5 Years, 5 Lessons Learned

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Recently, The Urban Phoenix celebrated five years of sharing conversations about urban revitalization in our Upstate New York cities and beyond. Here are five things I’ve learned in the last five years.

1) Housing And Racial Inequality Are The Most Difficult Hurdles Our Cities Face

In many ways these two are intertwined. Where and how people live has as much to do with segregation or integration as anything. Government housing policies of the early 20th century, in concert with blatant racial discrimination by the private sector purposefully divided our urban cores along racial lines. Worse yet, these policies completely squelched any chances for upward mobility and community investment in poor black neighborhoods, isolating these areas from any kind of financial investment while subsidizing “white flight” to our suburbs. While the most blatant of these zoning and economic policies have been swept away, the scars are still very real and extremely difficult to overcome. Even if our leaders understand this, it will likely take decades of thoughtful policy changes to effectively lessen the racial barriers that were put in place by white America many years ago.

Urban housing has a tremendously difficult set of racial overtones, but it’s not the only issue. Affordable housing is one of the most difficult subjects affecting our cities today. As cities in the Robust Belt (I’ve stopped using the term “Rust Belt” in favor of a more positive and forward-thinking identifier) begin to reestablish themselves, the pockets of growth in these cities is almost predominantly “high-end.” The new apartments and condos in these growing neighborhoods are no exception.

This is normal for our cities. Economic flux, and the unfortunate subsequent gentrification, is part of the financial tide of our dense urban cores. Cities weren’t built to stay the same… they are constantly shifting and changing.

That said, we face an often unseen problem. Our cities went decades without producing any appreciable amount of city housing. Because of this, we have no housing that was once “top of the line” and now has lost some value. An easier way to think of this is with cars. Imagine that the new expensive lofts and condos being built in our cities are like new cars… car companies don’t make new cars to be affordable for everyone, they make them to sell to people who can afford a new car at a premium price. If you don’t have much money, you can buy a used car… one that was once priced at a premium, but has subsequently lost its value. You can literally buy a used car at almost any price because cars are constantly being made, and also constantly losing their value.

Now imagine if car companies went 20 years without making a car, and just now they began to make them again. You would have the choice to buy a new car at a premium price, or a car that’s over 20 years old! There would be no used lots because there would literally be no cars in that “middle ground” of affordable in existence!

The same is true for housing in our urban cores. Since apartments weren’t built for decades, there is no “infill” of affordable places behind the boom of high-end apartments that are being built today. This is, once again, an issue that will take decades to repair, and one we may just have to wait out.

2) Cities That Focus On People Will Achieve Economic Success

I was in a city council meeting a few months ago, speaking in favor of Rochester’s 2034 Comprehensive Plan. The plan goes to great lengths to provide a framework of priorities for the city over the next 15 years. Much of it is very human-centered, emphasizing placemaking, family amenities, transit and increased walkability and beautification, creating a Rochester that invites inclusivity and exploration like never before. But one individual (and this is someone I respect for her years of community service) stood up and asked where in this plan did it address economic development and local jobs.

This question reflects the disconnect between how jobs are actually created today. Employers look to expand into cities and areas that have a happy, healthy, educated, young workforce. They look for places with a robust public transit system, and plenty of things for their workers to “do.” In other words, moderate and large employers today understand that a good worker is one who has a high level of life fulfillment, not just a job.

Every city/region in the country bends over backwards to woo major employers with enormous tax breaks and benefits packages. With this in mind, the elements that will likely give your city the edge with regard to harnessing job growth is the presence of urban density, strong public transit that efficiently connects neighborhoods to jobs, public space, entertainment and a commitment to human-friendly urban life.

3) Generally Speaking, Cities Aren’t That Different From One Another

“Our city is really going through a revitalization right now…”

“Our city really took a hit when manufacturing jobs went away…”

I hear these statements, or some version of them, every time I talk to someone about whatever city they’re from. The fact is, most of our older American cities experienced the same thing… a booming time of industrial innovation, followed by a deep decline in jobs due the popularity of automation, which replaced the American laborer. White flight, suburbanization and the creation wide roads and towering highways allowing people to sprawl outward from their urban cores (for those who were fortunate enough to own cars) all contributed to the hollowing out of our city centers. The horrors of Urban Renewal in the 60s and 70s attempted to transform our cities by clearing powerful urban density, making parking lots and car access to our cities a priority over the lifeblood of the urban fabric.

Then 25 years of nothing. Very little growth, investment or change in the way we saw our urbanity. Sure, there were efforts here and there, but the elements weren’t yet there to start the engine of revitalization. Our cities, in the minds of so many, were places that used to be massive hubs of employment. That was their purpose, their function and their goal. When these once great urban centers were hollowed out shells of their former selves, America cast them off as crime-ridden losses and ignored them for decades. The irony, of course, was that the American urban decline was carefully orchestrated by a collaboration between government, big oil, automakers, and the continuing desire by white leaders to segregate our country.

Many of the larger cities in America still had the draw of tourist appeal. But the only thing the rest of our cities became known for was the occasional strip of bars and nightclubs you might visit in your early 20s on a Saturday night. Entertainment became the new, one-dimensional definition of the city… tiny islands of disconnected good times in a sea of urban neglect.

And then, the perfect storm happened. The smartphone and social media shook the shackles of urban mundanity. Suddenly, young people who grew up avoiding cities because of what they’d heard were seeing people enjoying restaurants, architecture and diverse urban environments on their social media feeds.

Think about it… have you ever avoided trying out a restaurant because you couldn’t see inside? You weren’t sure what the atmosphere would be like, so you avoided it altogether. Finally, friends who knew the place well took you inside, and you realized it was a pretty great place!

