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.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Yes, public and nonprofit investments in the city spur further reinvestment and change: is this a bad thing or a complicated thing?

New York City High Line ParkThe Washington Post has an opinion piece, "How ‘landscape urbanism’ is making gentrification look like fun," about how investments in the public space/public realm spur gentrification, using the High Line in New York City as a leading example.

 From the article:
The High Line and its imitators are examples of “landscape urbanism,” a growing design movement that places green space in collision with old infrastructure. As the abandoned railways, ports and bridges of the 20th century rust and grow over with grasses, a group of architects has dreamed up seductive new ways to use them. Landscape architect James Corner, a designer of the High Line, has said the park is “a lot like a gallery and a museum” where “the city is now the exhibit.”

It’s true that these spaces are like museums: What’s on display is a powerful, nostalgic vision of the urban wilderness, now tamed. In districts that were derelict just 20 years ago, millions visit to gawk at the attractions. “We made the crazy credible,” said Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that runs the path. “We’ve also proved that these things create value.”
While I do agree that there can be a problem with putting "too much" green into cities because cities are "built" places, I don't agree with the article's thesis that this is about "landscape urbanism" so much as it is about investing in infrastructure, parks, open space -- what is called "placemaking" and what I capture as urban design/placemaking as a keyword for blog entries.

Cafe Francesca, Broadway Market, which a fierce local campaign attempted to save from developers. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian.

Investments in the public realm do drive change.  Last year there was a piece in the Guardian about the rebuilding of a public pool in Hackney driving housing demand too ("London Fields Lido: did saving a pool mean losing a community?").  I wanted to get over there when I was in London last year--I even stayed in Hackney, but there was too much to see and so little time. From the article:
“In the beginning it was local people trying to make what was a beaten up area a bit more attractive,” says Veitch. “People who moved in here, like us, felt they ought to do more in the community. I would say that the people buying into this area do not seem to share the same sense of community. The youngsters buying or renting these flats are too busy trying to live, but also there is an air of entitlement amongst amongst some of the more affluent members of the next generation. Thatcher’s children if you like. They don’t get involved here. When we were growing up, it was a mantra that was part of our upbringing - if you’re in a community you join in and do what you can.”
(There is also the counter problem about how investments in recreation centers and other public facilities may draw negative consumers of these places, heightening problems. This is something I've witnessed in DC.)

Public investments are "priming events."  But this is no different than how building freeways or transit lines attracts new investment.  Certainly, driving down a freeway and seeing how retail and restaurants cluster at exits is a phenomenon we're all familiar with.

The problem is that any investment in making places nicer draws attention to them.

 Sometimes people argue for disinvestment to reduce competition for space.

 I dealt with that, and was shocked at first, c. 2003 in creating a commercial district revitalization program in the H Street NE DC neighborhood. Today the area has about $1B or more in new investment.

But some people in the neighborhood, knowing the commercial district sucked, didn't really want change because yes, they feared displacement if attention was to come to the neighborhood and demand increased.

Streetcar on H Street NE, Washington DCBut how could it not?  The neighborhood is a few blocks from Union Station, about one mile to the US Capitol and Downtown DC, served by rail, subway, and bus transit, is walkable, and is pretty convenient to New York Avenue and I-395 for travel north or south of DC.

Since that time the explosion of retail and cultural amenities in and around the area has only made it more attractive.

It definitely drove prices up--houses cost 6x or more compared to 2003. And some people were displaced.

Investment or Disinvestment?  But the response should be to invest in mechanisms and programs to reduce displacement, not to maintain urban disinvestment.

Rolf Goetze's out of print but seminal book, Building Neighborhood Confidence, makes the point that government investment isn't supposed to breed dependence, but is to spark confidence so that in areas in decline begin reinvesting and rebuilding on their own.

But in Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place  the authors argue that investments in historic preservation and other elements of the public realm are sops to the middle class.

While the book has been an incredible influence on me, they miss the point that cities do have to invest even in "the nice areas" to retain middle and upper class residents, because it is those households that are generating the property and sales tax revenues (in DC and some other places, the revenue streams also include income tax, but that is a source of revenue that most localities don't possess) necessary to pay for the cost of running the city, especially the high cost of serving low income households.

Manhattan is f***ing Manhattan.  But I think it's facile to say that the High Line drives gentrification per se.

Instagram image by nyclovesnyc.

It's Manhattan, the nation's leading residential real estate market. There is always going to be hyper demand for property and resultant price appreciation. 

Although yes, the High Line was a "priming event" and shifted redevelopment from other places and definitely accelerated it.

But the development of the High Line was simultaneous with a renewed interest in cities.

Cities like DC and New York have gained population in the last 15 years, after many decades of shrinkage.

Absolutely there is a need for equity planning.  Similarly, I've argued for many years about social and other infrastructure investments in low income communities as a way to help strengthen those communities and extend opportunity.

