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Reviving Freeze-Dried Urban Neighborhoods
Posted September 30th, 2013 in Blog and tagged , , , by Rick Hill

granary-row-salt-lake-city-2-537x405How colorless urban districts are being revived by imaginative citizens.

 

I spend a lot of time looking at the underbelly and backside of cities instead of the preferred Chamber of Commerce photo ops. I find the more humble districts of a city, the ones somewhat frozen in time to be far more interesting.

 

These districts are often located between the showcase blocks of a downtown and the first ring of gentrified neighborhoods. Characterized by acres of underutilized parcels and aging and often functionally obsolete buildings, the “in-between zones” are the most intriguing. Even in their tattered state, the remnant zones of previous industrial, manufacturing, and segregation economies offer hope, promise and the greatest potential for economic development.

 

However, these marginal zones are almost never truly supported with a real civic commitment. They are seldom re-energized with significant investments in cultural facilities, meaningful public art, parks, circulation improvements, and other catalysts which could become the engines of an urban renaissance and community regeneration. Ironically, the typical symbols of community progress, often costing hundreds of millions of dollars, such as performing arts centers, science museums, arenas, convention hotels, and exposition halls are located just a few blocks away.

 

Yet, these in-between zones often exhibit evidence of slapdash improvement plans, poorly defined economic development initiatives, and ill-conceived marketing schemes. Accordingly, the touch of one dimensional traffic manipulations are prevalent with one way streets engineered to move suburban commuters through the areas as fast as possible. Dated streetscape improvement plans, now consisting of broken scored concrete pavers, weed filled planters and stylized street lamps with faded banners proclaiming the name of the newly branded acronym district are all too prevalent.

 

All the while, civic leaders still promote a self-proclaimed notion that they govern a world class city and put forth as proof their glistening sport venues, performance halls and convention facilities, while failing to acknowledge their third world neighborhoods located a short distance away have died.

 

So why are these dead and functionally obsolete districts relevant in the first place? My response is simple. We have moved to a knowledge economy and its raw material is creative talent. Creative talent requires real places of communication and production. Places of creative production require two ingredients: a vibrant local, independent, creative and entrepreneurial community and a physical center for this community to evolve. Stated in other words, nothing can be substituted for the continuing experimental flair expressed through the sensibilities of artists, craftsmen, designers, and other creative industries working along side independent shops and cafe in an open and barrier free district.

 

Clusters of Creative Foundries

 

As such, cities must develop clusters of creative foundries and imagination laboratories where social interaction is vital to the development of ideas. This requires ever evolving communities of substance with cafes, art galleries, beer gardens, art parks, playhouses, theaters, craftsmen workshops, performance venues and festivals. This type of development cannot be created in dense, high cost, and land constrained center cities. High stake real estate economics are far too unforgiving.

 

Conversely, the in-between zones provide an unrealized economic opportunity with their wealth of former warehouses, dilapidated schools, abandoned churches, and historic homes that can be revitalized with less risky real estate strategies. Most of all, the underutilized back alley ways, the former loading docks and rear storage yards — the throwaway components of these zones are the most fertile grounds for innovation and creativity because they have little value in their present form and thus present very few economic barriers to innovation.

 

From my observations, creative communities best evolve from a built legacy and the cultural context of architecturally compelling places that can be sculpted from re-purposed buildings. Once these structures are brought back to life with vital activities, social interaction and cultural production — a new urban narrative unfolds.

 

It is the complexity of new and old with its well-worn grain that defines a real district of substance. Authenticity defines a spirit of place that is unique to each city. That is because roughness, tough material qualities and gritty complexions welcome change from a grassroots culture of empowered citizens from all walks of life. The result is an urban fabric and aesthetic that facilitates an openness required by the industries of imagination.

 

When transformations begin in these diverse districts, spontaneous exchanges occur and new ideas begin to mix, resulting in a new theatrical energy, innovation and creativity. A new market place comes to life. New shops open, restaurants thrive, and people move into the area. The end result is a quality place which could never be created in an urban shopping galleria, new convention center, downtown arena or performing arts center.

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