Your City Isn’t Special.

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I recently had a very interesting conversation with someone very intelligent who I respect very much regarding the direction his city should take going forward.  While we respectfully disagreed, he made a comment that got me thinking.  In reference to data I showed him from another city, he implied that his town had a unique set of negative circumstances that made the data from the other city somewhat irrelevant.

OK, here’s the part that’s gonna sound really awful, but please just stay with me because I will bring it back around to the good stuff.

Here goes.  This is gonna hurt.

YOUR CITY ISN’T SPECIAL OR UNIQUE.

There, I said it.  Whew, that wasn’t so bad, but now you’re probably wondering if I’ve lost my “pro-urban” mind.  Allow me to explain.

Of course, every city has special circumstances and obstacles (layout, culture, socioeconomic status, proximity to other urban areas, etc.) that need to be realized in order to maximize this more sustainable urban model.  Every city also has a special set of characteristics that give it a unique flavor, and these characteristics should be utilized and amplified.  But trust me, I’ve ventured to cities across the state and to some extent the nation and I can tell you, the same basic story exists.  Let me give this a try.

I’m gonna venture a guess and say that whatever urban area you’re near, your city used to have a lot more people in it, but sometime in the last 50 years a major employer or three left, went out of business, sent all your jobs overseas, downsized dramatically or simply became irrelevant.  As a result, about 40 percent of your population left, crime ran rampant, storefronts were empty for years and your downtown became a ghost town.

Thankfully, in the last 5-7 years, residents, particularly the younger generation, have been leading the way toward an urban revival in your downtown again.  High-end restaurants, unique bars and maybe a little retail have begun to sprinkle into those old formally abandoned buildings, and above those new businesses, are those lofts?  They sure are!  People are moving back downtown again too.

How am I doing?  Pretty good right?  Let’s talk about details.

Your local government is probably on board, talking about things you never heard of a few years ago… words like “walkability” and concepts like bike lanes and dare I say a new look at mass transit are all being thrown around.

The hottest thing in the summer isn’t the sun, it’s your weekend farmers’ market.  Farm-To-Table is a concept you love but are still trying to understand why it’s so damn expensive.  You probably have a wine walk on the first Friday of every month, or maybe a yearly (insert your city’s signature food) _________  competition between restaurants and food vendors.

Your city now has 25 new craft breweries.  OK maybe it’s more like 1-5 but it seems like 25.

You do have 25 coffee shops though.

You also have a fleet of food trucks.  And you have a festival that features the food trucks.  You call it a “rodeo.”

You have that one new restaurant or bar that has some crazy “new” idea, like everything they sell is made of waffles.  Best thing ever by the way.

You have one of those annoying bloggers who writes about the awesome stuff you have in your town.  Heh, those guys, who needs em? 😉

Now, I bet that you’re sitting there either nodding your head “yeah, you know he’s totally right,” or perhaps you’re so incensed that I, a champion for cities across our state, might imply that your city is somehow just like all the others.  Either way, here’s where I’m going with this.

Whether I’ve blogged about them or not, the truth is I’ve visited dozens of cities all over New York, big and small, and almost all of them are currently at some point on an upward line as younger generations are taking back their urban areas across the country.  Nearly every city in these United States thrived around one or a few massive employers during or slightly after the industrial revolution, and most likely those companies are either gone or are a shadow of their former self.  But now, a more diversified economy is starting to emerge in these downtowns, with food, nightlife, service and entertainment at the forefront.

Why is this happening?  Why are most cities across the nation taking the same steps toward change?  Because it’s working.  No matter how down and out your city is, the old model of wooing large-scale job creators, opening casinos or other “quick fix” solutions simply doesn’t apply anymore.  The strongest cities today are the ones that focus on growing a diversified economy based on small to mid-sized employers that have direct ties to the communities they serve.  To build this, local government, citizens and small businesses need to work together to create vibrant downtown communities where businesses want to grow and expand, and people of all walks of life and socioeconomic strata can live, work and play.

So here’s the kicker, as unique as your city may be, the same rules and metrics that lead to a prosperous city as opposed to a failing one apply pretty universally.  The (very very very abbreviated) model above applies to any and all urban areas, no matter how you slice it.

Of course your city is unique.  Of course it has it’s own energy, one that you love and contribute to every day.  But when you talk about how to solve the problems like joblessness, crime, declining population and perceptions that follow these issues, you’re talking about issues that are are present in EVERY urban area in our country.  And the solutions that have led to brighter days in cities as big as Seattle Washington and as small as Sandusky Ohio are pretty much the same as well.  The hurdles your city faces are, I’m sorry to be so blunt, pretty normal.  And the solutions?  Yeah, they’re not special or unique either.  The truth is, when you gather tens of thousands of people together in the same area, they typically do the same things, and respond to these things in the same way.  It’s a shame sociology was just that class you took to fulfill an elective. 😉

Forgive the snarky-ness… but it’s true.  So what does this mean?  What good does it do to admit to ourselves that our city has the same hurdles as cities across the nation?

It forces us to look around at other examples of highly-effective (and ineffective… it’s important to learn from mistakes!) downtown revival methods and use these as a model for our own revitalization tactics.  We have data on what works and what doesn’t like never before, so let’s collectively use this data to channel our efforts forward as we continue to raise our urban centers.

Is your urban culture unique to your city?  Absolutely.  But are the barriers to success, the hurdles to overcome and the solutions to these problems somehow unique in your town?  Probably not.  While the best urban revitalization models need to be customized for every city, the “dos and don’ts” that I talk about here in this blog remain pretty much the same.  Now is the time to start looking at some of the urban models like Minneapolis Minnesota, Portland Oregon, Salt Lake City Utah, Columbus Ohio and others to see what they are doing, and how we can bring elements of those revivals to our downtowns.  To admit we are not as unique as we think we are is the first step to an educated approach to a better tomorrow.