Downtown Mount Morris, N.Y. Photo by Rigoberto Perdomo for the NY Times
Imagine what could happen in small- and medium-sized towns and cities in Georgia if, say, just ten developers who take their time, aim at creating lively streets and make a point of preserving economic diversity started working here. Or to put it another way, imagine what a small army of developers like Greg O'Connell, profiled here in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, could do. And what if they coordinated their actions?
For a few months last year, I helped write the Athens Rising column--an opinion column about local development, planning and architecture issues--for Flagpole Magazine, the weekly alternative newspaper here in Athens, Ga.
The column's main writer--Kevan Williams--had asked me to write the column every other week while he traveled out West to places like Portland, Ore. And that's what I did--having fun, mostly--from August through December 2010.
Kevan's back in town now, and I'm off traveling abroad and happy--for now at least--to be free of deadlines.
According to the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, most of Athens-Clarke Co. is not an especially affordable place to live. That's because our location efficiency is low--which is to say, most of us live in not very walkable neighborhoods and have limited access to transit.
The index, a tool created by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, gauges the true cost of living in a particular places by factoring in transportation costs along with the cost of housing itself. Traditionally, housing has been considered affordable if it costs 30 percent or less of a household's income. In contrast, this housing and transportation index defines affordability to mean combined transportation and housing costs should consume no more than 45 percent of household income. By this measure--if I'm interpreting things correctly--most of Athens-Clarke Co. is not in the affordable range.
Here's the link for the Athens region. In addition to looking at combined housing and transportation costs, you can separate them out and also explore gas costs and greenhouse impacts by region. It's not the most intuitive site, but it's definitely worth a look.
Here are two events I wish I could attend this week, but can't:
Tonight.Southern Hospitality: The Recipe for Fighting Homelessness in Athens, a panel discussion sponsored by host. nourish.sustain, what looks to be mainly a group of UGA students. Panelists include: Saskia Thompson from the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Athens; Evan Mills from the Department of Human and Economic Development in Athens; Donna Bliss, assistant professor in the UGA School of Social Work, and Lynne Griever from Faces of Homeless Speakers Bureau. At the Miller Learning Center on UGA's campus, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 24.LOOK AT THAT! Fresh Approaches in Urban Redevelopment for Athens sponsored by the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation. The one-day symposium will highlight examples of revitalization in cities inside and outside of Georgia in order to inspire action in Athens. Reservations required. Check link for more details.
Urban Sketchers is a blog and Flickr file-sharing group devoted to promoting the practice of drawing what you see in cities and then sharing those drawings.
Contributors are asked to follow a few fairly elastic rules including:
Draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what you see from direct observation
Be truthful to the scenes you witness
Share your drawings online
The blog features lots of great sketches, and links to hundreds of urban-related online drawing groups from all over the world. Don't neglect to check out the Urban Sketchers Flickr group. It's a lot of fun to browse through. Doesn't look like Athens has its own group--yet.
Don’t try to out-suburb the suburbs with car-oriented living.
Do try to understand what makes your city unique, and use that to create a city “brand” that “springs from the native soil.”
That’s the advice Aaron Renn, who writes about cities for a blog called The Urbanophile, is giving to cities and their mayors. He says cities like Austin, Texas, Portland, Ore., Charleston, S.C., Houston, Texas and Las Vegas, Nev. have seen success in part because “they were able to create aspirational narratives about their brand promise that resonated with the people they wanted to attract.”
What should Athens’ brand be?
I want Athens to keep attracting smart, creative people who like to walk or bike to work, school and play. So, I’d like to create an Athens city brand built on an incredibly vibrant college town scene that’s fed by great local food, serenaded by the best music anywhere--all woven together by some of most walkable and green neighborhoods you’ll find in the South. (There’s still a lot—a lot—of work to be done to create the kind of neighborhoods I’m envisioning, but the raw materials are here.)
What’s your brand idea? And can you express it in a bite-sized, catchy phrase? (I can’t for mine—at least not yet.)
"But it's not just a matter of putting sidewalks everywhere. Frankly, I wish it were that simple...
People's willingness to walk is a function of population and building density, (which in turn influences) the availability of 'amenities' within walking distance (for example, Walkscore lists these types of businesses and civic assets as key destinations: Transit; Grocery Stores; Restaurants; Cafes & Bars; Movie Theaters; Schools; Recreation Centers; Libraries; Bookstores; Fitness Services; Pharmacies; Hardware Stores; and Clothing Stores)."
Today’s Athens Banner-Herald editorial asserts that Athens is “not ready to attract the kinds of industries that could provide jobs for those young professionals.” In support of this assertion, the editorial points to the failure to develop a high-tech industrial park near the intersection of U.S. Highway 78 and Georgia Highway 316, the failure to attract two pharmaceutical manufacturers to the area and the failure of the effort to land a new federal animal disease research laboratory.
