Democratizing New Urbanism

Cover Image
Building Local Strength / Congress for New Urbanism

New Urbanism has been around for nearly 30 years. The movement promotes the neighborhood as a livable unit, prioritizes walkability in communities, and seeks to end sprawling suburbs. With these goals, new urbanists have developed entirely new communities with multiple types of residences, shops, and cultural centers. Lots of money is needed to develop these projects, which often results in a high cost of living, fueling criticism that the movement is only able to serve the social and economic elite.

A new report, Building Local Strength: Emerging Solutions for Inclusive Development, produced by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), highlights eight projects across the country that seek to improve existing communities that are economically disadvantaged. The methods explored in the report focus on “smaller, more gradual change,” allowing the character of the existing neighborhood to remain intact.

Through the examination of eight projects, CNU identifies fourteen tools to implement New Urbanist policies, which include: acquiring and aggregating vacant land, respecting local history, creating philanthropic funds, using tactical urbanism, promoting incremental development, and creating an active and beautiful public realm. Each of the strategies is explained in detail, followed by a matrix at the end of the report showing what tools each project used.

The group calls for a holistic approach to revitalization. As the report notes: “A well-functioning neighborhood requires that employment and recreation opportunities, neighborhood-serving retail, schools, public gathering space, and affordable housing are all available within a walkable transit-oriented environment.” In the report, refurbishing existing housing or developing new homes are the primary medium for revitalization (Grow DeSoto Market Place in DeSoto, Texas being the exception).

All of the projects have merit, but two stood out:

The Anacostia neighborhood sits across the Potomac river from the Navy Yards in Washington, D.C. The predominately African-American neighborhood has been economically disadvantaged for years and is now facing a gentrification threat from the development of the new 11th Street Bridge Park, which will span the Anacostia River where the 11th street bridge stands. The nonprofit organization creating the park, Building Bridges Across the River, led the creation of an equitable development plan, which aims to help renters within a one-mile radius of the park buy their homes at a discounted rate, limiting displacement. If they choose to sell at any point, homeowners agree to return 75 percent of the equity earned on the house to the trust. This will help ensure the trust’s longevity and homeowners create wealth.

The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

A million dollar grant given by JP Morgan will go towards growing small businesses on either side of the Anacostia River, further helping to strengthen the neighborhoods. The combination of efforts to ensure residents can stay within their homes — and in many cases own them — along with the development of the local economy is crucial to improving the quality of life of residents of the neighborhood.

Anacostia_w_st
A typical home in Anacostia / Wikipedia

In Portland, Oregon, Jolene’s First Cousin, developed by Guerilla Development, is a mixed-use project with a social mission. Construction has already begun, with completion scheduled for 2019. Combining retail space and housing, the project includes single occupancy rooms that are meant for the recovering homeless population. There are nearly 4,000 people on the streets of Portland on any given night. Oregon ranks second for the highest percentage of unsheltered people, behind California, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report.

The development was partially crowdfunded by pools of smaller investors. In this case, $300,000 was raised by 43 investors, which built upon an additional $1.5 million construction loan. Many of the investors were from Portland, “showing a strong market for this type of investing,” writes CNU. The report leaves out that many of these investors had invested in a previous project by Guerilla Development, Fair-Haired Dumbell, which was already producing returns. Still, crowdfunded opportunities give everyday people a stake in the success of a neighborhood.

Guerrrila Development first crowd funded
The first Guerilla Development crowdfunded project, One + Box / Guerilla Development Company

Many of the strategies outlined in the report focus on the economic side of sustainable urban development. While these are important, they are only one part of the holistic approach CNU calls for.

The report highlights strategies for producing positive incremental change in underprivileged communities — approaches also designed to prevent displacement. This is an important step in eliminating CNU’s elitist reputation.

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