A year ago, I returned from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Fall Meeting in San Francisco brimming with thoughts on the “disruption” coming and already here due to the technology explosion. I return from the 2017 ULI Fall Meeting in Dallas inspired once again, this time by how citizen-led initiative is impacting the trajectory of rising cities. Citizen initiative was either the overt focus or an underlying message wherever I turned. Over and over I heard, “Whatever the problem, the solution often starts with an individual or small group who passionately pursues change for the better.”

PEOPLE CHANGE PLACES

This is especially true in our inner cities. Some of the most innovative movements around the country and the globe are bubbling up from groups of citizens who see a gap and decide to fill it. Whether that gap is walkability, education, public services, or private investment, some of the most effective and progressive movements around the world are organic grassroots initiatives. The cities that foster that growth have become the most exciting cities of our time.

Image from www.slowroll.bike/

Image from www.slowroll.bike/

A great example is Slow Roll in Detroit.  A couple of people had become so tired of seeing Detroit reduced to a story of urban decay that they asked three or four people to take a slow, contemplative look around Detroit by bike. As they looked for the good, they became the good, and their ranks grew until thousands of people were cycling through Detroit regularly. They’ve become part of the life of the city.

Then you have initiatives like Pop-up Hood in Oakland. They focus on filling empty space with local retailers and startups. As I listened to them talk, I thought about our own downtown, with its vacant storefronts occupying what should be prime property. We could do something like this right here in San Antonio.

Vacant storefronts (center, right) surround downtown high-rises and skyscrapers a block away from the San Antonio River on the corner of Soledad and Houston Streets. Photo by Iris Dimmick of the Rivard Report

Vacant storefronts (center, right) surround downtown high-rises and skyscrapers a block away from the San Antonio River on the corner of Soledad and Houston Streets. Photo by Iris Dimmick of the Rivard Report

Community engagement is transforming these cities because it brings thoughtful curators—the citizens who will be the most affected—to the forefront. You can’t just open up the vacuum or it will be filled by the national chains and cheap operations that have been taking up space for decades. When you start at the local level, you get a more vibrant, excellent product.

OK IS NOT OK…FOR ANYONE

Sydney, Australia, has been waging a war against mediocrity. Their motto is “Great spaces or no space at all.”  They quickly realized that there was a kind of development that would make them a competitive city—and a kind that would not. They only allow the former.

If you want to compete as a city, you can’t settle for B-class projects. As the 2017 ULI Fall Meeting emphasized this, it reinforced my long-held mantra “OK is not OK.”

As I heard story upon story of passionate civic engagement and accomplishment, I reflected that too often, we settle for “OK” solutions in some cities. We cite lack of resources or the need to be practical as a rationale to not pursue excellence. But as was consistently obvious in stories from rising cities, when in matters of our civic realm we don’t pursue excellence in the vision, the programming, the design, the execution, and the operations, we end up with just “OK,” and OK doesn’t create a city on the rise.

If you look at ULI, the cities on the rise aren’t the wealthiest; they are just the most ambitious. They are the ones that said “no” to certain things, and “let’s make it happen” to others. From the stories I heard, the initiators weren’t looking at a budget in city hall; they were the citizens who wanted a more excellent place to live.

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE WITH WALKABILITY

There are certain attributes to attractive places for human habitation. Healthy community is not only in the physical, built environment, but the attitude of the people. It’s safe; it’s walkable. One statistic that grabbed my attention was if a place had a Walk Score above 70, its economic value went up in areas like demand, rent and sales prices, and investment returns. Studies have shown that walkability is key to success. People do what they have to in order to live and work in these places, including sacrificing money and extra space.

The most vibrant are usually city centers, but places like Richardson and Plano, Texas, two suburbs of Dallas, are proving that they don’t have to be. Suburban cities and neighborhoods are finding ways to create nodes of live-work-play connected by functional mass transit so that they don’t miss out on demand for walkable, diverse, interesting development and community.

The evidence continues to mount that walkable, dense, vibrant places, whether in a city center or suburban node, are full of surprises, including high economic performance. And they seem to activate citizens’ aspirations (hint: aspiring citizenry leads to great outcomes).

Before and after shots of Times Square in New York City. By rerouting traffic lanes, Time Square is a permanent, iconic, and beloved pedestrian mall.

Before and after shots of Times Square in New York City. By rerouting traffic lanes, Time Square is a permanent, iconic, and beloved pedestrian mall.

San Antonio, in order to rise, needs to push the envelope and encourage visionary excellence at every stage of civic endeavor. If we do, we will discover amazing citizens who want to transform. We need to encourage the people who care about the city. Those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and invest will line up behind the ideas that resonate with them.

IT IS HAPPENING HERE

We’re seeing the beginnings of this in San Antonio. Overland’s Allison Hu and Nicolas Rivard are those kind of visionaries. They’ve created a movement around Dignowity Park. The same thing happened at Hemisfair, Zona Cultural, and more. Transformation is brewing all over the place, and it’s being led by the community.

The community is invited in to contribute to the vision of Dignowity Park and the surrounding neighborhood.

The community is invited in to contribute to the vision of Dignowity Park and the surrounding neighborhood.

Render showing before and after views of Dignowity Park. The plans are based on invited community engagement, ideas, and insights. Courtesy of TBG Partners and Lake Flato in partnership with Public Space East.

Render showing before and after views of Dignowity Park. The plans are based on invited community engagement, ideas, and insights. Courtesy of TBG Partners and Lake Flato in partnership with Public Space East.

San Antonio is primed for engagement. We are pursuing change in an increasingly aspirational way, instead of just being mad about things. You can’t just say “no, no, no.” No matter where you live, if you want a better city, you have to go out and make a better city. That’s happening here. We’re getting away from the fear of change and toward love of our city as the motivator for our engagement. I left Dallas imagining that one day soon, San Antonio initiatives will be showcased at ULI and will inspire others as others have inspired me.

 

Header image: Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, Texas, is a transformative 5.2-acre public park that sits over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway.

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