Car Traffic

Fueled by an endless array of transportation options, global citizens are discovering new ways to get from point A to point B in their communities. This new “mobility mindset,” which embodies the twin characteristics of urban fluidity and efficiency, offers us the freedom to roam untethered to our daily connection points, with minimal reliance on cars.

In the fall of 2012 I was tossed into this paradigm head on after a full-on face plant in the mud divorce. No longer possessing permanent mobility of the four-wheel variety (we were a one-car family), I found myself suddenly confronted with the question of how one gets around without the luxury of being regularly able to put key in ignition. Lamenting the loss of convenience, I decided to make a study of alternative transportation options locally as well as in cities I frequented. What I discovered was a legion of common, everyday people like me who, possessing no car, have found creative ways to scurry to their intended locations, be it a place of employment, grocery store or another regularly frequented place.

As one of the premier mobility-friendly cities in the U.S., the Denver Metro Area offers the ideal ecosystem for assessing transportation resourcefulness. Despite opposing views by some lifelong area residents, the Mile High City’s transportation system is widely considered to be one of the most progressive in the nation. In fact, according to a U.S. News and World Report analysis, Denver was listed as the #1 city in terms of public transportation investment, ridership and safety in 2011. This distinction has undoubtedly been a major catalyst for the city’s robust economic and workforce development boom. Moreover a report by the public policy organization Brookings Institution ranked the Denver-Aurora area as having one of the nation’s most efficient systems for connecting companies to labor pools. The Regional Transportation District bus system in Denver (more commonly known as RTD) was my first foray into the life of a frequent bus rider.

Admittedly, I had long viewed bus ridership culture as one that is gritty and low-class. Unfortunately, this was somewhat reinforced when I took my first trip on what is known as the 15L bus, a route that services Colfax Ave, the main street traversing the Denver-Aurora area. Known in some local circles as the “Vomit Comet,” this bus regularly attracts a cast of shady characters and late night drinkers that would put the uninitiated rider in a very discomforting situation. Judgments aside, RTD buses serve as an invaluable conduit for connecting riders to their daily routines, including work, grocery shopping, school, and various activities.

I have generally found the drivers to be friendly as well as adept at navigating through what can be some rather challenging scenarios, be it traffic snarls or disrespectful patrons. And excepting days when there is severe inclement weather or an unanticipated accident, the buses generally tend to run on time.

Another key component of Denver’s RTD system is the light rail trains that service both North-South and East-West routes. The Lower Downtown district serves as the epicenter for local passenger rail traffic that flows continuously to regular stops throughout the Denver Metro Area nearly 24/7. In many ways, light rail is the root of the booming economic development that downtown Denver has experienced over the past 20 years. Transportation experts tout the valuable role it serves in terms of outskirt resident access to downtown activities, including dining, shopping, sporting events, festivals, the arts, and night clubs. Moreover, growing numbers of Denver residents are choosing to live downtown, where a massive residential construction uptick is in full bloom.

But the most significant news for alternative transportation junkies is what’s happening near the historic Union Station terminal. As a part of a $500 million public-private project, the station’s former rail yard is being carefully orchestrated into a 20-acre intermodal hub for the light rail, buses, taxis, Amtrak trains, as well as a commuter rail to Denver International Airport. Targeted for completion in late 2014, this transformation of the area will serve as a critical connection point to nearby commercial office buildings, apartments and public plazas. The airport accessibility component of this project holds particular significance, as it is central to Denver’s reputation as one of the top convention cities in the nation. This will allow the Mile High City to gain traction with other light rail-infused cities such as Atlanta (MARTA), Portland (MAX), Chicago (L), and Seattle (SeaTac) that provide an easy and convenient way to access downtowns from their airports.

High-functioning transit-oriented cities like Denver also recognize the importance of having a congruent interconnection between the various modes of transportation available. With the popularity of short-term car rental options like eGoCar, Economy Car, Hertz 24/7 and Car2Go, pickup locations are in abundance in Denver’s urban core, near housing centers and adjacent to light rail stations. This allows commuters a convenient, just-in-time medium of transport that keeps them on the move amidst their personal and professional demands.

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An option that I favor relative to the quick “hop in and go” mobility is the widely acclaimed transportation network Uber. This company connects you with a driver with a tap of a button on your smart phone. They pick you up via their GPS technology, drop you at your intended destination and then charge your credit card that they have registered on file.

Uber has had a disruptive impact on the transportation dynamics in cities like Denver, San Francisco, and Washington, raising the ire of local government regulators who see the popularity of this new service as an affront to local taxi drivers. Personally, I think its influence underscores the value of free market innovations that bring real value to a city in terms of competitively priced, efficient modes of transportation. And besides, contrary to the vehement arguments of these regulators, Uber is simply in the business of facilitating the connection between privately licensed drivers with riders. In the end this boost in business for limo companies and their drivers is good for the economy.

While car, rail and bus are the predominant means of mobility for most commuters, bicycling continues to show exponential growth in urban centers like Denver, Portland and San Francisco. My first experience in observing the viability of two-wheel transport was while living in Folsom, California, a bedroom suburb of the Golden State’s capital of Sacramento. It boasts one of the top biking communities in the nation, featuring some of the most efficient, well developed sets of bike lanes and arterials anywhere. I also had the pleasure of being employed in Davis, California, widely regarded as the bicycle capital of the U.S. This college town is brimming with a sea of bikes in a manner reminiscent of the urban center thoroughfares of China. And it has the distinction of being the first city in the nation to pilot and implement the now ubiquitous bike lanes.

The rise of the bicycling culture in Denver continues to reach new heights, undoubtedly due in part to its health-conscious ethos. Much of this has been buoyed by the emergence of B-Cycle, a smart technology bicycle-sharing system featuring solar-powered stations. First launched here in 2010 with 40 stations and 500 bikes, B-Cycle is now operating in more than 25 cities nationally.

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Given the effects of the economic downturn, many cost-conscious Americans are embracing nontraditional forms of mobility on a much larger scale. This is particularly true in geographically and demographically dense city areas, as they allow for easy connection points between destinations. Here in Denver, skateboarding has gone from extreme sport status to a viable means to get around. Motorized scooters also abound among low budget commuters.

