A Return to Old Urbanism

My vacation took an unexpected turn last week and ended up lasting a few more days than expected. Does a vacation stop being a vacation when you no longer want to be on it? I could not wait to get back home; I missed my bed, my dog, my kids, and my wife (perhaps in that order). My delayed return delivered me just in time to enjoy the 4th of July with my family. Since moving to Pittsburgh three years ago, I had yet to spend a 4th of July in the city, and I was excited for the new experience. But after being away from home for so long, I just couldn’t bring myself to travel even the meager 7 miles to Point State Park. I just wanted to be HOME. In that moment home was not Pittsburgh, it was my neighborhood. Home for me is my community. Home is where the people outside of my family become my family.  And this year I ditched my plans to stare at the sky with thousands and spent it at home, in my neighborhood, relishing how much community has changed me.

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I have lived in enough places to understand I crave a sense of community. I find life much richer when I feel connected to other people. The number of people I know in my community has a direct impact on my happiness and happiness is what I seek. I grew up outside of Lima, Ohio, in the suburban area, and I did not experience a strong sense of community growing up. In my 20’s I lived in Livingston, Montana for a time and then Fort Green, Brooklyn. I was surprised to find a strong sense of community in both places. I was under the impression that community was something that only existed in Mayberry type towns. I learned something valuable through my experiences; a sense of community is not a factor of demographics, but of design. It is the physical design of a place that dictates whether or not people will experience a sense of community. 

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It is commonly touted that small town life is dead. Lies. Small town life has changed because we changed it. It is that physical design that has changed so substantially in so many places over the decades. What once defined a small town, was its sense of community. Unfortunately, as the center of the community has perished, so has the sense of community. If people no longer gather in the central marketplace, a downtown, they no longer have the opportunity to be with one another and get to know one another. If all trips require a car, people no longer happen into one another walking down the street and lose out on the opportunity to establish causal acquaintances. The nature of people living in smaller communities didn’t change over time, the design of their place did. Community has been designed out of our lives.

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I have been fortunate to learn these lessons of place first hand, which has immensely impacted my career. It’s also helped guide me in my personal life. After grad school, I lived in Lancaster, Ohio for a decade and was able to gain first hand experience of living in a community that was actively revitalizing, while working throughout Ohio assisting other cities to do the same. Upon making the decision to relocate to Pittsburgh, I knew exactly what I wanted in a place. I was seeking somewhere that offered a strong sense of community. I wanted the benefits of proximity to a larger city, but still I required the richness of living in a place where people had strong ties to one another. 

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I found my place in the South Hills. So on the 4th of July, instead of heading downtown on the train, my children and I walked over to our community park to watch the fireworks. It was a wonderful experience and exactly as I had hoped. Instead of hundreds of thousands of people from all over the region, the local event was full of people from the neighborhood. While watching fireworks with the family in our little park, I had to consider, what it was that made this municipality so successful. How does this community, which might appear to be just another neighborhood in a large city, feel like Mayberry? Mt. Lebanon is healthy, vibrant, walkable, and boasts an incredibly strong sense of community. It has been around for more than 100 years and has withstood all the same pressures as other communities its age. Lima, Lancaster and Mt. Lebanon all have a population between 30,000 and 40,000 people, but they function very differently. In walking home from the park on the 4th, I realized the difference was size. Mt. Lebanon has a population of more than 30,000, but the municipality is only 6 square miles in size. That is a density of more than 5,000 people per square mile. While Lancaster and Lima have a density of less than half of that. That density makes an incredible difference. Density means that more people live in close proximity to one another, which means people are more likely to run into one another and to know one another. Density also means the community is easier to traverse on foot. Cars are not necessarily the easiest or most efficient way to get around. Because of its density, Mt. Lebanon does not have bussing, so kids remain a part of the fabric of the neighborhood as they make their way to and from school. They are not carried away by busses to some remote corner of the county where they no longer interact with the community as a whole. Schools and kids are integrated into the walkable fabric of the neighborhood. Density has ensured a sense of community. 

