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Building the 'Just City': A Report from the Frontier of the New Urbanism

Social and economic justice, safe streets and schools, a home for millennials and long-term residents --the 'just city' is taking shape

toni griffin
Credit: Amanda Brown
Conference keynote Toni Griffin directs the J. Max Bond Center at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York

“For the first time in my generation, cities are cool,” pronounced baby boomer and president, CEO, and publisher Tom Dallessio.

“Cool” is just the beginning. In the catch-phrases of the new urbanism, cities should include “transit-oriented developments” and “live-work-play spaces …” But the one phrase that identifies what today’s progressive urban planners and developers and public officials want their work to embody, is the “just city.”

That was one of the main messages of NJ Spotlight on Cities conference last week.

It’s an elusive term, one that has captured the attention of Pope Francis, who, in his recent encyclical, believes the 21st centuries urban centers must “take into account how various elements combine to form a whole which is perceived by its inhabitants as a coherent and meaningful framework for their lives.”

Closer to home, the just city is seen as an urban center that is inclusive, affordable, and equitable for all its residents -- neither a gentrified playground for the rich nor a prison for the poor, but a place where both can live, sharing space, employment, schools, shops, and entertainment.

Are we there yet? Not even close in most states, including New Jersey, where some developers and conference panelists lament the lack of clear directives on urban economic policies.

Still, for today’s socially responsible urban planners, the just city isn’t simply an idea or a glimmer of light on the far side of the horizon. It’s a real place that’s being realized today, in neighborhoods and downtowns of cities like Newark, Camden, New Brunswick, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Design for a just city

The motto of the J. Max Bond Center at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York reads “Design for the Just City.” Fittingly, the school, which explores ways to work toward “urban justice in housing, transportation, commercial development and infrastructure,” is directed by conference keynote speaker Toni Griffin.

Griffin has spent decades working to reshape the physical, economic, and psychological landscapes of Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Washington, D.C., Newark, and New York City. And she indicates that city dwellers, despite feeling like they live in more integrated communities, still “live in deeply segregated places by race… (that) tend to leave us in spaces of isolation.”

Residents of cities, even prosperous ones, still struggle with staggering levels of neighborhood-to-neighborhood imbalance in quality-of-life indicators like poverty, unemployment and education. Women, children, immigrants and -- since the recession -- the middle class, are particularly vulnerable to disenfranchisement as cities continue to deal with the aftereffects of suburban sprawl. For 65 years following WWII rampant migration to the suburbs left those remaining in cities without jobs, quality schools, and commercial and residential investment.

christiana foglio-palmer
Credit: Amanda Brown
Christiana Foglio-Palmer is CEO of Lawrence Township-based Community Investment Strategies.

The approach to “rescuing” those populations has often been misunderstood by well-intentioned professionals. As conference panelist and affordable-housing builder Christiana Foglio-Palmer says, it’s a myth that all ambitious families of modest means aspire to move into more highly regarded suburban school districts.

Foglio-Palmer, the CEO of Lawrence Township-based Community Investment Strategies, continues, “The value of the neighborhood network is too important for these families to move away. If Miss ‘Dede’ takes care of the kids after school, who’s going to do that when they move?”

Griffin conjures up what she calls, “the architecture of fear” that was built in response to crime and racial tensions in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The result was structures with skywalks, raised ground floors, and concrete facades meant to keep city dwellers safe from criminals. That’s left many areas of cities unattractive, unapproachable, and without a street life even as crime receded.

Griffin’s Five Lessons for Designing Just Cities

Griffin strives to create a framework for designing and evaluating urban economic development projects that foster social justice for those with a stake in these projects. Though she says every city has to determine its own course, she believes five questions can guide the process.

Can design really be regulated?

Yes. As deputy director for neighborhood planning in Washington, D.C., Griffin worked on transforming a once-neglected 500-acre quadrant near the Navy Yard by bringing in offices, housing, retail, and parks. She hosted an international design competition whose jury included three public-housing residents from the neighborhood who helped write the architectural brief, hire the firm, and make decisions on how to build up the neighborhood without forcing or encouraging anyone to move out.

Speaking of the anticipated influx of white-collar workers into what had traditionally been a very poor minority district, Griffin said, “We wanted to ensure shared space for those types of folks who don’t naturally come together to come together.”

Can design effect neighborhood change?

There may be little better evidence than Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. After connecting that portion of the city to the Anacostia River by reopening streets and directing them straight to the banks; building some of the city’s only waterfront housing, including indistinguishable affordable and market-rate housing units; and anchoring the neighborhood with the Washington Nationals’ Major League Baseball stadium, Griffin, who is African-American, said, “D.C. was no longer Chocolate City.”

Washington’s 2010 census showed an unprecedented equal number of blacks and whites along with a noticeable rise in average income.

Where is planning needed most?

Legacy cities. These are defined as urban centers that either have experienced continuous population decline or have lost greater than 20 percent of their population since their peak. In New Jersey, older cities like Camden and Trenton suffer from job loss, high residential vacancies, and diminished service capacity and resources. Fortunately, some legacy cities, such as Newark, are being designed out of legacy status and serving as national models for how to rebound from economic decline.

Are architects and planners visionaries or simply facilitators?