And then there are the legions of walkers who trek miles every day from home to work to local amenities. Denver in fact is ranked #10 on a list of U.S. cities with the most walkable neighborhoods according to Walkscore.com. And the city ranks in the top five cities for walkability according the Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank. WalkDenver has even higher aspirations for the city with its initiative to make “The Mile High City” the most walkable in the nation. Hopefully they can “walk their talk” by fulfilling this ambitious vision. “The key elements of walk friendly cities include wide sidewalks as well trees, foliage, scenery and appealing stop off points along the way,” says James Shaffer, Board President of Walk Denver. “This involves an ongoing assessment of how urban space is being used so that we can look for ways make it more efficient, vibrant and engaging for walkers.”

The future of alternative transportation will continue to take shape as people become more aware of the myriad mobility options available to them. This is great news as it facilitates progress and change in how we navigate cities amidst traffic snarls and congestion. Being untethered opens up new possibilities for how we interact with our communities, families and friends. It allows us freedom to keep moving in a world that increasingly requires us to be fluid and flexible.

 

Michael Scott is a Denver-based urban futurist, writer and researcher. He can be reached at urbanvisionary@gmail.com

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the three years that I’ve now resided in Denver. “Far and away the best place that I’ve ever lived,” I recently told some peeps back in the Midwest. “Our 300 plus days of sunshine makes for some of the best weather in the nation,” I shared with another.But my biggest discovery is Denver’s reputation as one of the most socially engaged cities in the U.S. Despite its distinction as the 23rd most populous major metropolitan area in the nation, the “Mile High City,” as it’s affectionately known, has a surprisingly small, close-knit community feel to it.

The mountain of social and business events that take place on a daily basis evidences the centrality of face-to-face engagement. While many of these get-togethers are of a planned and formal nature, connections often occur in an unpredictable, synchronistic fashion, whether at a local pub in Denver’s densely urbanized Capitol Hill or in a tony restaurant in the entrepreneurial-infused Denver Tech Center area.

In his book Triumph of the City, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues that the fostering of what he calls “random collisions” among humans are one of the most prized assets of urban life. According to Glaeser, this sort of dynamic serves a catalyst for unexpected business and personal introductions, relationships and even collaborations.

The citizenry of Denver have made a sport out of these sorts of encounters, as it’s not uncommon to cross paths with people you know on local streets both day and night. Much of this is due to the active lifestyle present in the Mile High City, which encourages mobility versus being cloistered away from civilization. It’s more common for business to be conducted in open environments of conversation and exchange, versus in some sterile office environment. Downtown Denver’s 16th Street Mall is infamous for its mid-afternoon gatherings of business-minded professionals who allow for the creative flow of ideas over a refreshing beer.

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Downtown Denver

The proliferation of these informal exchanges is the gist of what author Ray Oldenburg explored in his book The Great Good Place. He predicted over 20 years ago that “third places” like coffee houses, hair salons, bookstores and local pubs would serve as central nodes of civic connection. In these social spaces where people congregate for a brief respite from work and home, conversations occur in organic fashion among unsuspecting newbies as well as regulars, leading to unexpected and oftentimes rewarding connections.

Denver-based Little Pub Company manages a varied cornucopia of pubs throughout Denverthat serve as sparkplugs for spirited community connection. On their website they promote the importance of relationships among “the people in your neighborhood,” – singles, couples, families, and parents on a date night. My two favorites among their pubs, Wyman’s, an old school Chicago-themed bar in the Capitol Hill district, and The Pioneer, a staple in the University of Denver community, exemplify the Little Pub Company’s spirit of first-nameconnectedness among regulars in environments that abound with unpretentiousness, playfulness, music and fervent laughter. These are the types of spots that would make Norm from the hit television show Cheers proud.

An alum of Ohio State University, I often find myself at Crocs Mexican Grill at 16th and Market during football season watching my beloved Buckeyes make a run at the Big 10 championship each year (See Photo Below). Every Saturday, hundreds of faithful fans gather at a bar called Crocs, located at 16th and Market in downtown Denver. These types of branded sporting venues profusely populate the city and serve as an outlet for community vibrancy and economic development.

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The Ohio State Rocky Mountain Alumni Association at Crocs

Another driver of community engagement is the social media buzz that hums throughout Denver, one of the most active cities for Facebook and Twitter participation. Personal and business connections percolate via these and other social media channels 24/7.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of attending an in-person gathering of local Twitter enthusiasts on the rooftop of the brand new DaVita World Headquarters Building, located on the fringe of Denver’s LODO District. Over 100 attendees enjoyed an array of craft beer and winewhile taking in some of the best mountain and city views from DaVita’s top floor terrace. While the ultimate purpose of the event was to create a networking forum in support of kidney disease, the evening’s social vibe highlighted the role of civic engagement in building cause-based connections.

This convergence of technological, social, and civic forces is fast becoming a catalyst for boosting economic development in Denver, culminating in the emergence of specific nichescatering to the city’s rapidly mushrooming demographic of creative workers. This movement reflects the growing demand for a sense of community and belonging stemming from the “rise of the creative class,” a phrase coined by Richard Florida, professor and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

Craig Baute is the founder of Creative Density, a collaborative, community-driven workspace for freelancers, remote workers, and start-ups in Denver. He states that a growing number of creatives are longing for community spaces that support their personal and professional endeavors.

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Creative Density

“Undoubtedly, these environments will continue to take on increasing importance for independent, remote workers who are seeking creative outlets for business connection, ” says Baute. “As creative professionals continue to migrate to Denver, I believe that proximity to a co-working space will become a major factor in what neighborhoods people choose to live in.”

At Creative Density, members take the lead in cultivating an environment promoting idea sharing and support, whether through informal, random conversations with fellow members, activities outside of work, or mastermind forums and reading groups. These working relationships extend throughout the U.S. through Creative Density’s partnerships with other co-working locales in cities like Austin, San Francisco, New York City and Seattle. “I’ve always operated off of the principle that if people really get to know each other, they can begin to trust each other, which leads to an atmosphere of collaboration,” says Baute. “That in a nutshell is ultimately what shared connection is all about.”

Michael Scott can be reached at either 303-578-0791 or urbanvisionary@gmail.com. Edits by Emily Jessen.

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My name is Michael Scott and I’m the editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. It gives me great pleasure to announce the relaunch of this virtual blog featuring emerging trends on urban environments, cities and people.

