Urban Communities

Please check out Al Letson’s State of the Re:Union (SO TRU) from NPR, with two first person reports on Shrinking Cities: Motor City Rebound and Milwaukee: City of Vision.  Also, check out the inaugural episode of this program, focusing on DC and neighborhoods such as Shaw and H Street.  About State of the Re:Union:

“For every episode of State of the Re:UNION, we travel to a different American city or town and ask the questions; What makes Community? Who are the people that help bring it together? What issues do they face..?”


Some of you may remember the movie “Jerry McGuire.”  In it, Tom Cruise plays a sports agent sickened by the exploitation of his clients.  He has a crisis of concience, which leads him to write a memo, which morphs into a book on reshaping a more eithical sports management profession, “The Things We Think But Do Not Say.”  It’s core elements are: fewer clients, less money, more personal contact.

The day after printing this document and circulating it at an industry convention, Jerry realizes he’s sabotaged his career and desperately tries to get every copy back.  He’s not successful; as he walks through the lobby of the convention hotel, expecting a stoning, he instead recieves a standing ovation.  Jerry– and the audience — think that people have understood the rightness of his cause.

Then the camera focuses in on two of his co-workers as they applaud him.  “How long before they fire him?” one asks.  “I’ll give him ’til the end of the week” says the other, which turns out to be about right.

In the article “The Suburban Exodus: Are We There Yet?” New Geography writer Wendell Cox makes a compelling case that, despite the message from the design and planning professions that Americans are in the midst of abandoning the suburbs for dense urban neighborhoods, what the preference for — and numbers of — detached housing is actually rising.  Cox sites as a major element of his arguement the failure of condo conversions in multiple urban areas around the country.

In the commentary on this June 4, 2010 article, commentor epar states that Cox’s  conclusions are wrong because he is conflating the failure of the condo market with people’s desires for the urban lifestyle.

Maybe epar is missing the point.  It seems that the credit bubble, as the shrinking cities studio saw in Cleveland, would affect properties in all classes equally.  Homes, condos, etc. would go begging and the effects would be more determined by the credit profiles of a community than their planning/design profiles.  Also, to the extent that the multi-story urban condo is pretty much the antithesis of the mcmansion on the big lot, if people really were rejecting the suburban model this typology would be a strong selection.  Cox’s data indicates that is not the case.  Despite the existence of surveys in which people say they want more urban communities.

Shrinking cities like Cleveland are places that suffer the most from “wishful planning;” design, development and zoning decisions that don’t take a good, hard look at what people really do.  The explosion of condo development is due, at least in part, to the professions’ promotion of this typology as a key example of smart growth.

Is it possible that the built environment professions are engaging in “wishful planning” regarding dense, urban, live-work development?  Is this type of develop even necessary in shrinking cities, when land is often readily available to build suburban-style developments in the urban areas?  Can we afford to promote the ‘best’ typologies and uses, when so many communities just need bodies?

Real property in the United States is deeply entrenched in constitutional statutes that protect the rights vested through ownership.  The vast web of legal control is designed to support private enjoyment and curtail unnecessary interference from the government.  These fundamental characteristics of American property law can create enormous obstacles for cities and towns striving to remedy issues of property abandonment and vacancy.  Abandoned properties often slip into a state of legal limbo because the motivation of ownership has been lost through financial hardships, or diluted by the anonymous nature of institutional investment vehicles.  This is where the powerful yet controversial tool of eminent domain comes into play.  The Kelo backlash has put shrinking cities in a difficult position in that eminent domain is a critical component to redeveloping vacancy induced blight on a neighborhood scale.  As noted in a previous post, the East Baltimore Development project run by EBDI has created a very equitable relocation program for displaced residents of the Middle East Baltimore neighborhood.  This relocation program is just one several components that make the East Baltimore project a model for effective Kelo prescribed eminent domain authority.  The foundation of the east Baltimore model is community involvement. Neighborhood residents have substantial interaction with the project in all phases. Numerous channels of communication have been established, and multiple organizations such as the resident-formed Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC) and the Annie E Casey Foundation ensure resident voices are heard.  These measures have created an open and collaborative dialogue between EBDI and neighborhood residents.  While progress has been made, statutory reform is required to make the East Baltimore model the standard rather than an outlier.  As Jim Kelly, director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore puts it, ‘if eminent domain is ever to play its essential role in a just redevelopment of a severely deteriorated urban neighborhood, then the rights of residents to plan the redevelopment and remain in the redeveloped community must be guaranteed by law.”

