Top Ten Trends in Urban Regeneration in 2015

The sharing economy is booming. Urban placemaking has taken a foothold. Green buildings abound in most US cities. There are so many emerging and disruptive trends helping to improve the environmental, economic and social health of our cities and citizens. But what about the district and neighborhood – what we believe is the perfect scale to implement change as a model for cities as a whole? We’ve compiled a list of what we think (and hope!) are the top ten trends in district-scale urban regeneration for 2015.

Some of these topics, from social justice and equity to health and wellbeing, are central tenants we help cities and neighborhoods deploy through our programs, like Target Cities, the Incubator, and the upcoming EcoDistricts Protocol. Other are tactics we’ve seen develop in cities across the world to cope with a changing climate. And still others are helping urban neighborhoods bounce back from decades of decay and community members take the future of their neighborhoods into their own hands. What do you think will disrupt the sustainable neighborhood development space this year?

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    Crowd resourcing helped create this green roof in NYC.

    Crowd Resourcing: You have most likely heard of, or even participating in, crowd funding, which helps turn an idea, invention, or innovation into a venture. Crowd resourcing in contrast, is more about investing in innovation and change. It combines the concepts of crowd funding (the ability to pool small donations made online to a specific cause or project) and resource organizing (organizing activists and advocates to ensure success of a cause or project). Crowd resourcing gives everyone the ability to organize all kinds of capital – cash, social capital, in kind donations, volunteer time, advocacy – from within the community to serve the community. Examples of crowd resourcing projects include helping city governments fast-track bicycle infrastructure deployment, funding street beatification, kids cooking classes, building community parks, markets, green roofs, electric vehicles, green breakfast clubs and much more. Ioby (In Our Back Yard) is one example of a crowd resourcing platform with a mission to strengthen communities by supporting the leaders within them who want to make positive change. If crowd resourcing is not part of your city’s planning efforts, if its not part of private sector precinct development projects, opportunity is being neglected. Opportunities to build capacity, governance, and indeed, great community-based projects are being lost.

  1. Small data: The livability of a street or community can be difficult to measure. Fortunately, we have some clear indicators that wrestle this illusive concept to the ground, like health and wellbeing, safety, inclusion, housing and basic human services. Enter small data – the little brother of big data, which bombards us with 2.4 quintillion bits of digital data every day. Little data can help community leaders make evidence based decisions and create solutions at the community level. Just take a look at Streetwize, a mobile platform that provides real-time data about how people are using neighborhood services. Similar to Yelp, Streetwize allows people to find services in their area, rank them, and share these services with their community. Streetwize focused on “life services” like finding healthy food, clean drinking water, and safe places to wait for the bus. The vision for Streetwize is for it to be a tool to make the way we collect and organize data more inclusive, ultimately helping us prioritize pubic investments in a more democratic, equitable way. More relevant little data to solve big problems will ultimately win the day when it comes to building sustainable cities from the neighborhood up.
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    Living infrastructure in Barangaroo Point, Sydney

    Living Infrastructure: When you mix green infrastructure with the concept of ecosystems services – the services provided by nature for humans – The result is living infrastructure. Living infrastructure, especially in urban areas, weaves the network of natural landscape assets into the economic, social and environmental functionality of communities. It encourages human interaction with nature, provides renewable resources like water and acts as a habitat for all living things. It goes beyond the planting of roundabouts as a beautification program, street trees to provide shade in a park, or pretty-up foreshore areas. Built into a city’s infrastructure plan, living infrastructure can be a jobs strategy, an equity strategy, an open space strategy, a health strategy, a retail strategy, a cultural strategy, and a storm water management strategy. One only needs to look at Barangaroo Point in Sydney, one of the world’s true exemplars of living infrastructure. These are the infrastructure investments cities need to prioritize, district-scale investments that become the building blocks of prosperous, competitive, and vibrant cities. We think living infrastructure will be one of the single most effective investments in building sustainable communities over the next ten years.

  1. Complete Streets: Designing for people, and not cars, is still a mantra not breaking through. Just look at the transportation planning in cities like Los Angeles, Houston or Dallas. Complete streets, or sustainable streets, will emerge as a key urban transformation trend for our communities over the next five years. Complete streets are green streets, prosperous streets, healthy streets and vibrant streets. They are streets for all ages, and all modes of mobility. The Congress for New Urbanism also released recently the publication “Sustainable Street Network Principles” (PDF). It is a simple yet timely set of ‘fundamentals’ to embrace in the planning and design of new developments, but also the renewal of existing neighborhoods.
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    A Better Block tactical urbanism project

    Tactical Urbanism: Tactical urbanism aims to implement quick, often temporary, cheap projects that make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable. Think guerilla gardening or Portland’s painted streets. At the 2014 EcoDistricts Summit, we heard from Jason Roberts of The Better Block, an international movement to invigorate communities to take regeneration into their own hands. The Better Block project started in April, 2010, when a group of community organizers, neighbors, and property owners gathered together to revitalize a single commercial block in an underused neighborhood corridor, much like crowd resourcing mentioned above. The area was filled with vacant properties, wide streets, and few amenities for people who lived within walking distance. The group brought together all of the resources from the community and converted the block into a walkable, bikeable neighborhood destination for people of all ages complete with bike lanes, cafe seating, trees, plants, pop-up businesses, and lighting. Tactical urbanism projects like this one help show the city how the block could be revived and improve area safety, health, and economics if ordinances that restricted small business and multi-modal infrastructure were removed.