Lots has happened since my last post in 2011. I’ve endured a divorce, mass exodus of friendships, near financial ruin, as well as a blinding flash of new life perspectives as a result of turning 50.

My decision to reignite this virtual blog is in large part due to the prompting of readers who, like me, have a deep fascination with the social and economic dynamics of cities. It will include a fresh new format which integrates more short feature stories infused with compelling audio and video links. We’ll include more picture galleries, book reviews, and edgy first person accounts that appeal to a wide demographic audience.

So subscribe today to stay abreast of the newest and the latest urban trends impacting our cities. Or watch for our posts on Facebook and Google+.

Have a Magnificent Life!

Michael Scott
urbanvisionary@gmail.com
303-578-0791

As a native midwesterner, I’ll readily admit to having some skewed perceptions about Salt Lake City. And, you guessed it, much of this is precipitated by the area strong influence and strict lifestyle values fostered by the Mormon Church. But a recent visit to the city shifted my thinking a bit. Actually, a lot, once I felt comfortable ordering a mixed drink at a downtown eatery, albeit a very weak one.

For many outsiders, Salt Lake City is viewed as a place where one must tread lightly to avoid crossing forbidden boundaries. Common refrain, in fact, suggests that letting ones hair down while imbibing a stiff drink is anathema to the strict Mormon culture emanating throughout the city. It was therefore surprising to discover on a recent stopover that loosening ones collar was no problem at all. Moreover, locals seemed very welcoming and accepting of outsiders—a welcome relief  for those harboring misgivings pertaining about the area.

Salt Lake City Mormon Temple

As the state capital and largest city in Utah, Salt Lake City has long had a reputation as a button down, straight-laced environment. Much of this is attributed to it being the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly know as the LDS or Mormon Church). The infusion of Mormon family values is clearly evident as one traverses the downtown core. The center city displays a clean, safe image, with the church grounds serving as the quintessential symbol of the overall area ethos. And my family and I were not in the least bit put off by the throngs of friendly missionaries that approached us marketing their church doctrine and lifestyle. We found them to be friendly, respectful and to be admired for their commitment amid hearing the word “no” on a consistent basis.

Utah State Capitol Building

Strict values aside, my family and I found Salt Lake City a damn good place to visit. And increasingly it is becoming a preferred destination for Baby Boomers and Millennials alike seeking  a  great quality of life locale  where they can put down their roots.

Much of the buzz about the city is emanating from its downtown district, which is experiencing a period of unprecedented economic and housing development. Prospects in this district have been so robust that futurist Joel Kotkin, an internationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends, and staunch supporter of suburbia, penned a well crafted  piece in support of the rising fortunes of Salt Lake City’s central business district.

During a recent visit to the area, my wife, daughter and I, we were literally taken aback by all of the fervent development activity in progress, complete with noisy jackhammers, tall construction crains and the smell of freshly poured concrete. The downtown district, naturally blessed with quality architectural bones and an efficiently structured arterial grid, provides the ideal setup for a redevelopment renaissance.

According to a “Mountain Monitor” study of the Rocky Mountain Region economy by Brookings Mountain West, Salt Lake City was noted as being among the top U.S. cities in terms of making a swift economic recovery. This was readily apparent downtown where high rise residential projects seemed to be in full bloom everywhere you turned. With empty nesters and emerging professional alike now finding central-city living attractive, recent estimates projected  a tripling of the current downtown population of 10,000 within the next ten years.

There has also been an uptick in interest among small businesses and corporations in relocating to the central business district. Arguably the areas biggest coup was attracting Goldman Sachs, one of the worlds largest investment banking firms to a prized location at the heart of the central business district.  Located in Utah’s first LEED Gold certified high-rise at 222 Main Street, it now the company’s  second-largest office in North America, housing more than 1,500 employees. In addition, perennial Salt Lake business stalwart O.C. Tanner, arguably the nation’s top corporate recognition awards firm, recently relocated its headquarters to the converted Salt Lake City Library at 15 S. State Street. The building, an  architectural gem constructed in 1905, symbolizes the historic character that is infused throughout the inner core of the city.

Downtown Salt Lake City Under Construction

All of this portends a bright future for business and commerce both downtown and in the metro area. In fact, Kip linger Magazine ranks Salt Lake City as the fifth best place to be for the next ten years citing emerging opportunities in fields such as the biosciences and heath sciences as the reason for optimism.

One of the signature features of downtown is The Gateway, a mixed use retail-residential development  featuring shops, boutiques, theaters and eateries in a pedestrian friendly environment. Big names stores like Dicks Sporting Goods, Barnes and Noble, Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie and Fitch are a huge draw generating civic vibrancy and tax revenues to the area.  And in the works is the Cherry Creek Center, an open-air, mixed use shopping, living and dining development, slated to open in early 2012.

At various stages of planning are myriad other development projects designed to boost quality of life downtown. The one that is most widely talked about is a new public market, a community gathering point featuring local goods as well as specialty items imported globally. It is envisioned that this venue,  as an added enhancement to the already popular farmers market that takes place from June to October of each year, will rival such popular markets as Pikes Place in Seattle and the Ferry Building in San Francisco. There are also plans afoot for a regional transportation connector that links downtown with Salt Lake City Airport as well as commuter rail to Ogden and Provo.

Diversifying the mix of civic amenities and attraction is a wise move for Salt Lake as it repositions itself as a destination of choice for new residents and tourists. The Utah Jazz professional basketball team, long the only game in town for years, had fallen on hard times of late with the loss of its hall of fame coach Jerry Sloan as well as player trades and retirements. Its recent dormancy speaks to the importance of not relying on a storied franchise as the sole source of economic vibrancy for an area.

Ultimately, the primary asset that will continue to fuel interest and investment to Salt Lake City’s center-city is its quality of life.  Its a feel that you quickly get walking the streets—safe, accessible and family oriented. As our taxi cab driver noted when asked why he moved to the city ten years ago as a single parent: “It’s a place where I don’t ever have to worry about my son. Quite frankly, he has a greater chance of being attacked by a grizzly bear while hiking in the mountains with his friends than being involved in a gang.”

