The Phases of Urban Revival

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Rochester, New York’s downtown growth is substantial, but questions of direction are beginning to make their way into the fabric of the revival movement

Often I’ve spoken of urban revival in terms of gardening, as we “grow” our cities to become beautiful, fertile environments that promote a strong business, residential and entertainment atmosphere.  Today, I think I’d like to take a different approach.

As we now know well, virtually every city in these United States is going through an urban revival, rising upward as businesses and residents begin to inhabit long vacant downtowns after years of absence.  While each city has elements that make it unique, this urban growth seems to occur in rather predictable stages as each city, like a child, fumbles its way through often difficult but highly distinctive periods in order to reach a healthy, mature “adulthood.”  Know that my efforts here are not to categorize your city as “child-like,” rather it is the acceptance that the growth most of our cities are experiencing is very new.  This “rebirth” of urban centers is still a novel concept to most of America, and the first steps toward rebuilding our long-neglected downtowns can usher the excitement of “first steps,” as well as awkward “urban adolescent” moments where questions of identity and future can lead to frustration and conflict.  Like people, the growth of our cities happens in stages and understanding where your city is in this model is essential to knowing the next steps in your urban redevelopment.

The Toddler Phase

Early in the life of any urban rebirth, businesses and individuals will take risks and test the boundaries of urban development.  A new coffee shop or farm-to-table restaurant will open in an area that has been in decline for years.  Artists open up shop in neighborhoods with affordable character, where the bohemian appeal of exposed brick walls meets the lower-risk security of approachable rent.  Like a toddler standing, falling, getting up again, bumbling along, this can seem initially like a directionless endeavor.  Eventually, we realize this could not be farther from the truth, as the rest our cities are watching and learning from these early first steps.

It is a time of discovery and of careful attention that requires a high level of risk by new city businesses as well as support from communities.  Like a small child, boundaries are always tested, and it takes strong support system to ensure that the first steps taken are encouraged and rewarded.  The small business and artist beginnings must form a symbiotic relationship with the community… the city will not grow or develop without it.

The Kindergarten Phase

At around age five or six, children begin the journey of refining their understanding of the world.  They start to play and work with others, begin formalized developmental institutions like school, music lessons and after school sports.  They develop unique personalities that showcase the first real signs of who they might become, and the world around them begins to take notice.  Parents work hard to guide and shape this bulging, sometimes sideways new energy.  Still, kids at this age are for the most part the center of their own world, hyper-focused inward on what they want and need.

For cities, this period is characterized by continued growth, with the beginnings of cooperation between businesses, new local movements and formalized design.  City government and local organizations begin to get involved in the hope of continuing, guiding and amplifying the progress made thus far, just like a parent or teacher.  While the farmers market/shop local/farm to table/coffee shop/craft cocktail/new artist movements will blend with other local business ventures and continue to grow, this growth is slightly more formalized, with a little better understanding of what everyone is trying to do.  Businesses begin working together, people begin to move downtown in an effort to be a part of this new and exciting world, and local government takes the first steps to build a plan to enhance the momentum.

The Tween Phase

“Tween” is a word to describe that awkward phase in kids ages 9-12 or so.  Not quite a little child, but not quite a teenager.  This is a stage where youngsters begin to establish their independence and start forming a more permanent personality.  In fact, they may realize their independence so ferociously that they begin to revel in it, believing they are grown-up, reminding their parents all the while.  In this period, it’s vital for parents to encourage their child’s strengths and accomplishments while reminding them that they aren’t done growing just yet.  This being said, parents, teachers and family continue to give the child the tools and trust they need and deserve, while still keeping a mindful eye and sending a message to focus on long-term goals instead of short term infatuations.  No small task, right parents?

For cities, I also call the Tween Phase “The Champagne Phase.”  This is a time when an urban revival is in full swing, with strength and recognition based on a growing city center with healthy food, drink and nightlife.  Residents pop the proverbial cork on the bottle of urban bubbly, touting the successful victory over decades of downtown blight and dormant streets.  City government and organizations, like parents, try to find the delicate balance of guiding the newfound energy and momentum while letting the movement grow on it’s own with little restriction.  If done right, city government provides a loose but helpful framework for a strong downtown based on experience and research.  If done wrong, it can either choke growth by ignoring the movement’s need for independence, or it can be so absent and ineffective that the aforementioned framework crumbles, leaving a random mess of directionless urban energy.

