What simple act, if widely adopted, could kick urban revitalization up to the next level? Could it be . . . falling in love?
Peter Kageyama, author of For the Love of Cities, brought his unconventional philosophy to the 2016 ULI Fall Meeting in Dallas as part of the Institute’s Changing World Speaker Series. “I ask people if they love their cities,” he said. “The sad truth is that not enough people do. Emotions are contagious; when more people say they love their cities, more people will feel it and believe it.
“The way most people feel about their cities is characterized by one thing: the pothole,” continued Kageyama, a senior fellow with Alliance for Innovation. “We could fix every pothole, but there is no emotional investment in that. We should aspire for our cities to be comfortable, convivial, interesting, and fun. When did you ever see fun as a stated goal of a real estate project? If we plant the seed, it could catch on.”
Small things that make big impacts in cities are what Kageyama likes to call “love notes.” One example is the Lawn on D in Boston, a three-acre (1.2 ha) open space next to the convention center, with adult-size swings and interactive programs like giant Jenga, Zumba, and wine tastings. Dog parks are “love notes” helping people interact with each other and promoting a sense of safety by providing what late urbanist and author Jane Jacobs called “the eyes of strangers on the street.” In downtown Ludington, Michigan, an artist outlined a mural on the wall of an abandoned building; later, residents completed the oversized paint-by-number scheme.
In Chicago’s Millennium Park, people flock to the Cloud Gate sculpture to take selfies, while children frolic in the adjacent fountains during summer. In Denver, a giant blue bear peers through the multistory windows of the Colorado Convention Center. “Once you’ve seen the bear, you cannot unsee the bear,” Kageyama noted. “The bear had a cost, but also has a value,” he continued. “Let’s talk about the cost of ugly and boring.”
But urban “love notes” do not have to be expensive. In Braddock, Pennsylvania, a playground water feature consists of nothing but a large, stationary garden hose. Greenville, South Carolina, installed one sculptor’s small brass mice throughout the downtown shopping district; visitors delight in finding the “mice on Main” in unexpected places. The ultimate way to make cities fun, Kageyama concluded, is for residents to become unofficial cocreators of the urban fabric, like the young Seattle residents who created “Rainworks,” street art that shows up only when it rains.
Jason Hall also took to the ULI stage to discuss how he created a virtual revolution in beleaguered Detroit—just by riding a bike. Starting with a few friends, Hall grew Slow Roll Detroit into one of the world’s largest weekly bike rides, attracting thousands of participants every Monday night.
Six years later, Slow Roll is a nonprofit corporation with donated office space, and has begun expanding internationally. Hall has spoken at TedX, worked with celebrities like Michael Bolton and Richard Branson, and visited some 500 middle schools as part of the Each One Teach One program. Four thousand Slow Roll riders were featured recently in an iPad commercial.
“We are the opposite of the guys in spandex,” Hall said. “We decided that we will never leave anyone behind. Riders need to bring tire tubes and tools to help other riders. As we grew, we realized that we can change lives and the economy. Instead of starting at a park, for example, we can start at a restaurant and build their business.”
When Slow Ride’s participation exceeded the 50-person limit imposed by city rules, the group began to dodge police, but also assembled in front of the mayor’s house. Eventually the mayor and police force embraced Slow Roll, which continues to bring positive attention to the city’s unique historical sites and neighborhoods.
Beyond bike rides and disappearing street art, innovators throughout the United States are coming up with new ways to revitalize urban neighborhoods. For example, in Oakland, California, Sarah Filley cofounded Popuphood, which “invests in entrepreneurs with hearts of gold to create communities we love.”
“Cities like Oakland are the most vulnerable to recession, where it hurts the most and lasts the longest,” she said. In 2011 Oakland’s downtown had 35 percent retail vacancy, Filley noted, but there was an active monthly arts festival drawing 25,000 people on a single day. The idea of Popuphood was to connect artists with vacant retail space.
Filley’s initiative aggregated very small businesses and concentrated them on a single block, using redevelopment funds to provide them with six months of free rent. The approach of curating local independent retail tenants to catalyze local economic development began to transform the downtown, block by block.
Popuphood continues to offer three-month to five-year leases to micro entrepreneurs, helping activate and reposition downtown properties. As a result, the value of properties housing these small retailers and pop-ups has doubled over the last five years. “These buildings have gone from vacant to vibrant,” Filley said. Popuphood has proved that micro entrepreneurs can have major economic impacts.