Every city has at least one: the neighborhood with rampant crime, boarded up buildings, empty lots. Few stroll its streets and the businesses that remain have bars on the windows. This kind of place had a heyday once, but is now in a tragic state of demise. Often, such places are in strategic urban locations and ripe for revitalization. But, short of calling in the bulldozers, how does a neighborhood go about fomenting its renaissance? It starts with properly diagnosing the reasons for decline (every story is not the same) and working closely with neighborhood residents and businesses to develop the prescription to turn things around.
Read the Symptoms, Treat the Problem
|A sketch I did showing the importance of mixed use and a variety of building textures, styles and colors as part of a charrette for the revitalization of Phoenix's Wilson neighborhood.|
|Urban decay Vandalism at the Broadford Works on Ann Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
- Character is Brand – Most struggling neighborhoods are suffering from an identity crisis, while they know they need to have a more walkable community that feels safe and is clean, they need help figuring out their unique path to revitalization. No two neighborhoods are exactly alike. If you take the time to talk to the people who live there you’ll find out why they stay, and even more, why they’re willing to fight so hard for revitalization. That character, which is an experience not available elsewhere in the city, is what needs to be celebrated and cultivated in everything from the streetscape and plantings, to the type of businesses that are courted, to the density and style of the buildings. Think about traffic patterns and flows, the accessibility of parking and how parking impacts the feel of the space. The brand that develops is what can be used to court new businesses. Brand builds the expectation of the customer/user. It needs to be based on a solid and clear vision, integrated as an experience, and it has to deliver on its promise.
- Leverage Assets – For any community, being able to achieve what it wants (its vision for a future), from what it has (its character and history) involves knowing what it needs. Copying what worked for another neighborhood is no guarantee of success. People are not attracted to generic, soulless communities to live, work and play. They are attracted to the quirky, wonderful little neighborhood with the interesting mix of shops and restaurants that is worth the trip. Once they spend enough time there, they may even become interested in living nearby. Communities must be being willing to start small – maybe just a few blocks on a main road to develop a critical mass. Look at the merchant mix and think about the message that it sends, then work with the owners of the businesses you want to keep to help them find locations where they can be grouped in a way that they help one another succeed (i.e. a series of restaurants and shops in a row).
- Get Momentum – Even the most thorough and realistic of plans won’t lead to revitalization if the community itself isn’t engaged. While it may be impossible to have complete agreement, it is not impossible to reach out to local businesses and law enforcement as well as grant programs and other opportunities available at a municipal level. Seeing these first steps of positive change allays fears and suspicion and encourages residents to be more involved as well because they can see the effect of their actions. Most struggling neighborhoods have plenty of missing teeth in the form of abandoned or under-occupied buildings and vacant lots. However, in order to convince new businesses to locate there, a neighborhood must have some momentum going. Even something as simple as a streetscape improvement project shows a commitment to change and reinforces that all-important brand. Don’t forget to grow entrepreneurs from local residents and always aim for authenticity.
Seek Alternative Therapies
|Photo c/o dennoir (flickr)|
Communities that take the time to really know their needs, and are willing to fight for them, do get better. What’s critical is to stay true to a vision, pull the community into the effort, support local businesses and never stop improving. Think of redevelopment as a bird flapping its wings – it can soar as long as it continues the effort, but can glide only so long before it will plummet. It takes time, patience and tireless commitment for an ailing neighborhood to recover, but blight is curable.