Utica, New York is beginning to transcend the Tween Phase and transition into the Adolescent Phase, an always difficult time for a city of any size

For parents, children and cities, this is the calm before the storm.  Most people don’t realize at this point that the elated feeling of their development victory is about to be overshadowed by an even bigger and more important hurdle.

The Adolescent Phase

Yeah, you saw this one coming.  Because everyone knows what this time means in terms of the growth from child to young-adulthood, I’m not even going to reference the components and go straight to their urban metaphors.  You’ll make the connection.

As cities celebrate their newfound vibrance and abilities, outside forces begin to take notice and start to assert themselves.  The major players that used began the revival movement now compete with countless new sources of financial, developmental and directional influences.  Developers and investors from inside and outside the community begin to see opportunities… some with mutual interests, and other simply for their own.  Distinguishing these two can be very very difficult.  Just like a teenager starts choosing friends over family, cities start identifying with investment capital and large scale development projects, believing it’s in their best interest.  And perhaps to some extent, it may be.  But like “the bad kids,” mixing with the wrong group at this juncture might take those A grades down to D’s… which in city terms means taking a strong local momentum and selling it out to people you thought had your best interest in mind.

Aside from, and perhaps driven by, outside influences, the pro-local movement may begin to question it’s own identity and direction.  A once unified front of local growth and enthusiasm may suddenly be divided on where to go based on a sudden abundance of new choices of direction and development.  The once simple choice of supporting the new coffee shop in a transitioning neighborhood suddenly turns into whether to invest tens of millions in new transit, or build a park versus building condo’s, or whether to knock down those old buildings in favor of new structures driven by outside investment… and more and more.  All of a sudden, there is an overwhelming abundance of possible directions that, while potentially positive, have the potential to tear a once unwavering movement apart.

For cities, this is where it gets really hard.  This is where things can either go very right or very wrong.  Like anything, the best answer for cities is to try to find balance in this time.  Outside investment and massive development projects can be positive additions to an already strong local momentum.  It takes a smart city government and an ability to look outside a city for positive (and negative) examples of how to proceed.  A city cannot ignore outside influence… isolationism is a terrible habit for any city to adopt.  Rather, like a teenager trying to navigate a suddenly complicated new set of influences with little experience, city government, organizations and residents need to listen to each other, working together to find an acceptable balance between the new residents and businesses that began the resurgence, and the new “friends” of the urban movement (i.e. developers and investors).  I realize that was quite the run-on sentence, but it’s a brief window into how complicated, fragile and polarizing this process can be.

Buffalo, New York is experiencing as much or more development in their downtown as any city in Upstate New York.  But questions of direction and the balance of resources continue to persist

For a teen and for a city, the new outside influences as well as the sudden questions of direction and identity can lead down the path to a mature young adulthood, or it can rewrite the positive growth and send the aforementioned progress spinning into an unsustainable, meaningless existence.

Perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic, but like parents have seen teens take both directions, urban planners know both results are always possible when the right steps aren’t taken to ensure balance.

The Young Adulthood Phase

For the sake of this piece, this will be the last phase I write about.  Why?  Because urban revival is relatively new and frankly we are not quite sure how the rest of the process will go.  Very few cities are at a point beyond urban adolescence.  But the goal as a city reaches young adulthood is to feature an urban center that can navigate on it’s own with little structure or guidance.  While still young, a city begins to solidify it’s identity and confidently embarks on a strong and lasting future.  Gains are still made every day, and the learning never stops, but this process becomes more about adjustments and adaptations rather than about new concepts and constructs.  Long term health and socioeconomic stability is key, as is finding a balance between the needs of all residents, not just the ones on top.

This is the goal, though not always the outcome.  Like everyone comes with developmental baggage, so do cities come with difficulties that spawned long ago.  The answer for both is to try to maximize potential and minimize the effects of the negative aspects from the past.

Obviously, this comparison between the development of a person and the growth of a city is rough, broad and incomplete.  It does, however, give a sort of “arms length” measure of the phases of urban redevelopment in the hopes of recognizing the next steps, as well as identifying the key components of these steps before they occur.  Every city is unique, but like any parent will tell you, the stages of growth have remarkable similarities that cannot and should not be ignored.  No matter where your city (or child) is on the developmental map, the key is finding balance and a well rounded approach toward a mature, lasting and sustainable urban adulthood.