Griffin says her students sometimes hesitate to advocate for any action that goes beyond facilitating a conversation about what the community wants. However, Griffin insists on the need for boldness. She knew she had to take drastic action when, working in Detroit, journalists called for the destitute city to be reverted into “the world’s biggest urban farm.” Understanding that much of Detroit’s population was descended from black farmers who migrated from the south, she couldn’t bear to contemplate such a regression.

“It emboldened us to think larger,” she said.

Can impact of design on justice be measured?

The concept of justice can be difficult to define, but Griffin offers two illustrations of success. The first: When Manhattan officials measured pedestrian versus vehicle usage in Times Square and discovered that more pedestrians used its streets than drivers, they converted areas that had been dedicated to cars into pedestrian-only mini-plazas. The second: Wanting to measure the impact of seven New York plazas, city leaders surveyed users about their level of emotional investment by asking them questions like, “Would you pick up litter if you saw it in the park?”

Ways public sector can encourage just design

Supporters of a controversial 2013 overhaul to the state’s corporate incentive program credit the recent law for bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment to impoverished cities like Camden. They hope, as Newark developer Ron Beit says, “The public investment regime stays in place because the economics of our state depends on the activity our business corridors provide.”

They insist that political stability is key, given the amount of time it takes for a major project to move from the concept phase to realization. Sometimes, as in the case of New Brunswick’s steady but prolonged improvements to its main business and academic districts, it can take decades for a revitalization campaign to hit its critical mass.

“Sometimes it’s not the quick hit but the long-term investment,” says Foglio-Palmer, who served as president of the nonprofit development agency New Brunswick Devco. “The difference (between successful and unsuccessful cities) is the cities that sell themselves quick and those that are in it for the long haul.”

It’s important, these developers believe, to have a master strategy to guide urban land-use policy. Beit laments the state’s lack of one.

“When you have free-flowing capitalism, private developers make private decisions,” he said, inferring that those decisions don’t always bend toward justice.

ron beit
Credit: Amanda Brown
Newark developer Ron Beit

What would such a plan contain? Guidelines for historic and cultural preservation would top the list for Beit and Jersey City mega-developer Paul Silverman. Both men have built their careers on rehabbing old, and building new, multifamily dwellings and commercial units to conform with the spirit of what surrounds them.

They advocate preserving the historic context of the neighborhood and respecting institutions that are important to the community. Silverman applauds Jersey City’s strict historic preservation laws that protect stately brownstones -- now divided into apartments -- from demolition when developers come in and want to build on a larger scale. He says this helps keep long-time residents from being evicted. He also appreciates that the redeveloper of the former Hahne & Co. department store in Newark is keeping the company’s engraved sign over the portico.

“Keep the history and charm. That’s what people really want to see,” he said.

However, Beit cautions generally, “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it should stay. It should have significance and then it should inform the feel of the neighborhood.”

Without these safeguards, the developers fear gentrification can rob a revitalized area of its character and its human foundation.

“Without a very aggressive urban policy we’re going to end up with only people who can afford to live in cities, with poor people trapped in the places that don’t get developed,” Foglio-Palmer said.

Private developers incorporating just design

Beit is months away from delivering the fifth of six buildings that will comprise his Teachers Village in a part of downtown Newark that, once covered almost entirely with parking lots, used to house almost no viable businesses and no residences whatsoever. In an effort to recruit and retain teachers, he’s offering housing they can afford with the amenities they expect. Knowing he needs to provide what he calls “the three food groups of real estate,” he’s tucking commercial and office space into his residential footprint.

But he’s adding a twist: realizing teachers won’t move to Newark if they don’t have safe schools for their own children, he’s building schools now instead of waiting for the need to arise. To some extent, the schools replace offices as the generator of daytime occupancy.

susan fine
Credit: Amanda Brown
Among many groundbreaking projects, Susan Fine is responsible for the retail makeover of Grand Central station in Manhattan.

In Manhattan, Susan Fine doesn’t need to think small. As the woman responsible for the retail makeover of Grand Central station, she’s executed one of the most prominent projects in modern city history. But that’s not stopping her from developing the first privately funded project in the subway system … a project she’s using to boost the visibility of one-person retail operations and provide a blueprint to public transportation systems all over the world.

This spring, she’s opening a retail marketplace in the Columbus Circle station, and rather than pull in national retailers who could lease for top dollar, she’s personally recruiting craftspeople to fill the spaces at greatly reduced rents. With 34 stores, she’s leveraged enough to offset tenants who go out of business, and she’s proud that she can get some of them into a business-development program given by the project’s financier, Goldman Sachs.

How can she do it? “Transit (stations are) cheaper because they’ve already built the walls,” she said. Efforts toward sustaining or creating just cities can be as small as a lobby. Silverman turns some of his buildings into arts incubators and community gathering spots by displaying and selling local art in his lobbies. Every few months he switches up the artists, and in what can only be described as a win-win situation, decorates his ground floors for free and helps funnel exposure and money to the artists who live as his neighbors.

By treating the communities they impact with respect, these developers are transforming the lives of the people who live, work and play there. As Pope Francis writes, these sorts of actions increase “Our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of ‘feeling at home.’ … Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a ‘we’ which all of us are working to create.”

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