Remaking The City In Their Image

This is an exciting time for lovers of cities.  Data is building to show that cities of all stripes are finally growing faster than their surrounding suburbs, are holding their property values to a greater extent than the suburbs, and are increasingly being viewed as the new frontier for the rising Millennial generation.  After a tumultuous period for cities over the last 70 years, this could be the true start of better times.
The question many are asking about this is, “is this an aftershock of the Great Recession?”  To many observers still firmly rooted in the suburban development paradigm, it most certainly is.  There are more than a few people who believe that once our nation returns to economic normalcy that preferences expressed by the last three or four generations of Americans will return.  Me?  Not so much.  The trend toward more urban environments (both within core cities and outside them, in denser inner-ring suburbs in older metros) has been evident and growing since the early 1990s, and if anything the financial crisis lifted the veil from the fallacy of the suburban paradigm and highlighted the strengths of the emerging urban one.

I’ve made clear in previous posts that I believe our nation’s withdrawal from cities was as much fear-based – fear of crime, fear of new people – as it was based on the new opportunities the suburbs presented.  Looking back on what was the nadir period for cities, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I used to think that a return to the cities would only occur when that fear dissipated.  That happened.  Crime began to decline nationwide in the ‘90s, new residents began to trickle into New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, smaller cities Portland and Austin began to mature, and a transition began.

Almost without question city population growth has been led by two demographic groups – young childless singles and couples, usually young Gen Xers and Millennials, and Baby Boomer empty nesters.  Both cities have been drawn to cities by their physical and cultural amenities, their diversity, and their dynamism.  Often these were things they missed or lacked in their previous suburban surroundings.  And they bring to cities a set of expectations that city leaders are more than willing to put in place —  Starbucks, restaurants, cupcake bakeries, bike lanes and bike sharing, transit access.

Gentrification has won.  But that doesn’t mean the lingering frustration felt by longtime city residents is going anywhere. 

Six years ago I worked on a challenging quality-of-life planning project on Chicago’s Near West Side.  The source of the challenge?  Trying to get two disparate groups pushing for control of the community – longtime residents, often public housing or other low-income renters, and newcomers, recent transplants to the area’s new condo and old townhouse building stock – to find a shared vision of the community. 

This split came to the forefront over the proposed development of a discount grocer at a prominent intersection in the community.  The longtimers (a more acceptable term than “old-timers”) were ecstatic that a discount grocer would be willing to invest in a community that lacked the basic necessities for shopping.  The community was (and remains) a food desert in the truest sense.  But the newcomers were disappointed that a discount grocer would want to locate in their community; they wanted a supermarket that exhibited to the world their image of the neighborhood.  They wanted something trendy, upscale – like them.  They wanted to remake the community in their own image.

Resolving this was not easy.  It involves educating the newcomers that there is a long and treasured history to the community they just moved into, and they could benefit from the wisdom of their neighbors.  It involves educating the longtimers that perhaps the one constant in urban development is change; nothing can stay the same, and perhaps the best you can do is put yourself in position to benefit from it.

One of the chief challenges going forward for cities will be to strike the appropriate balance between remaking the city in the image of the newcomers and building on the legacy of the longtimers.  Those cities at the leading edge of this change – New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, among others – have more experience in dealing with this, and are uniquely positioned to offer advice and assistance to the dozens of cities that will begin to experience this at new levels.

Will the other cities listen?  I don’t know.  But how they deal with the impending change will define how the suburban/urban shift will be viewed by future generations.

One thought on “Remaking The City In Their Image

  1. Excellent background and future look at what's going on around us and I agree it's not too late to turn late around. It's still a block by block, street by street situation in which to stake a community position, i.e., by the people for the people.


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