Thursday, August 19, 2010

How Urban Renewal = Opportunity

Two major themes here at Open House recently have been neighborhood stabilization and livability. Last week at, Roberta Brandes Gratz tied these two themes together, with a story of urban reinvention.

The story is that of Syracuse, NY, a Rust Belt city that had seen population losses for decades, leading to vacant and foreclosed properties paving over the once bustling neighborhoods of the early 20th century. But recently, a new generation is finding ways to recreate the city with livelier homes and communities,
while helping revive the local economy:

For decades, people like Mr. Destito — young, skilled, motivated — were exactly the sort who left Rust Belt cities like Syracuse. But recently, in numbers not yet statistically measurable but clearly evident at the ground level, they’ve been coming back to the city, first as a trickle, and now by the hundreds. In some ways it’s a part of the natural ebb and flow of urban demographics. But it is also the result of a new attitude among the city’s leadership, one that admits the failure of the re-industrialization efforts of the last decades and instead invents ways to attract new types of residents and keep current ones from leaving. Call it urban renewal 2.0, gentrification on a citywide scale.

Syracuse appears to be experiencing its own brand of the “back to the city” movement we’ve discussed a lot recently. While it’s population and density are no match for the nation’s largest metropolises, the city’s “not yet statistically measurable but clearly evident” growth trends mirror those of urban areas nationwide. Over the last decade or so, it’s become clear that people are rediscovering what convenient, community-driven neighborhoods have to offer.

The lesson of Syracuse is that even as neighborhoods face unprecedented problems in this economy, the trend toward urban revival offers a chance to get cities (and families) back on their feet. Consider what’s happening to Syracuse’s vacant areas:

All over town many buildings of this vintage are being bought and renovated or restored. Each time one is visibly transformed, nearby residents, with new confidence in the future of their community, make their own improvements, creating zones of improvement amid the squalor.
In other words, when livability appears it has a way of spreading. Let’s just hope the message won’t be limited to Syracuse.

Image: the transformation process from worn-down to redone in Syracuse, via

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