We thought it would be appropriate to begin the new Urban Paradoxes with reprints of some of our highly commented upon article from the past. With the May issue, we begin new content and the beginnings of the Urban Paradoxes Magazine. Please link on to Urban Paradoxes for an editorial about the new Urban Paradoxes and our new directions. We also urge you to check out the other pages listed (in the third column).
Now on to the essay …
For the most part traditional urban planning has failed our urban neighborhoods. Rather than being driven by practical considerations and a real understanding of urban decline, much of what passes for urban planning is driven more by wishful thinking than anything else. Ultimately such planning is destined for failure.
If traditional urban planning is not working, let's get rid of it. It's time for a new approach.
I hesitate to mention this word, its full of capitalistic connotations at best, greed, at worse, and in between, blind spin-doctoring. The word is branding.
There, I've said it.Before you shut down the blog let me at least tell you what I am talking about.
Think about what made made our urban neighborhoods a place that people wanted to live in, in the first place. I know that when I was a kid, my parents moved to Baltimore's Windsor Hills neighborhood because it had the reputation of being a nice place to live and raise a family. Now, isn't that a form of branding?
Here in Cleveland, many of the older, and not so old, residents of Glenville remember when that neighborhood was known as Cleveland's "Gold Coast" because of its many upscale boutiques, and before that, "Cleveland's Garden Basket" from its many truck farms. Branding, again.
But what makes this particular branding significant, is that most of the current residents who mention this, didn't live in Glenville when it was the Gold Coast, and certainly not when it was "Cleveland's Garden Basket."
Although Glenville is in serious decline, the Brand remains.So much so, that some of Glenville's residents want to revive the "garden" part and have Glenville become known as the "Western Entrance" to the International Gardens and Rockefeller Park.
Okay, so where am I going with this?
Do we not buy a particular brand of car because of what it offers in quality and safety, price, and amenities? Do we not buy into the brand – its quality of life and affordability – of a neighborhood when we make decisions about where we are going to live?
When we think about revitalizing urban neighborhoods this is where we need to begin, with the neighborhood's brand, with its negative and positive connotations. I suggest that before any plans are made that we articulate the spirit, the qualitative essence, of place. This is the unarticulated brand.
Just as we take cars for test drives before we purchase, we need to walk the neighborhood, to talk to the people, to eat in the restaurants, and to drink in the pubs. We need to learn to feel what made, and makes, the neighborhood a neighborhood — before we create plans.
We need to think of neighborhoods as a "her" – an ever-evolving living organism – not an "it" devoid of life.
We need to understand why she is in decline (if she is), not from the perspective of urban experts, but by hearing, seeing, and feeling her story. We need to see her through the lenses of the camera. We need to see her inside out, through the windows of her homes, stores, places of work, and cafás and the lives of her residents.
We need to become part of her life, just as we must make her part of our life. We need to feel her embedded poetry. And when we do, we will discover her essence, and be able to articulate it, to "brand" it. The brand is not the neighborhood's essence; rather the brand proclaims her essence. When we realize her essence, we have something we can latch hold of, something that we can "sell"— an urban neighborhood where people that want to visit and to live in.
Done correctly, an amazing phenomena will take place: residents will begin to demand all that the brand promises (just like they expect and demand certain qualities from commercial brands): good schools,livable homes, retail amenities; everything that makes a neighborhood home. The seeds to stop decline are sown, and the neighborhood begin to experience, once again, the realization of her vital essence through development that truly builds upon who she really is.
Let's throw away the master plans. Let's start spending our energy in discovering, and experiencing, the embed poetry, the essence, of our urban
neighborhoods. Then, and only then, do we have that hitherto elusive essential quantity necessary for the revitalize our urban neighborhoods.