Wellness the Series: Urban Rx: Cures for Sick Places

My most recent article for Urban Times discusses ways neighborhoods can develop strategies to challenge blight.

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.
So often, response to urban decline is reactionary: high crime translates to constructing fences and more security, for example. However, responding defensively to a series of symptoms has the unintended consequences of creating an even more hostile environment, sending not the message of toughness, but a message that no one, not even the neighborhood residents, are very welcome in the neighborhood. Most people don’t understand this, neither do most planning and zoning commissions. Hence, we end up with everyone’s fears written into the codes, instead of everyone’s hopes.  Something like higher crime is usually a symptom of a greater urban disease, which is why applying the aspirin of “lockdown” to the cancer of urban decay seldom works.  What a community really needs to do is take a long hard look at itself and begin to look at social and economic factors that have changed for the worse, then look at strategies for making a change:
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)

While they may have had their place, traditional zoning codes with their restrictive description of uses have little relevance for the modern city.  Zoning codes are about achieving uniformity and compliance, not about cultivating character – kind of like Mom saying “no.”  What if, instead, we thought about codes as a list of everything you can do, should do, might do?  Form-based codes  are a great alternative for urban areas because they are not about segregating uses, but about encouraging density, walkability and character.  Many cities have implemented them and many more like my home city of Cincinnati, Ohio are in the process of doing so because they allow redevelopment to be shepherded in a way that reinforces identity of place over simply following rules.  Form-based codes focus on the fine grain aspect of experience, looking at things like human scale and pedestrian friendliness.  True to their name, this code system is less about land use than urban form, with an emphasis on creating public space shaped by private buildings.
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.