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    A bioswale during a rain event.

    Storm Water Management: With a historic drought in areas of the country like the Southwest showing no signs of letting up, cities need to turn to creative and sustainable ways to provide water to populations. Storm water can be an excellent source of water in most cities across North America. Even in sunny Los Angeles, a typical one-inch rain event produces more than 10 billion gallons of storm water, most of which, at the moment, hits asphalt and concrete, flows into storm drains and into the ocean. Aside from the obvious waste of a precious resource, storm water runoff is one of the worst polluters of coastal waters. Fortunately, storm water capture projects can be implemented in backyards, neighborhoods and alleys. Rain barrels can be passed out in communities for free before storms, or can be bought for a small cost at stores like Home Depot. An average size barrel in LA can capture more than 9,000 gallons of water annually. Low impact development tactics, such as bioswales and permeable pavement, are best implemented at the neighborhood level, can beautiful a streetscape, and provide vital water quality management.

  1. Equity and Social Justice: PolicyLink, a US-based research and action institute advancing economic and social equity, defines equity as “just and fair inclusion.” They believe an “equitable society is one in which all can participate and prosper and the goals of equity must be to create conditions that allow all to reach their full potential. In short, equity creates a path from hope to change.” As we plan for more sustainable neighborhoods and cities, it’s important to ask who is most affected by each course of action – people of color, indigenous communities, poor and low income residents, youth, the elderly, new immigrants, persons with disabilities and people experiencing homelessness. These are our most vulnerable populations, and those we identify as critical citizens in which our district and neighborhood investments must benefit.
  1. Health and Wellbeing: It’s no secret that Americans are not the healthiest lot. According to the CDC, more than one third of Americans are obese, costing $147 billion dollars annually. And obesity isn’t just a public health issue. It’s also an equity issue. African Americans and Hispanics, especially those that are lower income, have the highest rates of obesity in both adults and children. What’s more, people who live in low income urban areas also tend to suffer from higher amounts of asthma and respiratory illnesses from air pollution. Fixing public health issues can start at the neighborhood level. Initiatives like mobile grocery stores and urban farms can provide access to affordable, healthy food options in food deserts. Walkable streets and access to public transportation encourages physical activity and gives people in low income areas the ability to access services that may not be located in their community. San Francisco’s Central Corridor neighborhood is a previously industrial area around the new Central Subway stations that is quickly changing into a neighborhood where people live and work. Planners are using the CDC’s Health Impact Assessment tool to help make the area more pedestrian-friendly and encourage mixed-use and higher density development.
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    Competition winner White Arkitekter’s rendering of the new boardwalk at the Rockaways.

    Climate Resilience: According to AIA New York President Tomas Rossant, 50 percent of Americans live in coastal cities now threatened by extreme storms brought on by climate change. Among the many hard lessons we learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, it’s that major cities from New York, Boston and Miami, to New Orleans, Los Angeles and San Francisco need to prepare for the effects of rising sea levels and unpredictable storms. The Rockaways in Queens, New York is a sea level area that was devastated by Sandy. But the community’s resilience is a model example of how coastal cities can adapt. FAR ROC [For a Resilient Rockaway] was a design competition that called for innovative strategies for the planning, design and construction of a more resilient place at Arverne East, an 80+ acre site on the Rockaway Peninsula. Their ambitious goal: new best practices for development in waterfront areas. The FAR ROC Design Competition resulted in 117 unique design proposals. The winner proposed the development of a boardwalk, with shops, studios and galleries and a surrounding landscape that functions as storm water detainment and retention areas, which are protected from storm surge by an ecological zone, while also providing public recreational spaces. The Federal government has recognized the importance of climate resilience as well. The US Climate Resilience Toolkit provides a wealth of resources and case studies to help communities better prepare for an uncertain climate future.

  1. Sustainability Management Associations: Making change happen goes beyond simply preparing a plan. Implementation and lasting success need to be core planning objectives in city planning offices, and that requires a smart governance structure. The Sustainability Management Association (SMA) is a model to build and sustain long-term leadership, capacity and governance on all matters related to sustainability over time within a precinct or neighborhood. The model is based on a collaborative governance approach. There is a sharing of power, decision-making, and project development (funding). No one entity does or should do it all. The SMA ensures that change is guided by strong sustainability goals and metrics, and that performance is monitored and results are reported. This allows stakeholders effectively and accurately determine progress and performance and identify opportunities for continual improvements. The SMA, through its function of building a shared vision and set of integrated sustainability targets for the precinct or neighborhood, is required to coordinate the sustainability efforts and actions of diverse stakeholders within a community. The SMA becomes the dedicated entity to guide the sustainability investments for the precinct or neighborhood. As cities across North America (Portland, Charleston NC, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Ottawa) actively pursue opportunities for SMA-type arrangements in their urban regeneration projects, there is a genuine commitment to advancing governance models that will support collective impact.