Cities are booming, but do they have what it takes to sustain growth?

While cities are creating new jobs and attracting new residents, there are warning signs that suggest this current urban boom lacks the necessary sustainability that comes with focusing on the macro issues of community, affordibility, and displacement, writes Gensler’s Peter Weingarten.

January 19, 2016 |
GenslerOn

Image © Jordan Berta.

I see a picture of a girl sitting near New York City’s Highline, gazing out on an empty street. It’s an evocative image, a little sad actually, and I can’t help but wonder, “Why is the street so empty?” I realize it was taken at an off-hour, but that’s the wonder of the photograph. I joke to myself that The Highline has so wildly succeeded at presenting an above grade urban experience that the experiences of the surrounding streets have been sapped of their energy and urgency. I pause briefly to visualize a Blade Runner city of hierarchical levels racing upwards to new heights. I see a place where blighted streets sit empty, collecting trash and debris and housing the less fortunate. But that kind of dystopian future only happens in bad ‘60s urbanism and science fiction, right?

American society has come to value great experiences over more traditional quantitative rewards, and at the core of this evolution lies people’s desire to live in great environments that make them feel happy. The Highline exemplifies this. New Yorkers willingness to invest in their community made The Highline possible. This investment created incredible urban experience that brings joy to the residents of New York and visitors alike. The Highline goes over streets and blocks without a care as to who owns the spaces that are below or adjacent. The surrounding businesses and communities all had a vested interest in ensuring the success of The Highline, and these stakeholders worked together to transform what had been blight into something of high value for all. The Highline represents urban development at its very best.

‘I worry that the urban boom we’re currently experiencing lacks the fuel to sustain a long burn. What I mean is that cities appear healthy—they’re creating jobs and attracting new residents. But will we have enough capital to keep improving urban infrastructure and housing? And more importantly, are cities losing too many valuable residents as the price of urban living skyrockets?’

But then I turn my attention back to this little girl in the picture, and I wonder if she and people like her should be the object of our obsession with city building rather than the structures that so often garner too much attention for their technical or artistic achievements. She reminds me to think about whom we are designing for (people!) and to always consider the future—not just her generation but also the many subsequent generations to come. Counter to the holistic design of Highline, we often build incrementally, block by block, and we seldom get a chance to coordinate efforts between multiple neighbors. I am concerned that urban planners and designers have become too bounded by lot lines (or even city limits). I wonder if we are thinking enough about the macro issues of community, affordability, and displacement. We have a bad habit of naval gazing and considering our wonderful projects only within their boundaries of existence. We need to break out of our bubbles and remember the bigger picture and the people who inhabit it.

The key to sustaining quality of life in our cities rests in that which is owned by all of us: the public domain. I borrowed the title for this blog from the famous U2 song, because the lyrics tell a tale of an equal society where status and address no longer define class or belief, where these divisions no longer exist because the streets exist for everyone.

So the question becomes: who is the steward of the precious and symbolic public domain? We could say that the role should fall to state and municipal governments, but they seem to be encountering hurdles that prevent them from keeping pace with need. Cities across the country are expanding at alarming rates, and while these “boom areas” appear to be enjoying strong economic growth, you have to wonder if the current model is sustainable over the long haul.

Truth be told there is a real threat to the city experience as value proposition. It is the moment when living in the city is no longer fun and no longer fosters the great experiences its residents seek. At that moment, we risk losing human capital to flight, which in turn takes away quality and diverse citizens and their investment in cities at all levels. We risk returning to dark days of urban decay. The perception of cities as great places to live is what attracts the capital necessary to support new development, curtail affordability and displacement issues, improve efficiency of consumables, and leverage mass transit infrastructure. And without human and fiscal capital city governments won’t be able to fund schools, healthcare, affordable housing, public safety, and other social programs, all of which contribute to a high quality of life experience. These things make the urban experience complete and in turn make residents happy. Take them away, and cities start to look significantly less attractive.

I worry that the urban boom we’re currently experiencing lacks the fuel to sustain a long burn. What I mean is that cities appear healthy—they’re creating jobs and attracting new residents. But will we have enough capital to keep improving urban infrastructure and housing? And more importantly, are cities losing too many valuable residents as the price of urban living skyrockets?

There are clear signs warning us of growing neglect in many urban communities. Most urban investment comes in the form of maintenance and renewal, but cities must also foster new development. Doing so adds necessary supply and revenue streams. The problem boils down to simple supply versus demand economics: without new development to meet demand, what supply exists will cost more. Consider the current state of the Greater Bay Area, where new housing has not kept pace with population growth. Now, three of the top six most expensive places to live in the nation are in the Bay Area: San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland. According to the August edition of the Zumper National Rent Report, in Oakland, long considered a haven of affordable living, the average cost of a One-Bedroom rental apartment is $1,980 per month, and rents in Oakland increased 20% this past year alone.

The lack of affordable housing has disenfranchised many Bay Area residents, and the diversity for which this area has long celebrated is quickly becoming a memory. There has been a steady decline in the percentage of African Americans in San Francisco since 1990, from 10.9% to 5.8%. San Francisco is now one of the least diverse major cities in the United States. Emotional memory is powerful, and it’s hard to believe that the data and our perceptions are so different. We so value the natural beauty of the Bay Area, the exciting innovation, the culture, the creativity, free expression, and the diversity. It all seems so much more egalitarian than it may in fact be.

There are more troubling statistics about the Booming Bay that show this shining beacon of the knowledge economy is not as radiant as it seems. This is not to say that the positive growth the city is enjoying right now is in great jeopardy. Quite the contrary. But we must stay cognizant of the growing imbalance between what we are consuming and what we are nurturing and replenishing. I’ve always thought U2’s lyrics conveyed an uplifting and hopeful view of a future of equality and great happiness. If we don’t embrace addition without subtraction, will our future hold a vision of a little girl staring upon a once active and vibrant street… wondering where has everyone gone?

About the Author: Peter Weingarten, AIA, LEED AP, is passionate about making great places for people. A native New Yorker living in San Francisco, Peter thrives on dialogue and through his extroverted personality is constantly studying the human condition and how society ticks. His practice as a leader in the development of cities and their architecture allows him to passionately pursue sustainability, urbanity, and the evolution of how people live, work, and play. Contact him at peter_weingarten@gensler.com.

GenslerOn | Gensler

Published by Gensler, a global design firm with 5,000 practitioners networked across five continents, GenslerOn features insights and opinions of architects and designers on how design innovation makes cities more livable, work smarter, and leisure more engaging. Our contributors write about projects of every scale, from refreshing a retailer’s brand to planning a new urban district, all the while explaining how great design can optimize business performance and human potential. For more blog posts, visit: http://www.gensleron.com.

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