The following is a short, web-based guide to defeating the empty megalithic technocracy of Urban Renewal, and building instead a critical mass of unique, community-driven, appropriately-scaled projects.
Coming on urbanology.com in 2014: a web service that can help neighborhoods and communities create these projects.
The Scourge of Urban Renewal
Urban Renewal is a "free lunch" program for the wealthy, a program unencumbered by any social or community or human values, an engine of destruction for neighborhoods, small businesses, charities and other projects. Its only goal is to wipe out affordable commercial and residential space, driving up land prices through government intervention, and dislocating the 'underclasses', at public expense, to the enrichment of powerful developers and their business partners.
Urban Renewal can be stopped, and if it is stopped enough perhaps it can be transformed, and given values. In defeating it, we can replace the impoverished "urban vision" of Urban Renewal promoters with something truly good.
Bringing a City back to Life
The first step is to build a large, broad-based coalition of those who would work towards revitalization of an affordable neighborhood, and the fulfillment of the potential of the people and projects within it. It is best if this can be done before City Councils offer RFP's to entice exploitative developers with public money. But it cannot be done without vast public political support. Good ideas and good intentions are simply not enough. The political power of the community is absolutely essential.
Making places with the community
It's important to ferret out the interests, the skills and the visions that lie dormant withing the community, and present them back to the community, as potential parts of a living city. This is not simply a list of consumer demands, but rather, an examination of what is important to everyone -- so important that they are willing to help build it.
But because our current professional "visioning processes" for urban environments is so impoverished, so focused on producing the same failed urban fabric everywhere, we need to give communities a sense of possible places.
Special-purpose Community Centers
There are many important general patterns that can help to bring a city center alive. For the moment, let's focus on just one, and explore the many possible specific ways it can provide what a city needs.
Let's pick a topic -- say, poetry. No matter how you address it, whether in an ancient language, an Elizabethan sonnet or modern rap, it's an exercise on the edge of our abilities, and people revel in doing it and watching others perform and improvise poetry. Poetry slams are wonderful things, but what if there was a center, from which such slams could be launched, a downtown urban center dedicated to study, practice, performance, mutual support of poetry of all kinds, and which was a place you could go on an evening to take a fun introductory course and try your hand at it, and watch others who've been at it as well? Such a visible community center would draw people from around the world, in part because it is a public place, where something that is normally done in small groups is given a kind of civic respectability, for the benefit of everyone. It would have associated places to eat and drink, and would set out to launch poetry hit-and-run events throughout the town.
This can be done with oratory. With social dance. With sketching, painting and sculpting. With playwriting and acting. With politics, sociology, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, physics, chemistry etc. With chess or go. With the proper equipment, specific centers can be created around arts, crafts and building trades, with ceramic, glass and countless other specialties. Urban revitalization could be the subject for such a center. Each would be an incubator, a catalyst, a home for the business and social life of its participants. Each would be helping people to fulfill their potential and their dreams, and would improve the life of the community.
Let's take a city of 100,000 people with a moribund downtown. Thanks to the legacy of urban renewal, this is a very common situation in the United States today. But only about 10 of these centers need to be in place to attract most of the community to the downtown area. This is because, as the critical mass of them is reached, nearly 100 existing and new small businesses and non-profits will become healthier and more richly programmed, as they are stimulated by these centers and the people who come to them.
We'll get to the structure and formation of these centers, and their supporting upban patterns, in a moment. Let's first look at how to organize the creation of these centers.