Neighborhoods: How Mayors Are Shrinking Sprawl and Battling Blight
After decades of development that created isolated, disconnected places, mayors nationwide are refashioning towns and cities for people of all ages
Easy access to jobs, stores, schools and social activities. Parks to enjoy and markets that offer healthy food, helping people make smart choices. Access to culture that keeps local life interesting. Transit options that make getting around safe and easy. Opportunities to learn, work and contribute to society. An engaged population and responsive government.
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These elements have appeal across generations and provide the blueprint for sustainable, vibrant communities. Staying in their homes and neighborhoods as they age — connected to friends, family, activities and services— helps older residents thrive. And, more and more, people of all ages want to live in neighborhoods that are easy to navigate on foot or by transit, with nearby shops and parks as well as cultural, educational and employment opportunities.
After decades of sprawl — with housing situated far from commercial and cultural corridors — mayors nationwide are refashioning our towns and cities for young and old.
This chapter offers examples of how mayors are putting all the principles of livable communities into action, transforming communities and revitalizing neighborhoods in ways that benefit residents of all ages.
The takeaways from their experience and advice:
- Going back to basics lays an important foundation: In some communities, years of economic stress have taken a toll that requires a back-to-basics approach—improving public safety and the delivery of government services, or tackling the blight of vacant properties — to lay a foundation for the future.
- Walkable, thriving hubs give communities a sense of place: From downtown urban areas to small town main streets, walkable hubs anchored by amenities ranging from arts venues and shopping districts to public parks and community centers help define a neighbor-hood's identity.
- Figuring out the financing is half the battle: Some of the projects are large-scale public initiatives that marshal local, state and federal funding. Others use tax incentives to encourage private developers and businesses to take the lead.
- Community engagement makes a difference: Underlying successful initiatives is a commitment to engaging local residents. Soliciting input and translating residents'priorities into action gives people a stake in neighborhood improvements and trust that their local government is on the right path.
Here's What Mayors Have Been Doing
Mayor Mike Rawlings (2011-)
When Mike Rawlings first ran for mayor in 2011, he made revitalization of the sprawling city's southern tier a central part of his campaign platform. This businessman-turned-mayor saw tremendous untapped potential in the area that comprises roughly half of Dallas's land area and is home to 45 percent of the city's population but contributes only 15 percent of its tax base.
Soon after he was elected, he launched GrowSouth, a broad-based initiative aimed at maximizing the area's economic development potential with significant investment and infrastructure improvements.
But a strong foundation is generally necessary before a growth strategy can take root. While progress has been made, troubling trends persist: poverty, a declining number of middle-income families and a lack of affordable housing and jobs. Attacking these problems and strengthening neighborhoods is essential for the broader effort to succeed.
To turn the tide in three struggling communities, Rawlings added new strategies to the GrowSouth plan.
Neighborhood planning boards in each of the three designated areas are setting goals and priorities based on their community's unique character, opportunities and challenges. To identify obstacles and cut through red tape, each community gets its own "general manager," with a direct line to City Hall and access to the city's nonprofit and corporate leaders.
Rawlings calls this approach the GrowSouth Collective Impact Model. By building from the ground up — empowering communities to demand more from their government and leveraging resources of neighborhood organizations, government and nonprofits — he hopes these communities will be able to grow and improve.
Albany, New York
Mayor Kathy Sheehan (Term: 2014-)
Well before construction of a new convention center begins downtown, Mayor Kathy Sheehan began work to make sure that city residents benefit from the new facility and the potential it brings to downtown Albany. Sheehan views the convention center as much more than a single building; she sees it as an opportunity to redefine Albany as a destination, attracting new jobs and improving the economy.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (Term: 2010-)
Vacants to Value
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake initiated Baltimore's Vacants to Value project to tackle the urban blight plaguing her city. The 2010 U.S. Census identified more than 16,000 vacant properties in Baltimore — a situation that contributed to crime and an overall sense of neglect in the city's neighborhoods. Now the city is demolishing vacant houses, turning the properties into green spaces, new housing developments and commercial investment opportunities. In early 2016, five years after the initial investment, Rawlings-Blake and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced new funding to continue the program. By stabilizing these distressed communities, Rawlings-Blake aims to make it easier for older residents to age in place while expanding opportunities for all.
Charleston, South Carolina
Former Mayor Joseph P. Riley
Attention to Urban Detail
He may not take the credit, but Charleston wouldn't be Charleston without Mayor Joseph Riley. In his 10 terms in office, Riley made his top priorities the design details that give the city its unique character and preservation of public spaces. A prime example is his decision, in the late 1970s, to reject plans for high-rise offices along Charleston's harbor. While the proposed development would have brought in new tax revenue, Riley instead created a waterfront park that revitalized the area and is enjoyed by residents and visitors — young, old and in between. Other local initiatives include award-winning designs for public housing. On a national level, Riley is one of the founders of the Mayor's Institute on City Design, a collaborative effort of the National Endowment for the Arts, American Architectural Foundation and United States Conference of Mayors
Concord, New Hamsphire
Mayor Jim Bouley (Term: 2008-)
Concord Main Street Project
Getting the community on board for a complete redesign of Concord's Main Street is one of Mayor Jim Bouley's signature accomplishments. The ambitious project makes downtown more pedestrian-friendly by reducing the road from four lanes to two, widening sidewalks and installing cobblestone medians and brick crosswalks. The addition of trees, planters, benches, streetlights and signage enhances the overall aesthetics of the area, so spending time downtown — whether shopping, dining or strolling — is more appealing. Bouley was instrumental in building community support for the project through a series of public meetings and the appointment of a 17-member advisory committee. The city completed a five-block stretch of the new Main Street in November 2015, with the next phase of construction started in spring 2016.
