Atlantic Cities

Rethinking Our Cities in the Rebuild Era

Rethinking Our Cities in the Rebuild Era
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The Atlantic Cities is exploring America's rebuilding efforts in a four-part series. This is the third installment. Don't miss parts one and two.

No rebuilding project in American history has shouldered such complex burdens of pain and loss, anger and renewal as the new World Trade Center site.

"It demonstrates how we deal with adversity,” Najib Abboud, the infrastructure resilience director at Weidlinger Associates, says in a short, Tom Hanks-narrated documentary about the project released last fall. "We're gonna use this as an opportunity to rethink what we do and how we do it and whether we can do it better."

In this series I've presented visual evidence and discussed the gap between rhetoric and reality, but have yet to explain what it means to rebuild. As with the World Trade Center, there's a sensibility emerging across the country that a repair or restoration of America and its collapsed cities won't suffice, that the old way of doing things no longer works.

We need a grand rethink: a reconsideration of what cities can do with less, a re-envisioning of their make-up and mission. Fortunately, right now we're seeing a great ferment of thought and experimentation that is updating our ideas about community, planning and the urban economy, and likely to shape our future.

At an opening session of the inaugural New Cities Summit in Paris last week, speakers highlighted three crucial needs for tomorrow's cities: excellent communications, sustainable growth solutions and public-private partnerships. At the annual spring meeting of CEOs for Cities, also last week, AOL founder and chair of the White House's Startup America initiative Steve Case offered a bit of advice for the 200 mayors and city officials in attendance: retain talent, connect innovators, and embrace failure.

Urban economics analyst Storm Cunningham sees the start of a shift from large-scale manufacturing to what he calls "regenerative wealth-creation," which refers to social, green, and restorative efforts. Similarly, the British architect Indy Johar talks of the rise of a "civic economy":

Whether it’s about setting up a co-op to buy energy that creates a whole new market relationship with providers or about DIY-producing our own furniture, this is the new behavior of society and it will fundamentally change the nature of production, the relationship between consumers and producers, and the nature of investments. We are in a great restructuring, a great transformation. Technology, culture and human consciousness – how we exist in the world – are changing.”

Little Things Labs, an independent innovation firm, aims to assist that restructuring. It partners with corporations and nonprofits to spark growth in post-industrial cities, such as a recent project to draw talented, ambitious professionals to Detroit. That effort has helped the Motor City begin to remake itself as a hub for new businesses (as detailed in the Atlantic Cities video series, Detroit Rising). Inc. magazine has dubbed Detroit “Startup City,” and a host of tech-related firms have sprung up there.

In Chattanooga, Little Things lead inventor Josh McManus co-founded CreateHere, a talent retention and cultural change project that "sparked over 300 creative enterprises, stimulated over $4 million in real estate purchases, [and] retained and attracted thousands of individuals." New museums, a redeveloped riverfront and super-fast Internet have transformed Chattanooga, a city once known as "the country's dirtiest," into an appealing destination able to attract major commitments from the likes of Amazon and VW.

Cleveland has seen a similar, if lesser, downtown renaissance. Young people have also begun returning to St Louis, where the city is putting in a $43 million, 2.2-mile downtown trolley and will soon break ground on a $500 million riverfront redevelopment project around the Gateway Arch. Louisville and Cincinnati, too, are reinvesting in their under-appreciated cores and starting to draw young residents.

Officials in a handful of cities – including Chicago, New York, and Vallejo, CA – have implemented participatory budgeting to increase local involvement. Boston's New Urban Mechanics is a municipal body that collaborates with residents to develop innovative civic services. New York City has Change by US.

The U.K. crowd-sourcing site SpaceHive.com is focused on urban regeneration and connects to foundation grants and government funding. A recent project to redevelop a community center in Glyncoch, Wales, surpassed its funding goal of more than $1 million.

There's also IOBY, which stands for In Our Backyard, Neighborland, a New Orleans-based company* focused on citizen-led community renewal, and Patronhood, preparing to launch soon. Detroit has its own crowd-funding site, as does San Francisco.

I could go on. It's clear that the recession has led to an explosion of Rebuild Era thinking and doing. The question is, is all this leading to a new post-industrial metropolis, in which strong, effective leadership can sustain job growth and foster deep engagement? Or is it just a momentary fad, destined to fade away as the economy slowly but surely recovers? These are among the questions I'll address in my fourth and final post in this series.

Top image: Kinetic Imagery / Shutterstock.com\

*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Neighborland as a nonprofit. It is a for-profit enterprise.

David Lepeska writes about urban issues and the environment for The New York Times, Monocle, and other publications. He lives in Chicago. All posts »

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