Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown, by Roberta Brandes Gratz

In The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way (2nd edition, John Wiley & Sons, 1994), Roberta Brandes Gratz wrote about urban rebirth from the bottom up, with a particular focus on successful community-based regeneration efforts around the country. In that book, Gratz coined the phrase Urban Husbandry to convey the incremental, multi-faceted process of urbanism and urban rebirth, dramatically contrasting it with Planned Shrinkage, the conventional approach to renewal prevalent in the 1970s that damaged so much of urban America. In her new book, Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtowns (John Wiley & Sons), written in collaboration with Main Street expert Norman Mintz, Gratz again uses Urban Husbandry, this time to contrast with today’s politically popular approach to urban development which she calls Project Planning. The following is adapted from Cities Back From the Edge, which contrasts these two approaches.


Two approaches invariably conflict in each story of downtown change. The first and most prevalent is the Project approach to rebirth, what I call Project Planning. The fundamentals are always recognizable.

This approach assumes that a void exists that can be filled with a project. The planning process is designed to achieve the project, to market it, sell it, and involve the public in selecting a predetermined solution, in other words, the project. Under this Project-based Planning, the new is added at a large enough scale to overwhelm and alter what exists. What exists may be wiped out entirely, as with urban renewal. Something radically different replaces it. Few clues are left as to what has been lost.

Project Planners dominate the citadels of power. Planning professionals, developers, Wall Street investors, and the like consider Project Planning the only approach worth talking about, the only one requiring complicated financial packages. Only Project Planning, of course, is dependent on them. Project Planners dismiss anything else as irrelevant, anything that places more confidence in the judgment of citizen users. Downtowns are pockmarked with their accomplishments. Only Project Planners, their followers, and the public persuaded by their rhetoric define these downtowns as reborn. Rebuilt yes, reborn, hardly.

Opponents of Project Planning recognize and celebrate the complexity of urbanism and the interconnectedness of all components. These “Urban Husbanders” assume assets and resources are already in place to be reinvigorated and built onto in order to stimulate a place-based rejuvenation that adds to the long-evolving, existing strengths, instead of replacing them. Planning is meant to be about problem solving, relying heavily on the expertise of citizen users, the accumulated experience and wisdom of the community. Urban Husbanders advocate introducing change incrementally and monitoring it carefully, providing a great opportunity to learn from each step. They involve many entrepreneurs of various sizes, not just one big developer, and rely only on modest doses of government support, if any. They work to add a layer of organic urban growth rather than replace what has taken decades to grow. This layer may look and feel in many ways radically different from what was there before, but fundamentally the connection between before and after is not broken.

Urban Husbanders view any place, a downtown or a neighborhood, as a garden. Something exists with which to work, something fundamentally of value, by virtue of its history of organic growth over time. Maybe the garden contains dead plants to weed out. Undoubtedly, other plants need attention, need to be nurtured, cut back, fertilized. Introducing a new and alien plant and plowing under the remaining garden in the process is not considered. Replacement is not only uncalled for; it requires a great deal more effort, money, and big machinery. Urban Husbanders may add new varieties and remove some old ones. But the essential garden remains and, in the end, only requires continued, modest attention from local gardeners, with occasional small outside help.

Urbanology vs. Urbanism

Project Planners don’t need to worry much about the people or businesses in place or the existing garden when they devise a downtown redevelopment policy. People and businesses just get relocated or “plowed under.” For example, in 1989 Omaha’s Jobber’s Canyon District, seven blocks of solidly built, 19th-century red brick warehouses were demolished for a campus-style headquarters of the multinational, agri-business ConAgra. Five hundred existing jobs and plenty of growth room were lost, and 430 corporate headquarters jobs gained.

A Project Planner would also support the Circle Centre Mall in Indianapolis with its up-in-the-air, off-the-street parking and enclosed walkways to six hotels, the convention center, and RCA Dome. With shops, nightclubs, a nine-screen theater and a virtual reality playground, what chance does the downtown outside the walls of the mall have? Circle Centre Mall incorporates into its exterior wall the facades of the demolished 130-year-old historic buildings. An illusion of urbanism is what many downtowns have settled for.

An Urban Husbander instead would have nurtured those Indianapolis streets and found creative ways to enhance what little urban fabric was left in that downtown into a lively, diverse place that reflected the city instead of the developer of the mall. Boston’s Newberry Street, Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, or New York’s Columbus Avenue. Denver’s Lower Downtown, New York’s SoHo, or San Francisco’s South of Market. These are streets and districts that distinguish a place. They nurture urbanism and foster its spread. An enclosed mall does the reverse. Indianapolis and the multitude of other over-projected, becalmed cities need this kind of nurturing desperately, if they actually have any authentic urban fabric to nurture. Too many are still going the anti-urban, anti-place route of the enclosed suburban mall.

A Project Planner could support the Nehemiah housing project in Brooklyn’s East New York that destroyed the remnants of an authentic urban neighborhood where resources remained to rebuild on. East New York is the antithesis of Pittsburgh’s once-infamous Hill District, which is being renewed as a neighborhood, not just a monoculture housing project. In The Hill, existing housing was retained, whether split-level 1950s suburban houses or scattered small turn-of-the century brick apartment houses. New two- and three-story attached and detached rowhouses were built with parking in the rear, side alleys, and lot lines close to the street. Small multi- and single- family units were constructed. This traditional urban variety appeals to a mix of incomes, ages, and family formations.