So cheers to Salt Lake City for its bright economic and quality of life future. Be forewarned though that happy hour specials are barred in the city, with no mixing of shots allowed. And for all you wine aficionados, local bartenders can pour only a 5 oz glass of wine instead of the traditional six. Oh well, there  are plenty of reasons to celebrate nevertheless.

Michael Scott is the editor of UrbanEngagement WebCity. He can be reached at the urbane journalist dot com

Few higher education institutions rival the power and influence of Harvard University, or its history – this year marks its 375th anniversary.

As an itinerate student of cities and communities, I have long been intrigued by prestigious academic establishments like Harvard and the impact they have on their local communities. With Harvard’s long history as a bastion for innovation and research, the surrounding area has become a natural draw for high profile firms and emerging companies seeking collaborative academic ventures to fuel their growth. This, in turn, leads to job growth and trickle down dollars which support local economic development.

On a recent March visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard’s main campus, I wandered the local streets, jotting notes on my iPhone app while encountering bohemians, academics, and students–some even disguised as St. Patrick’s Day revelers. As one of the estimated 8 million annual visitors to the university and city each year, I found myself entranced by the rich architecture and intellectual vibe that permeated throughout the local culture. There was an aesthetic congruence to the historic streets, parks and town squares that brought engagement to the social fabric of the area, lending support to Cambridge’s distinction as one of the most walkable and vibrant communities in the nation.

Harvard University

Cambridge is home to an estimated population of 105,594, driven largely by the faculty, staff and student community of Harvard. In addition Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a neighboring higher education institution of high repute is just a stones throw away.

Despite a natural abundance of local assets, Harvard and Cambridge have arrived at a crossroads amidst tight budgets as well as fiscal losses to the university endowment. Last year, in response to a plummeting stock market that wrecked havoc on their investments, the university put the kibosh on a $1.4 billion science facility construction project, raising the ire of neighborhood residents who were suddenly surrounded by the eyesore of an abandoned project.

Declining fortunes aside, Harvard continues to plunge ahead with investments designed to solidify its world stature as the premier educational institution in the world. One example of this is a plan to build a $90-$100 million executive education center that will sit on the Harvard Business School campus off Soldiers Field Road. When completed it promises to be a top-tier facility that will only serve to further the business school’s already pristine reputation.

The university’s efforts to build upon stellar assets such as its business school are just another notch in the belt of its global reputation as the world’s most highly revered education establishment. Of greater note, though, is how these efforts translate into a better quality of life for Cambridge and the surrounding communities. A walkable paradise, the area boasts a high per-capita percentage of commuters who walk to work. Cambridge, in particular, has a nearly perfect score in terms of walkability, according to Walkscore.com.

The pedestrian landscape, replete with a traffic-calming mechanism in the city’s downtown core, creates an oasis of urbanity that resonates well with the university’s more stoic academic confines. The infamous Harvard Square is the spoke for community activity and embodies the spirit of Greek agoras—those long ago gathering places that attracted intellectuals, curiosity seekers and people simply passing through. Located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, Brattle Street and JFK Street, it is a hustle-bustle locale, as well as a feeder system for the Red Line train that travels to and from Boston proper.

Downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts

For voracious readers, the immediate vicinity features a rich collection of bookstores that cater to virtually every interest. There are over twenty-five bookstores situated in a six-mile radius, giving Cambridge the distinction of having more bookstores per capita than any other city in the world. Harvard’s influence is acutely felt in these stores, many of them featuring exclusive sections of books written by the university’s rich cadre of academics—high-profile writers like Clayton Christenson, Howard Gardner, Elizabeth Moss Kanter, and the late Rev. Peter Gomes.

The Harvard factor further extends itself into the region’s demographics, serving as an attraction point for a mosaic of people from every corner of the world. The surrounding city has long been revered for its diverse population – racially, culturally and economically – leading to the frequently used moniker of the “People’s Republic of Cambridge.”

Questions still remain, though, about the future of traditional higher education and its lasting impact on the social fabric of communities like Cambridge. My bet is that the repute of Harvard will continue to attract the best and brightest minds, infusing the surrounding diaspora with a spirit of community, diversity and service that is unmatched anywhere else.

Michael is the editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at The Urban Journalist dot com.

Spend a few minutes with James Shaffer and you’ll quickly discover that he has a fervent passion for pedestrian interactions and public spaces. His company, the Denver-based Streetscapes, Inc., supplies distinctive furniture and site amenities, but his love for people and places is rooted in his Berkeley, California, upbringing—a university locale infused with abundant public vibrancy and activity.

James believes that active public places are the engines for successful city growth and sustainability. His work on these issues has led him to conclude that creating favorable environments for public engagement is vital for meeting a growing societal need for interaction. “Contrary to what some believe, people really do want chance encounters with others who are outside of their typical source of friends,” says Shaffer. “Cities can play a valuable role in fostering this by creating community spaces, activities and experiences that spark these sorts of connections.”

I sat down with James recently at a local Denver coffee house to discuss the future of streetscape activation and vibrancy.

1. You often say that public spaces are about the people. What are the implications of this view in terms of how cities approach streetscape design and pedestrian communities?

People really want to be where other people are. It is a normal part of human nature to people-watch, get involved in activities and engage in interesting experiences. Therefore it is incumbent upon cities and communities to activate public spots where people feel comfortable in interacting with others. There should be places for people to stand, sit, and move about so they can enjoy activities that capture their interests.

2. How are cities addressing this need for engagement?

Quite honestly there are a lot of public space managers and property owners who believe that if they install a bench for people to sit on, community vibrancy will magically appear. That is simply not the case. You have to give people a more compelling reason to use the space.

A key consideration here is the functionality of the furniture and site amenities placed in the area. In other words are these elements effectively integrated with coffee houses, retail centers and other nodes that support pedestrian activity? Also attention should be given to the diverse set of people that may use the space, whether that means individuals, families, kids, couples, seniors—even our beloved pets.

Pearl Street-Boulder, CO

 

3. So you’ve probably become quite good at eyeballing a public space and determining whether it’s functional for public use?

[Laughter] Sure. In fact, some of this is very intuitive. For example, should an outdoor bench be positioned in the sun or the shade? If it is placed directly in the sun on a humid, 90-degree day, people may be less likely to sit there. The size of the seating may also be a factor. Can the seating arrangement expand or contract to accommodate the size of a group? That is why portable chairs are a good option in many settings— they allow people to move them around to create a more amenable setting.