One of many vacant properties in Baltimore, Maryland

The dysfunctional condition of real estate markets in shrinking cities, along with the neglect of conventional planning models to address issues of vacancy, abandonment and population loss, have directed leaders in Cleveland, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, to pursue innovative revitalization strategies. One aspect of this process is the acquisition of vacant lots, in which the city of Baltimore has exceeded all expectations. As part of its anti-blight initiative, Project 5000, Mayor O’Malley established the ambitious goal of acquiring 5000 vacant and abandoned properties in order to promote new development, eliminate neighborhood blight and improve the quality of life of Baltimoreans. By 2007, the City had acquired and cleared title of more than 6,000 properties, setting the stage for development projects by different sectors and becoming a nationally recognized model for efficient partnerships and large-scale property acquisition. Furthermore, through its custom-built database and code enforcement actions, the City has created an effective toolbox for the clearance and maintenance of blighted properties, some of which have become thriving community gardens.

In spite of Baltimore’s commendable success in confronting and preventing neighborhood blight, gaining control of abandoned properties and establishing a growing network of green infrastructure, the City recognizes that effective strategies for the disposition of its vacant lots are still absent. Innovative mechanisms are needed to put these properties to good use and restructure the city’s physical environment in a way that responds to its current realities and those of its residents. As we have seen through the experiences of other shrinking cities, disposition of vacant properties is a common challenge. In response, a variety of programs and initiatives have been implemented in places like Cleveland and Philadelphia that test new approaches to right-sizing. Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all model; however, by building on the strengths and learning from the experiences of other shrinking cities, Baltimore can design appropriate tools that are more in line with its urban context.

Urban Voids Winner: Waterwork by Charles Loomis Chariss McAfee Architects

One idea could be organizing a design competition around the issues of a shrinking city. This strategy was adopted in the Philadelphia LANDVisions project through the Urban Voids design competition, a collaborative effort partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  This initiative invited entries to create new design alternatives for the city’s vacant properties and asked proposals to engage neighborhood community groups in their implementation concepts.  Cleveland has also undertaken a similar approach through its annual Cleveland Design Competition, an effort initiated in 2007 in order to start dialogue around the underutilized areas of the city. Both competitions have been considered a success mainly because the winning entries have effectively incorporated sustainability, social and economic components into their proposals, addressing some of the most critical issues of shrinking cities.

Building upon the experience of places like Cleveland and Philadelphia, Baltimore can support a design competition initiative, engaging its residents and bringing together talented minds from around the country (and the world).  This effort can set the stage for professionals in the planning, policy and design fields to work collaboratively in formulating innovative right-sizing strategies while creating a more participatory planning model.

Baltimore interest groups are using a range of initiatives to handle the pressing issues of a shrinking city. Many neighborhoods are facing the same problems – too many vacant properties and abandoned buildings – but they are dealing with them in different ways. For instance, we saw how the City’s Code Enforcement Department is dealing with the issue from an economic perspective, in which code enforcement fees will assist in repairing or demolishing some of the properties. This enforcement process will even help acquire some of the properties (through a receivership process), which can then be sold to private developers in attempts to revitalize certain distressed areas. In addition, we witnessed how grassroots efforts at the neighborhood level could create community spaces that beautify the neighborhood, help the environment, and raise surrounding property values when led by residents themselves, as was the case with the Homestead Harvest Community Garden . On a larger scale, we learned how a nonprofit public/private partnership, East Baltimore Development Inc., was transforming East Baltimore through community initiatives and economic development, with a new neighborhood school and in cooperation with developers and Johns Hopkins University to create a science and technology park. The range of actors involved is also very broad, ranging from community groups led by residents, to small non-profits, large partnerships, and the City of Baltimore itself.

The proposed Science & Technology Park in the East Baltimore neighborhood


The diversity of the groups involved has led to a diversity of solutions, and I think that in the end, it’s going to need to be a combination of all these initiatives and actors that will help Baltimore successfully tackle this issue. There doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach to handle these problems between or within shrinking cities, so the combination of social, economic, and environmental initiatives is what will bring the greatest improvement to the city. The City of Baltimore should continue to embrace initiatives by these groups and encourage more ideas and projects to occur at the neighborhood level. Essentially, we learned that it takes team work to stabilize shrinking cities!

Abandoned rowhouses, Baltimore. http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/northave/interesting/

Walking through East Baltimore’s blocks of abandoned rowhouses and vacant lots, it’s hard to imagine what was. In the 1950s, the city was a thriving port and manufacturing center, the landscape of smokestacks indicating prosperity. In the second half of the twentieth century, Baltimore struggled severely, losing thousands of middle class manufacturing jobs that had once propelled this strong economic engine. When the jobs left, so did people–to the tune of almost 300,000 people since 1970. This incredible loss of population and jobs is laid bare in the built environment, with 17,000 vacant homes and lots across Baltimore. The abandoned homes, in particular, provide a haven for drugs and other illegal activity, exacerbating the pervasive social problems that plague the city.

