The third and final day of the conference featured two plenary sessions (the first and last ones during the day) and two breakouts. The themes of the sessions I attended focused on diversity, social, and economic inclusion.
The Great Reset: Reshaping Our Economic and Physical Landscape to Meet New Needs
This session, featuring senior civic leaders, discussed the changing landscape, and the urgency to develop communities that meet the demands of consumers.
Kim Walesh, Director of Economic Development for San Jose, spoke to the demographic changes, and how this affects the market. She noted that development has targeted the 35-54 age group, but demographics are shifting to seniors, as Baby Boomers enter that demographic in large numbers, and young professionals, as Millennials come of age. They both want a more urban environment. Baby boomers want to be able to walk to restaurants/shops and medical appointments. Millennials have what she described as a “live first/work second” outlook, meaning they’ll choose a community/city where they’ll want to live first, then look for work second. She also noted that this group is 33% more likely than other demographics to want to live within 3 miles of a Central Business District.
Speaking anecdotally as a Millennial (and child of baby boomers), Walesh’s argument resonates with everything I see and hear amongst both my and my parents’ respective cohorts.
On the inclusion theme, Walesh made a powerful argument for the value of immigration, pointing out that 50% of CEOs of Silicon Valley tech companies are foreign-born, and 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or second-generation Americans.
Additionally, Mayor Mark Mallory of Cincinnati, who I’ve been a fan of since first hearing him speak at the Urban 2.0 conference, spoke about building on his city’s concentration of Fortune 500 companies and head offices, and the appeal of the old streetcar they’ve reintroduced. Officials from Portland and Seattle spoke as well about their respective initiatives. I was impressed with Seattle’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2050, and how they view green initiatives and goals as a key part of their economic strategy. They’re also building a more inclusive city by including the city’s thriving music scene in its economic development initiatives, and by increasing the diversity of housing types available for young people (such as 300 square foot “pods” that have shared amenities). As the speaker noted, for many young people, “home is not necessarily the place they want to stay”.
Advancing Equity in Minneapolis/St. Paul: Action, Research, Advocacy, and Place-Making
This session put forward four perspectives on greater inclusion and equity in the Twin Cities.
ISAIAH, a community organization, organized the Healthy Corridor for All initiative, around the Central Corridor Light Rail Development. This development affected many low-income and minority communities, and the community wanted to ensure that the health of residents and communities was not adversely affected. The speaker also stressed the point that silos between public health officials, advocates, and planners need to be broken down. The link and impact planning has (for better or worse) on public health has been a recurring theme throughout the conference.
Louis King, founder of HIRE Minnesota, spoke powerfully to the need for economic equality. He began by stating that “the best social service program in the world is a job”, and noting that African-Americans were more than 3 times more likely to be unemployed than Caucasians in Minnesota. HIRE is an accredited educational institution, both advocating for equality, and providing training and skills development for individuals. He spoke to several principles that would foster greater economic inclusion.
Laura Zabel of Springboard for the Arts presented their Irrigate project, partnering local artists with businesses and community organization to create place-making. I was impressed with a number of things with this initiative, in particular the way it engages artists who are already in the community, pushes an understanding that the arts are a key part of – not extraneous – to the economy, and the way it expands the conventional notion of who, or what, is an artist.
I am incredibly impressed with the work Justin Kii Huenemann and the Native American Community Development Institute are doing. They are focusing on building equity and community along Franklin Avenue, where the greatest concentration of Native Americans in the Twin Cities is found. They’ve helped foster local ownership, from institutions such as a bank to arts initiatives such as a gallery and a festival. NACDI has put forward a powerful vision of Franklin Avenue as an American Indian Cultural Corridor, and are putting resources behind it to make it a reality, transforming from an economy of social service to one of entrepreneurship and growth. Living in Edmonton, which by the end of the decade will have the largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada, I see great value and opportunity to foster inclusion through initiatives like this in both my community.
Huenemann also spoke to the need for responsibility from the communities affected and involved. He passed on an old saying from an Elder, that when you’re pointing one finger at someone else, you’re pointing three back at yourself – meaning, you need to think about what you’re doing, rather than blaming others.
Restoring the American City: Augusta, GA and Laney Walker/Bethlehem
Laney Walker and Bethlehem are traditionally African-American communities adjacent to downtown Augusta. Vibrant communities from the 1920s to 1970s, they’ve experienced significant decline over the past 40 years. In Laney Walker, 33% of housing was in poor condition or dilapidated; the number in Bethlehem was 70%. The areas had hollowed out; while 1000 acres in size, and home to 3500 parcels of land, it was home ot only 4700 people.
Beginning in 2007, revitalization efforts sought to build on its character and proud history as an African-American community. As Chester Wheeler, one of the leaders of this initiative noted, “Government could not come in and plan for the people. It would never work”. Government did, however, need to mitigate the risk of private developers to encourage investment. The project has been sensitive to existing residents, including them in the consultation and planning from the site, and ensuring any tenants that are displaced are successfully relocated to a home in their existing community. Impressively, they have yet to acquire a single property through eminent domain, respecting local ownership of each property. The project has focused on preservation and reuse (where the former is no longer possible). As one resident said, “it’s important to keep these buildings so they can continue to tell their story”
This effort receives a public investment through a hotel/motel surcharge, and is using it to leverage private investment at a 5:1 ratio. It builds on the area’s history by creating a Heritage Trail, which identifies 150 sites of significant recognition of African-American people and places throughout the city. This speaks to one of the best strategies I see for urban development, building on your own city’s character and making them strengths, rather than copying the trend of the day.
Community Design and Urban Innovation for a Knowledge Economy
Michael Freedman, Principal at Freedman Tung Sasaki in San Francisco, closed out the conference.
He covered the evolution of the smart growth movement over the years, noting that we now know what the problems and solutions to them are. The key challenge he identified is to create “a broader consensus for the coming prosperity”. It’s a well-found point, that the coalition of smart growth/new urbanist advocates needs to grow. I’m reminded of a speaker yesterday who asked, “how can you create an environment where people see a reflection of themselves in your work?” I see this as important to any successful movement, that people can relate, and see a place for themselves as part of it.
He also noted that, “when the nature of work changes, the city is entirely transformed”. He followed by pointing out that transportation changes follow changes to work, rather than influencing the change itself as many assume.
Freedman covered the evolution of cities since the industrial revolution, noting where we have arrived at today, a place where creativity and innovation are the primary wealth-generators of the new economy. He tied this back to cities, focusing on the need to develop cities (physically and otherwise) that foster innovation and creativity, and talked about what the city of the future might look like (hint: the business park is dead).
This is the challenge for smart growth and new urbanist advocates like myself. To articulate a vision and a road map to create cities that respond to the economic, social, and environmental needs of the 21st century. With the work being done by people like Freedman, and many of the speakers and attendees I’ve met in the past three days, I feel like this future is closer than many of us might think.