Strategizing Cities - Network Week


By Tanya Silverman

Cleveland, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Joshua Rothhaas.

From sea to shining sea, the United States of America is known for its diversity, in terms of people, and in terms of places. Considering how many different cities exist throughout the fifty states – from New York City to New Orleans, Seattle to Cincinnati, and everywhere in between – certain ones are bound to be more successfully planned and maintained than others.

Alex Garvin, the author of The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, president of AGA Public Realm Strategists, Inc., and Forum for Urban Design, offers his insight to BTR on aspects that make certain cities function or dysfunction.

Garvin discusses some fundamental issues with present-day Detroit, a city that is given near constant media attention for blight and bankruptcy, and St. Louis, known for ongoing population loss. He notes that the “number of people who wish to live” in each “has declined radically over the period since 1950,” and both Midwestern cities currently hold half of the population they did in that year.

Detroit is famous for implementing large-scale razing of buildings, a method that is also practiced in St. Louis.

“Whether you tear buildings down or not, it doesn’t deal with the fact that people chose to move to suburban St. Louis and suburban Detroit,” Garvin tells BTR. “Unless there are people who want to move back into the city, there’s nothing you can do to reverse the decline of those sections of cities.”

The isolation of individual structures that fail to foster a network is also an issue. For instance, St. Louis “has spent a lot of money over the last 30 years on big items which are all too far away from one another to have any synergestic relationship,” leading to assorted complications.

“If you want to go from the convention center, say, to the baseball stadium, it’s too far for most Midwesterners to walk. So they drive, and there’s nothing in between that profits from it,” he says.

Likewise, for those who want to go somewhere from “Union Station – which has been turned into a shopping complex – it’s too far to walk for most people, so they drive, and the result is there is not synergy for these places.”

St. Louis Arch. Photo courtesy of Josh Hallett.

Further, the St. Louis Arch, “which brings in 2-3 million tourists every year, has nothing around it to capture their spending. There aren’t even sidewalks. It’s cut off from the rest of the city by the Mississippi on one side, and a depressed highway on the other.”

Perhaps today’s St Louis does not manifest an effective urban architectural arrangement – but to turn to a more positive account, Garvin shines light on the revitalization of Cleveland, Ohio, which harbors up-and-coming sections like Ohio City. Located outside downtown, this neighborhood attracts activity because of its cheap price and good housing stock.

“I was in a former firehouse in Cleveland [section Ohio City] that was bought by young entreprenuers who were leasing space to young people who are just starting businesses,” says Garvin.

He also praises Cleveland planners for constructing their baseball stadium, Progressive Field, and basketball arena right in the middle of downtown – both were opened in 1994 and intended to be integrated with everything else.

“Now there are shopping streets downtown that are profiting for the spill-over, and they didn’t provide enough parking onsite,” says Garvin. “So in the evening and at night, people actually use the city.”

To provoke change in a city, the buildings need to foster some synergetic network with one another – same goes for a city’s residents.

Garvin examines a case of citizens setting up community gardens in New York City.

“On the Lower East Side, there were abandoned buildings, and empty lots which were attractive for all sorts of anti-social activities,” such as pushers, drug dealers, and prostitutes.

These notorious buildings and lots did not make up the majority of the neighborhood, but there were a few on each block, and the behavior they encouraged (along with the garbage they collected) was enough to prompt local residents to take them over and, with the help of Trust for Public Land and Bette Middler, strike a deal with the city in 1999.

“The city sold them those sites, and they are today a part of the revival of what is a completely reversed neighborhood,” he says of a community that used to be predominately low-income, but now is increasingly gentrified.

In addition to setting up community gardens, New Yorkers have also put forth effort to restore their parks. Alex Garvin, who authored Public Parks: The Key to Liveable Communities, discusses some of these projects.

“We have Bryant Park, where there were murders and 800 robberies a year in the 1970s, and it was turned over to the Bryant Park Corporation, a non-profit entity which now manages it and maintains it at no cost to the city of New York at all,” he says of this presently bustling public space in Midtown Manhattan.

Central Park in NYC. Photo courtesy of Rob Boudon.

In the downtown area, Battery Park is now run this way. Meanwhile uptown, Alex Garvin mentions how “three quarters of the money used to restore” the famous Central Park comes from private sources.

“What you have is governments that pulled out and community organizations that moved in, and when they’ve done that, you have very successful parks,” he says.

Back to the Midwest, Garvin points to Minneapolis, a city that has faced population loss, but the parks, which are in “spectacular condition,” are not run by the government, but by an elected parks board. Active since 1883, the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board manages a dedicated stream of income by collecting property tax.

“It’s not accident that the best-located, best-designed, best-maintained park system in the United States is in Minneapolis,” he says. Even if a city is losing tax revenue and the parks are suffering, people have the power to “create an entity that will manage properly and will raise the money that’s necessary.”

Piedmont Park, Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Daniel Mayer.

He continues that Piedmont Park in Atlanta, which was deteriorating, but is now run by a conservancy – not to mention Shelby Farms Park in Memphis that’s is now being revived and rehabilitated by the Shelby Farms Conservancy.

“In city after city, which did this, there has been a community response to take control of the park and create a non-profit conservancy to own and manage the park,” says Alex Garvin.

As provincial or global American cities can be, planners and everyday residents seeking change can look to adapt aspects of instances that worked, such as the many successes of government-free park maintenance, or learn from those that did not, like the failure to integrate isolated landmarks in depressed locales.