Next City published an excerpt from a new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, and it has stayed in my mind for the past few days. I’m sharing the first few paragraphs from the Next City article here. What Katz and Bradley lead with is the research of the economic sociologist Sean Safford on the role of networks in Youngstown and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Short version: networks matter to urban vitality, and “networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective.”
When economic sociologist Sean Safford first began comparing midcentury board lineups of local Boy Scout chapters and garden clubs in the cities of Youngstown and Allentown, the idea that such data could have any bearing on the future of a city seemed shaky at best. Safford’s research, about who knew who and from where, was coming at a time when communities had begun to take seriously the idea that civic participation, even participation in something as seemingly superfluous as a bowling league, mattered to the health of a community. Even so, his question — how the structure of civic relationships shapes economic trajectories — seemed rather far afield. Networks mattered. Did their composition matter to a region’s economy?
That was the early 2000s. A decade later, Safford’s argument that networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective — laid out in the book Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown — is particularly on point. Through his careful reading of archived society pages and board minutes dating from 1950 through 2000, Safford determined that Youngstown, Ohio, a fading steel industry hub, was actually stymied by its most powerful insiders. The network of elites that called the shots in the city were too tightly enmeshed, intertwined and isolated from other groups in the region to effectively guard against the steamroll of change that would gradually wipe out the local economy. In other words, there were too many strong ties and not enough weak ties.
These elites, marooned on their own small island, lost power as the domestic steel industry declined all around them, leaving behind a fragmented and uncoordinated region. Allentown, Pa., by contrast, had looser networks that provided alternative relationships that cut across social, class and political lines, encouraging new alliances and exchanges. All this meant that while these two areas of the Rust Belt had very similar demographics, economic structures and challenges, Allentown was better equipped to bounce back from the decline of the steel industry, specifically because it had individuals and organizations that could serve as bridges between the various groups that needed to be engaged in the region’s recovery. It turns out it did matter who was on the board of the Boy Scouts.
When telling stories of transformation and turnaround, it is tempting to shape them into personal stories about heroes. One charismatic visionary — a mayor, school superintendent, entrepreneur, outraged citizen — steps up and, with unrelenting vigor and inspirational leadership, starts an irreversible cascade of change. But there is a growing body of research suggesting that, as a system or problem becomes more complex, arriving at a solution requires multiple minds from multiple sectors or perspectives. As Safford found in Youngstown, this search for the lone superhero, or one lone team of superhero buddies, is misguided. Metropolitan areas are so big, complicated and diverse that they don’t need heroes. They need networks.
Check out the Next City article called The Post-Hero Economy and then the new book!
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Since last summer, I have been writing about the impact of the Great Recession on planning and landscape architecture. My vantage point, as a college professor, means that I see creative, bright young people who have had the odds stacked against them for the past few years. Today, I am passing on an optimistic article, one of the many written over the past four years. Somehow, this one has a hint of possible truth to it, and I know that I, for one, am eager to hear good news. The premise is that the U.S. has finally reached a point where pent-up demand will finally loosen the purse-strings of those who have been sitting on cash and afraid to spend. Perhaps it rings true because I just came from a meeting where attendees discussed putting a multi-million construction project out to bid (we’ll never get a better interest rate…) because I’m one of the people driving an old car, knowing that it won’t last indefinitely.
Of the people who fear the country’s best days are behind it, a well-known economist recently said that people in 1933 thought the same thing. In that spirit, take what you will from this: (more…)
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Posted in Design Practice, Recession Watch, Reflective Practice, tagged architecture, cities, city planning, economy, future, landscape architecture, landscape urbanism, recession, urban design, urban planning on December 29, 2011|
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Second Phase of The High Line
Suspended animation, with some promising stirrings of change. That is my assessment of the past year. Expectant waiting, but little change overall in the U.S. economy. In the coming year, there will be a U.S. presidential election, meaning that any significant new action (economic, environmental) is at least a year away. New economic uncertainties have arisen in countries around the globe. The planning and design professions do not exist apart from these circumstances. Four years into the Great Recession, what does seem to be changing is interest in activism, highlighted in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrations this past fall. Activism in planning and design circles means community empowerment, innovative, insurgent urban design, and continued attention to all things local, including food systems, infrastructure, and alternative transportation. These stirrings of change portend exciting developments in 2012, I think, but not the scale of excitement seen in the bubble years. That could be a very good thing, really.
