Urban renewal?

Here are a pair of stories about efforts to revive cities: one about attracting young people and the other about gentrifying a neighborhood whose buildings are more photogenic than its people.  These are stories for animal lovers, being about (respectively) a horse race and the triumph of the underdog.  Perhaps that’s why each story displays the animal lover’s most salient weakness, the inclination to anthropomorphize.

Notwithstanding the headline writers’ conventions, cities don’t actually exist independent of the people who inhabit them.  They can only be "healthy" or "reviving" insofar as they provide their residents with decent housing and education, adequate sanitation and public safety, productive work and access to recreation.  And in measuring an urban area’s success, you’ve got to evaluate its service to all residents.  You can’t just decide that only certain people count–the young, say, or the wealthy.  Or the white.

It’s not obvious how many working-age residents are necessary to sustain services to their retired neighbors, or how many wealthy residents are necessary to support (or employ) impoverished ones; but at least ask that question.  Don’t beg it by claiming victory simply on the basis of having been able to change the mix.  Areas do not "revive" by having their complexions modified; in fact, they don’t revive at all.  Land is dirt, and so are buildings; what matters is how they support people.

[And for a bit of perspective on Richard Florida, who thinks exactly the opposite and can be counted on to enthuse (as he does) over the cities’ steeplechase in pursuit of the Young and the Restless, please take a look at this review of his magnum opus The Creative Class.]

Or maybe I’m just being cranky.  Comments from colleagues who work in urban planning and affordable housing groups–or in arts groups engaged in urban pioneering–particularly welcome.   


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