In East New York, by contrast, 124 buildings, mostly single-family and 10- or 12-unit apartment houses, were demolished, 102 of which were occupied by owners or tenants. A few pockets of occupied buildings were spared only because of a hard-fought battle by community residents. Entire blocks of commercial storefronts were demolished, some containing viable businesses. In place of this traditional urban neighborhood, 650 units of only single-family homes with carports were built, a horizontal housing project for homeowners. A low-density suburban housing project on a high-density urban infrastructure, a short walk from a subway. No traditional neighborhood shopping streets left within walking distance. No nurturing of a corner store, a locale eatery, or even a barbershop as a community gathering place – social networking opportunities that strengthen a communal fabric. What a wasted opportunity to rejuvenate a place, a community, a neighborhood. Nehemiah was motivated by “lowest cost” thinking, a bottom-line only approach to housing but, in this case, endorsed and fought for by the City Planning Commission.

Urban Husbandry considers existing life first, respects it and views it as an asset, not a problem, and determines with local users what remedies could improve things. It starts with a strategy or a vision that possibly, though not at first, may include projects that repair and add but don’t overwhelm. The strategy is adjusted as conditions change.

Process, Not Projects

Continuous change is a sign of health in a complex and vibrant downtown. Nothing is frozen in a city. Again, the garden analogy is applicable. New things get planted, grow, run out of space, move to new space, and the cycle repeats itself. This is what is exciting about cities. People can move around, according to life requirements. A single person can start in a small apartment, move to a larger one, or even a house, after marriage. With children, larger space may be needed. Alternatives are readily available. Similarly, a business might start small in one district, expand to another with growth, and yet another with more growth, and, perhaps, leave town with maturity and expansion. In a healthy city, businesses move and leave town, but new, emerging businesses take their place. Variety of opportunity – the variety within the garden – nurtures the new. This variety gives the city, the community, the neighborhood, its strength.

Understanding this, Urban Husbanders in the 1970s fought the demolition in Brooklyn of the tightly knit Northside neighborhood of small homes, local businesses, and scattered factories for the excessive expansion of one company and assisted that community in strengthening the resources already in place. The mix of residential and small industry in one neighborhood is once again being appreciated.

Urban Husbanders in Burlington, IA, Holland, MI, Franklin, TN, Sheboygan Falls, WI, and hundreds of communities of all sizes have successfully fought for the local economy and community values in the face of surrounding mall proliferation by following the rebirth strategy developed by the National Main Street Center (of the National Trust for Historic Preservation). That strategy starts from the premise that the historic buildings, existing infrastructure, and functioning local businesses are an undervalued resource on which new growth can occur.

A rebirth momentum often emerges from the Main Street approach to withstand the competition of surrounding or nearby malls and spur new downtown growth. Decades of damaging disinvestment are being reversed. Neighborhoods once written off as “gone” have extraordinary new life. Urban Husbanders fight suburban home builders wanting to build in inner city neighborhoods, like Pittsburgh’s Manchester, and restore, instead, a splendid assortment of Victorian homes for ownership by neighborhood residents. In fact, the vitality and success of these reborn neighborhoods puts to shame the experts’ predictions of failure.

When city problems are approached mechanistically, the complexity that is the essence of urbanism is misunderstood, ignored, or lost. Most significantly, the ability of a city to renew itself without big publicly financed interventions is lost. It takes more money to damage a downtown with overwhelming Project Plans than to strengthen it and let diverse activities flourish.

Decades of Project Planning has brought us all kinds of “centers” that turned a back on streets, brought life inside, and killed it outside. Instead of centers of singular activity, the direction must return to streets of life that evolve into districts and connect with the larger place.

Cleveland’s Theater District, Playhouse Square, for example, won’t be a “district” until the entertainment of its historic theaters spills out onto the streets around it with restaurants, retail, and street-generating businesses. Instead, those theaters connect inside and can be reached from parking garages without touching Euclid Avenue, once the city’s grandest of streets and front door to the theaters. Nothing indicates that Cleveland values appropriately Euclid Avenue, the central pedestrian spine of its downtown, which still has all the components of a grand urban boulevard. Life has been pulled away from Euclid to its periphery, to Jacobs Field on one side and the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the other. The historic train station which was once at the heart of downtown life had its historic guts torn out and has been turned into a huge vertical suburban mall, drawing away from Euclid Avenue the kind of life it once created. Regeneration of the Flats, Cleveland’s regional entertainment district, started spontaneously with artists and spread, like New York’s SoHo. The same kind of life could be generated along Euclid Avenue. Yet, official city energy appears directed everywhere but at the genuine potential life of its traditional center.

Pieces, remnants, a few treasured landmarks, local businesses, persevering residents, and special uses remain in every downtown, the varied plants of the traditional urban garden. If not further eroded or totally rebuilt, the surviving plants can be cultivated into a garden again. Some downtowns have more plants surviving than others do. They are the fortunate ones best positioned to be the star performers of the 21st Century. In each downtown, these enduring precincts, sustained functions, resilient businesses, committed downtowners, determined place defenders, community activists, neighborhood developers, landmark preservationists, and human scale advocates will be the building blocks of a brighter future, the special offerings that will lend degrees of character and credential to what follows.

Grand plans and inflated visions will continue in new configurations. The need for public resistance will not cease. But advocates for more modest and appropriate visions, people who understand and use cities, are increasing in number and influence. Only if they succeed will downtowns survive. These are the instinctivists: citizen users, Urban Husbanders, the enlightened opposition to excessive Project Plans – the people who are the best experts about cities and towns.

Series NavigationCommunity Action Agencies >>

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.