If instead of failing, Athens had succeed at building that high-tech industrial park, and getting those pharmaceutical jobs and the federal laboratory, it’s possible Athens would now be securely on the path to becoming a “cool” city. But I doubt it.
There’s always a little bit of the chicken or the egg conundrum to questions about local economic development strategy, but part of the reason Athens isn’t attracting the kind of high-tech firms and jobs we want is that Athens just isn’t a “cool” enough city yet.
Tax breaks and cheap land usually aren’t enough to attract high-tech firms—whose success is keyed to their ability to attract talented workers (that is, the kind of people who want to live in cool cities)—to specific communities. The firms want to locate in places their potential employees want to live.
And what kind of places are those? Well, as the editorial suggests, they are places that have “invested in the elements of cultural coolness: good coffee, good food and good music.” Athens certainly has a decent share of that kind of coolness, but I think there’s more to the story than that. There’s good reason to believe that many young educated professionals today also want to live in walkable neighborhoods where you can get groceries, go out to eat, play at a park, listen to music or go to a bar without always having to get in your car.
The talent of the local labor pool is certainly among the most important factors in determining where high tech firms will locate. The trouble is it’s really hard for local governments to do anything very direct about improving the talent pool of existing residents. But if they want to, local governments can make big improvements in local infrastructure, in making walkable neighborhoods, creating lively downtowns and fostering lively cultural scenes. And these amenities—which are quite tangible and easily perceptible—are proven talent attractors.
Of course, Athens should continue to court high-tech firms to move here. Of course, Athens should try to make it as easy as possible and prudent for employers to move here. Keep in mind, though, that because Athens is home to a large, well-regarded university and already has a solid reputation as a culturally lively spot, the city doesn’t have to beg for attention from employers. We’ll keep getting glances at least.
But if we want to start “winning” more in terms of getting employers to move here, then I think we need to change our economic development strategy.
Instead of scrambling to accommodate whatever random suitor-firms wink at us, let’s adopt an economic development strategy that prioritizes enhancing walkability and cultural vitality in central Athens. (Personally, I think Athens needs more work on the walkability front—that is, on increasing density, creating “complete” streets,” more mixed-use development—than it does on the cultural front.) This sort of strategy, I think, will likely be more effective in getting more employers to say “yes” to locating here. It also has the advantage of being something that local governments can actually do reasonably well.
Urban affairs writer Aaron Renn asks a squirm-inducing question for self-identified progressive urbanists like me: how come the so-called most progressive cities—the cities that have the best anti-sprawl, density and transportation policies—are also so “white” ethnically? And can an American city really call itself progressive if it lacks diversity?
Renn, who runs a blog called The Urbanophile, has a nuanced answer to this question, but the short version is that because African-Americans and Latino immigrants are disproportionately poor they often have different local planning priorities than upscale whites.
Citing what’s happening in Cincinnati where a coalition of African-Americans and anti-tax Republicans has formed to oppose a proposed streetcar system, Renn cautions that progressive urbanists who take for granted the support of African-Americans and Latinos are in for some rude surprises.
Selections from Renn’s article:
“In fact, not one of these “progressive” cities [Portland, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, Denver] even reaches the national average for African American percentage population in its core county. Perhaps not progressiveness but whiteness is the defining characteristic of the group…
This [the fact that African-Americans and Latino immigrants are disproportionately poor and often have different site priorities and sensibilities than upscale whites] may explain why most of the smaller cities of the Midwest and South have not proven amenable to replicating the policies of Portland. Most Midwest advocates of, for example, rail transit, have tried to simply transplant the Portland solution to their city without thinking about the local context in terms of system goals and design, and how to sell it. Civic leaders in city after city duly make their pilgrimage to Denver or Portland to check out shiny new transit systems, but the resulting videos of smiling yuppies and happy hipsters are not likely to impress anyone over at the local NAACP or in the barrios.
We are seeing this script played out in Cincinnati presently, where an odd coalition of African Americans and anti-tax Republicans has formed to try to stop a streetcar system. Streetcar advocates imported Portland's solution and arguments to Cincinnati without thinking hard enough to make the case for how it would benefit the whole community.
That's not to let these other cities off the hook. Most of them have let their urban cores decay. Almost without exception, they have done nothing to engage with their African American populations. If people really believe what they say about diversity being a source of strength, why not act like it? I believe that cities that start taking their African American and other minority communities seriously, seeing them as a pillar of civic growth, will reap big dividends and distinguish themselves in the marketplace.”