Much has been written about the East Baltimore Development, Inc. plan to completely reinvent Middle East Baltimore adjacent to Johns Hopkins University’s medical campus; this effort will certainly make inroads on the vacant property problem in Baltimore, but it’s not a solution that will work anywhere else. In my opinion, small, incremental efforts at the neighborhood scale will be key in reducing the number of abandoned homes and lots; I find the most compelling of these strategies to be creating parks, open space, urban farms, and community gardens. This green infrastructure doesn’t just reclaim vacant property; it also offers an opportunity to strengthen connections among residents, to improve the quality of the land and water in the city, to provide Baltimoreans with healthier food options, and to teach technical skills to an underdeveloped workforce.

Harvest, http://cdn0.mattters.com/photos/photos/1081251/salads.jpg

Parks and People is the foremost resource for those who want to create green space in their neighborhoods. They offer a number of tools on their web site, including the comprehensive Guide to Greening Neighborhoods: Creating and Caring for Neighborhood Open Space.  The guide gives detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to plan, design, build, and maintain community space, including technical details about what to plant, advice for organization roles in each step of the process, and instructions for navigating the legal aspects of using the property.

Once a community green space is established, Baltimore Green Space is one of the resources that can help protect the space from redevelopment in perpetuity. The organization is a new land trust that works with communities to preserve the green infrastructure they have built and maintained, even though according to existing zoning the green use might not be the fullest and best use of the land. The land trust approach allows the community to have control over their green space, doing the planting, weeding, and other work, while Baltimore Green Space handles the details like taxes, legal papers, and technical assistance.

The City of Baltimore has begun to show formal support for green infrastructure as a strategy for dealing with their vacant and abandoned property problem. The 2009 Sustainability Plan outlined an effort to modify the city’s zoning code to allow for urban agriculture, increasing the number of gardens, farms, and cultivated green space in the city. Furthermore, the plan calls for incentives for urban agriculture and a strong urban agriculture strategy that can respond to the underserved market for healthy foods in the city.

Is household mobility an asset or a problem for neighborhoods?

A new study from the Urban Institute, “Family Mobility and Neighborhood Change: New Evidence and Implications for Community Initiatives” offers some insight into how to interpret residential mobility. The study draws on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connections initiative, a 10-year effort examining neighborhoods in 10 U.S. cities.

On Tuesday, I attended a presentation at the Urban Institute on the study: “Who Moves, Who Stays, and the Resilience of Low-Income Communities.” (You can listen to the audio recording through a link on that page.) The panel included study authors, a representative from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and an official from HUD.

The authors caution against using poverty rates and mobility alone as indicators of a neighborhood’s quality. Instead, the study develops a typology that can be useful for future research on neighborhood initiatives. Residents over time can be characterized as movers, newcomers or stayers. Within each of those three categories, there are subcategories of residents. Movers may be churning movers, nearby attached movers or up-and-out movers. Newcomers may be dissatisfied renters, low-income retired or positive newcomers (in middle child-rearing years). Stayers may be dissatisfied stayers, long-term older stayers, or positive stayers who are optimistic about their neighborhood.

Then, by examining the makeup of a neighborhood’s residents, the neighborhoods were divided into five different typologies:

  • Incubator neighborhoods have low mobility, and tend to be improving. Many newcomers are positive and the stayers are attached to the neighborhood.
  • Launch pad neighborhoods have high mobility, and many movers are up and out. People new to and rooted in the neighborhood have high affection for it.
  • Neighborhood of choice has high mobility but with churning movers. New residents and long-time residents are both engaged in the neighborhood.
  • Comfort zone neighborhood has low mobility, but may have neutral or worsening conditions overall. People are comfortable in and attached to their neighborhood.
  • An isolating neighborhood has moderate mobility with worsening conditions. Many families are churning movers, and the long-time residents and newcomers both are renters with a degree of dissatisfaction.

The panel emphasized that mobility means different things to different neighborhoods. Overall, a neighborhood that loses more residents than it gains may be in distress, and mobility may be a problem. But what of neighborhoods that continually churn residents? Is that an indicator of trouble, or something else? It depends on the neighborhood — and it may be an asset for the neighborhood. In some neighborhoods, a high volume of churn indicated that the neighborhood was actually an incubator for future success — that is, residents there developed skills and networks that enabled them to improve their employment and financial situation, and then they moved out. When they did, they tended to retain ties to the original neighborhood.

One example of this discussed is Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW), a CDC in Lawrence, Massachusetts. [Lawrence is not a part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation study.] LCW views neighborhoods and communities as networks. It trains people as “weavers” to help people navigate the network. These weavers are educated on job opportunities, social services, education centers and other available options to help residents. LCW integrates these weavers and the network of services to popular community events, such as a local school’s back-to-school night. By co-locating these events in places where community members will be in attendance, it increases the chance for connections throughout the network with little extra effort on the part of the residents.

For a city struggling with declining population, both the neighborhood typology and the community network approach offer possible ways of approaching residential connections and mobility.

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