Steps to Sustainable Placemaking as Population Grows

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July 22, 2019

The United States is increasingly urbanizing as Americans move to downtown areas and industry or business-specific hubs. According to data from United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 53 urban areas in the United States will be populated by more than one million people by 2030.

Urbanization is increasing: how does this affect communities?

As the populations of cities continue to increase, it creates both new challenges and opportunities for communities. When new neighborhoods arise and development projects take shape, how can these projects ensure they are creating destinations that mesh with the existing fabric of the city? And, how can these projects create new types of experiences sought after by residents, the community, and trendsetters alike?

Uniting fragmented stakeholders: why it matters

If you’re Antoinette Marie Johnson, you’d say that the first step in creating long-lasting, sustainable change is uniting public and private entities. The CEO and founder of Cohere, a creative agency focused in food, hospitality, and real estate, Johnson was recently on the Transforming Cities podcast. On this episode, she discussed how uniting fragmented stakeholders produces the best outcomes for projects.

“When you get them [the entities] to align along a cohesive vision... you’re bringing them together along values and goals they already share,” Johnson said.

This is an interesting time for cities, she pointed out, and referenced the United Nations statistic that by 2050, more than 65 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban destinations.

With this demand for a change in lifestyles across the board comes a demand for improving the way people live, work, and play, she said.

This is where those cohesive relationships come into play. In Denver, the redevelopment of a historic train station exemplifies the achievement of full potential when public and private stakeholders align along a similar goal.

Called Union Station, it has been around since the late 1800s. Falling into a state of near vacancy, it was purchased in 2001 by public groups with the intention of developing it with both public and private uses. The master plan was to transform this historic site into multi-modal transportation hub with transit-oriented private development. Shops, restaurants, bars, hotel space and public amenities infused this structure with a new life that had grown quiet after its former glory days.

As a result, this project because the epicenter of a new wave of life for the Lower Downtown (LoDo) area of Denver. It attracted millions of private dollars in further development of office space, apartments, restaurants and public space surrounding the station. It was a tremendous win for all parties involved.

In short, private architects, developers, and contractors came together with government groups and the public to create a beautiful, successful, urban vibrancy in Union Station and the surrounding areas.

Where cohesion impacts certain business models

With flourishing populations, big brands and large corporations often follow, opening new offices and stores. For communities who value small businesses and independent success, these can pose a looming threat.

On the Transforming Cities podcast, Johnson discusses an example of ensuring that changes in the urban retail experience don’t put smaller, local businesses at a disadvantage.

Cohere worked on the branding for Choice Market, which is a retail concept it describes as “Wegman’s quality food at a Wawa Pace.” For those unfamiliar with either of those northeastern stores, it’s a convenience store that is open 24/7 and offers locally sourced food, meals, and essentials. In a Choice Market, a shopper could buy a bag of peanut M&Ms and a super-local Rocky Mountain Soda Company beverage. Without taking away big brand names, this retailer makes local goods just as attainable.

Essentially, it’s in the public’s interest to ensure that local businesses are doing well and the private interest that their own businesses are succeeding too. By supporting both of these entities in the same environment, cohesion is both possible and profitable.

Additionally, many seeking new lives in the city don’t want the same retail suburban experiences replicated in their new urban homes. Why drive half an hour to a conglomerate of predictable big block stores, when you could peruse smaller, more exciting options closer to home?

Not that all malls are dead – at least according to this article from Curbed. In fact, the author points out that many are thriving as they become more like the city. By offering a hybrid retail experience that focuses more on food than clothing or accessories, these “malls” of the 21st are prospering from urbanization. Smaller, more local stores with interesting items and names not as familiar as a JC Penny or Sears are attractive to urbanites.

Conclusively, rethinking traditional business models – thinking outside of the “big box” – can be beneficial for cities and both public and private interests. It marries the interests of real estate developers who want retail, and the needs of the neighborhood by providing them with a variety of options. In some of these cases, it unites craft and local commerce with new retail establishments that allow them to get their product exposure.

How public space benefits from these partnerships

Aligning stakeholders on a similar goal can also greatly benefit public space in cities. Public-private partnerships have found great success in redeveloping underutilized areas for the common good. In areas that lack open space, revamping vacant structures can bring much needed recreational space to both residents and visitors in the area. More open space gives people the opportunity to enjoy sunshine, fresh air and vegetation all within walking distance of their residence or office. It also creates accessible social gathering spots.

While many would think of a generic park as an open space, New York and Chicago have shown that almost anything can be transformed into a natural, urban playground, as long as both public and private interests are working towards the goal.

In Chicago, a coalition of groups worked together to transform an old, seldom used elevated train line into almost three miles of multi-use recreational space. Called The 606, it is the longest greenway project of a former elevated rail line in the United States. Before its development, one of the neighborhoods it ran through had the least amount of open space per capita in Chicago. The city, The Trust for Public Land, and Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail all worked together to ensure that they maximized the outcome of this project for the community.

On a similar note, The High Line in New York achieved success with developing an abandoned rail line from 1980 into open space. Residents protested when the city made plans to demolish the structure, and a nonprofit group called Friends of the High Line proposed it be preserved and transformed into an elevated greenway. Now, it’s one of New York’s many unique features, and includes greenery and art installations.

Listen to Transforming Cities

For more about uniting stakeholders, listen to Authentic’s podcast Transforming Cities here.

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