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What I have realized about living here, is that my community has faired much better than most because of the scarcity of land. Mt. Lebanon is surrounded on four sides by other densely populated municipalities, leaving no place to develop. With a density of more than 5,000 people per square mile and no room to develop, the pressure of sprawl never occurred here. There simply was never an opportunity to make the same mistakes as more rural communities. A national chain has never had the room to build to the size it requires in Mt. Lebanon, there just (luckily) isn’t the space. Local businesses and property owners have never had to face the unfair competition of billion dollar corporations. The very nature of rural communities is underdeveloped land and it is this benefit that has turned out to be a detriment. The availability of developable land is what lead to the decline of downtowns and ultimately, led to the decline of communities as a whole. When the central marketplace a community is built around shifts away from the middle and is dispersed around the edges, the decline from downtown radiates outward. As the heart suffers, so does the body. As commerce has shifted to the fringe, there is no longer a place for “community” to occur. 

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This leads me to the conclusion that what we are really trying to do is nothing new at all. Revitalization is in essence, Old Urbanism. The solutions for declining cities aren’t ahead of us, they are behind us. Every city that is seeking to revitalize today was once a healthy, vibrant, resilient and sustainable place. The decline has resulted from changing what worked. If you look at the cities and districts that are most successful today, they have changed the least over the last century. Whether they fought back against sprawl or never suffered its effects, the healthiest places are the ones that still operate on a human scale. These are the places where businesses are still owned locally and downtown buildings are a source of pride, not shame. 

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When considering how we go about revitalizing our cities, we must keep the concept of Old Urbanism at the forefront. We can’t overthink our efforts, we simply need to look back at a time when our cities were the healthiest and apply the same lessons. This doesn’t mean we are trying to go back in time, cities are ever evolving and are not static by nature, but some things stay constant. We have over 5,000 years of experience in city building, but only in the last century did we dramatically move away from what always worked. Every single city, built before WWII, was built one building at a time by one family at a time. Cities were owned locally and that is how an economy is meant to work. When commerce is handed over to outside interests, the resources needed to sustain a community are drained. Too many national chains create an unsustainable city. The effort to revitalize must start with fostering local ownership. 

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To combat the effects of the sprawl economy, communities must begin fostering local ownership. The goods and services consumed in a community should also be produced in the community. This imbalance has devastated cities and must be rectified. City leaders must seek out opportunities to counteract this imbalance. National chains have enjoyed unfair advantages for decades, city leaders must level the playing field at a bare minimum, but should tilt it in favor of locals. Consider all the inputs that go into community investment, business development and ownership and gear the system towards locals. Make it easy for local entrepreneurs to start new businesses. Develop financing that works for small scale investors. Retool building departments around renovation and not just green field development. Don't spend another dollar on incentivizing national corporations and instead put every single cent of that money into training local people to become developers, investors and entrepreneurs. Right now, cities spend millions of dollars investing in making their communities worse. It’s not enough to suffer the effects of national chains and how they devastate a local economy, some cities pay them to come. It’s like catching a burglar in your house and showing them where you keep the jewelry. National chains don’t come to your community because they want to make your city better, they come because they know there is money that they can extract. 

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We have to rethink the entire way we look at city development. We have been told the same story for so long, that we don’t even know the truth anymore. Many cities don’t even realize there is an alternative to sprawl development and believe that if we just invite enough outsiders in, we can fix the problem. The problem IS the outsiders. We spend far too much time worrying about how to bring more people into our community and not nearly enough time considering the people that are already here. Stop trying to make tourists love your community and instead try and get residents to love it. Stop courting chains to open in your community and instead train a new generation of entrepreneurs. Stop making it easy to build disposable buildings on the edges and use those resources to discover and train your town’s newest developer and building renovation expert. This is Old Urbanism and this is the only way we can make our cities healthy again. We have to face the facts that outsiders have no vested interest in our cities and they will not make them any better. We must be selfish, we must be self interested. We must give every advantage to locals. We must own our own communities. We must rebuild our cities with the people that already call them home, because no one else is going to do it for us. 

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Amber Davidson