Jeff Speck’s book “The Walkable City” talks about picking winners and losers when it comes to creating walkable neighborhoods so as not to waste extremely limited resources. I not only agree, but I would suggest that this idea needs to extend beyond just creating pedestrian friendly areas, but to every decision cities make.
This idea crystallized in my mind (as I have written)as a sort of Powell Doctrine for urban revitalization. Too often I have seen limited city resources being thrown into neighborhoods where it was clear that the quantity, the weight, the value, of the public investment was going to be insufficient to overcome the sorry state of things. I could understand why, at first, someone might view this attitude as cold, heartless, and calculated. It is most definitely the last.
The calculation is that it is more effective to “overwhelm” one particular area, preferably the area closest to the tipping point of prosperity, so that it can then become a resource in extending the prosperity to the next neighborhood, and the next, and the next, rather than spreading precious resources until they are so thin as to be ineffective. Putting in a new sidewalk in one place, some decorative lighting in another, and building a new school in yet another dilutes the impact to the point that none of those investments are likely to “pay off”. Concentrated in one, not randomly selected or politically determined neighborhood, but chosen because it is the best candidate to become the next big thing there is a greater possibility for a positive outcome.
The idea of an Edwards Street renaissance, for example, is illustrative. As I have previously described, the area between State and Pearl Streets in Springfield is perfectly poised to become an urban oasis. It is replete with magnificent architecture, strong institutions, tremendous quantities of federal investment, ditto state investment AND underutilized and undervalued properties which could easily become the most desirable urban properties in western New England.
I live a significant distance away from this neighborhood. The city and state together have announced millions of dollars more in investment in that relatively tiny district. I could easily object on the grounds that the Maple/Union street district hasn’t received 1% of the public money for sidewalks, decorative lighting, government buildings, and street improvements over the last 10 years which the Armoury Quadrangle has gotten. The truth is I’m thrilled. I think it’s the right choice. Everything is pointing to the possibility that these investments could increase the value of the private property in the area by millions and millions of dollars.
The hypothesis is that the Armoury Quadrangle neighborhood could go from being a target of revitalization efforts, to an anchor from which further revitalization efforts could go forth. Picturing a newly invigorated few blocks just north of State Street and possibly a billion dollars of investment just west of Main Street, it’s easy to envision the area in between becoming, given its enormous stock of underutilized and undervalued housing, an urban neighborhood without on the rise.
In another example, the city went back to a neighborhood schools model a few years back. The reasons for this adjustment were mostly financial, related to busing costs, but were also a consequence of the total failure of racial desegregation efforts in the city over the last 40 years. Attempts at desegregation had created such incredible rates of white flight that there was no longer any real ability to “shift” students from one school to another within the city and alter racial makeup substantively.
Whatever the reasons, the return to the neighborhood schools model is, in fact, a way to allow winners to exist in the city as well in terms of home values and perceived “school quality”. Allowing enclaves of prosperity to create outcomes of perceived educational excellence (as inevitably follows) can lead to the growth of communities within the city where the middle class is willing to invest and live. Linking enough of these communities together, and continuing to offer choices at the high school level which make parents comfortable with the opportunities available to their children beyond secondary education, could be the key to attracting people of means to the city in large numbers.
Are there other “winners” which can be chosen given other qualities, characteristics, or amenities? Parkland and access to recreational opportunities, proximity to health services(particularly for the elderly)? I don’t know. Picking winners, though, is both a good idea and the only intelligent way to utilize resources. The resources do not exist to improve our struggling cities without triage. It can seem a cold and cruel thing, but the long term success of the battle against decline in cities will be decided by the weight of the numbers of healthy citizens, establishments, properties, and institutions which are there to resist the blight, dysfunction, and dereliction which have been entrenching themselves here for decades.