The Big Urban Funk

I’m in a funk. Just being completely honest with you all. I suppose it’s less of a funk and more of a feeling of being stuck. Whatever you call this feeling of frustration that rises from the knowledge that every good urbanist idea, every direction we try to take our cities and our communities has some sort of seemingly inevitable underbelly that could not be further from where we started… yeah, that feeling.

Let’s review. I started The Urban Phoenix talking about the positives happening in our cities… vibrancy, coffee shops, farm to table eateries, cocktails… and hey I still write about these things and they are still important to our communities. But then I started filling in the gaps with conversations about infrastructure, city design, road diets, bike lanes, theories on movements and patterns in our cities. You know what happened? Well not much, because frankly, nobody other than a handful of Urbanists was reading it. And again, it’s not about numbers, it’s about content and connecting with an audience no matter how big or small.

When I transitioned the blog from the energy and excitement of discovering small cities and neighborhoods to more of a utility-based “how do we reach our urban goals” conversation, my original audience didn’t want to hear it… and they showed it by not reading. They wanted me to continue talking about the positives, the energy, the fun things happening in our cities. In the meantime, I had a new audience, partially fueled by my newfound connection with Strong Towns, who started republishing my work. This new audience ate up the new conceptual, social science take on our cities that I was moving toward, but I really lost a lot of the momentum I had built with my Upstate New York city tour audience that wanted nothing more than to see their city’s hottest restaurant. I continue to do my best to walk this line between two groups that I believe in, but want very different things… or perhaps it’s the same things and they just speak a different language.

I began writing extensively against several development models, the big one being the “entertainment district/destination” model for our cities, and found a countrywide heartbeat behind this issue. But what I quickly realized is that this struck with a chord with groups that favored isolationism and obstructionism, a sort of conservative cocktail of Mayberry Urbanism that simply wasn’t realistic. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe very much that we have to prioritize the people that live in our communities, but to simply lash out at any outside influence for the sheer sake of the “you’re not from here” perspective is unrealistic.

At the same time, I realized that, if left unchecked, the alternative to this group who wanted nothing other than Mom and Pop shops to populate their urban cores was the shiny, sleek super-developer and the local government officials who could not wait to create that game-changing legacy project on the taxpayers’ back.

Promises of jobs, vibrancy, destinations… fancy plans and renderings featuring a dynamic downtown coat the news feeds of our social media accounts. Let me tell you, if you want to make a community throw their money at you, simply tell them that a project will create hundreds of local jobs, then simply neglect to say that 90% of these are temporary construction jobs and in total, 5 full time jobs will really be produced. Nothing against construction jobs, they are vital to our community, but what we look to produce in our cities are projects that empower and employ a sustainable workforce for generations, not 18 months. Building buildings for the sake of jobs is not a sustainable practice. And yet we are so desperate for jobs as a culture that we literally will bend over backwards for anyone who claims they can create them, without thinking critically about what that actually means in the grand scheme.

Big money developers know this, and often exploit it. They have the power and the knowledge to tell a community that a manufactured mixed-use environment is exactly what thriving cities are creating today… but the reality is that much of the time, these high-end spaces are too big, too fast for most downtowns and struggle to hold any business other than chain retail. Furthermore, while mixed use development works best when connected to other mixed use development endeavors, the manufactured variety often exists on islands without thought of the importance of connectivity to the surrounding areas or neighborhoods. It’s like laying individual bricks without using mortar to hold it together.

So there’s that.

In an effort to sort of walk the line, I’ve tried to find middle ground between the staunch New Urbanist and the regular American that just wants to have a good time in our cities. Again, neither of these are bad, they simply exist. I have tried to introduce conservative communities to ideas like road diets by telling them that it will actually help local business growth and make their city more naturally attractive to a population looking for a “small town feel.” They reject it of course, because they continue to believe that more car traffic and parking means more growth.

On the other hand, I’ve tried to point out to Urbanists that the general population still struggles with a lot of the concepts that they believe they are being “forced” into by a younger, more “liberal” generation. I’ve tried to be a voice that reminds everyone that as much as we know the data, as much as we might think we are in the right as we look to change our communities, change is a very difficult thing and we need to guide our citizens instead of forcing our thought systems upon them. What I’ve found is that, while far from unified with regard to vision in their efforts, Urbanists, myself included, often take a “we know best” approach and are unwavering in light of even the most innocent suggestion of tempering the message. Indeed, I have found that the group the detests the “canned answer” has more canned answers than I think they would like to admit.

And the conversations surrounding new transit projects are even more difficult. Instead of talking about public transit as the key to upward mobility income equality and access to resources, we talk about transit as a tourist mover and a development motivator. In other words, healthy transit projects end up benefiting those with means more than those who actually rely on transit to move about their city. What we are often left with is something between a toy and a Disney Monorail.

Then there’s the gentrification debate, which honestly I’ve only vaguely dipped my toe into. Urbanists will claim that creating walkability, bike networks and public transit will decrease racial and socioeconomic segregation, opening up our cities to people from all walks of life. But the reality is, wherever we create these elements, we usually intensify the “white washing” of our cities because these are typically areas where gaudy financial investments are made, creating a whole new barrier of wealth and privilege. This, in turn, creates the debate surrounding “growth” and what that means in our cities… does growth mean financial investment? If so, does that increase upward mobility for all of our residents or is it siloed to benefit the upper middle class and the wealthy?

Sigh. So many good ideas, so many unhealthy, unstable and highly questionable conclusions. Don’t get me wrong, many cities in our country are doing a very good job of addressing all of the above. It’s a difficult balance for sure, and is not for the faint of heart.

So what is The Big Urban Funk? It’s that every good idea we have can be used to create something very toxic in our cities. It’s that critical thinking employed to squelch those projects that appeal to the masses, often stimulates such a ravenous storm of isolationist negativity that the original message is lost.

It’s the fact that we want growth but when the wrong kind presents itself, we don’t want it anymore. And of course, the “wrong kind” is completely subjective.

It’s the fact that most people see our city revitalizations in terms of how many new cocktail bars there are, not the unwaveringly-high poverty rate we still have.

It’s the desire to create a community where walls and barriers that keep us apart and segregated are torn down, only to realize that these are the areas where today’s homogenous young white populations dominate more than any other.

It is the frustration I honestly feel all of the time now… the feeling that we all have the best of intentions, but all have vastly different ideas of how this “city thing” should go. We all think we’re on the same side, fighting for the same things… but we could not be more apart, misaligned, confused, miss-informed and disconnected from the realities of what makes our cities great places to live for everyone. One thing’s for sure, we better get it right soon… trends, fads and movements tend to be a fickle thing, and fickle just loves conflict and instability.

I’ll continue to blend important Urbanistic concepts with the desire to see our cities as great places again. Obviously, we need both, and both in moderation. It may sound trite, but it doesn’t make it untrue… our cities need the energy of excited explorers who want nothing more than to enjoy the fruits of a fun and electric downtown just as much as we need the good designers and urban planners who create cities that work for all of us. The key, like everything else, is realizing that these all must exist in the often-coveted and seldom-achieved world of moderation. Only then will the movement become sustainable, the idea prolific and the effect generational. Let’s pull out of our funks and get it done right.