The Next Urban Comeback

October 28, 2019

Otis White, President, Civic Strategies, Inc.

This article is part of GMA's Viewpoints catalog, a grouping of opinion pieces from the GMA magazine, speeches and other editorials.
With downtowns reviving, the next challenge for cities will be to turn around declining neighborhoods. The playbook hasn’t been written yet, but we know who will be its authors: the residents.

I was fortunate to have a front-row seat for the greatest urban story of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the revival of America’s downtowns. A few scenes from that story:

  •  When I started paying attention in the mid-1970s, downtowns were at their lowest point. With the rise of the automobile, families had started moving away from downtowns in the 1920s, followed by retail in the 1950s and offices in the 1960s.
  • By the 1970s, what was left in many downtowns was government, the courts, law offices, a few office towers, and a handful of once-grand churches struggling to hold on to their congregations. Some had a historic theater, a civic center, or a stadium that drew crowds a few nights a week. But main streets were pockmarked with empty storefronts, and on most evenings the sidewalks were deserted.
  • It wasn’t until the 1990s that downtowns found the keys to success: adaptive reuse of old buildings, housing, wider sidewalks, streetscaping, transit, density, waterfront access, mixed uses, business improvement districts, sidewalk dining, activities and concerts, and a dozen other New Urbanist-inspired strategies.
  • Today, downtowns are being revived everywhere in Georgia, from Savannah to Columbus, Augusta to Atlanta. And in new cities like Sandy Springs and Johns Creek, downtowns are being created where none existed before.

The comeback of downtowns isn’t complete but the goal line is in sight. So it’s time to consider: Where will the next great urban revival take place? My guess: in neighborhoods.

You can see neighborhood revival in some cities. In Atlanta, the Beltline is fueling a rush of development into nearby neighborhoods. In other cities, neighborhoods with historic homes and traditional street grids attract outsiders. As a result, you might think cities’ greatest problem is gentrification.

Gentrification is a serious issue, but decay and abandonment are even greater problems for most cities. So how do we turn around declining places and do so in ways that include those living there now?

It gets complicated because, when it comes to reversing neighborhood decline, we’re in the same place as downtowns in the 1970s. We don’t have a playbook. Parts of the downtown playbook might work in some neighborhoods: walkability, mixed uses, transit, and so on. But much of it won’t.

Even more complicating, we had help from big commercial interests in downtowns. We won’t have their help in neighborhoods. And taxpayers will be even less supportive of spending money in other people’s neighborhoods than they were of investing in downtowns. After all, downtowns are used by everyone. Neighborhoods are mostly for their residents.

So whom do we turn to in reviving neighborhoods? Who will write the playbook of neighborhood revitalization? And where do we get started?

My suggestion: Begin with the only genuine asset that neighborhoods have, their residents. Get them involved and organized, help them to learn about positive neighborhood change, then let them share in decision making and provide some of the effort. In other words, create partners so that the city government is no longer doing things for neighborhoods, but doing things with neighborhoods.

Where will these partners come from? From strong, representative neighborhood associations, along with crime-watch groups, friends of neighborhood parks, community-garden groups, PTAs, small-business associations. Really, any group focused on making a neighborhood—or even a single block—better.

In some neighborhoods, such groups do not exist. That’s why city governments from Riverside, Calif. to Longmont, Colo., Phoenix to Philadelphia are helping residents organize them. There’s no reason we couldn’t do the same in Georgia.

But for this to work, city leaders must practice restraint. In the case of neighborhoods, a wise approach is to help residents organize, learn, discuss, and come to consensus on a short list of achievable projects before the government makes its commitments. Oh, and be sure the neighbors contribute something to the effort, even if it’s just working alongside city crews or offering the proceeds from a bake sale.

After all, groups that have helped scrub graffiti from buildings, sold cakes to turn a vacant lot into a community garden, or worked with police to shut down a drug house won’t let the graffiti come back, the garden fall into disuse, or the drug dealers return. Not without a fight. And that is what cities need if we’re going to turn around troubled neighborhoods: committed, effective partners willing to fight for the places they live.

Otis White is the president of Civic Strategies, Inc. He is involved in an initiative in Atlanta to strengthen neighborhood leadership.

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