The short 160-year or so history of landscape architecture doesn’t appear to be much of a guide to the present, although there are some parallels. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, some landscape architects continued to plan gardens for the owners of great estates (the 1% of that time), while others planned and carried out New Deal programs, finding employment with the federal government. To date, there have been no new New Deal initiatives in the U.S., although our aging infrastructure begs for investment. Perhaps after the election… Meanwhile, some landscape architects and land planners serve the global elite, while others serve local communities in a host of ways, often with nonprofit organizations as government jobs at all levels continue to be cut.
An emerging trend is the latter – design that serves the public good (admittedly, a loaded phrase) – an impulse that is closely aligned with the fall’s significant uprising, OWS. The website, Archinect, reflects this in its top 10 design milestones of 2011 and top 10 design initiatives to watch in 2012. Local is big, and getting bigger. The New York Times made the case this week, as it tracked major changes in environmental organizations, many of which are shifting their activism toward local issues as a means of survival. People have little faith in the big aims these days, like cap-and-trade or new New Deals, so they are focusing more on creating change in their own communities, something that seems much more tangible. Urban agriculture and tactical urbanism are manifestations of this urge to take matters into one’s own hands (individually and collectively) and make change happen.
A scan of other top 10 lists and year-in-review posts reveals the following causes for optimism: (more…)
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Posted in New York State, Recession Watch, tagged community planning, community resilience, economy, future, innovation, New Normal, New York State, paradigm shift, recession, resilience, trends on November 13, 2011|
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In December, we celebrate the 4th anniversary of the official start of the Great Recession or Lesser Depression. One silver lining that I see would be if communities (i.e., community residents) started to take matters into their own hands and began to create their own better futures. Recently there have been signs that some communities are doing just that. From today’s New York Times, the story of the new department store in Saranac Lake, NY, entirely financed by shares sold to community residents. After the town’s last department store closed, residents had to drive 50 miles to buy basic necessities, and they were considering an offer by Wal-Mart to develop a store. Not liking either alternative…
But rather than accept their fate, residents of Saranac Lake did something unusual: they decided to raise capital to open their own department store. Shares in the store, priced at $100 each, were marketed to local residents as a way to “take control of our future and help our community,” said Melinda Little, a Saranac Lake resident who has been involved in the effort from the start. “The idea was, this is an investment in the community as well as the store.”
And later in the article:
Think of it as the retail equivalent of the Green Bay Packers — a department store owned by its customers that will not pick up and leave when a better opportunity comes along or a corporate parent takes on too much debt.
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Apparently some publicity and your project listed in an official U.S. Government report! This one slipped by me until now, when I read the USA Today article about the new Department of Interior publication called America’s Great Outdoors: Fifty-State Report, the culmination of President Obama’s year-long Great Outdoors Initiative. Two projects from each state share the honor of being identified as worthy of being promoted. According to Interior Secretary Salazar, these 100 projects are “among the best investments in the nation to support a healthy, active population, conserve wildlife and working lands, and create travel, tourism and outdoor-recreation jobs across the nation.” These projects would promote health and create jobs, two of the nation’s highest priorities! This would be why USA Today also reports:
The projects are part of President Obama’s Great Outdoors Initiative, announced last year, and result from 50 meetings between state leaders and senior federal officials. They won’t receive new federal funding but technical support and guidance.
The development of the report itself was a jobs initiative, keeping some Interior Department staff employed as they traveled the country meeting with state reps.
