In the recent past, strategies for ‘urban revitalization’ put sports stadiums as a catalyst for local investment, particularly in real estate. Minute Maid Park in Houston, whose main entrance is an adaptive reuse of a former train station, and Comerica Park in Detroit were both constructed in areas that were seen as blighted or abandoned by the 1980s and 1990s. As a tool to transform these areas into entertainment zones, I hear they’ve both been pretty successful in causing an influx of gentrification, new activity and large scale real estate investment in the immediate area. Since I no longer live in either of those cities, I wonder what flavor of successful those areas are, roughly a decade or so after their construction. A case has been made that a sports franchise creates external benefits for the residents by sharing in the pride or commiserating about the defeats of the home team, but have the nearby residents who were there before they were built benefitted economically, too?
These structures and the zones they created are evidence of a time when the conventional wisdom was to create opportunities with these large-scale moves on land that was treated as a clean slate. However, a place that reflects its true self looks more like a palimpsest, shifting to the city’s needs, in place, over time, rather than a fresh new development that came of age all at once. As for benefitting the local residents, how does a city, a place, a town or a suburb build its own capacity to create more direct and tangible opportunities, on a daily basis, for the people who live there? Some places that have seen disinvestment, instead of large scale investments, are starting to craft their own unique approaches that are meaningful to the residents, the ultimate stakeholders. Rather than rely upon corporate job creators, smaller scale start ups, food incubators and green business entrepreneurs seem to be popping up, as a strategy to build the local economy from a grassroots level.
The documentary, Fixing The Future, hosted by David Brancaccio of NPR and PBS fame, showcases communities empowering themselves economically by using sustainable and innovative approaches. Currently, this documentary is making its way around the country through being hosted by a variety of community groups or through local PBS affiliates.
The links between between economics, collective self-sustenance and healthy communities are most notable when Brancaccio visits Cleveland. A group of locally based institutions, including The Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and the municipal government, crafted an initiative called Evergreen Cooperatives when the big institutions realized that their fate was bound with the residents of the Greater University Circle (GUC) district. Evergreen takes a triple bottom line approach (people, planet, profit) in helping create living wage jobs in six low income neighborhoods, located in the GUC. One of the businesses it has launched so far, Evergreen Laundry, is prominently featured in Fixing the Future. Operated as a worker owned co-op, it provides commercial laundering services to local medical institutions, restaurants and hotels in a LEED Gold Certified facility. In 2011, its revenue totalled $900,000 and has 10 owner/employees, earning a living wage. By building the workforce and the entrepreneurial skills within the community to run it, the cycle of generational poverty can start to become undone. With this cycle starting to break loose, neighborhoods are able to revitalize and reinvest in themselves, rather than be driven out by gentrification from the outside.
Evergreen Cooperative’s goal in community wealth building and anchoring capital, rather than going outside of it for its goods and services is inspiring, even at its relatively small scale. In order to further equip the residents in gaining self sufficiency, capacity building in design and planning knowledge embedded into or in addition to job training would also help ensure breaking the cycle. In Baton Rouge, Foundation for Lousiana created resources to support citizen engagement to ensure equitable growth and development called The Citizen’s Guide to Land Use and Citizen’s Guide to Urban Design. These guides have been used to help facilitate and expand dialog between residents, policy makers and planners. Because of this, residents can develop skills to make a collective impact on how their communities develop and remain sustainable for everyone. As the economy shifts forward, slowly for some, sprinting wildly ahead for others, places and communities would do well to seek ways to reduce vulnerability for the disadvantage and opportunity for all. A nice big stadium for the home team might bring people together a few times a year, but being a real part of reinvestment in one’s own community can serve as the foundation and support of that collective pride.