In May of 2017, I wrote a piece on the phases of urban revival, likening the growth in identity of our emerging city centers to the growth of a child from infancy to young adulthood. Let’s just say this didn’t get a tremendous amount of readership, but I do believe, nonetheless, that it has such pertinent application to the state of our Upstate New York cities today.
The part of this piece that keeps coming back to me is the Adolescent Phase, a time of change and choices in which we can clearly see so many of our cities are currently struggling. A quote from this piece about the Adolescent Phase is included below… I bet you anything you will read this and do a significant amount of metaphorical head-nodding.
“As cities celebrate their newfound vibrancy and abilities, outside forces begin to take notice and start to assert themselves. The major players that 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 condos, 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.”
How many people out there who were initially so hopeful about their city’s revival now find themselves in a battle for direction, both among themselves and large entities like local government, big money, development interests and more? How many of you remember how good it felt when it was enough for everyone to simply celebrate some tangible progress after decades of disappointment?
As I’ve said in the past, this is where it gets hard for the citizens of our cities. Priorities that were once so positive and innocent now threaten to squelch the fabric of your vision. Or maybe it’s a difference in the way people in your community see “growth.” Or perhaps it’s simply the natural next question, who does “growth” benefit? If we build a city around high-end apartments, expensive destinations and never-ending nightlife, are we addressing our cities deepest issues of poverty, upward mobility, affordable housing and livable-wage jobs? What if instead we build our cities with our poorest citizens in mind, will we still have the critical mass to welcome financial investment to strengthen our local economy? How about land usage? How about… well, a million other things that we are suddenly desperately trying to come to a consensus over?
Breathe. This isn’t the end of the world, or even the end of the urban revival movement as we know it. This kind of thing is very new to most of us. Just like teenagers, every decision that goes against our vision seems unfair and every change that shuffles the deck seems like the end of the world. With time, we will begin to realize that we are going to win some and lose some, and the key is to continue to advocate for long term solutions and sustainable outcomes. Not that being outspoken isn’t welcome, it’s simply the realization that just because the project we are passionate about goes the “wrong” way doesn’t mean it’s the end of your city. Like a young adult, there are going to be steps back and steps forward. It’s important to see the big picture of progress instead of thinking that the fate of our cities lies in one project.
And sometimes it does. Sometimes there is that one thing that can change everything, for good or bad. But these are rare, and never is any one project all “good or bad.” The important thing is that we continue to advocate, and when things don’t go our way, to move on and understand where else we can support the change we want to see. That is the key to moving our cities forward past the awkward phase of adolescence into the budding wisdom of young adulthood, and the key to our own sanity as well.
I’m not suggesting we roll over and let the political and financial forces at work strip our city revivals of their organic beginnings. Rather, this is a reminder to all of us that our urban health is about more than one battle. While it’s easy to experience a deep sense of frustration as we feel our community becoming entangled in political agendas and false realities, our cities need us to be strong, and know when to move on with the knowledge that the next focus of our attentions could be just as important as the fight we just lost. It is maintaining a spirited outlook without losing ourselves in our message. It is about taking this awkward, frustrating time and seeing the future as a tapestry of success and failure, not one or the other. Stay strong, you city lovers, you warriors of incremental growth, you lovers of your local coffee shop and your hometown bohemian beer… while we will win some and lose some, you will continue to shape our future.