I have an outline for equity planning that I need to further develop (I pop into the comments links to programs and concepts I've come across since), but it's basically about investment in all the types of "infrastructure" that a community needs.

-- "An outline for integrated equity planning: concepts and programs," 2017

Photo from KJZZ-FM.

As a little example, I was struck by this article ("Arizona Sikhs give 550 trees for Phoenix neighborhoods," Associated Press; also see "Sikhs aim to plant million trees as 'gift to the planet'," Guardian) from last week describing a community project by the Sikhs in Phoenix, planting trees in a low income community. From the article:
The Arizona Sikh Community has donated 550 trees to low-income Phoenix neighborhoods. ... Planting of elm, Arizona ash and other drought resistant trees has already started in some downtown neighborhoods.

The gift worth about $68,000 is part of a worldwide observance of the birth anniversary of Sikh religion founder Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469. There were similar tree-planting campaigns in countries including Germany, Canada and Myanmar earlier this year.
I can say pretty emphatically that not investing in cities isn't a reasonable alternative.  We do have to make sure that such investments reach the areas that are too often ignored.

We need to have more considered discussions about what investments we should be making/Equity planning lens.  And there are reasonable questions about what to invest in, e.g., High Line (or the proposed Garden Bridge in London) versus public housing or other types of public facilities, especially in terms of equity.

Although there are plenty of visionary public place investments that increase access and improve community for everyone, including the Bentway park underneath freeway overpasses in Toronto ("The Bentway park opens under Toronto's Gardiner Expressway," Dezeen), the 606 Trail in Chicago -- although that investment has been made while trails in Chicago's South Side languish ("A Tale of Two Trails," South Side Weekly), recreation centers, schools, parks, community arts centers, etc.

Some cities are changing their capital investment and budget processes to require setting priorities in terms of equity and providing extranormal investment into low income/disinvested communities.

-- Equity Lens, City of Toronto
-- Equity and Empowerment Lens Multnomah County, Oregon
-- "Embracing an Equity Lens in the Organization and Community," Stanford Social Innovation Review
-- Equity Lens, Impact Assessments and Plans, Cornish Justice Solutions

But so many public investments aren't innovative

Something that I think about all the time to the point that it drives me crazy is the failure to be particularly creative and innovative in the public investments we do make.

In the last few years my writings around what I now call "Transformational Projects Action Planning" promote a framework for leveraging complementary improvements across what I am calling the civic assets networks.

Series on the Purple Line light rail program in Suburban Maryland or rethinking the building of a replacement hospital in Southeast DC illustrate the approach, as well as this particular piece about the DC local cultural ecosystem.

The US is no longer a filthy rich nation. Every dollar we spend needs to accomplish multiple objectives.

DC Office of Planning hires "equitable development expert."  DC Office of Planning announced in September hiring an "equitable development expert" as the new Deputy Director of Community Planning and Design.

But I am not particularly hopeful.  Anita Cozart worked at DC's Office of Planning (and I like her) before going to PolicyLink, an organization that focuses on equitable development -- but my joke after hearing the founder speak at a conference in 2005 reminded me of the Talking Heads lyric "you're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything" and that the best I could figure out was that she was in favor of "equitable sprawl."

Without an overarching approach and framework, without vision, without a commitment to truly investing in substantive ways in impoverished communities -- DC's general failure with improving the public school system is a great example of how you can spend billions of dollars to little effect ("School reform "should be" "easy" but it isn't because we ignore the obvious" and "Fawning coverage of DC school "reform" doesn't push better practice forward) -- I don't see much changing on this dimension as it relates to action and programs, let alone planning.

Also see "Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors," 2011.

This piece makes the point that elementary schools tend to be the anchors of neighborhoods and therefore the most significant civic asset at that scale.

But traditional planning processes don't acknowledge this and too often ignore schools, leaving it to the school system with the hope that they don't screw it up.

Social urbanism.  I still need to read more about it, but the best approach is probably what is called "social urbanism" and is best illustrated by how Medellin invested in impoverished communities by better connecting them through innovative mobility systems (gondolas, public escalators) and investments in civic assets like libraries, schools, and parks.

-- "Experiments in Social Urbanism"
-- "'Social urbanism' experiment breathes new life into Colombia's Medellin Toronto Globe & Mail
-- "Medellín's 'social urbanism' a model for city transformation," Mail & Guardian
-- "Medellín slum gets giant outdoor escalator," Telegraph
-- "Medellín, Colombia offers an unlikely model for urban renaissance," Toronto Star

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At 3:09 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

WRT the point that you still need to invest in middle and upper class areas to retain population, who pay the freight, I didn't discuss commercial property, although the same thing goes.

This piece from the Baltimore Business Journal discusses severe drops in property value in Downtown Baltimore, making the point that it reduces revenue to the city. That also the city is stinting on services to the area (which does have a pretty good BID).

It ascribes the property value drop to declines in order maintenance post the Freddie Gray riots.


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