4. Historic preservation is a hot trend these days. How are cities making effective use of site amenities to highlight the local character and culture of an area?

Many communities these days are looking for something unique to make their area stand out. Unfortunately the cookie-cutter approach still prevails, with little creative thought given for how a community can distinguish itself from its neighbors.

Fortunately cities are slowly recognizing the importance of site amenities like outdoor furniture, street lighting and directional signage in activating tourism and other forms of economic development. Some are even taking thoughtful steps toward incorporating icons of cultural significance into their streetscape design. When effectively meshed, these elements can enhance the style and features critical to effective community branding.

5. So it appears that communities are waking up to the realization that street activation is critical to their economic development efforts?

Yes, I am definitely seeing some encouraging signs. Street activation ultimately comes down to cities finding the right public settings to capitalize on—engaging what I affectionately refer to the “supporting characters.” These include coffee shops, post offices, libraries, parks, municipal buildings and other community assets that generate pedestrian foot traffic. Feeding off these nodes of activity is critical to stimulating economic growth in an area.

While it could be argued that places like post offices are a dying breed, they still serve as a focal point of activity in many communities. Sadly, many post office locations are being moved from core neighborhoods to strip mall locations. Moves like these can have an adverse impact on the local urban fabric and community building.

Downtown Ft Worth, TX

6. Talk to us a bit about the growth in alternative forms of pedestrianism like bicycling and, in particular, bicycle storage issues. I’m seeing bikes chained to trees, railings and other stationary posts due to a lack of parking space. What’s up with that?

There is no doubt that bicycling is growing in popularity. And some cities are unprepared for this emerging trend. Many of the problems associated with storage stem from the wrong type of bike rack. The serpentine racks that are popping up in many cities have horrible functionality. They’re not wide enough to accommodate multiple bikes. Cities that use loop racks or dividers are faring much better because these create a more orderly and straight mechanism for parking.

However, I’m optimistic about all of the innovations taking shape in terms managing the bicycle craze. For example, growing numbers of cities are embracing solutions like dedicated bike locker and parking stations. In some cases cyclists can use their cell phone to reserve secure spaces complete with an access code. And automated bike storage retrieval systems are on the horizon, which will foster better space management. This bodes well for cyclists in terms of convenience and for cities in the more efficient use of public space.

7. Speaking of forms of mobility, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the future of buses, light-rail and other transit systems. How does public transportation sync with streetscape and site amenity opportunities?

One of the tools missing from most transportation-oriented developments (TODs) is good directional signage. In many cities, signage for public transportation is nonexistent or poorly situated. And there is little recognition of how important signage is in terms of steering people to and within neighborhood stops. When I visit various public locales, I am constantly amazed by the lack of directional materials. This is a dissuading situation for a city trying to fuel tourism and economic development.

8. During this economic downturn, abandoned storefronts and blight have become a common reality in many business districts. What site amenity solutions do you suggest for generating economic activity?

First, engage local business owners to explore collaborative opportunities for addressing these issues. For example, in storefront windows there are low or no cost display products that can be used to dress up a retail environment a bit; to give the impression that the affected area is still active and alive. Providing incentives for nonprofits to use abandoned or underutilized spaces is another option that is gaining traction as a traffic generator.

Communities can also use creative opportunities like pop-up events and restaurants to attract people to dead public spaces. In a park, you may want to encourage exercise classes. Or story time for kids in a local library. Anything that helps fuel activity can serve as a catalyst for long-term business attraction.

9. Are there monies available to support public space design and site amenities in struggling communities?

Yes. Particularly if there is a tie-in to transportation-oriented efforts. Federal agencies have been very active in this effort through HUD Livability Grants and CBG funding. Cities and states also have some resources, although these have been somewhat limited by the economic slowdown. Monies often are also available through local and national foundations.

10. What are you seeing in terms of the future of functional streetscapes as a catalyst for economic and pedestrian activity?

There are tremendous opportunities for cities that are effective at branding and promoting their public spaces. Cities need to create vibrant streetscapes that generate a “Wow!” factor and encourage pedestrians to hang out and enjoy the amenities. It’s all about public spaces with compelling things to do that are worth checking out. Giving people a good reason to return often is what its all about.

Last summer a conversation over coffee delivered more than a caffeine buzz. It enlightened me on the struggles currently facing many small businesses. My tablemate, co-owner of a window-cleaning firm, shared his thoughts with me about the regulatory hurdles facing his new five-person business. He rattled off a laundry list of to-do’s—quarterly  tax filings, workers compensation, licensing fees, registrations, and legal and accounting costs. The mounting burden of these fiscal obligations was strangling his business, he said, adding that “We literally have to bring in $13,000 per month for my partner and I to make minimum wage.”

Creating economic opportunity and jobs is the topic on everyone’s agenda these days. At the federal level, fiscal stimulus, a popular Keynesian economic tool, has been tried with little effect. And local government has been equally ineffective, mired in declining tax revenues and mounting deficits. In general popular sentiment suggests that while government cannot ensure substantive job growth, it can play a role in loosening up some of the barriers that stunt businesses growth.

As cities and metropolitan regions seek to recalibrate their strategies amid the current economic downturn, a concept known as “economic gardening” is rapidly gaining traction among job-creation advocates. In short, cities embracing this approach are tasked with connecting new and emerging businesses with the basics resources they need to succeed. This may include grants, market intelligence information, inexpensive startup work space and other key elements required to spur growth.

The basic premise of economic  gardening is that “home grown” entrepreneurs are the true engines of employment expansion. Local economic growth best occurs when the cultivation of local entrepreneurship is emphasized over the attraction of businesses from outside the community.

The genesis of economic gardening dates back a couple of decades, when the city of Littleton, Colorado (pop 41,000) began leveraging its local businesses after the area’s largest employer relocated. Since 1989 this grassroots project has contributed 15,000 jobs to the local economy through the use of non traditional economic development incentives. The success of Littleton has led to a groundswell of similar projects in cities like San Luis Obispo, Santa Fe, Oakland, and Berkeley.

A report from the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan suggests that growing numbers of local cities and towns are also focusing their efforts on existing small businesses rather than trying to persuade new businesses to relocate to their area. This supports the contention of many economic developers that most new jobs in a local economy are being produced by a community’s pool of local small businesses.


