The year 2016 has been an interesting one for people with a passion for cities. The year was full of promise and optimism for urbanists, as artists, entrepreneurs and innovators, and public sector leaders continue to seek each other out and imagine better futures for cities. But at the same time, violent crime seems to rising in some cities, after decades of rapid decline; relations between police and minority communities in many cities grew more strained as highly-publicized encounters led to deaths on both sides; and, we endured a presidential campaign in which president-elect Donald Trump characterized the conditions in large cities as “a disaster”. It’s fair to say that in true Dickensian fashion, this is the best of times and the worst of times for cities, and we’re not entirely certain which narrative will be the definitive one going forward. As 2016 comes to a close, I’ll take a stab at four themes that characterize the year for cities, and four that could emerge for 2017.
The expectation of urban revitalization. Contrary to what the president-elect said about cities over the course of the year, 2016 may be the year we recognize that urban revitalization is no longer the exception, but the rule. After a decades-long downward slog that was forged in the fire of many urban riots in the ’60s, cities began a comeback that began in a handful of cities in the ’90s, spread to more in the first decade of this century, and touched even more after the Great Recession. Today, there are cities, like Detroit and Cleveland, that were thought to have no real path to growth, but are experiencing their own rebirth.
The rise of the rest. This is related to the above. During the ’90s, one could say that East Coast cities like New York, Boston and DC were beginning their turnaround, while Sun Belt cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston and Dallas were still in an adolescent-like high growth phase. Beginning before the Great Recession, but picking up once again after it, many Rust Belt cities experienced similar turnarounds, while Sun Belt cities continued their strong growth. Part of this is motivated by high costs of living on the east and west coasts, prompting many people to consider other locations, but it’s also due to cities’ gaining a better understanding of how to market and brand their unique qualities, and finding willing consumers.
The merging of technology and urbanism. The last year saw more of the uniting of two groups that seem to share a fondness for cities with a technical and rational approach to improving them. Tech types have been growing in numbers in cities across the country for at least a decade, drawn by urban dynamism and vibrance, neighborhood character and the concentration of commercial and cultural amenities. But they’ve found much to focus on that their skill set can address — the improvement of urban systems, such as water and road infrastructure; the improvement of public transit; and the improvement of parks and recreational facilities. In doing so, members of the tech community have found themselves uniting with other city residents with similar interests, and lending their expertise.
The decline of angst. The early years of the urban comeback brought a sense of renewed pride to cities, but once it spread beyond its initial core, lots of new residents wondered about their impact on surrounding low and middle-income communities. Early urban pioneers often became advocates for preserving the low and middle-income character of surrounding neighborhoods. Today, however, as high housing costs have put increasing pressure on city neighborhoods of all types, we’re seeing a recalibration of the revitalization thought process.