Can Your City Be Brought Back from the Dead?

The signs of a dying city are usually all too obvious. Houses and landmarks stand vacant, their walls crumbling into ruin; businesses are failing while residents' incomes drop; and young people are fleeing in droves to seek jobs elsewhere. But there are also ways to revitalize a city, and reverse its decline.

Photo by stari4ek

Rip Out the Highways

The task of revitalizing a city often means changing its infrastructure to reflect the way the world has changed since the city's heyday. In the twentieth century, many cities — from Seoul, Korea, to Portland, Oregon in the U.S., built massive freeways to welcome cars into their city centers. But over time, these freeways have created pollution and blight in the neighborhoods around them.

Nobody wants to live next to a freeway if they can help it, and thus the areas around freeways tend to be impoverished and neglected. As a result, freeway corridors have done the opposite of what city planners hoped they would 70 years ago. They are driving people out of the city, instead of inviting them to drive in.

Some cities have responded to this problem by organizing citizen revolts against planned highway projects. This happened in San Francisco during the 1950s, when activists stopped the construction of massive freeways through downtown, including one that would have blasted a hole through scenic Russian Hill. More recently, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, decided to chuck an enormous downtown freeway plan in favor of building an inner city greenbelt, bikeway, and public bus system that connects poor neighborhoods with the central business district.

Can Your City Be Brought Back from the Dead?

What projects like these reveal is that city revitalization is often about intelligent transit planning. Cars are slowly being pushed out of city centers, due to traffic snarls and pollution — just as freight trains were pushed out of cities like New York and Paris decades ago. Making cities friendlier for bikes and streetcars makes them more appealing to people who think cars are slowly receding into the past of city life.

At the same time, these projects reveal that bringing cities back to life is a psychological process, too. Though freeways may be slightly more convenient, people prefer to live next to parks, purely for aesthetic reasons — and they are willing to ride bikes or public transit as a tradeoff.

Can Your City Be Brought Back from the Dead?

That has certainly been the case in Seoul, where the city recently ripped out a major freeway through the center of the city in order to restore the Cheonggyecheong River. After cleaning up the polluted river, the city was left with an excellent natural system for channeling floodwaters out of the city — as well as a beautiful park. Now, people want to live in the neighborhoods next to the river, and the area around this former transit corridor is blooming again.

In a similar move, Portland, Oregon's mayor converted a coastal highway system into the McCall Waterfront Park.

Economic Incentives

Unfortunately, no city is going to come back from the dead just because it has created lovely parks and bikepaths. A major cause of urban decay is economic downturn. Usually, a city comes back from the brink of extinction because it receives an injection of money, either from a government or private entity (and often both).

Derek S. Hyra has spent years studying how economic revitalization changed American cities over the past 60 years. Often, American cities were considered to be in decline when their city centers became so neglected and dangerous that people did not feel safe starting new businesses or even walking there. After the passage of the 1949 Housing Act in the U.S., millions of dollars from the federal government poured into cities to "revitalize" downtown areas and central business districts. Cities tore down housing and mom-and-pop shops to make way for corporate buildings and convention centers.

Can Your City Be Brought Back from the Dead?

It's from this period that we get the idea of "gentrification." That's because it was perhaps the ugliest period of gentrification in U.S. history, mostly because these projects were aimed disproportionately at pushing black neighborhoods out of business districts.

Writes Hyra in a recent paper that describes this period:

Federal resources heavily underwrote development costs and enticed real estate developers to design and construct new housing towers, university and hospital buildings, large commercial spaces, and convention centers in blighted central city areas across the country. Between 1950 and 1974, urban renewal was associated with bulldozing an estimated 2,500 neighborhoods in 993 cities. In these 2,500 redeveloped neighborhoods, an estimated 400,000 residential units were demolished. Most of these residential units were older tenements and single-family homes that typically housed African-Americans ... Of the 609,000 people displaced by 1963, two thirds (406,000) were racial minorities, mostly African-Americans.

Over the last 30 years, however, economic incentives have shifted. Since the 1980s, funds for economic revitalization (both federal and local) tend to focus on bringing people back into the inner cities — as long as they have the incomes to do it. So these incentives are aimed at attracting both corporations and luxury housing developers to downtown areas in many cities that are trying to boost their flagging economies.

In previous eras, people were pushed out of downtown and into neighborhoods that were far from central business districts. Today, they are pushed entirely out of the city and into suburbs — where, sadly, many of them bought (and lost) homes due to subprime mortgages. That's why arguments over gentrification today tend to focus on how new, wealthier residents are pushing old residents out of cities.

Hyra notes that racial minorities have not been explicitly targeted in today's revitalization efforts. Renewal projects that were flagrantly racist in the 1950s have become more complicated, not least because wealthy blacks are now leading redevelopment efforts in some cities like New York.

As the revitalization of downtown neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. have shown, these economic policies can bring cities back from the bring of extinction. But they also risk pushing out huge parts of the city's population, replacing longtime locals with wealthy elites who are disconnected from the region's history and may not care about its future.

Bring Nature into the City

Economic stability is a city's lifeblood, but so is environmental sustainability. Metropolitan areas today are experimenting with everything from urban farming to carbon neutral development to make that happen.

Often, environmental remediation brings more money into a neighborhood. In New York and Paris, community groups have created new public parks, the High Line and the Promenade Plantée on top of old freight train tracks. Real estate prices in the High Line neighborhood jumped soon after the park was finished, and new businesses flocked to the area.

Can Your City Be Brought Back from the Dead?

Extreme examples of this trend include charter cities like Masdar City in the UAE, which was conceived of from the beginning as a carbon neutral development. 50 thousand people will live in this city, which will run entirely on alternative energy sources, recycle its water, and use sustainable building materials. Of course, it will also need 150 thousand workers to commute in and service its wealthy residents. Both the High Line neighborhood and Masdar City reveal that "green" cities are still quite expensive.

For all the reasons we've already discussed, revitalization can also mean that people are being shoved out of the city. The blight that once haunted cities is pushed out of sight into suburbs. Tomorrow, we're likely to see suburbs withering away in the shadows of towering, burnished cities that have come back from the grave.