What is the competitive advantage for the post-covid city? Doubling down on place values
charlie shares with us an article by Edwin Heathcote, the architecture columnist for the Financial Times, "Can a city be redesigned for the new world of work?."
Since I got involved in urban revitalization I argued that DC had five competitive advantages:
1. historic architecture
2. an urban design dating from the walking and transit city eras of urban development, therefore supporting walkability, transit, and biking
3. historicity and identity (the nexus of people, historic architecture, and urban design)
4. a transit-centric mobility infrastructure that frees people from dependence on the automobile
5. the steady employment engine of the federal government
Heathcote captures the issues well. What is the role of the city when telecommuting/work from home supplants the place of office buildings and districts?
The answer is doubling down on the value of place in terms of the special amenities that tend to distinguish center cities from the suburbs--walkability, transit, neighborhoods, commercial districts, nightlife, museums and other cultural assets, great public spaces and parks, etc.
In some respects, it's merely an extension of points (without the sociological criticism) made in the paper, "The City as an Entertainment Machine" (later expanded into a book), which extends Growth Machine arguments in terms of the post-industrial city and the shifting of focus on knowledge industries, leisure activities, and place qualities.
I argue that a lot of urban policy was developed when cities where losing population and stabilization was the primary goal, staunching outmigration. Then we went through the period when cities were re-attracting population and growing, although covid has interrupted that growth. But too often, we haven't rearticulated our approach and program for the opportunities presented by a city that can grow.
So the kinds of strategies employed first by Hennepin County, Minnesota after recognizing that while the city overall was losing population, certain parts of the city--especially those with parks, rivers, and trails--remained successful, and they aimed to extend those successful qualities to areas that were lagging ("A County and Its Cities: the Impact of Hennepin Community Works," Journal of Urban Affairs 30:3, 2008.)
Over time, Minneapolis made complementary investments of its own, light rail was added to the program, and the city's decline was reversed. A signature initiative was the creation of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, which was funded by a TIF bond. It provided a revenue stream made available to neighborhoods for specific investments in community improvements.
The kinds of initiatives that helped cities revived need to be reassessed and further strengthened and extended and revised for today's circumstances
Along these lines, at the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote this piece, "From more space to socially distance to a systematic program for pedestrian districts (Park City (Utah) Main Street Car Free on Sundays)," making the
point that commercial district revitalization organizations should have
been thinking and addressing these issues before the pandemic forced
them to ("These Philly suburbs started closing their streets on weekends during the pandemic, and they might never stop," Philadelphia Inquirer).
-- "Extending the "Signature Streets" concept to "Signature Streets and Spaces"," 2020
-- "Why doesn't every big city in North America have its own Las Ramblas?," 2020
-- "Diversity Plaza, Queens, a pedestrian exclusive block," 2020
I have been intrigued by public spaces and interiors that are more flexible, inviting, and "fun."
For example, last year I did "a session" for a fourth grade
class on "interior" design in the classroom, how would the students reshape it, influenced by what they
did with their learning spaces online at home. The biggest issue for the students was lack of comfortable chairs.
A bunch of libraries in Greater Salt Lake and Summit County are adding different kinds of furniture and spaces (it's an interior equivalent of fun street furniture) and I used some of those photos in the presentation.
There is an article about how public schools are weak in customer service ("Survey: Majority of parents say schools’ customer service needs improvement," K-12 Dive). From the article:
In a K-12 setting, a customer service mindset means ensuring district staff provide a quality customer experience for people seeking assistance. Districts are adept at outbound communications but have struggled to manage inbound messages as communications channels expanded beyond phone calls and mail to include texts and emails that can be sent around the clock, the report said.
“Our nation’s public schools have a lot to lose and it is absolutely critical that districts improve customer service to increase family, student, and staff satisfaction,” said Krista Coleman, chief customer officer at K12 Insight, in a statement. “Every interaction is an opportunity to build trust with stakeholders.”
While this criticism can be extended to most services delivered by bureaucratic organizations, it's definitely the case that students in public schools are "customers" too, and thinking about and addressing their comfort likely will have a positive impact on educational outcomes.
Similarly, offices will need to be more inviting to get people to come into work. Some firms have been moving that way but many have not, and remain pretty rigid cube farms.
Co-working spaces offer ideas in creating more inviting spaces.
you have the hot desk phenomenon. I haven't worked in such a
situation, but you could make it like a cool coffee shop etc., rather
than just a "race to the bottom" to find a desk.
Offices will go through the struggle between homogenization and flexibility and fun. It's the
whole talent and knowledge versus regimentation thing.
So it's the "entertainment city" idea but extending it to many more elements, making work and other spaces "more fun," engaging and active. The placemaking argument.
-- "Planning for place/urban design/neighborhoods versus planning for transportation modes: new 17th Street NW bike lanes | Walkable community planning versus "pedestrian" planning," 2021
-- "The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example," 2012
A long time ago I heard a software guy talk about apps and "gamification." I'm not into it, but it's a kind of extension of that idea, but for space and place.Flickr photo by Chiara Coetzee.
The FT article mentions the Prudential Center in Boston, calling attention to how the first two floors of the building are set up to be open and connected and engaging--shopping and food..
The ground floor of the Unilever Building in HafenCity is set up similarly, with a restaurant-cafeteria open to the public, coffee shop, a convenience store featuring Unilever goods and "merch," and other public spaces.
Then again, there is a tension and balance for corporations between permeability and
security (e.g., the attack at the Discovery Building in Silver Spring, Maryland, "Police Kill Gunman Holding Hostages at Discovery Channel," New York Times)..
