from the Tekula Family.

When building a community, people tend to think of homes, parks, businesses and schools as that community’s core. What makes a community is the people – the citizens of a town or village that we wave to on the way to the store, nod our heads to when watering our lawns or give a friendly smile when leaving the supermarket. 
Downtown is where we run into people we know, and where we feel connected to people and places. There’s a reason why we hold parades on our main streets: our downtowns are the heart and soul of Long Island’s civic life and communities. And now we have one more thing to cherish about our downtowns: their potential to help solve some of Long Island’s biggest challenges.

A community not only lives together it struggles together as well. It is those people within the community that encounter the daily issues which impact the lives of everyone. From property tax to economic down turns, everyone within the community feels the heartache of disparity.

The economy has taken its toll and as a result the loss of jobs and increase in unemployment rates has impacted us all. With a dramatic decrease in high paying jobs, it’s no surprise that Long Island salaries dropped almost $1,300 in the past 10 years. With fewer options in higher paying jobs, young people making average salaries can’t afford 97% of the homes here. Far more housing options are available for young adults in suburban New Jersey and Connecticut, and in suburbs north of New York City, than on Long Island. Just 3 in 100 homes are affordable to an average young adult on Long Island.

The US census has documented that Long Island’s population of 25-34 year olds has dropped 15% in recent years. Almost 75% of Long Islanders are worried about young people leaving the region because of high housing costs and that is slowly becoming a reality.

Build a Better Burb seeks to inspire Long Islanders to work together in new ways. From stewardship of the natural environment and allocation of water resources to land use decision-making and transportation planning, many issues critical to our future are most effectively addressed when people and institutions collaborate across boundaries.

A better future begins with good information. Build a Better Burb understands that the heart of community is the people who are a part of it. We here at Build a Better Burb would like to bring awareness to the Long Island community of the issues our future communities face and how Long Islanders plan to combat them. 
Build a Better Burb welcomes you into the Long Island community to share in the moments that make being a Long Islander special. We ask that you bring awareness of the issues that Long Island faces to your community and revitalize Long Island as the home for our future generations. 
The trick of course will be to move from information to action and that is very hard, not to mention the difficulty of getting people to rethink what they believe the suburbs are about.  We see that locally in terms of the debate in Montgomery County over what does it mean to be "suburban" in the 21st Century, in the context of an urbanizing region, escalating property values, and the legitimacy of transit and walkability rather than a focus, preference, and privileging of the automobile as the dominant transportation mode.

But the "Build a Better Burb" initiative can also be thought of as a branding and positioning method, but also a campaign, to begin the process of getting people to grapple with change, accept that conditions are changing, and rather than lament, respond to change and remain community relevance in the context of the metropolitan residential and commercial landscape.

What I continue to find frustrating about the suburban revitalization initiatives is not that they are looking to revitalize but how center city elected officials are so slow to recognize "the recognition" and the necessity of responding appropriately in order to maintain the ability of the center city to be successful and competitive in turn.

After all, the revitalization initiatives they promote--Main Street revitalization, transit, transit oriented development--are all "natural" urban design products already present within the center city.
Levittown, 1947
New residents move into their Levitt homes in Levittown, N.Y., in this file photo from October 1947. This prototypical suburban community, known for mass-produced housing that went up for soldiers coming home from World War II, is again trying to standardize a way of life for its residents. This time, they want everybody to go green. Local private businesses like oil companies and light bulb manufacturers are teaming up with nonprofits and the government to canvas all 17,000 homes in the community, trying to encourage residents to reduce its carbon footprint.    (AP Photo/Levittown Public Library, File)

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