Looking Ahead, Looking Back

Looking Ahead, Looking Back

2009 was a funny year. There was the optimism that came with Obamania — I can vividly recall shedding some tears as I watched Obama deliver his inauguration speech and feeling a tremendous sense of hope and pride, even as we descended into the Great Recession — but there was also the reality of the damage done by a decade of terrible domestic and foreign policy. 2009 was the year of reckoning and many cities that had thrived at the turn of the century were suddenly faced with the awful problems of deflated housing prices, population shrinkage, unemployment, foreclosure and worse. If there was a bright side to all this, it was that cities that already dealt with these problems had little ground to lose. Places like Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh may have lost some ground, but compared to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or New York, they seemed remarkably fine.

And it’s in those cities that things got interesting. Next American City visited almost a dozen cities through our URBANEXUS series, but outside of those events I visited Windsor, Ontario (just across the river from Detroit) to give a talk about Open Cities. While there, I met some people doing amazing work to revitalize that city. Like Broken City Lab, whose projects attempt to engage the city through art, through art, media, even urban agriculture.

It reminded me of St. Louis, there’s also tremendous excitement around revitalizing that city, as witnessed during our URBANEXUS event there. Programs like the Transformation project, using the ideas of Gordon Matta-Clark to revisit the city’s urban fabric, are helping locals and visitors rethink their city.

And here in Philadadelphia, there are interesting attempts, such as the launch of Philaplace.org, to grapple with the city’s history, while also thinking new responses to gaps in the city’s architecture, as witnessed at the Community Design Collaborative’s charrette on designing temporary uses for vacant lots.

So what will 2010 bring for cities?

1. Well I guess as per my notes above: it’s the continued comeback of post-industrial cities. They don’t even have to be post-industrial, per se. Things like the Jackson Community Design Center in Mississippi, or Urban Biofilter in Oakland. When there’s little to lose, plus a spirit of adventure or experimentation, innovation is sure to follow.

2. Fewer megaprojects, more megaparks. A project that has long intrigued me and will be covered in the magazine in the summer of 2010 is the The Park in Dallas. What’s so special about it? It’s 5.2 acres on top of a freeway! Calling St. Louis! Calling Milwaukee! And really any other city with a highway that separates its city. In fact, why is Philadelphia’s Wallace Robert and Todd helping with a 21st-century park in Louisville instead of grassing over 1-95?

3. More online applications respond to social issues. For a long time blogs, iPhone apps and GIS-related programs have really focused on the built environment — they’ve shown how fast you can get through a city using public transit, they tell you where the nearest coffee shop is. But they’re not that good at helping solve more complex social issues. Where’s the anti-poverty app? Don’t laugh — we might see it in 2010. Programs like Envisioning Development, launched by the Center for Urban Pedagogy; Heatwatch a facet of SeeClickFix; and Foreclosure Response are three favorite examples of how the web is particularly useful as a tool for educating the public and government about these challenges.

4. The urbanism field grows more crowded. I’ve been in my job for about 20 months and in this time I’ve been astonished by how many urbanism programs and projects have sprouted up. Who would have thought that a magazine called GOOD, “for people who give a damn,” would now boast that one of their main areas of focus is on cities? That an online art rag, Triple Canopy, would devote two of its issues to urbanisms? Even a trendwatching company says “urbany” is the new thing. It will be very interesting to see how we all mete out our space.

5. New urbanism role models. A Next American Vanguard recently penned a book called Real Role Models: Successful African Americans Beyond Pop Culture, which got me thinking about the kinds of people we, as a society admire. Are our defaults for icons and heros changing? Houston elected an openly gay woman as mayor — not your typical role model. Meanwhile Obama dismissed Van Jones as soon as he was collateral — are phenoms out? Although I mentioned a few brave urban thinkers a few months back, I think it’s fair to say that the field of urbanist heroes in 2010 is wide open.

Last but not least: I should make some predictions for Next American City. We’re launching a podcast, doing a final tweaking of our redesigned website, continuing our URBANEXUS events (but with more post-event coverage and community input), hosting the Next American Vanguard event for the second time (but in our hometown of Philadelphia for the first time!) and will be publishing a special issue called Tales of Two Cities: Detroit and New Orleans in the fall, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. To be blunt, 2010 is going to be an amazing year.

Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: philadelphiaculturebuilt environmentgovernancedetroitappsst. louis

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