The Revolution in City Building

“Revitalization of the downtown core” has become a phrase of choice, replacing the now discredited term “urban renewal,” for both the urban planning profession and politicians. But it is helpful before looking at current success stories of dynamic urbanism to turn on the way-back machine and figure out how many cities ended up with major problematic downtowns.

The precipitous decline of urban cores in the American context commenced with the G.I. mortgage programs after World War II that, coupled with expanding ing car ownership, shifted residential development away from downtown communities to suburban subdivisions. As a result, cores were increasingly populated with low income residents, a situation made worse by public policy responses that initiated the wholesale replacement of many poor but fine grained communities ties with massive housing estates. While functioning support systems were destroyed, such clearance projects did nothing to change the economic profile of the residents.

At the same time, the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act financed over 10,000 kilometres of freeways into and through cities as a means to bring suburban workers and customers into the declining downtowns. This intrufacilitate intrusive infrastructure in intensified the demolition dem of entire neighbourhoods, divided communities, denigrated the inner city residential environment and frequently cut cities off from their waterfronts. Commercial offices quickly joined the exodus to suburban greenfield locations, and the emergence of new retail models such as regional and strip malls further savaged downtown retail already facing declining markets.

Subsequent efforts to reverse the impacts of earlier urban renewal through large, internalized mega-projects, including sports stadiums, often made the situation worse and frequently involved high opportunity costs when public money was diverted into such investments. By the 1970s, often led by community rebellions, municipal elites grudgingly confronted mounting evidence of dysfunctional cities as well as the policies that contributed to their decline. Some, as we will see, responded appropriately

A New Tipping Point

In 1981, Paul Peterson argued that cities’ necessarily compete with other cities by relying on free market and fiscal growth models in which “what is good for business is good for the city.” In rebuttal, John Logan and Harry Molotch replaced the so-called unseen hand of economic rationality with very real “growth machines” of powerful, pro-development elites intertwining business leaders and municipal politicians. In the former model, public participation was unnecessary; in the latter, unwanted. In both, tax breaks, deferred development fees, spot zoning and even the use of eminent domain to facilitate blockbuster projects became the tools of choice.

But by the 1990s, Richard Florida and others turned the tables dramatically. Business, they argued, was increasingly forced to relocate to where the well-educated, “creative class” wanted to be. Knowledge, they discovered, is just as much a determinate commodity as capital but its mobility is more limited because it is part and parcel of the wants of living beings. Increasingly, this creative class is asserting its intent to live in dynamic, human-scaled urban neighbourhoods marked by diversity of people, services and cultural amenities. Thus, the “what’s good for business” mantra has been turned on its head to become what is good for the creative worker is good for business. In successful cities, business oligarchies must now compete with expanding creative community forces. Dovetailing with this epochal shift are demographic shifts, environmental pressures, increasingly insecure oil supplies, closings of traditional industries, opening city-edge brownfields and the exponentially higher public costs of creating and maintaining infrastructure associated with suburban land-use patterns.

COPENHAGEN From the Edge of Bankruptcy to Global Leader

Sometimes the right move backfires. In 1947 the Copenhagen region established the “Finger Plan,” an early environmentally astute land use plan. The city’s downtown formed the “palm” from which extended five urban development corridors or “fingers” with S-train lines into the core and large green reserves separating the fingers. Although this core was well-scaled with fine historic buildings, it was also plagued by old, cramped and often dilapidated residential stock and a commercial infrastructure ill-suited to modern business practice. Its long, double-sided polluted harbour was largely marked by intensive industrial use.

Rapidly, the fingers became the destination of choice for affluent workers with companies and jobs soon following. The core, dominated by low income neighbourhoods, substandard housing and increasingly abandoned commercial sites, experienced urban renewal efforts inevitably involving demolition of modest-scaled communities for non-descript, low income housing estates. By the oil crisis of 1972, the city was literally teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. But this double crisis initiated both an environmental awaking and new planning laws with increased public engagement. By the 1980s, demolition was replaced by an intensive strategy of preservation, restoration and technical rehabilitation in the core area. Yet despite these improvements, Copenhagen’s economic performance continued to lag. In the 1990s, however, change intensified, reflecting in part the flipped Peterson/ Florida competitive city-state model.

