Across today’s emerging 21st century cities, municipal leaders and businesses are working hard to sell their cities to mobile, talented, entrepreneurial consumers. These are not consumers in the traditional sense. These consumers are shopping for an urban, green, and socially conscious way of life, and turning to today’s new destination cities–such as Austin, Cleveland, and Denver – for professional opportunities and to make a new home. I previously defined these mobile and entrepreneurial consumers as today’s urban class.
There is, though, the specter of a negative consequence to unmanaged urban revitalization – gentrification. Urban cores attract urban class residents because of their density and walkability, but many fear that the process of renovation can price out and ultimately drive out the existing residents. The consequences for the existing residents, and for the history and culture of the neighborhoods they long occupied, can be deeply disruptive; just ask Furious Styles.
However, today’s urban class is just as conscious about maintaining the social fabric of a city or neighborhood as they are about reducing their carbon footprint. Today’s urban class residents are not the conspiratorial invaders that Furious describes. They are not looking for areas that offer racial or socioeconomic homogeneity and chasing out those who they feel don’t belong. MSG Managing Principal Justin Bibb has argued that they are conscious of race, of equity, and of embracing and maintaining a city’s unique character. They are not there to erase history; they are there to contribute to it.
For city leaders who hope to attract this urban class, they should adopt and harmonize urban development policies that integrate, rather than divide, its residents.
Social division in cities can have dire consequences. In a 2014 Foreign Service Journal article, journalist Nate Berg noted "the geography of modern settlements have become the modern theaters of human conflict." He chronicled the work of urban planners who were working in post-conflict areas, most notably in Jerusalem, and rebuilding cities with the idea of creating shared spaces that fostered social and ethic reconciliation.
The situations that Berg describes are extreme ones, but the need for strategic urban planning to manage complex population dynamics is one that many cities in the United States share. Many American cities remain socioeconomically imbalanced. A January 2016 Economist article notes that while overall racial segregation has fallen in U.S. cities since 2000, places like Chicago still rate high on the dissimilarity index, or the measure of the equality between groups in two geographic areas. Inequality can fuel urban tensions.
American cities are not necessarily post-conflict cities to the extent that Berg describes. They are, however, struggling to rethink their boundaries in a way that better facilitates interaction, integration, and social cohesion. Neighborhoods are living, breathing organisms with their own histories and tensions. Common social spaces, such as parks, are one important urban planning feature, but simply carving out space for a park may not alone inspire greater social cohesion between two areas that have long been divided along socioeconomic lines.
For most American cities, the idea of retrofitting their current spaces to add such amenities as parks, walking and bike paths, and mixed use buildings can be daunting. Critics may argue that it is often difficult to coordinate all the public and private stakeholders involved, and the process relies too heavily on the existing, outdated infrastructure. But few places would choose to abandon wholly their lot and build a new garden city from scratch. There is far too much rich history in our cities to simply cast aside.
U.S cities can instead tackle their socioeconomic tensions, and at the same time integrate principles of sustainable development, if their leaders are coordinated and inclusive in their strategies. There are countless stakeholders who share responsibility for the success of a city. Involving all stakeholder inputs is not only possible thanks to today’s technology and big data capabilities, but necessary. Through meaningful, strategic design, city leaders can modernize and sculpt their social spaces in such a way that promotes social equity and truly benefit from what Berg calls “the simple interactions and chance encounters of normal urban life.”
Some cities are already embracing this concept. A recent Politico article featured the revitalization of a once-dangerous and marginalized neighborhood in Cincinnati through dogged planning – cultivating ground floor businesses, rehabilitating parks, developing vacant lots, relocating monuments, and even planting trees more strategically. The goal, city leaders explain, is to elevate, rather than displace, the existing residents. In Austin, where economic segregation is amongst the worst in the country, the mayor has proposed lowering the interstate that now quite literally divides the city physically, racially, and economically. The hope is that by removing the interstate barrier, Austin will reconnect two long-separated populations. The ultimate goal here is better social cohesion. More of our nation’s major metropolises should strive for the same.
About the Author: Ian Brown is Managing Consultant at Morris Strategy Group, where he leads public and social sector engagement on urban policy, economic development, and community revitalization.