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Posted in Landscape Planning, Recession Watch, tagged cities, city planning, economy, future, global trends, New Normal, paradigm shift, recession, resilience, sustainability, trends, urban design, urban planning on October 26, 2011|
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The Urban Land Institute released an important report today on real estate trends to 2020, asking the question that is on everyone’s mind – what’s next? The report is tied to the 75th anniversary of ULI. Two years ago, prognosticators were looking for green shoots. Today, organizations like ULI are finally acknowledging the effects of the Great Recession/Lesser Depression as “fundamental societal change.” The major findings of ULI are summarized as:
- Technology will reshape work places. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue. Offices will be transforming into meeting places more than work places, with an emphasis on conference rooms, break areas and open configurations. Developers will craft attractive environments to attract young, talented workers.
- Major companies will value space that enables innovation. They will continue to pay more for space in a global gateway served by a major international airport, or in 24-hour urban centers. Hard-to-reach suburban work places will be less in demand.
- The influx of Generation Y, now in their teens through early thirties, will change housing demand. They are comfortable with smaller homes and will happily trade living space for an easier commute and better lifestyle. They will drive up the number of single households and prompt a surge in demand for rentals, causing rents to escalate.
- For most people, finances will still be constrained, leading to more shared housing and multi-generational households. Immigration will support that trend, as many immigrants come from places where it is common for extended families to share housing. This may be the one group that continues to drive demand for large, suburban homes.
- The senior population will grow fastest, but financial constraints could limit demand for adult housing developments. Many will age in place or move in with relatives to conserve money. Developers may want to recast retirement communities into amenity-laden “age friendly” residences. Homes near hospitals and medical offices will be popular, especially if integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and services.
- Energy and infrastructure take on greater importance. Businesses cannot afford to have their network connections down, and more will consider self-generated power or onsite generator capacity. Developers, owners and investors are realizing that the slightly higher costs of energy- and water-saving technologies can pay for themselves quickly, creating more marketable and valuable assets. Ignoring sustainability issues speeds property obsolescence.
On Asia and Europe:
- Nearly all Asian countries are going through a radical urban transformation, and many believe that the next decade of Asian urbanization will drive the global economy. By 2020, China alone will have 400 cities with populations over 1 million. Asia’s surging middle class is projected to reach an amazing 1.7 billion in 2020. Water availability—and the maturation of real estate capital markets—will be major issues.
- In Europe, the global financial crisis has made investment capital increasingly hard to obtain. Resilient cities, those with a strong city government and high degree of market trust with investors and businesses, will be most attractive to investors. With companies operating in increasingly global markets and citizens expressing a desire to reduce their commute times, European cities must place an even greater emphasis on effective, state-of-the-art transportation systems.
And the effects on urban planning and design?
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One of the most popular stories today in the New York Times is about the “Brooklynization” of Hudson River towns. Even with the weak national economy, or perhaps because of it, New Yorkers are seeking the comfort of small town life and bringing their creative enterprises and locovore habits with them. While this has been true for the closest towns for a long time, the wave of newcomers is reaching farther into the hinterlands today. Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, calls this a “green economic revitalization,” suggesting that environmental groups are not opposing this population influx as they might have in the past. Many of the towns in this region have been down and out since their industries left long ago, so the transformation is nothing less than astonishing for the chosen ones.
…for all the images of upstate decay, the population of the Hudson Valley is growing more than twice as fast as that of the rest of the state — 5.8 percent over the past decade, compared with 2.1 percent for New York State and New York City. (While there are no universally accepted boundaries to the Hudson Valley, this reference includes the counties north of suburban Rockland and Westchester and south of the capital region: Putnam, Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia and Greene.) … and snip…
But optimism is one thing you find in the Hudson Valley, to an extent not seen elsewhere. It is true that, even here, it takes more than art, farm stands and caffeine to make an economy work — especially for those who don’t make a living with a laptop or a paintbrush. But in a culture sometimes whipsawed between a desire to be in the middle of the storm and to be a million miles away, the Hudson Valley offers the promise of both, the upstate hills and quirky towns just 90 minutes from Manhattan, said Bradley Thomason, who moved his small technology and organizational development consultancy, Miraclelabb, from Manhattan to the mighty metropolis of Accord last year.
“This isn’t like the tech revolution,” he said. “I’d be worried if there were some big kaboom Hudson Valley moment. But I think what you’re seeing is a slow progression toward something that can sustain itself.”
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