In 2001, Anders Lund Hansen, Hans Thor Andersen and Eric Clark identified three key and intertwined shifts transforming Copenhagen. First, Denmark’s national urban political priorities shifted from equitable redistribution to a growth model in which Copenhagen emerged as the ‘growth locomotive’ for all Denmark. Despite the disbanding of the Greater Copenhagen Council in 1990, a tipping point had been reached and the municipality of Copenhagen assumed responsibility for key regional tasks. In 1993 the watershed Municipal Plan spelled out plans for a compact urban structure based on public transport, a transformed harbour as a development centre, greening of the urban and public landscape and a protected historic fabric set up as a living/working/retail community.

Second, urban politics shifted from being inward looking to a bold global perspective. A number of major infrastructure initiatives were begun with the goal of establishing Copenhagen as a regional powerhouse, including the resund Bridge linking Copenhagen and Malm, Sweden (opened 2000) to create south-southern

Scandinavia’s key “creative economy” region. By moving large shipping to Malm and Copenhagen’s industrial harbour to the urban edge, the Danish Capital’s waterfront became available for development. Two underground intra-city metro lines extending out through the “wrist” to a revitalized airport were also built.

Finally, this habitually social democratic country increasingly established a more inclusive role for the private sector. Public planning with private realization resulted in efficient corporate oversight organizations to facilitate project management but also lead to mounting criticisms of less transparency. The national government established the Coordination Group in the early 1990s to facilitate the sale of public land and property to private investors in order to contribute to “the regeneration of development in Copenhagen.” Thus, in the new town of resund on the southeast side of the harbour, public land was sold off to fund the new metro line. Almost 60 architecturally and environmentally conscious offices, residences, schools, university and cultural facilities as well as shopping centres have or are being built, all within 600 metres of a metro station and 10 minutes to downtown.

Along the w aterfront, historic brick warehouses were retrofitted for offices, residences, hotels and restaurants while large, new office complexes were constructed that successfully attracted
major Danish and international businesses back downtown. This remarkable blossoming of Copenhagen’s “blue space” has proven a tremendous draw. Criticism over the first architecturally elegant but socially sterile office complexes, however, led to greater emphasis on including residential, mixed-use and major cultural institutions onto the quays. The last has included three architecturally powerful cultural institutions, the wonderfully enigmatic “Black Diamond” (Royal Library, Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects), the Royal Theatre (Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitektfirma) and the recently completed iconic Copenhagen Opera House (Henning Larsen Architects). In addition, much of the harbour has sprouted spectacular housing developments tied closely to the now pristine water, although public access is ubiquitous. All this work has been completed to some of the highest environmental building standards in the world: the minimum standard required by Copenhagen’s Building Code is currently equivalent to North America’s LEED Gold standard, and this will increase significantly by 2011.

While the 1990s brought significant growth and Denmark’s world leading education system allowed it to take full advantage of the structural shift in skill requirements, the positive returns remained inequitably distributed within the city. By 1997, therefore, the Neighbourhood Revitalization Program introduced an intensive new model involving initially seven less-affluent communities in partnerships with residents to create plans and development charters that cover not only the built environment, ecological action and cultural development but also social and economic enhancement.

Since the start of the new millennium, Copenhagen has been consolidating its position. Three principles of sustainability — environmental, socio-cultural and economic — guide the process with considerable help from the publicly/privately financed Danish Architectural Centre (DAC). While the first principle has made Denmark arguably the world’s greenest nation, the second requires the built environment to help residents understand when, where and how they dwell. But, as the last attests, these first two can only be achieved within an economic framework that works. At the same time, assuming leadership in green technology, architecture and successful urban place-making has also allowed the Danes to globally market their learned and applied skills. [visit for an expanded slideshow of downtown Copenhagen]

PORTLAND From Stagnation to Model City

If Copenhagen has an international reputation for liveable city building, similar-sized Portland, OR., is often cited as its North America cousin. Portland also stagnated in the postwar period with the city core increasingly becoming less a community in which to live than a place to work, conduct civic business and shop. Yet with expanding suburban mall developments, shopping trips dropped dramatically and the downtown corroded into poorly maintained stores, rising crime, low-income residents in substandard housing, all served by a private bus company slipping into insolvency.