So how can economic gardening help cities harvest small business opportunities in their communities? For starters, they can address the complex labyrinth of taxes, fees and regulations imposed on new and existing companies. Reducing the regulatory burdens which cause businesses to struggle to gain traction is critical to moving a city’s economic development efforts forward.

Mark Cuban, an entrepreneur extraordinaire and the mercurial owner of pro basketball’s Dallas Mavericks, has been an outspoken critic of barriers to small business growth. He believes that the reinvigoration of the US economy largely depends on relieving new businesses of the financial start-up burdens that can hinder job creation. In his online site BlogMaverick dot com he espouses the notion of no taxes of any kind on small businesses comprised of 25 or fewer employees. Sales taxes would be collected and remitted, and the business owner would pay income taxes on his or her personal earnings, but corporate earnings would not be taxed. At first glance, this may appear a bit radical; however Cuban’s perspective makes a great deal of sense in terms of helping cash-strapped businesses gain their footing.

Cities can also boost their economic gardening efforts by actively supporting the reuse of empty  storefront and housing stock into shared space for small businesses. In response to the proliferation of Wi-Fi-enhanced coffeehouses as third places for budding entrepreneurs, low-cost shared office settings are sprouting up in local cities throughout the nation. Building off an emerging trend called “co-working,” these sites often serve as incubators of shared collaboration for promising startups and  second-stage companies.

Janna Marlies Santoro, cofounder of the Sacramento-based Think House Collective and an energetic advocate of shared office arrangements for small businesses, believes that small business owners, freelancers, self-employed professionals and other independent workers will be significantly more successful in a community environment where necessary support is readily available. “Independent professionals need support from others to make their business fly,” she says, “regardless of what form that support takes – encouragement, collaboration or feedback on a project. “Co-working provides that environment minus the upfront capital, long-term lease or huge overhead costs.”

Santoro says that amid the layoffs that have affected many people, self-employment often isn’t the first choice. But in a co-working community, that hesitant person can find the courage to pursue an independent career. “People are more comfortable stepping into the freelance role when surrounded by a community that is willing to provide knowledge and expertise, and sometimes even refer clients,” says Santoro.

This spirit of shared small-business support represents a key element of effective economic gardening. It reflects a tradition of collaboration rooted in the startup-rich Silicon Valley—a trend that highlights the value of complementary business clusters and market intelligence. It also illustrates the concept of small business agglomeration, where a dense concentration of a particular industry within a specific geographic region serves as a spark to knowledge spillovers and innovation across firms. One example of  this would be Folsom, California’s success in clustering emerging companies like Altergy Systems and Jadoo Power, which specialize in the rapidly expanding hydrogen fuel cell technology market.

Growing local economies through the harvesting of existing businesses is a wise economic development investment for cities large and small. This idea coupled with untangling the maze of regulations imposed on small businesses can pay huge dividends and put our country back on the road to sowing seeds of plenty.

Michael Scott is the editor of Urban Engagement WebCity.

 

Symbolic of many historic European cities, alleys have long been a prominent element of the urban environment. As service corridors between the front, side or rear of buildings, alleys over time became synonymous with crime, vice, and bottle-toting street vagrants, and thus rendered unappealing for public use.

In a refreshing reversal of these perceptions, cities are increasingly recognizing the importance of alleys as key assets to their social landscape. Transcending their traditional role as corridors of commercial delivery and trash collection, many alleys are being repurposed into pedestrian friendly, economically viable public spaces that promote walkability and community. Moreover, projects supporting the “greening” of alleys are gaining traction amid the global push toward environmental sustainability.

In many cities, alley revitalization efforts are now front and center in the push to make more efficient use of urban space. As local governments seek ways to boost declining revenues, these thoroughfares are now viewed as potential nodes of economic activity. Their scale—often too narrow for substantive vehicular traffic—makes them the quintessential walkable thoroughfares. Also in the plus column is their value relative to bike storage, recycling and other functional possibilities.

While intentional in its purpose, much of what is taking place in alley revitalization has a grassroots, organic feel to it. In the über-hip Midtown District of downtown Sacramento, citizen-infused momentum is building around alley improvement efforts. The local Alley Improvement Alliance has identified 41 alleys in midtown that would benefit from redevelopment, improving aesthetics as well as facilitating creative uses for nearby businesses and homes. This initiative in California’s capital city highlights how urban design can be a tool for transforming gritty alleyways into attractive, functional spaces. The hope is to attract pedestrian activity into these spaces, thereby turning dark passages into catalysts for civic and economic vibrancy.

Models for successful alley regeneration can be found in myriad cities across North America. Ferndale, Michigan, a Detroit metro-area city with a population of 22,105, features a downtown alley that provides public space for local events, as well as outdoor restaurant seating for eateries that back up to the alleyway. Acquired by the City of Ferndale through a land swap with a local law firm, the reconstituted alley nestled in the core of its 1920 downtown has been landscaped with trees and flowers, giving it an attractive feel amenable to pedestrian traffic.

In the intellectually rich environs of Cambridge, Massachusetts lies “Brattle Walk,” a mid-block pedestrian alley featuring a tree-shaded streetscape stretching from Brattle Street to Mount Auburn Street in Harvard Square. A favorite trek of book-laden students and academics alike, this alley facilitates community and mobility for the campus.

Despite the obvious walkability advantages, efforts undertaken by municipalities and business improvement districts to pursue pedestrian-friendly alleys in US cities have met with varying levels of success. One of the biggest roadblocks is the logistics around converting what has been a vehicular access thoroughfare into a path amenable to pedestrians. Often, local drivers use alleys as a cut-through thoroughfare for avoiding traffic along main arteries. And in commercial districts alleys are an access node for trash haulers or trucks making deliveries to merchants whose stores back up to the alley.

To facilitate the pedestrian-friendliness of alleyways, commercial districts must either restrict delivery and trash-removal access to designated hours or close the passageway down completely. Pasadena, California, represents one model where delivery access is strictly controlled and enforced. Deliveries in the Mercantile Alley of the Old Pasadena Management District are restricted to the hours of 11:00 pm and 2:00 am. The delivery flow is managed through retractable bollards, which are wooden or iron posts that open and close during the designated hours. Trucks that exceed these time limits must call the municipality management to obtain special permission for the bollards to reopen.