Mayor Mike Duggan (Term: 2014-)
Strategic City Planning
Going back to basics is job #1 for Mayor Mike Duggan. He is taking up the challenge of revitalizing Detroit's neighborhoods by improving city services, tackling the blight of vacant homes and cultivating entrepreneurship in the city's commercial corridors. In his first year in office, he oversaw the installation of more than 18,000 streetlights and reduced emergency response times to the lowest level in five years, helping residents feel more secure. An aggressive out-reach effort to homeowners improved neglected homes, while abandoned properties were sold or torn down. And a new wave of entrepreneurs is creating a virtuous cycle. As they open businesses in commercial areas, they join a growing community of committed residents of all ages working together with the support of city government to bring Detroit back.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Mayor Carolyn Goodman (Term: 2001-)
Carolyn Goodman wants Las Vegas to be a great place to live — not just a great place to visit. Witness her plan to create an urban village in the city's downtown area. The Symphony Park project, a 61-acre development in the heart of downtown Las Vegas, features walkable blocks with street-level retail divided into four districts: the Civic District, home to parks and a performing arts center; the Specialty District, for hotels and retail; the Residential District, with a variety of single and multifamily homes; and the Medical District, which includes an outpost of the renowned Cleveland Clinic. Providing opportunities to live, work, shop and play across generations is designed to make Las Vegas a thriving community that people want to call home.
Mayor Tomas Regalado (Term: 2009-)
MiMo Biscayne Plan
Championed by Mayor Tomás Regalado, the MiMo Biscayne Plan is transforming a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard into a walkable urban village. Once the gateway to Miami and a hub of activity, the area suffered following the construction of Interstate 95. Today, the boulevard is coming back to life, but upgrades are needed to make it a safe and attractive thoroughfare for local residents and visitors. The MiMo Biscayne Plan is to create a Main Street spirit that uses a block-by-block best-practice approach. Landscaped medians, on-street parking blocks, wider right-of-ways, more pedestrian crosswalks and street-scape furnishings are designed to make Biscayne Boulevard a vibrant gathering place for residents and visitors of all ages.
Pembroke Pines, Florida
Mayor Frank Ortis (Term: 2005-)
Pembroke Pines City Center
Fulfilling a decades-long vision, Mayor Frank Ortis is spearheading the creation of a new downtown center in Pembroke Pines. The project includes a new city hall building, a state-of-the-art performance and conference center and an art gallery nicknamed "The Frank" in honor of Ortis. Residents will find community workshops, lectures, seminars and classes that make culture accessible, approachable and affordable. In partnership with private real estate developers, the revitalized city center is envisioned as an urban-style cultural and lifestyle hub for the community that will spur new economic growth through the inclusion of retail, restaurants and hotels.
Providence, Rhode Island
Mayor Jorge Elorza (Term: 2015-)
Providence Neighborhood Revitalization Act
Hard hit by the Great Recession, Providence neighborhoods are on their way back with help from Mayor Jorge Elorza. Just months after he was sworn in, Elorza announced the Neighborhood Revitalization Act, a new tax-incentive program designed to foster business development in underserved areas. Projects in 19 neighborhoods are eligible under the program, which includes incentives for community involvement and local hiring. The program aims to benefit citizens of all ages, with older residents able to access nearby services while younger residents find new career opportunities close to home.
Santa Ana, California
Mayor Miguel Pulido (Term: 1994-)
Santa Ana is a much safer place today than it was when Miguel Pulido first ran for mayor in 1994. Back then, a resident showed candidate Pulido a brick wall he had built to protect his family from neighborhood violence. Today, crime is down 64 percent, thanks to Pulido's initiatives including recruiting and retaining highly skilled police officers, focusing on community policing and using new technologies to detect and deter crime. The new feeling of safety in the community benefits residents of all ages. Pulido is now making cross-generational programs an important part of his public safety agenda, urging expansion of after-school programs and improving city parks and recreation programs.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn (Term: 2011-)
Strong neighborhoods built by strong community leaders are the key to great cities, according to Mayor Bob Buckhorn. To cultivate a network of these leaders, he launched Tampa's Neighborhood University, an innovative, 12-week program that gives local residents an upclose look at city government and how they can play a role in the progress made by their neighborhood—and the city. The program, which reaches across the entire community and involves citizens of all ages, has graduated more than 150 leaders, building relationships and knowledge that will help move Tampa forward on a range of priorities. While leadership programs are common across the country, Buckhorn's unique neighborhood-centric approach is designed to help create more focused engagements with residents.
West Sacramento, California
Mayor Christopher Cabaldon (Term: 1998-)
Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, as he says, "put his mortgage where his mouth is" when he bought a row house in the Bridge District, a redeveloped industrial area in downtown Sacramento. His promise to move into the new development was a challenge to engage developers in his vision for transforming the urban center into a walkable community. When complete, the Bridge District will house 10,000 residents who will be able to walk or take a streetcar to nearby offices, shops and restaurants. Through his own example and a focus on a walkable downtown with transit and amenities, Cabaldon is building a community where people of all ages can thrive and connect with one another.
Mayor Carl Brewer (Term: 2007-)
Proving that you're never too old or young to play, Mayor Carl Brewer partnered with AARP Kansas to create a Grandparents Park in his city's Tri-S neighborhood. With a large number of the neigh-borhood's older residents taking care of young grandchildren during the day, the area needed a safe, fun outdoor play and recreation space within easy walking distance. The park project transformed two city-owned empty lots with playground equipment for the kids, paved walking trails and an exercise station geared toward people aged 50 and older. Now local residents can come to the park to walk their dogs, play with their children and grandchildren, exercise and enjoy the outdoors.
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