“We saw a palatable change in 10 years,” said Teton County Commissioner Kathy Rinaldi, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. “At one point we had 89 subdivisions in the approval process. It was complete insanity. And it was very quick, it was very slipshod. [Only] half the subdivisions were built out, some were never even started.”
Then, in the late 2000s, the national real estate bust brought development in Teton County to a grinding halt. Almost 7,000 subdivision lots were left vacant, and the construction industry – once the leading job sector in the county – was crippled. Runaway real estate speculation and a lack of development strategy both contributed to the bust.
Tacoma, WA Mayor Marilyn Strickland considers her city “the best kept secret in Washington State,” and smart growth strategies are helping make the city an even better place to live and work.
“Tacoma kind of got bypassed during the whole urban renewal phase of the late 60s and 70s, so as a result a lot of historic property did not get razed,” Strickland says. “So we have this beautiful stock of old warehouses and historic property.”
A snapshot of Carmel’s City Center. Photo courtesy of the Mayor’s office.
Carmel, IN wasn’t always the best place to live. As a suburb contiguous to Indianapolis, it faced the same challenges to development that many suburbs near large cities confront.
However, under the leadership of Mayor Jim Brainard, Carmel has managed to become the kind of place that appeals to families and businesses alike. By anchoring its redevelopment efforts around an Arts & Business District and a City Center, Carmel has found a way to boost economic development while bettering quality of life.
“We had to figure out how we were going to compete,” Brainard says. “We realized that if we wanted to succeed, we had to make Carmel a place that the best and brightest – from around the country and around the world – would want to live in. And we had to do it through the built environment.”
What kinds of investments allow cities to rebound and jumpstart local economic growth?
If you were feeling cynical, that’s how you might describe the current state of downtown Reno, Nevada. Take a walk down Virginia Avenue and see what I mean. Go past the forlorn casinos, the shuttered liquor store, and the homeless loitering near the 4th Street bus station. Search in vain for a downtown restaurant or bar that is not attached to a gambling institution. And then, when it is dark, walk in the shadow of the National Bowling Stadium, a building designed for a sport whose own history unfortunately mirrors that of the town in which it stands.
A few years ago, that’s how you might have described Woodward Avenue in Detroit. People were fleeing the city then, a trend that had continued since the Motor City’s initial decline in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Great old buildings, monuments to a forgotten past, may well have outnumbered the residents and businesses for which they were fashioned. It was the scariest of places – the loneliest of places.
Almost two decades ago, that’s how you could have literally described part of Oklahoma City. Or as current Mayor Mick Cornett told it at a conference earlier this year, “That’s all people knew about us.”
Each of these places has struggled with decline. But where there is barrenness, there is always a chance at renewal. All across the country, towns are looking to make a comeback. In my role at Smart Growth America, I talk with community leaders and representatives almost every day who ask the same questions. How do we create jobs? How do we attract new residents and new businesses? How do we change our reputation for the better? And then how do we avoid falling down after we’ve gotten back on our feet?
Every city has limits, even in the big state of Montana. And just as roads have their cutoff points, city budgets only stretch so far, too.
Mayor Tom Hanel of Billings, Montana, knows this well. As a long-time city employee, Hanel has plenty of experience crunching the numbers behind the scenes. Hanel realized that if Billings was to keep its books in order, the city would needs to make well-planned and well-informed decisions about development.
El Paso, Texas, is split by a mountain and bordered by Mexico, and Susie Byrd is helping the city build great neighborhoods around these unique features.
Byrd is a City Council Representative in El Paso, and has represented District 2 since 2005. During her time as a Representative, Byrd has led numerous efforts to preserve the best parts of El Paso’s historic corridors while also transforming the city into a model of 21st-century success. Her leadership has helped lead to the adoption of a city-wide Smart Code (PDF), a new Rapid Transit System, and an innovative comprehensive plan for El Paso’s growth in coming decades. Plan El Paso has already been called the best smart growth plan in America, and it’s hardly a coincidence that an experienced, knowledgeable supporter like Byrd is behind it.
