Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Urban Revitalization

A few weeks ago, I represented my organization by sitting on a panel for a Give Back Cincinnati "Sounding Session." The topic was urban revitalization. I was supposed to be representing the nonprofit perspective on what it takes to revitalize a community, what stands in the way, and how an individual can help the cause in their community. I may have had a few things to say as a "professional," but I actually walked away with more personal reflection than anything else. In fact, I've been thinking about the topic ever since.

A few thoughts on the issue:

- One of the biggest deterrents to urban revitalization is both the transient nature of many would-be urban dwellers and a city's neglect of amenities that would encourage long-term commitment from residents. Because of the rapid life changes that many residents will go through (college graduation, first jobs, marriage, first child, third child, retirement, etc.), they feel the need to move to a different neighborhood every five years to accommodate those changes. Whether it is the sheer absence of single-family residences, a lack of greenspace and natural areas, parking issues, or safety concerns, most families would not consider living in the same location where they rented their first college apartment. And most residents are simply unwilling to commit to staying put in a community where they are not certain they will be comfortable in 25 years. I believe that the issue here is as much imagined as it is realistic, which leads me to my next point...

- Perceived issues are sometimes more a deterrent than real issues. For example, people may believe it's impractical to live in downtown Cincinnati because "there is no place to buy groceries," but they are wrong in their assumption. And even if they were correct, it would be no more difficult to drive from their downtown home to the nearest large grocery store than it would be for them to drive from their Mason home to the nearest grocery store. In fact, it might be nearer to them and take less time. Another example is the popular notion of how "terrible" the schools are. Not only is this an improper assumption, but it is irrelevant given that in Cincinnati parents can send their children to the public school of their choice, anywhere in the city. All it takes is some ingenuity and effort on the part of the parents and their children can have the same quality education as a child who lives next door to Fairview German School or Walnut Hills High School. (And don't even get me started on the ridiculous notion that once a couple decides to have a child, it is time for them to move to a new subdivision on the outskirts of town, where all the families live. UGH!)

- Poor housing and real estate stock is a serious deterrent to revitalization. There is often a shortage of single-family homes in urban areas and, even where there are homes, parking is an issue. In addition, most parents want a backyard for their children and would even settle for a small, fenced courtyard if given the option. But, concrete reigns supreme instead. In many lower-income areas, beautiful single-family residences have been chopped into poorly-maintained and tastelessly-renovated multi-family buildings (Cincinnati's Avondale neighborhood is a prime example of this). In addition, many vacant buildings cannot be developed because they are owned by absentee landlords who are either slumlords or speculators.

- Quality and diversity of commerce is important for the revitalization of a community. One common theme that I heard at the Sounding Session was that residents and visitors want to see and support businesses that can only be found there, in that community. Sometimes we call these "Mom and Pop" businesses and they are sometimes the best thing drawing people and money to an area. I will add to this, though, that the mere presence of these businesses is not enough. Residents must continue to support them financially on a regular basis. (See the 3/50 Project website for more a comprehensive writing on this issue.)

- No one person, family, or business can revitalize a community alone. In order for a community to experience real renewal, it must be a cooperative task between neighbors, friends, and organizations. In my exercises in community organizing for work, I have seen that the issue of cooperation (or lack-there-off) can really make or break a community. First, those in control of community resources (money, real estate, connections, etc.) must consider the shared vision of those in the entire community or either watch their single vision die or become an unwelcome guest. Now, add to this every person's need for deep and authentic relationships. This makes it simply impossible for one entity to accomplish anything great alone, unless they have the support of those around them. I have all sorts of crazy ideas related to this issue, but I won't go into it now.

All in all, this entire issue of "revitalization" is huge and impossible to conquer in one conversation or one blog post. In fact, most people who dedicate their lives to seeing their community revitalized may not witness the fruits of their effort in their lifetime. This is, indeed, big work. And this issue quickly becomes a battle of ideologies, ethics, culture, and politics, which so often ends the conversation entirely.

Suffice to say this (for now):

I have committed myself to never simply residing in my community.
If I am not somehow benefiting it--creating something, bringing something new to life (or bringing something dead back to life), making it safer or stronger, or more beautiful, then I am a waste of space and have surrendered my rights as a resident of the community.

So, I suppose this is where the real conversation begins:

What are you doing to bring your community to life?

1 comment:

  1. We have been extensively promoting our neighborhood while at the same time fighting the city to stop the "blight=bulldozer" metality of city officials who would demo much of our neighborhood as we are attracting new residents coming into restore.

    We just had Rep Denise Driehause out to tour our neighborhood and discuss issues. Our most critical is eliminating the loophole in Ohio law that allows property transfers without paying delinquent property taxes.Our effort to stop the "slumlord shuffle' used to avoid inspection orders.

    We are putting together a state level proposal to "jump start' urban neighborhoods and create incentives to bring new people in to our community called CRZ districts.


    Its hard to turn around neighborhoods when the city doesn't support your efforts.