Local leaders confront revitalization challenges

Policy Forum plenary panelistsChris Leinberger, President of LOCUS, Peg Meortl, PNC Bank’s Senior Vice President for Community Development Banking, Don Edwards, CEO of Justice and Sustainability Associates, and Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City, OK discuss revitalization during the Local Leaders Policy Forum opening plenary.

Most American communities are actively seeking the benefits of local revitalization. But how is revitalization measured, how can communities achieve the most lasting outcomes? This was the central question in the opening plenary session at Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Policy Forum held in Washington, D.C. on June 16th, 2014.

Job creation, attracting new businesses and supporting local entrepreneurs are undoubtedly critical goals of revitalization. However, communities are also concerned about making progress in other critical areas like health, social equity and sustainability. Leaders and experts offered diverse perspectives on the diverse roles of revitalization and innovative approaches that can maximize results that strengthen communities.

“Walkable urban development is the single best way to fight climate change,” said Chris Leinberger, President of LOCUS and author of Foot Traffic Ahead. Leinberger discussed how the “walkable urban” development model is also the highest valued by the market, making it the right solution for both generating economic activity and reducing the community carbon footprint. He further explained how through partnership, the private sector brings the capital and creativity to make great places while the public sector provides the community vision to create vibrant, walkable neighborhoods built to human scale.

“In Oklahoma City, we had created an incredible quality of life if you were a car,” said Mayor Mick Cornett, also the co-chair of the Local Leaders Council Advisory Board. After Oklahoma City was ranked as one of the most obese cities in the country by Men’s Health Magazine in 2007, Mayor Cornett realized that healthier lifestyles and new development patterns that foster active living were imperative in his community. He and the City Council made this a priority. Since then, city residents collectively lost 1 million pounds and voted to invest nearly $1 billion in transit and a more walkable downtown. Now, the city is on the “fittest” list.

This citywide focus on improving public health acted as a catalyst for revitalization in Oklahoma City according to Cornett. It has helped attract a young entrepreneurial workforce and more than $5 billion in private investment. “We couldn’t ignore health and quality of life if we were looking to attract jobs,” said Cornett. “We created a high quality of life and the private sector has responded.”

Peg Moertl, PNC Bank’s Senior Vice President for Community Development Banking, offered the private sector view. “The private sector can lead revitalization efforts, provide strategic focus and serve as capacity builders,” said Moertl. “But, to succeed, the private sector needs public partners at all levels of government,”

As an example, Moertl pointed to the revitalization of Cincinnati’s historic and economically distressed Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Through community input and participation, the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation bought and redeveloped over 300 vacant buildings in the neighborhood, attracting new businesses and residents and creating a vibrant, mixed-use community. Local philanthropic organizations and anchor institutions proved to be vital partners in the redevelopment efforts, providing necessary capital to achieve the positive results. Moertl also underscored the critical role of strong public sector leadership, without which success would not have been possible, she said.

Don Edwards, Principal and CEO of Justice and Sustainability Associates, tackled the issues of gentrification and displacement. Washington, D.C., he explained, has gone from chocolate city to the city of millennials, referring to the predominately African American population, which has been joined by over 100,000 new mostly younger, white residents.

In the past ten years, D.C. has recreated itself as a world-class city and achieved a successful economic turnaround by aggressively focusing development and density around public transit, greatly expanding non-auto transportation choices, and leveraging public investment to attract private capital back into many of DC’s divested neighborhoods. However, there is significant income disparity even as the City experiences considerable, ongoing revitalization. Rapid gentrification in some neighborhoods and displacement of lower income residents have been persistent issues. Edwards works to bring disadvantaged residents into the revitalization discussion to ensure the benefits extend to all members of the community.

“Social equity must be a factor in local development. As communities, we succeed or we fail together. Is there anyone in our towns and cities who is disposable? Anyone whose talents we can’t use to benefit everyone,” said Edwards. “Revitalization often requires residents to make trade-offs between the comfort and familiarity of living near people like ‘us’ and the new choices and amenities that come along with change…We need tools to create conversations among people from different social and economic backgrounds to help them understand and embrace the benefits of revitalization.”

During the discussion, speakers acknowledged the challenge of keeping long-term political attention on equity and mentioned how other policies such as higher minimum wage, sales tax incentives for destination retail and intentional funding for housing and other services are important to success.

Mayor Cornett reminded the group of the organic nature of revitalization, “Consider the city as a whole. Development in one part of the city created opportunities for new development in places where it hadn’t happened in years.”

This program was organized the Local Leaders Council. Learn more about revitalization efforts around the nation.

Local Leaders Council