The greater Yellowstone region stretches across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, encompassing dozens of counties and mile after mile of unparalleled natural resources. Its stunning beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year and is the primary basis for economic development in the area. As a result, residents and tourists alike see significant value in preserving the environment and ensuring its existence for future generations.
“The Yellowstone business partnership is a non-profit organization that works at an eco-system level,” says the organization’s communications specialist Kim Billimoria. “It was founded by a group of business people that recognized that if we’re going to preserve the greater Yellowstone ecosystem – which is one of the largest last intact ecosystems in the entire world – we have to harness the power of business.”
Since taking office in 2005 as the 50th Mayor of Missoula, Montana, John Engen has emphasized the importance of economic development, community building and affordable housing. His goal?
“When I’m done, I hope folks will say, ‘We worked to keep Missoula a place,’” Engen says.
For Missoula to achieve economic success and to remain a close-knit community in Montana’s picturesque mountains, Engen believes his administration should do everything it can to ensure the city is appealing to families and investors. That means having a thriving ‘Main Street’ downtown; amenities catering to young professionals and college students; access to transportation and housing options; and protection of natural land assets.
“We don’t have much going for us if we don’t have a decent place to live,” Engen says, noting that over the past several decades, Missoula has been forced to transition from a town with a resource-intensive economy (chiefly timber) to a services economy with ties to recent graduates and more experienced professionals who want to live in a small, rural town but still travel/telecommute to work in larger cities.
As mayor, Engen recognized early on that for this new type of economy to be successful, Missoula would have to seek community feedback about anticipated growth and plan for the future in a more coordinated way. He also understood that economic development is not separate from neighborhood development; investments in how a town looks and in how residents move around and interact with each other are intimately related to a town’s financial wellbeing.
When more people have quality jobs and access to affordable housing, fewer people have to make the kinds of difficult choices – such as a decision between food and shelter – that hold back community growth, Engen says. If the quality of life for most Missoulians increases as a result of efforts to reinvigorate downtown business corridors and to take advantage of the city’s unique assets, more Missoulians will be able to engage in community projects, schools, family programs, and local politics.
Washington, DC’s neighborhoods have seen a huge resurgence in recent years, and nowhere in the city is this more visible than DC’s Ward 6.
Stretching from just north of Union Station south across Capitol Hill and down to the Anacostia River, Ward 6 has seen incredible neighborhood growth over the past decade. Neighborhoods like H Street Northeast – with indie music venues, hipster bars and avant garde restaurants – on the north side of Capitol Hill, and Barracks Row – with art galleries and fine dining – on the south side have been steadily gathering new residents and new businesses. Both are in Ward 6.
DC City Councilmember Tommy Wells represents Ward 6, and he has made neighborhoods the focus of his work.
“Great neighborhoods are not necessarily what we thought they were,” Wells says. “We used to think we divided ourselves in sections…you put schools over here, housing over here, stores over here. And what we found was that in order to get anywhere and to do anything, you had to get in your car…And the more that we lived in our cars and in this sort of a sectional, stove-piped community, the more we didn’t see each other.”
Where does change come from? Who comes up with the ideas and proposals needed to reinvigorate neighborhoods?
Ask New York City Councilmember Brad Lander and he’ll tell you.
To Lander, who has represented the 39th district of Brooklyn on the New York City Council since 2009, community involvement and outreach aren’t just buzzwords. They’re a source of the best inspiration and help shed light on the real reasons to move forward with any project; those that live in a community tend to know what’s best for that community.
In the 39th district – which encompasses the neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park and Kensington – Lander hears the concerns of a racially and economically diverse constituency. From young urban-dwellers with higher education degrees to working-class immigrants, Brooklyn – like the rest of New York – has it all. For Lander to do his job successfully he must find ways to integrate planned improvements and Council agenda items with the personal goals of the people who elected him.