Flexin' the City
Whatever rises from Ground Zero, there's no question the idea of redevelopment has spurred a rethinking of the American city. But what will that city look like? And how will entrepreneurs fit into it? If we look to the past, the answer to both questions may be: better.
New York City isn't the first to be reborn from catastrophe. Chicago hatched itself as a metropolis of stone, steel and industry after the 1871 fire destroyed most of its wooden structures. San Francisco's elevated Embarcadero Freeway, damaged in the 1989 earthquake, was later demolished, and what were once blocks of urban decay have been rebuilt into a vibrant new area full of homes and businesses. Similar developments are happening across the country due to urban renewal, redevelopment of old industrial sites and general rethinking of what a city is.
Some of the most intriguing ideas come from an influential and growing group of planners, architects and developers who call themselves New Urbanists. New Urbanists and those influenced by them endorse cities where population demographics and land uses are diverse, public open space is abundant, local character is preserved and, perhaps most important, pedestrians feel at home. "What makes a great city is that it is a walkable city," stresses landscape architect Bonnie Fisher, principal in San Francisco urban design company ROMA Group.
What future cities won't include, forward-looking planners say, is sole reliance on the automobile for transportation. Few, if any, large tracts of land will be zoned for single-purpose use as offices, shops or homes. And after half a century of decreasing population density as people have spread out to the suburbs, cities will again be seen as attractive-and fun-places to live. "Cities are going to be like Broadway shows," says architect David D. Dixon, principal at Boston planning firm Goody, Clancy & Associates. "They're going to be entertainment-based."
|San Francisco is probably most cited as an exemplar of a 21st century city. It offers distinctive local flavor in architecture, shopping and dining; integration with unique natural resources; and a well-developed transit system. Aside from the taxing hills, it's a good place to walk, with many entertainment and shopping districts. Of course, housing costs are among the country's highest, and earthquakes are enough to keep some away. But problems aside, San Francisco is leading the way. "This," says Boston architect David Dixon, "is a city that is starting to move toward the 21st century."|
In the future, you'll likely see wider sidewalks, more sheltered and shaded spots for shoppers and strollers to rest, and a mix of residential and business uses, including offices and retail. Parking will tend to be on-street rather than in garages, to separate and protect walkers from street traffic. More businesses will be small, unique and reflective of the city's history and climate.
Many of these one-of-a-kind restaurants, specialty retailers and high-end service establishments will be entrepreneurial. "Entrepreneurs will play a big role," says Dixon. Small firms are best at creating viable businesses that can identify and cater to the needs of sophisticated and often affluent city dwellers, he explains. And entrepreneurs alone can provide the particular local flavor that cities will seek, a fact the cities themselves realize.
"When we do planning, one of the things often insisted upon is that a portion of the retail be small, local businesses," says Dixon, who has worked on urban redesigns in Boston as well as Albany, New York, and Columbus, Ohio. "Big cities and small businesses go together better."
Still, a lot of people won't want to trade suburban space for city excitement. "New Urbanism doesn't appeal across the board," says Cincinnati planning consultant Frank Raeon, a member of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Congress for the New Urbanism. "That's why developers haven't done this on a large-scale basis."
A specific problem is the automobile. Planners still haven't figured out how to make cities friendly to both people and vehicles, says Raeon. Zoning ordinances and entrenched political opposition to the higher population density of many 21st century city concepts also raise obstacles.
What will the future really hold? Down the road, planners may have to consider what happens when and if something replaces the automobile. There's also the possibility of a major, unforeseen economic shift that drives people and businesses to or from cities, notes Dixon.
But, jitters aside, the mood is that after September 11, a new and more agreeable city is on the drawing board. "The central idea of the city seems to be able to survive whatever you throw at it-plagues, famine, fires, terrorists, you name it," says Dean Macris, a planning consultant and former planning director for the city of San Francisco. "Meanwhile, cities are getting better and better at what they do. If you're a planner, you can't help but be anything but optimistic about cities right now."
- Goody, Clancy & Associates
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