The initial response, the “Era of Grand Projects” from 1958 to the late 1960s, was right out of the urban renewal handbook. Although a 1951 plan to demolish 44 blocks in a rundown, mixed residential/industrial area faltered, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) was established in 1958 to eliminate blight and promote industrial development. Its initial 109.3-acre South Auditorium Renewal Project, however, already showed signs Portland would reject the overly simplistic renewal paradigm. Although the project bulldozed housing, demolished historically significant cast iron buildings, displaced a remarkably diverse population and included construction of freeway access, it was a mixed-use project. Multi-family housing, office complexes promoting businesses and job development, retail establishments and signature parks rejected the rigid division of functions favoured by modern urban planners. In addition, the subsequent Albina Neighbourhood project largely eschewed demolition for rehabilitation of an existing neighbourhood while the Portland State University project ensured survival of an urban campus key for Portland’s later creative economy.

Starting in 1972, a confluence of events reshaped the city’s future. That year, council approved the watershed Downtown Plan followed in 1973 by state mandated comprehensive urban plans and growth boundaries for all cities. The same year, newly elected mayor Neil Goldschmidt established the Office of Neighbourhood Associations, shook up the PDC and set out to establish downtown Portland’s character around vibrant neighbourhoods. Goldschmidt’s agenda was, according to the Oregon History Project, “to reverse the pollution of Portland’s air and water by curtailing sprawl and the use of automobiles” by re-establishing downtown as the region’s growth engine served by public transport.

The new federal programs — Model Cities, which permitted development of a community’s skill base, and the hard-infrastructure Neighbourhood Development Program — fitted the new agenda. These funds were supplemented by the city’s tax increment financing (TIF) that permitted the city to dedicate increased tax revenues generated by renewal programs to pay off the bonds used to fund the original project. As both federal programs required considerable public consultation, the next twenty years of major downtown development projects would be dubbed the Era of Activism.

Two of the most important undertakings were the RiverPlace and Pioneer Place projects. The former opened up access to the Willamette River waterfront through the development of a major industrial brownfield site as a mixed-use community of housing, retail offices, a hotel and marina as well as the Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The latter was the reconstruction of a major four block site in the core with quality designed office towers and residences. Along with the restored Pioneer Courthouse and the now oft-photographed Pioneer Square, this project created a signature area to attract business downtown, including the semiconductor manufacturer Wacker Siltronic that located in the N.W. Front Avenue Urban Renewal Area. In addition, more than 10,000 homes were rehabilitated and several hundred new housing units were built downtown.

Despite a 1971 plan for 54 major new highway projects, an alliance of community associations and business groups convinced voters in 1975 to reject a new inner city freeway. This coincided with a plan by TriMet, the city’s new public transit company, to expand commuter service and establish a dedicated transit mall in the core. As the Federal Aid Highway Act allowed states to transfer federal funds earmarked for interstate freeways, Portland refocused monies into a bold new public transportation system. In 1978, the new 22-block dedicated transit mall opened providing a considerable multiplier effect for downtown investment. In 1994, the Mall was extended seven blocks north into the Old Town/Chinatown District, linking the original Mall with Portland’s intermodal transportation center at Union Station and just last year, the Mall concluded a major restoration phase to restore its earlier design success.

Following the 1978 creation of Metro, an elected regional government, and its approval of an urban growth boundary (UGB) a year later, federal funding was secured for the first MAX transit lines. This investment in European light rail has now grown into a four line system (plus a suburb-to-suburb spur line) stretching 145.8 kilometres with all the lines passing through the Transit Mall. A largely free inner city tram line was opened in 1999 and its current 10 kilometres circuit runs into RiverSide. Two new loops are in final engineering stages and a study for an interconnected citywide system of streetcar corridors is under review. Portland’s Region 2040 Growth Program attempts to limit commercial and retail development to the transit lin
e stations, a process similar to that being followed in Copenhagen.

Measure Five, a property tax revolt in 1990, stripped Portland of the vital TIF funding tool until initiatives later in the decade allowed its amended use. The changes ushered in the current third Era of the Post-modern Urban Planning in which the city has shifted into a public/private development process mirroring that emerging in Copenhagen in the same decade. A three-pronged strategy focused mixed-use projects, entrepreneurial buy-in and intensive, state mandated community participation emerged. The last one helps balance the current targeting of the affluent educated workers demanded by the entrepreneurial model of the new creative economy. Today, both cities continue to key in on transit oriented development, celebrating their reclaimed waterfront, ensure a mix of affordable and upscale downtown housing, incorporate vibrant public spaces and focus attention on walkability and bicycle networks. As in Copenhagen, Portland centres on a limited number of urban renewal districts, currently nine. Both cities also are moving to a more regional model where more outlying communities are developed along the transit lines. In Portland, this includes the Lents Town Center and the Gateway Urban Renewal Area that are taking shape as mixed-use centres within the Urban Growth Boundary just as resund is emerging in Copenhagen.