In short, cities are going to have to double down on urban design, placemaking, fun, and co-location.
This is going to require much more serious and ongoing public space management, which cities tend to lack the agility and funding for. So cities have been relying on nonprofit entities--business improvement districts, parks conservancies, etc., to provide this kind of service.
Although when business leads the process,
i.e. BIDs, it can be somewhat sterile, or at least way more top down with fewer opportunities for civic engagement.
Can cities step up and take a more direct, assertive, and agile role in this process? Is there a way for such commercial and neighborhood revitalization and management programs to be developed and implemented at a scale that doesn't reach that of the groups that typify downtowns and large parks?
I argue that there are plenty of models, such as how San Diego gives commercial districts the option of organizing as either Main Street groups or BIDs, but still getting an add on tax. San Francisco has similar kinds of options as Neighborhood Service Districts incorporating both residential and business properties, and even a Green Benefits District providing the option for greater investments in public spaces.Place Keeping initiative focused on providing higher quality public space management ("Place-Keeping: Open Space Management in Practice," "place-keeping – responsive, long- term open space management," Town and Country Planning).
Of course, there are many such publications in the US too, about public space management, business improvement districts, and parks management. A great book on parks is Learning from Bryant Park.
For example, one of the things I am lobbying for in Salt Lake is to create an evening shift for park maintenance.
There are six large city parks. Five are under the city-- Liberty, Pioneer, Fairmont, Jordan, and Sunnyside, and one, Sugar House, is owned by the city and county both, and run by an independent authority (I'm on the board).
These parks are active as much as 17
hours a day, but they don't have a maintenance shift on for the
afternoon and evening.
Montreal positioned its large, "regionally-serving" parks as the "Network of Large Parks," and I think that'd be a good positioning lever in Salt Lake, that the large active parks need more care and service. And it's in keeping with the new city parks master plan, which calls for parks to be more extensively programmed, at different times of day, and all seasons.
Transit. No solution for that yet. The transit network's breadth is built on serving central nodes, with high volumes, and then can be used on a low marginal cost basis to serve different time periods. Losing that set of nodes and volume of passengers through the decentralization of work disrupts the business model. Small volume measures like demand-based transit (basically taxi service) doesn't support centrality.
Neighborhood revitalization and management
need for a "national" neighborhood stabilization program comparable to
the Main Street program for commercial districts: Part I (Overall)"
-- "To be successful, local neighborhood stabilization programs need a packaged set of robust remedies: Part 2"
-- "Creating 'community safety partnership neighborhood management programs as a management and mitigation strategy for public nuisance programs: Part 3 (like homeless shelters)"
-- "A case in Gloucester, Massachusetts as an illustration of the need for systematic neighborhood monitoring and stabilization initiatives: Part 4 (the Curcuru Family)"
-- "Local neighborhood stabilization programs: Part 5 | Adding energy conservation programs, with the PUSH Buffalo Green Development Zone as a model"
Commercial district revitalization and management
-- "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district
revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 1 | The
-- "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 2 | A neighborhood identity and marketing toolkit (kit of parts)"
-- "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 3 | The overarching approach, destination development/branding and identity, layering and daypart planning"
-- "Basic planning building blocks for "community" revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 4 | Place evaluation tools"
Transformational Projects Action Planning
-- "Why can't the "Bilbao Effect" be reproduced? | Bilbao as an example of Transformational Projects Action Planning
-- "Downtown Edmonton cultural facilities development as an example of "Transformational Projects Action Planning""
-- "Setting the stage for the Purple Line light rail line to be an overwhelming success: Part 2 | proposed parallel improvements across the transit network"
-- "St. Louis: what would I recommend for a comprehensive revitalization program? | Part 1: Overview and Theoretical Foundations"
-- "St. Louis: what would I recommend for a comprehensive revitalization program? | Part 2: Implementation Approach and Levers"
-- "Better leveraging higher education institutions in cities and counties: Greensboro; Spokane; Mesa; Phoenix; Montgomery County, Maryland; Washington, DC," 2016
-- "Naturally occurring innovation districts | Technology districts and the tech sector," 2014
-- "City branding versus identity | Branding versus Urban Strategy "
-- "(DC) Neighborhoods and commercial districts as brands," 2012
- - "PL #7: Using the Purple Line to rebrand Montgomery and Prince George's Counties as Design Forward," 2017
-- "World Usability Day, Thursday November 9th and urban planning," 2017
-- "Branding's Not all you need for transit"
-- "What would be a "Transformational Projects Action Plan" for DC's cultural ecosystem"
-- "The SEMAEST Vital Quartier program remains the best model for helping independent retail ," 2018
-- "Revisiting stories: cultural planning and the need for arts-based community development corporations as real estate operators," 2018
-- "BTMFBA: the best way to ward off artist or retail displacement is to buy the building," 2016
-- "BMFBTA revisited: nonprofits and facilities planning and acquisition," 2016
-- "Update: Neighborhood libraries as nodes in a neighborhood and city-wide network of cultural assets
-- "The Howard and Lincoln Theatres: run them like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust/Playhouse Square Cleveland model"
-- "Night time as a daypart and a design product"
-- "The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example"
-- "Social urbanism and equity planning as a way to address crime, violence, and persistent poverty"
-- "An outline for integrated equity planning: concepts and programs
-- "Equity planning: an update"
-- "Yes, public and nonprofit investments in the city spur further reinvestment and change: is this a bad thing or a complicated thing?"
-- "Social urbanism and Baltimore"
-- "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