Stop Fighting the Urban Redevelopment Battles We’ve Already Won

Now It’s Time to Invest in Inclusivity: A Conversation with John Alschuler

March 14, 2016

Partner, NBBJ

I recently invited John Alschuler, chairman of HR&A Advisors, to deliver some remarks to my firm, NBBJ, about the history of urbanism in America — and what our priorities should be for the next stage of urban redevelopment. Following is a condensed version of his talk.


What is it that we value about cities? They are places of culture, places of economic vitality, places of opportunity. But dynamic, humane urbanism is in danger, which requires a fundamental rethinking of how we practice urban redevelopment. This danger is present today in our STEM centers, such as Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, and is of growing concern elsewhere.

Our mindset today is a prisoner of an obsolete paradigm. After the Second World War, cities were losing tens of thousands of jobs each year and millions of people. A pro-growth coalition of labor, business and politics came together to rejuvenate the American city: first, to restore safety, and second — at the cost of billions of dollars — to bring private investment back. They incentivized companies to return and subsidized construction. They bought a new economy.

Then the paradigm shifted. Instead of pursuing private companies to induce economic growth, cities sought to create environments that attracted talent. Successful cities invested in physical beauty, in art, culture, beautiful parks, in making themselves exciting places to live, in the belief that workers would come and companies would follow.

And it worked, thankfully. The population trends fundamentally reversed. But now it’s time we declared victory in that struggle, in many of our leading cities . We did many things well, but If we keep doing urban redevelopment in the way have for the past 30 years, we will be fighting a battle we have already won. Worse, we will transform the American city into the province of the wealthiest people on the planet, and shove the poor to the periphery.

As a result of our success, a suburban attitude toward development has taken hold. We now have an unspoken, unarticulated alliance between “quality of life liberals” who love the urban form of the city and don’t want it to change, and the communities of color that have been the victims, over and over again, of displacement and gentrification. This anti-development constituency has fundamentally undermined the ability of cities like San Francisco to build. You don’t have to be an economist to understand that, if you build only a fraction of the housing you need to meet demand, housing prices will go through the roof. And this crisis is threatening many cities all over the United States. Battles are won while the war is lost.

The question is, what do we do about it? In the 1970s we assembled billions of dollars to deal with the dystopian threat to cities, but now we face a new challenge. If our values remain a humane urbanism, here is what we need to do:

We’ve spent a long time thinking about downtowns, but increasingly we need a multi-nodal urbanism. A place where multiple nodes — where people can live, work and play, all in the same place — are distributed and connected, and not just through the center. If we want a more inclusive, more open city, we need a city with multiple centers, all of which we nurture and care about.

We have to rethink transit. Virtually all cities’ transit systems are radial, designed to bring a suburban workforce downtown. But that’s not where all the jobs are anymore. And it leaves out neighborhoods and communities of color.

Our long-neglected, long-stigmatized reservoir of public housing has to be invested in and preserved while we build new affordable units. Thanks to a very powerful inclusionary housing ordinance, every apartment building in New York City going forward will have a minimum of 30% of its units devoted to low- and moderate-income people.

We have to think about parks in new ways. In Brooklyn Bridge Park, we dedicated a piece of land for housing in which 30% is designed for affordable families, so that the act of park-building becomes a home for diversity and affordability.

We have to work with the unions. I believe in unions and their right to negotiate and protect their workforce, but in some cities union labor adds 30% to the cost of building — and it has nothing to do with salaries. It’s all work rules, the requirements that add unnecessary costs. We need the unions to build affordable housing at fair wages, but with reasonable work rules.

We need to allow micro-units, to bring the size and cost of housing down.

We need to figure out how to take the distributive effects of an Internet manufacturing world and bring it back to cities. Working with some very visionary developers, we’re transforming 6 million square feet of office space at Industry City in New York into a form of inclusive manufacturing for companies like Makerbot, the largest producer of 3D printers in the United States. Many workers here are high-school graduates, who receive more than a living wage.

We need to rebuild community through culture. This is in many ways how we rebuilt our downtowns, with places like Lincoln Center, but we need to do it in other neighborhoods too. Theaster Gates’s most imaginative creations in Chicago were built within the African-American community in the South Side, including an “arts bank” that, as the library of Jet magazine, contains the history of America’s African-American communities since the Second World War.

We need to deal with climate change. New York recently built its first-ever zero-emissions school, and we need to do more of that.

We know how to spend money on the future of cities, but we shouldn’tto spend the money solely on the next High Line or Millennium Park or Copley Square. We need to spend it on affordable housing, on inclusive neighborhoods, on diversity. We can’t simply allow average incomes to rise, absent an inclusionary agenda.

We have to do this for two reasons. One, these are the values that stand behind our credo of humane urbanism. Two, if we don’t, the entire political coalition of growth will collapse on our heads, and our cities must keep growing if they are to be inclusive. We want to keep building, but we need to do so with a new agenda for a new century.

Image courtesy of Charlie Nguyen/Flickr.

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