The same thing happened when social media opened the doors to all that we were missing in our cities. Suddenly there was something beyond the big box stores in our cookie-cutter suburban malls. Instead of Applebee’s, we could go to a restaurant with unique flavors and atmosphere. We could live centrally, in the heart of a changing urban environment. Our smartphones removed the stigma in the minds of young people, who had grown up believing that their city had nothing for them.

Television shows like Seinfeld, Friends and How I Met Your Mother popularized city life, glorifying the endless possibilities that a thriving urban environment can offer. This was a far cry from the TV shows in the 60s, 70s and 80s which depicted the American family in an almost exclusively suburban setting.

The increase in the amount of time students spent on college campuses created a desire for walkability and a diminished need for automobile use. It’s no surprise that urban design today is more closely aligned with the look and feel of a university than ever before.

After decades of increasing, crime began declining drastically in the early 90s as well. While our perceptions are still plagued by the crime we see every night on our televisions, the numbers don’t lie. Our cities are as safe as they have been in 40 years.

The narrative about the negative social effects of the automobile, racial segregation, urban renewal and the fall of our cities finally began to infiltrate white America. While this was something poorer minority-centered communities knew all too well, a small pocket of white Americans are finally BEGINNING accepting that the urban isolation of black neighborhoods was a conscious and horrific agenda in our country for half of a century.

And like that, the momentum shifted from decades of neglect to an intense focus on urban revitalization. Young people saw what their cities could be once again. This time, the generations that are transforming our cities have the data and the knowledge of what works for cities, not just in this country, but around the globe. Social media continues to show us the incredible benefits of cycling in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. We see the incredible networks of public transit across Europe and parts of Asia. We see that in the places we love, the roads and cars are smaller, and the places dedicated to people and sustainable mobility are more plentiful. Our cities are changing, continuing to become more human, more engaging and more fulfilling in every aspect of life, not just employment.

Getting back to the subtitle, nearly every city in the U.S. has a similar history and narrative. The reason for this is, simply, that the heartbeat of cities and their direction has little to do with buildings… it has everything to do with people. The trends that our cities have gone through reflect how we see (or have been influenced to see) our surroundings, and each other. The movements away from and back to our cities mimic the ever changing and always mailable social patterns of our society. We as individuals may be unique, but as large populations of people, we usually do the same things when given the same set of circumstances or influential motivators. The changing patterns in our cities over time are a direct reflection of this fundamental sociological construct.

4) Ten Steps Forward, Nine Steps Back: Attack The Low Hanging Fruit

Like anything, the birth of a movement or a trend is a powerful motivator, connecting people in a broad, unrefined vision that anyone can rally around. When Americans started realizing that their cities had amazing potential for revitalization, we were united in a common cause and excited about the future. But as everyone knows, changing decades of neglect, stale attitudes, old guard government, and perpetuated stereotypes in favor of new vision and new information is extremely difficult. And as always, those who are working to revitalize our urban cores adopt different views regarding what that revitalization should look like.

Decades of negativity from outside of our urban camps, and now this new difficulty from those who see urban rebirth differently from our vision… when you get into it, it seems so fractured.

I tell people this… keep fighting the good fight. If you have 10 wins to every 9 losses, you’re doing something right. No matter how good our ideas are for our changing cities, we are going to lose battles to those who don’t share our vision… and we are going to lose a lot. My advice to anyone who knows this well is to be unemotional about it. Passionate, yes, but seek out those easy, uncontested wins that might not make the big splash. In the end, those many smaller victories will equal one larger one, and be a lot less hassle in the process.

5) One Person CAN Make A Difference

Years ago I wrote a piece on the amazing revitalization of Troy, New York. Nearly everyone I talked to the day I visited the beautiful little city attributed much of Troy’s success to one man, Vic Christopher. Vic was a transplant from Brooklyn who wanted to create a similar vibe in an Upstate New York City. He bought a building that was falling apart and invested heavily in it, creating a space for four businesses from a restaurant to a cocktail bar. Furthermore, he used social media to reach out to other investors and artisans in the area, encouraging them to build around this new island of growth he helped create. On my tour of Troy, nearly every business owner gave Vic a lions share of the credit for what was going on.

Here in my home city of Rochester a little more than a decade ago, a man named Mike Governali saw the need for better public transit connectivity in our city. To bolster his vision, he started Reconnect Rochester, an organization that has become a local force advocating for safer streets, walkability, better transit and cycling infrastructure in our city. His efforts have led to a bevy of changes in our city that are beginning to make a real difference. A few weeks ago, I became a board member of Reconnect Rochester, and look forward to following Mike’s vision for a better connected city.

Then there’s me. I started the Urban Phoenix almost by mistake. But it’s something I’m truly thrilled has helped change how people see their city and the cities around them. Every week I receive a message from at least one person telling me that The UP has changed the way they see their city, or that they visited a city they thought was dead and realized it was a lot of fun, all on my recommendation. People tell me they started commuting by bike, or made the sometimes scary leap to take the bus for the first time, all because of our content. I’m always a little surprised to hear that what I write or talk about actually impacts real people. But I suppose here and there it does. I guess if I’ve learned one thing in about 5 years of The Urban Phoenix, it’s that one person really can make a difference. I’ve seen it in the revitalization efforts in our cities, and I’ve seen it personally with my work. We never really know the power we have, but sometimes, if we are persistent, driven, and maybe a little lucky, we can positively influence change in our communities. Whether we are the loudest cheerleaders, the most thoughtful policy makers or the most relentless advocates, we all have the ability create real change and move our cities and communities into a more forward-thinking tomorrow.