You’ve popped the cork. The champagne has been poured into the glasses of all the citizens as you collectively celebrate the emergence of your city from the ashes. With every new coffee shop, restaurant and retail space, you marvel at the newfound vibrancy of your home that you were afraid to call home for so long. It’s a battle cry, and it becomes a part of you, as you walk the streets again, enjoying the fruits of your grassroots pro-local movement.
All this is necessary and good. Momentum is launched with positivity as it’s steady rocket, boosting your city to new heights. But often, when cities stop and marvel at the steps they’ve taken to rise again, they forget that this is just the first (and often easiest) step on a long and often difficult road. I call this initial phase of urban rebirth the “graduation phase.” When you graduate from college, you might have a grad party where family and friends celebrate your efforts. But the truth is, beyond the short-lived jubilation lies the world-famous realities of finding a job, building a strong psychological, physiological and financial foundation, and all the necessary ups and downs that make people, like cities, who we are.
Literally, every city in the United States is experiencing an urban rebirth as more and more young people continue to make the move back to our denser city centers. Downtown revival is no longer a novel idea, it is now the standard that can guide your community’s success or spell doom for your city’s future if not appreciated and realized. If the momentum pauses so that we may revel in our newest urban creation, we have already lost.
Cities must keep taking it to the next level without hesitation. This doesn’t mean careful planning isn’t important, indeed it is more vital than ever. But city centers need to have several projects in line at a time, boldly creating an environment where people want to live and spend time. Examples abound in Minneapolis, Portland, Houston and Denver, and are beginning to see realities in places like nearby Buffalo and Syracuse. These are places where the envelope is continually pushed to create an urban environment that is both well conceived and fundamentally attractive to a wide range of people.
The worst possible mistake that a city and it’s citizens can fall into is the belief that this graduation phase is the end of the struggle. As I’ve stated in the past, the truly difficult decisions, the issues that call for the greatest social engagement, are the decisions of direction, of infrastructure, of outside investment, and differences in opinion. Everyone loves a good restaurant or two, but do we build a downtown casino or a multi-use greenspace? Do we work on better transit? Bike lanes, improved bus routes or maybe even light rail? Which buildings do we keep and which do we tear down to make room for a more modern office building with all the amenities? Do we upgrade our sports complex or upgrade our library that’s old and in need of an overhaul?
I like to think of the early, “fun” stages of rebirth as the booster rockets on the old space shuttles… they’re necessary to get the things that really matter off the ground and into the atmosphere. After they do their job, it’s all about making sure you blend that momentum with careful, strategic planning and experience to complete the mission.
As our cities rise, remember that the restaurants, bars and entertainment venues are wonderful and necessary, but the decisions that make up the fabric of the future for your urban area depend on civic engagement and knowing the issues. Use the energy from your city’s vibrant new nightlife as inspiration to motivate you forward, toward participation in the conversation of a growing, thriving downtown.