VANCOUVER and HELSINKI and the Transformation Model

Helsinki and Vancouver largely avoided post-war economic decline and ill-conceived urban renewal. Helsinki was already considered a model by the late 1950s, and after the narrow defeat of a proposed downtown expressway a decade later, its development strategy foreshadowed that of Copenhagen and Portland. As outlined in Building (April-May 2008), the city retained its wonderfully dense, low-scaled 19th and 20th century core and is in the process of converting various inner city brownfield sites to lively mixed-use communities of high architectural and environmental standards. Its half-wheel/spoke transit system boasts a 70 per cent nodal split usage into the downtown at rush hour. Along this expanding network, new urban villages with specialized economies are being created based on a “triple helix model” involving government, universities/colleges and business. The resulting combination of a very creative-based economy with good governance is a key reason Finland ranked first in the 2009 Legatum prosperity index.

As a model, however, there is a caveat. Because the Helsinki municipality now owns 80 per cent of the land, its council and planning department, with considerable public input, controls the design and development of new communities, albeit with the private sector acting as developer.

Vancouver, although referred to as the “rhinestone in a diamond setting” back in the 60s, retained a lively downtown after the war. While surrounding suburban populations grew six-fold from 1951 to 1971, Vancouver proper also added 85,000 new residents. Its peninsula location, continued prosperity of abutting residential communities — including south of English Bay and between the downtown and the incredible Stanley Park — and excellent access to seashore beaches kept many living and working within Vancouver’s economic core.

Equally important, the unique, provincially granted Vancouver Charter of 1953 gave the city much stronger powers to regulate development and thus facilitated innovative urban design and planning. Some misguided urban renewal happened in the east end but by the 1960s, residential intensification was in full swing in the west end with the granting of high rise zoning matched with careful urban design requirements. This was probably the most notable of a general pattern of development and infill that was taking place in many areas of Vancouver proper. The Marsh report on Vancouver’s development in the same decade pushed the city toward a 20 year development plan. The Southwest False Creek communities followed (and of course the legendary development of Granville Island) that solidified the concept of urban living close to the downtown.

Still, with the economic instability of the 1980s, population erosion seemed likely. The response, writes then-chief planner Larry Beasely, was a bold, definitive action in adopting a new Central Area Plan based on the “living first” strategy.” This led to zoning for eight million square feet converted from commercial to residential, the waterfronts singled out for housing, “and an aggressive planning effort commenced to make the housing future real.” With a high downtown residential level, a policy of “choking-off” regional commuters despite the subsequent development of the SkyTrain system was adapted, a strategy that separates Vancouver from the other three cities. All four cities, however, are grappling with the need for regional strategies with more suburban neighbours who now face their own need to “transform.”

The quality of Vancouver’s downtown development over the last two decades is well documented. Three major problems, however, must be handled. First, creating communities that are truly income diverse is problematic in a city now one of the most expensive in the world. Second, the increasingly tense confrontation between the new Vancouver and the city’s notorious east end must be resolved humanely. And third, current estimates indicate that residential demand is choking off the availability of commercial office space in the core. Brent Toderian, Director of Planning for the city, however, suggests that Vancouver, like the other three cities featured here, continues to identify and work intensively on specifically targeted areas to create quality mixed-use communities with sustainable economic bases.

“Where all the lights are bright…”

Numerous writers and academics have posited various strategies to “revitalize downtown” including pedestrianization, historic restoration, waterfront development, transportation improvements, “mainstreeting,” brownfield conversion, office development, specialty focal site development, and so on. What these four model cities suggest is that success requires all of the above. Each would argue that residential plays a vital role (bizarrely, one survey found many U.S. planners found housing a low priority). Certainly, for most medium-sized Canadian cities, connecting downtown development with the creative economy is vital and will likely -see for example Thunder Bay (Building, April-May 2009) — make universities increasingly key players in the urban story. Before we know it, Petula Clark’s signature song will be truer than ever: downtown — no finer place, for sure. B

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