Saturday, June 9, 2012

Community Revitalization

Repurposing Downtown and Reviving Community
Growing up in a rural area, I was immersed in an agricultural economy that maintained a limited degree of self-sufficiency. As I became attune to the increasingly prevalent seasons of corporate agriculture, I also observed the transformation of a large rural community into a center of global commerce and as the community changed, so did the downtown. The place I once thought of as the social and economic center of life went through a transition characterized by various phases which included store closings, an influx of legal offices, and finally a proliferation of bars and taverns. The economic and social center I perceived as a child began to decay and quickly fell into disrepair.

Today, however, communities have a renewed interest in the downtown. Although this interest has not coalesced into a one-fits-all approach for revitalization strategy, there are multiple examples of successful methods to develop popular amenities such as; attainable housing, art and culture, restaurants, boutique shopping, professional services, and community. This challenge is not limited to one downtown or community. While many rural and Midwestern communities have downtowns with unique attributes, many face the same dilemmas. Many communities have developed incentive programs and created partnerships to market downtown  and promote redevelopment. Communities interested in redevelopment quickly find there is an established industry of private experts ready to assist in redeveloping, redefining, branding, and place making. Yet, the community can only do so much. Ultimately, many communities are trying to create an environment ripe for a “creative class” of individuals to take root and grow a vibrant community by living and working within the boundaries of streets, buildings, and public space.

The foremost question facing communities is what attracts the “creative” class to an area? Is it empty buildings, nightlife, weather, location, incentives? While market condition and demographic analysis  provide some insight into the motivational forces at work, the “creative” class may not be something that can be enticed to leave one community for another. Nor is the creative class necessarily something that sprouts form a singular live/work space or art fair.  Moreover, it may be something that has to be developed and nurtured.

But first, it is best to identify what exactly is the “creative” class. The creative class, according to Neil Takemoto of cooltownbeta is not a demographic, but rather what he describes as a psychographic. Simply put, the “creatives” are a unique group defined by their risk taking, originality, independence, imagination, inventiveness, innovation and resourcefulness among other things.

This creative class is often what communities are seeking as the foundation for a vibrant and healthy downtown. Charles Landry, a cultural planning consultant, believes that communities operate under an outdated assumption that assumes the creative class will spur further development and enterprise. Regardless, the inherent characteristics associated with a creative class make the group likely to be a catalyst for reimaging and repurposing a downtown.

In other words, if the “creatives” area a commodity then the price must be astronomical. Communities have devoted untold resources attempting to lure these original, independent, and innovative people to empty buildings and homes. Expensive infrastructure has been rebuilt, buildings razed, streets widened, staff hired, gardens planted, and incentives created all in the hopes of attracting innovative people. The end goal being that the “creatives” will develop ingenious and innovative methods of generating sales and property tax capable of financing the long term public investments.

However, simply bringing “creatives” to a place is no guarantee of success. It is no more likely to revive a community than building a new shopping center or business park. Nevertheless, by relying solely on attracting “creatives”, communities may be missing the proverbial boat. While investments in the community center are important, rather than attempt to immediately attract “creatives”, projects should attempt to provide an outlet to express imagination and distinctiveness that already exists.

As Takemoto points out, the “creatives” do not adhere to a demographic. Imagination is inherent to all of us.  But as Landry says, without a method of expression it becomes “lifeless and dull”. That is exactly where the context of revitalization projects comes into play. The downtown plays a natural setting for creativity. The downtown is a complex place.  It blurs the lines between recreation, the arts, government, business, and religion. It’s a place where a person can find inspiration, stimulation, feedback, success and, yes, failure. The downtown is an environment built to facilitate interaction between people, it builds connections between people, friends, generations, commerce, government, and industry. These connections are a product of community and according to Landry, success is evaluated not by the projects themselves, but by the number of new links or connections within a community.

Simply trying to lure an abundance of college graduates artistically inclined or musically gifted individuals to an area isn’t a guaranteed formula for success. It’s becoming increasingly important that context matters in terms of redevelopment and creativity. According to Mike Sheridan in his article, Building for the Needs of an Information Based Economy, “creatives want to live in communities that are unique and inspiring”.  This concept isn’t unique to Sheridan, Christoper Leinberger, a policy advocate for transit oriented development, puts it best when he says “they  (creatives) want to walk to work , work at weird hours, bump into people in the hall and the street, find out what is going on and how to capitalize on it”.

The redevelopment projects likely to be successful are now focusing on how to facilitate new interactions and provide distinctive outlets of expression for those who are already in the community. Creativity is not exclusively attributed to artists, designers, filmmakers, writers, or performers. Creativity is a community asset. It’s the foundation of the humanities and an ever more valuable commodity to the business world.

While an internet search or a trip to the local downtown will easily provide some firsthand examples of investments in the core of the community, another aspect of these changes are often overlooked. We’re seeing a generationally inspired shift in the way we live and work.  The suburban concept of completely segregating life and work is being challenged. We are seeing not only a change in industry, but attempts to repurpose urban centers to a place where we can be inspire to live and work. That is what the bulk of communities appear to be seeking; repurposing. The economic model and framework that built our community centers is long gone, we are left with a geographic and social center filled with expensive infrastructure, our social institutions, and often protected by nostalgic sense of hope. In an age where the economic prosperity is tied to innovation and speed of innovation increases exponentially, it’s ironic we fiercely protect our crumbling downtowns. Yet there remains a group willing and capable of repurposing that physical and social infrastructure representative not of our modern economy, but perhaps our future economy.