The Amazing Resiliency of America's Cities

It’s been an incredibly busy spring at MZ Strategies with far more travel than I usually like, but work has taken me to some great places. I just returned from my college reunion. I won’t say which number it was, but that enough time had passed that I was in a nostalgic mode. I journeyed back to Saint Paul, MN to help celebrate one of my all-time favorite professors who was retiring. David Lanegran instilled in me a deep and long-lasting love affair with cities. His geography classes were where I first realized that people, economic, land, and place were all connected in ways magical and mundane.

Saint Paul today ... imagine a network of bike paths connecting the city's neighborhoods, downtown, cathedral and state capitol. Mayor Chris Coleman does! (Source: MZimmerman, 2014)

Saint Paul today ... imagine a network of bike paths connecting the city's neighborhoods, downtown, cathedral and state capitol. Mayor Chris Coleman does! (Source: MZimmerman, 2014)

Back in those days, Saint Paul was in the early stages of trying to “come back” from decades of decline. One of my first jobs in college was helping then-Mayor George Latimer catalog his legacy. I had the chance to research and interview a diverse set of people on topics ranging from the renewal of historic Summit Avenue to stormwater/sewer separation and the influx of Hmong families to the region.

Today the City seems more vibrant than ever. Mayor Chris Coleman is leading several new initiatives (i.e. 8 to 80 Vitality Fund and comprehensive bike plan) that build upon the City’s legacy while charting a path for a more resilient future. From the new Saints stadium in Lowertown, to high capacity transit such as the Greenline down University Avenue and the forthcoming A-Line down Snelling, and the burgenoning local breweries and re-imagining of the Ford motor plant site, the City is on the map in bigger and better ways than ever before.

Saint Paul is just one place where the change is palpable. It’s almost hard to imagine that many of our urban American jewels – Chicago, Chattanooga, New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Portland … the list goes on – were fairly sad, unsafe and disinvested places just 25 years ago. While we make a lot of the projected millennial affinity for walkable urbanism, the rebirth of America’s cities began to happen when most of that generation were still watching Full House. Gen X’ers, together with a passionate group of Boomers, fought to bring back and preserve America’s urban chic. While we are witnessing the rise of urban bike paths, shared use mobility options, and a renaissance of housing and retail in our cities. These factors came into play through changes in policy, land use, and markets that have taken decades to develop and implement. Setting the table for change takes time. But once the ingredients are in place, change can happen quickly leading to gentrification pressures not previously imagined.

Today we have a wide range of consumer choices not only in things like television channels, news outlets, and designer cupcake stores but also in the kinds of housing, neighborhoods, and communities that exist - sometimes within the same region. The challenge is ensuring that choice is not limited to a certain demographic, but rather finding the space for rural, urban, suburban and various hybrids of these to co-exist. Perhaps even more challenging, its finding solutions to tame displacement pressures so that residents and businesses who helped to pioneer a neighborhood can remain. Working with cities to try and figure out this puzzle is one of my favorite things! Thanks to all who’ve given me a chance to explore these discussions this spring in Saint Paul, Minneapolis, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Arden Hills, and Washington, DC.