MY Big Urban Mistake: Not Seeing The Bigger Picture

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In 2017 I wrote a blog article called The Big Urban Mistake: Building for Tourism vs. Livability.  It is a piece that has been read over 100,000 times and has received national and international attention.  I am tremendously proud of this piece, the crown jewel in my modest effort to spread the word of smart urban growth in our cities today and in the future.  If you haven’t read it, the article addressed the need to create cities that cater to the resident instead of the tourist, the person who is now choosing to live the urban life instead of the person who chooses to live in suburbia and visit the city for a good time.

Here’s the thing.  I was wrong.

OK, maybe not wrong, but not 100% right.  After all, as we urbanists ask others to open their minds to new and evolving notions of what our cities are becoming, we too must be willing to step back and acknowledge our own fallacies.

After “The Big Urban Mistake” went viral across the country, I received scores of emails from people and organizations who appreciated my message of incremental development, and small scale urban revival over big money corporate investment and so on.  At first I was thrilled to be the part of rallying cry to derail big business and exclusively financial interests in favor of small scale investments in our cities and communities.  I liked the idea that our cities could make conscious choices to maintain their own identity and revitalize our infrastructure for city residents, rich and poor.

But as time went on, I saw The Big Urban Mistake become an icon for staunch preservationists, NIMBYs, aggressive obstructionists, and generally exclusive groups and individuals that are looking to keep their communities exclusively “as is.”  I saw these groups using my content to fight any new development initiative by local officials, block all outside investments, and worse, create a sort of isolationist perspective that negates one of the core elements that make cities great… a welcoming environment for everyone  to enjoy.

I watched as groups fought potential development projects in their cities for years at a time, using aggressive tactics and smearing campaigns, rallying hatred and anger as they fought initiatives that honestly probably weren’t the worst things for their cities.

I never meant for The Big Urban Mistake to speak in favor of obstructionism or isolationism.  My intention was simply to warn of a revitalization path that prioritized tourism above all else, sending a message to residents, new and old, that their city isn’t really for them.  I never intended for the content to elicit an angry barrage of rebellious entrenchment against any and all developments that don’t fit a certain criteria.

But in many cases it did, and it continues.  That’s on me.  So with that in mind, let me do my best to walk it back a bit.

Cities need to invite and embrace tourism and a regional audience.  As once-dense centers sprawl even farther apart, we do need to find ways to welcome those on the outskirts into our urban midst without significantly damaging the fabric of our cityscapes.  This means making parking available, but not overly plentiful and destructive, and so on.

We need to focus, at least partially, on adult and family fun and nightlife as our society moves away from the classic retail model and toward a growing desire for unique “experience-based” entertainment.  When done right, these can be powerful engines of excitement, revenue and even growth for our cities.  They have the power to attract and hold residents as well as excite the wide-eyed visitors.

But neither of these should eclipse the importance of retaining and attracting city residents as a source of stability for our urban cores.  This includes meaningful additions that might seem pedestrian (pun intended) to the visitor who is just looking for a good time on the weekends, but are nonetheless essential for people looking for a livable urban environment with plenty of green space, walkable infrastructure, and a commitment to downtown living.

The reality of urbanism today is that progress isn’t simple, one dimensional or straightforward.  It’s very complex.  If you win 5 battles, you’ll probably lose 4.  While that seems like a defeatist attitude, think about the fact that the best Major League Baseball hitters fail 70 times out of 100.  A great NBA/WNBA player may still miss more than 50 percent of his or her shots.  If we think for a moment that we are going to win anywhere close to 100 percent of the battles to make our community a better place, we are kidding ourselves.  And the even trickier part, most of the time we aren’t in agreement about what a particular “win” might be!  The tug of wars we have over the future of our urban centers is far from linear… imagine instead it’s 4 or 5 groups, all trying to pull everyone else in a certain direction!

With this in mind, we have to be very conscious of where our energy and resources might be better spent in another area.  For example, while one piece of coveted downtown property might fetch significant attention from several opposing developers, groups and political interests, there are likely 50 other less iconic areas where a real difference could be made without a fight.  While it’s important to recognize the key areas where we can enact fundamental new urbanistic progress, it’s just as important to know when to move on to another area where the same effort could enact real change.

For example, Rochester’s Parcel 5 property in the heart of the city has been hotly debated, while dozens of other areas that have tremendous potential for meaningful development have been completely overlooked.  Sometimes, efforts to block a single initiative could be better served to engage several other areas and create a better city as a whole.

The moral of the story?  No one, or two, or three developments make or break a city.  No entertainment district, downtown hospital, farm-to-table restaurant, swanky bar, craft brewery, world class theater or major employer is going to change the face of your community.  Sure, it might tip some scales, but cities are complicated beasts with personalities and dynamics that rarely radiate from one source.  Instead, they thrive or sink from a consistent series of choices, decisions, and circumstances.  Just like any sport, success comes from an understanding that you’re not going to get every hit or make every shot.  Winning it all comes from understanding that the big picture means picking your spots, adapting to the surroundings.

So in the end, the truly Big Urban Mistake is the belief that the success or failure of our urban future is dependent on one development, or one parcel of land.  Our cities are many things, so our efforts need to take a Big Urban Picture perspective, based in an understanding that wins will come with losses, and enacting positive gains are often more important than blocking negative development.  Let’s keep it moving forward.