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.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

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.

Photo: Green Minneapolis.

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.

Sprague Library, Salt Lake City.

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.

Then 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. 

Flower chair, Street Furniture Australia.

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.

The EU funded a 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

-- "The 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

-- "Land use planning is upside down by not focusing on maintaining and strengthening neighborhoods"

Commercial district revitalization and management

-- "Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 1 | The first six"
--  "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"

-- Making over New Carrollton as a transit-centric urban center and Prince George's County's "New Downtown"

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"

Equity planning

-- "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

-- "Pontiac Michigan: a lagging African American city in one of the nation's wealthiest counties"

Social urbanism

-- "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 10:26 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

The current "density" and "affordable housing" push will make this much harder. Now in DC government owned DMPED dispositions are being pressured to maximize affordable rental housing and as a consequence minimize public space.

The other aspect is WeWork famously was buying the most expensive real estate. If you're going to co-work look good doing so. Enormous pressure on the lower end of the CRE market right now.

Also this:

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

In Urban Fortunes, they criticize historic preservation as investment in higher income areas, as a form of inequity. My counter was (1) you need to retain higher income residents if you want to pay for all the programs that you want to serve other, needier demographics; (2) it's a pretty cheap program because other than staff, the costs to comply are mostly borne by the property owners.

There is always a struggle in planning and economic development between the Central Business District and neighborhoods. It's one reason that I argue that a city master plan needs to have a section on urban economics, explaining how revenue is generated, the ROI per type of land use (e.g., big box versus mixed use, versus SFH detached, attached, multiunit, etc., and the cost of services.

I don't read the Strong Towns blog (I should) but that's its basic argument about ROI and cost of services.

At the same time, residents feel that the CBD gets all the benefits. SO IT'S OBVIOUS that there needs to be a complementary and simultaneous program investing in neighborhoods, to spread the benefits of the pie. (Main Street is a form of that but basically it's half-assed.)

That's what Minneapolis did with its Neighborhood Revitalization Program, where they did a big TIF and used it for investments in neighborhoods, with the process led by the neighborhoods (after starting they realized that neighborhoods didn't have the capacity to do it without help and so they developed a training and support infrastructure). (Calgary has a support infrastructure for its neighborhood groups that is ongoing, but not a money stream like that 40 year TIF bond in Minneapolis.)

Advocates aren't wired to work within all these kinds of constraints and tensions and contradictions. They argue for one thing. But the "professionals" tend to not be sophisticated enough to deal with them either, in planning or in laying out the narrative.

(This comes back to my point that planning engagements are always set up to fail because planners have to achieve both city-wide and neighborhood goals, while residents pretty much only care about neighborhood goals. And planners don't even explain that this dialectic exists.)

And getting back to those competitive advantages, most officials don't recognize the value of beauty, place, urban design, aesthetics, etc. And neither do citizens. At least not in a sophisticated way. It's why Joseph Riley was so signature.

A long time ago I came to the conclusion that better than cinder block construction or a parking lot wasn't enough, that we had to demand more.

If people want the AH, without stinting on the other elements, then they're going to have to be willing to accept more density etc. If they want the AH without the other elements, then they're diminishing place value from the outset.

Plus, the reality is that AH will require continuous subsidy therefore you need to retain existing and recruit more high income households.

The thing about the "City as an Entertainment Machine" is that not just the authors criticize it, it's the root of Joel Kotkin's veneration of the suburbs.

The city becomes a much more exclusive quarter, for the wealthiest. Unless it's a poorer city, or you got in when the property costs were much lower.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The Adams Morgan plaza is a perfect example of the city f*ing up, and "letting" developers diminish the value of the public realm. At the same time, the advocates won't accept tradeoffs between density, AH, and the public realm either.

Adams Morgan is #4. But I've written other stand alone pieces.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Thanks for the WSJ cite. I'd argue that you can do that too, more "democratically" by expanding functions of places like the Boston Athenaeum. Add some coworking spaces?

But basically I think coworking spaces should be seen of as a kind of critical infrastructure and planned for by cities/commercial district revitalization organizations.

Beer gardens and parks... some people think it's an abomination. The Philadelphia Horticultural Society is big on it. And it's led the city park system to do the same thing.

I'd like to do it at Sugar House Park, but Utah laws don't allow it at present. The Garden Center building which needs a renovation, activation, and expansion would be great to have a beer garden emanate from its rear. But not only is it in the park, it abuts a high school! But a beer garden would be open when the school is closed and the park abuts a commercial district with nightlife establishments as it is.

From 2014

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

SFGATE: Lyft to cut San Francisco headquarters by 250000 square feet.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Why I couldn’t have been more wrong about big city rents


That said, what is happening now isn’t just about people wanting to be in flashy capitals. In the UK, rents are on the rise in cities across the country from Brighton to Manchester and York. It is a nationwide trend in the US, as well.

On the demand side, one widespread phenomenon is that people decided they didn’t want to live so crammed together after the claustrophobia of lockdowns. Economists at the US Federal Reserve have noted that relatively fewer adults in the US are now living with roommates and more are living alone. The resulting rise in the number of households has contributed to the recent “huge increase” in housing demand, they say. ...

Meanwhile, supply has dropped. In many places, people are renting for longer than usual (perhaps because buying has become more expensive) which means fewer places coming on to the market at any given time. In the UK, landlord associations also say some people have sold up because of rising tax and regulation. Zoopla told me there are about 50 per cent fewer homes available for rent per lettings branch in London than there were between 2017 and 2021 and 30 per cent fewer in the rest of the country.

It’s possible that rents will soon hit the limit of what people can afford, given the wider cost of living crisis. Private renters spend an average 31 per cent of their household income on rent, compared with 27 per cent for social renters and 18 per cent for homeowners with mortgages. That means they have less flexibility to cope with rising energy costs. Alternatively, people might start sharing housing more with others again to cut their rent bills.

At 2:23 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Owner of old Kaufmann's store eyes up to 600 more apartments, $125 million investment in Downtown Pittsburgh.

At 10:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Open SmartNews to read 'Dublin’s dying nightclubs: ‘I’ve no idea how people in their 20s are navigating this city’' here: or you can directly access the content using this link here:

At 10:13 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The remote revolution could lead to offshoring Armageddon

At 2:09 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The Washington Post: Battle over return to office heats up as bosses lose patience.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Willamette Week: Three Hotels Approaching Foreclosure in the Heart of Portland Offer a Warning to City Leaders.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

More workers are back in offices. It’s still nothing like before.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


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