In addition to the economic and community development benefits associated with alley revitalization, cities are striving to incorporate environmental practices into their framework. Chicago’s Green Alley program is perhaps the best example of this sort of initiative. Considered the alley capital of the US, Chicago boasts more than 13,000 of these passageways, encompassing more than 1900 total miles. The city’s ongoing repurposing effort has converted alleyways into green, permeable thoroughfares that absorb storm water and improve local water quality.

Fostering clean, environmentally sustainable alleys represents a fundamental shift from the trash encumbered, grimy repute that these spaces are often known for. In response, many downtown business districts are exploring trash management practices that incorporate new forms of collection and recycling. One of the most popular trends has been to exchange unsightly collection dumpsters for enclosures that accommodate commercial trash compactors and recycling containers. This offers a number of benefits over traditional trash collection methods: fewer hauler pickups, which means lower collection costs; better management of waste volumes, odors and rodent associated problems; and more efficient use of alley space.

Boulder, Colorado, has perhaps some of the most progressive efforts under way in support of the “greening” of its alleyways. The city currently offers a merchant program to incentivize environmentally sustainable waste reduction activities such as recycling and composting. City subsidization of composting provides merchants with a $2.50 per-cubic-yard reduction on their composting invoice when they elect this service through their designated waste hauler. The city has also moved toward the adoption of a “single stream” recycling system with haulers, enabling merchants to mix all recyclable items together, with the goal of reducing trash collections to once a week.

Despite their history as dark, abandoned corridors decorated by graffiti-laden dumpsters, unsavory characters and delivery trucks, alleys are now finding value as nodes of public vitality and economic activity. These long underused passageways now represent key avenues of community connectivity and civic pride.

Michael Scott is the editor of UrbanEngagement WebCity

Six months ago, “Paul” was hired as a physician specialist for a top-notch, regional medical center. Even though he is already seeing a heavy case load of patients, Paul’s acclimation to the work culture has been smooth, and his work experience has been nothing short of spectacular. Overall, Paul feels like the medical center is in alignment with his passion, interests and skills—a professional environment that he would like to call home for the foreseeable future.

However, Paul is experiencing a sense of angst with one aspect of his life: his lack of fondness for the geographic region he lives in. Residing in a suburban condo quite a distance from his work, Paul is less than thrilled with the 30-minute, high-stress commute he endures twice a day, every day. In tracking his expenses, he found that his combined transportation and housing costs represent 63% of his take-home budget, hardly what he envisioned for his first professional job. His family is 1,500 miles away, and the surrounding area offers few activities for young singles and outdoor enthusiasts—two components topping his lifestyle list. While Paul’s professional life is trending upward, his personal life is headed south.

Paul’s dilemma is now common ground for many Americans: namely, the importance of aligning career aspirations with geographical choices. Regrettably this idea runs counter to traditional approaches, which dictate that a person’s career be viewed in a vacuum, disconnected from lifestyle aspects that bring meaning and fulfillment to our life. Consequently many of us fall prey to a “live to work” philosophy that leaves us unfulfilled across the broader spectrum of life.

Unlocking the delicate balance between career and lifestyle involves an intentional commitment to engaging these two elements from a holistic perspective. It requires an honest assessment of personal interests, with the goal being an alignment across lifestyle and geographic options. This unblinking appraisal should include a realistic salary and cost of living factors, which dictate the core essence of livability.

Sadly, many Americans’ lifestyle expectations are unsustainable. The prospect of tighter budgets means that career and geographical options must be considered even more carefully. Weighing the pros of cons of career options becomes critical for determining which geographical choice allows the most efficient use of personal spending resources. In short, your income should closely counterbalance the cost of living variables in any given region.

Several recent studies conducted by the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Workforce Housing suggest that a typical household spends upward of 60% on housing and transportation costs. This underscores why where you live is important in managing personal finances. Factors such as public transportation, bicycle-friendly options, and walkability provide cost-effective options for   commuting to work and desired recreational amenities. And while home ownership remains a cornerstone of the quintessential American Dream, the freedom of not having to endure the pressure of a mortgage and property upkeep should be given consideration. Renting may soon evolve into the new normal as growing numbers of professionals seek the inherent flexibility that this option provides.

Additional elements in determining an ideal location include leisure interests, climate, community safety, and schools. Economic vitality is a critical component in terms of good paying jobs and desired professional opportunities.

Despite the current economic barometer of high unemployment rates, rising home foreclosures, and stagnant wages, many areas of the U.S. continue to fare well during this downturn. According to the Milken Institute’s Best Performing Cities 2010 report, which  identifies the best cities nationally for creating and sustaining jobs, Texas’s metro areas snagged five of the top-ten spots: (1) Killean-Temple-Ft Hood (2) Austin-Round Rock (4) McAllen- Endenburg-Mission (9) El Paso (10) Houston-Sugarland-Baytown. Huntsville, AL, an emerging high-tech manufacturing hub in the South was ranked third. And Anchorage, AK, rose to 8th, after achieving a prior slot of 40 on the 2009 rankings.

In this economy, many job seekers may be tempted to point the moving truck toward cities with hot employment prospects; however, a wiser approach would be to measure these locations against a predetermined lifestyle standpoint.

Recent economic studies suggest that our nation’s business expansion is trending toward smaller metro markets, many of which are anchored by colleges and universities, health care organizations, and flight-accessible airports. Rarely mentioned Sioux Falls is among these types of cities, boasting a low unemployment rate and no state income tax. Being situated on the I-90 corridor, a major interstate connecting Boston and Seattle, also bodes well for its future economic development fortunes.

College town locales, such as Iowa City, IA, Morgan Town, WV, and College Station, TX, also are faring well in terms of job markets and quality of life.

Austin, another college town, has emerged as a destination of choice for many young professionals attracted by the city’s healthy economy, sense of community, reasonable cost of living, and hip live music scene. On the flip side, the area does not bode particularly well if a person is seeking proximity to winter sports such as skiing, or has a disdain for hot, humid summer weather. Then there is a city like Boise, which boasts an emerging high-tech economy, community-oriented values, low housing costs, and a strong university presence. It also has a surprisingly vibrant nightlife in its downtown corridor that has become quite popular with the younger crowd. Here’s the caution for those who may be considering a move from a big city: Boise lacks the sophistication and social and cultural amenities commonly found in larger metropolitan areas.

Urban critic Joel Kotkin touts the growing numbers of Americans that continue to espouse the benefits of smaller “edge” and rural communities. This trend is supported by a recent “Best Places for Jobs” survey developed by the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The results showed that the top employment centers are increasingly sprouting up in smaller locales like Sioux Falls, Jacksonville, NC and Bismarck, ND.

What about relocating to an area for lifestyle gains? In some cases, extended family considerations come into play. Or it could be a desire to return to one’s hometown. Interest is growing in make a career or lifestyle move to rural settings—places where real estate and health care are more affordable. This, however, can mean significant lifestyle changes if one is accustomed to a big city.

For the Millennial crowd, the boundary lines have expanded even further as growing numbers of Gen-Yers consider various life/work opportunities domestically as well as internationally. With their fervent “work to live” mantra, they are attracted to employment-dense locales that support compressed work weeks, reasonable work hours, flexible schedules and professional development opportunities. This group has an entrepreneurial spirit and a propensity for business start-ups, coffee houses, co-working sites and other “third places,”–highly desired settings for this demographic cohort.

As many Americans continue their downward financial spiral in tandem with the stagnant economy, decisions on where to live will gain equal footing with what career to pursue. This involuntary financial course correction will force us to reevaluate the self-indulgent mindset that has dominated our nation’s ethos. Smarter, more sustainable lifestyle options will become the norm.

The path from here to there will require more thoughtful choices on how to become better stewards of our time and money. But it’s a journey worth taking, because the modalities of place are a powerful factor in the equation of career and life satisfaction.

Michael Scott is the editor of Urban Engagement Webcity

As the son of a university administrator, my formative years were filled with a healthy dose of academic and campus life. Over time the cultural milieu which characterized the campus and neighboring area became a strong influencing factor in my choice of sociology as an academic major. Through these experiences it became apparent to me that while the primary mission of academic institutions is that of a quality education, their presence is also inextricably linked to the urban fabric and economic barometer of its surrounding community.

So it stands to reason that local colleges and universities are increasingly being recognized as stable anchors of local economic development. This is particularly true for downtown central-cities as they regain momentum after years of population flight and industrial job loss. With their long history as key partners in the intellectual, cultural, and social ethos of a community, academic institutions are often the epicenter for civic connection. From the arts to spectator sports, academic institutions provide a rich experience that contributes to a community’s identity and essence.

Our nation’s academic institutions are characterized by dense clusters of people, the agglomeration of which can serve as a catalyst for economic growth. These campus communities can have an enormous impact on a center city,  boosting retail sales and adding to the area’s tax base. And as is the case with West Philadelphia, a city whose revitalization efforts were jump-started by the University of Pennsylvania and its former president Judith Rodin, whole neighborhoods can organically morph into uniquely defined university districts, fueling redevelopment efforts and community espirit de corp.

Downtown organizations charged with fueling local economic development would be wise to build on this nexus between university communities and city center vibrancy. Collaborative efforts  supporting housing, retail, and other local amenities can serve as a springboard for a comprehensive redevelopment effort, bringing life to moribund sections of downtowns  experiencing an excess  inventory of abandoned buildings and underutilized space. These bricks and mortar assets can be repurposed for a variety of uses, including research and development incubators and classroom space for continuing education offerings.

The impact of colleges and universities in close proximity to downtown center-cities can be reflected in myriad ways:

1. Research produced by academic institutions can be a driver of economic activity in a downtown core.

The Evanston, IL-based Technology Innovation Center (TIC), a not-for-profit business incubator supporting emerging tech-based businesses, is an example of a powerful university-civic partnership. Established in 1986 through a joint effort between Northwestern University and the City of Evanston, TIC houses over 35 companies and has cultivated more than 300 companies in the last 20-plus years. The university’s reputation as a world-class leader in the research and education of business and engineering and information technology attracts visitors to Evanston, many of whom, hotel and shop in the downtown area.

2. Expanded business activity can be a precursor to revitalization efforts for fading downtowns and central cities.

This can serve as the seed for the next generation of emerging companies in areas like biotech, generating jobs and commerce, directly or indirectly, for downtown corridors. Again Evanston serves as an example, having been recognized as one of the top-50 best small cities in the nation for startup business.

3. Downtown universities attract students who want to live in close proximity to the campus.

Housing near dense, walkable downtowns with nearby housing appeals to millennial-generation crowds seeking access to restaurants, coffee houses, wifi, and nightclubs. Schools such as the University of California at Davis, University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Iowa are among the many campuses that offer the advantages of close downtown proximity. Further evidence of this appeal is presented by a 2008 study by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which noted that over 2,900 students lived in the Steel City’s downtown, and more than 5,800 chose to live in the central core.

4. University-sponsored activities, including civic events and the collegiate sports scene, can serve as huge traffic generators to nearby downtowns.

With staff estimated at 22,000, the University of Texas in Austin is the region’s largest employer and a major economic stimulator for both the nearby downtown and the region. The campus, located just past the capitol building on the fringe of the center city, provides a unique urban space relationship for the City of Austin. Each home football game attracts about 36,000 out-of-town visitors who converge on the downtown before and after the event, benefiting local hotels, restaurants and retail establishments. Other findings estimate that the university’s 50,000-plus student population, along with its staff, produces an annual economic windfall of about $837 million to the local economy.

The University of Texas in Austin

5. Universities conveniently located to downtowns offer civic efficiencies that can save costs and provide continuities of scale for popular community offerings.

This is true for San Jose State University, which is located on 154 acres and 19 city blocks in the downtown area. The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, shared by the San Jose Public Library system and San Jose State University, is a model of this type of collaboration and one of the only arrangements of this type in the nation.

The potential impact of universities as engines of economic, intellectual, cultural, and social prosperity should serve as a siren call to leaders seeking to boost the vibrancy of their downtown locales. Effective university-downtown partnerships can spur job growth, improve a city’s demographic and environmental character, boost area amenities and attract staff, students and visitors with discretionary incomes — all of which are keys to long-term sustainability of a downtown grid.

Michael Scott is the editor of Urban Engagement Webcity and an associate at the Denver based Centro, Inc. He can be reached at michael@becentro.com

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