Barb Anderson, principal and president of Anderson Marketing Solutions, is here this month to share some thoughts on social media trends in the real estate industry. Barb’s experience spans over 20 years and encompasses marketing for real estate development, resort/destination real estate and new home product marketing. Before launching her own marketing company, Barb’s work included stints with industry leaders such as Vail Resorts Development Company, Laing Village LLC, and Village Homes.

 

 

Barb Anderson

 

1. There is so much chatter these days in the public relations and marketing worlds  about the importance of creating buzz. How does this apply to the real estate industry and what sorts of trends are you seeing in terms of the applicability of social media as an attraction generation tool?

Over the past several years, PR and marketing has gone through a dramatic change in terms of engaging and communicating with individuals  through social media. This medium allows both large and small businesses the opportunity to reach out to a larger audience as well as create brand awareness and consumer loyalty through an online community. With over 500 million Facebook users, you can see how social media has impacted our world.

Social media is essentially a new medium (it technically was launched only a few years ago), so the jury is still out on how it applies to specific industries such as real estate. These online platforms seem to work well with residential real estate for home builders and resale brokers, primarily because of the relationship aspect between friends and family. However, I think that we have yet to discover the long-term benefits of using social media in economic development and urban renewal projects across this country. We all saw the enormous impact that social media had on the presidential election in 2008; I think that same discipline could engage city planners, businesses and constituents to work together for the greater good of residential and commercial environments.

2. In what ways are residential and commercial markets adapting these tools so that they’re relevant to industry objectives?

Clearly the residential market has an upper hand when it comes to social media because it deals with the relationship between people, more so than commercial. The days of big advertising budgets are long gone, so marketers are looking for ways to get their message to their target audience with a limited budget. The residential market has embraced this new media and shifted their perception of how people communicate through online community. This includes leveraging PR sites such as PRWeb to deliver the message to a greater audience through Search Engine Optimization. Facebook seems to be the best platform for residential real estate because of the relationship component, which allows people to join easily or refer others. There is also targeted advertising and online coupons/promotions available that can be customized to attract “like-mined” friends and potential customers to the site, through relevant content that can be easily shared. Other sites such as Twitter, YouTube, Stumble Upon and Digg are also good resources for residential real estate, and in many cases, all of these network sites can be automated to send relevant messaging from one to another to create a greater following.

Nevertheless, while commercial markets may be a little behind their residential counterparts in terms of its social media adoption, they tend to use more B2B platforms to deliver their message. For example, LinkedIn is a logical vehicle for commercial brokers, developers, and economic and urban renewal groups to engage in discussions and promote real estate opportunities. However, if there is a retail/business component to the commercial offering, then using a location-based social network such as Foursquare and Gowalla would be the way to go. These sites offer the ability to track followers via mobile downloads, as they travel from business to business and post online. This application is a great way to offer cross-promotional opportunities with various retail vendors and anchor stores.

3. But how relevant is a social media platform such as Facebook in terms of hitting the right target demographic for a successful residential marketing campaign.

Even though there are a number of social networks, Facebook is the most prominent (sort of the big Gorilla of social media). The reason it’s so successful, is because the applications within Facebook allow marketers to engage the target market through Facebook ads or promotional coupons. The magic here is in the way Facebook targets “like-minded” individuals of the family and friends that are already fans of the page (thus targeting more of the same demographic). In addition, Facebook now has the ability to gauge the profiles of others and determine the correct demographic through analytics that are built into the site and can track the interaction of specific groups through various metrics. Marketing campaigns of the past were never able to offer this type of tracking mechanism to determine the success of a campaign. This is why the analytics built-into Facebook are a refreshing tool for marketers.

4. Can you briefly speak to the importance of strategic marketing plans as a launching point for social media initiatives?

Like traditional campaigns, which incorporate print advertising, direct mail and collaterals, a strategy must be established in order to determine the audience, when to launch a campaign, as well as the message and frequency of that message. Social Media and online PR strategic planning is no different. Objectives must be set to incorporate the same initiatives as a traditional campaign. In fact, it’s probably more important with social media, because these platforms are viral and based on real-time messaging that may require a quick response. All this suggests the importance of having a plan in place before launching a campaign.

5. So how does, say, a new resort residential community development, go about setting metrics to assess the effectiveness of a social media campaign?

Most resorts include specific programming that enhances the experience and those are the metrics that you can track with social media. For example, if you have a residential resort project in a ski town, your metrics could track social media promotions such as lift ticket or ski equipment discounts that are only posted on Facebook or Twitter, or shared (re-tweeted) on these sites.  This approach seems more exclusive to participants, making them more likely to refer other potential Fans or followers which can also be tracked. Additionally, if your website is set up with analytics, it is also tracking the sources from these referral network sites or promotional codes, information that may be valuable for potential sales.

6. Is there any indication that real estate niche markets such as hotel properties are jumping into the fray as well in terms of “Facebooking” and “Tweeting.”

The hotel industry is starting to jump in, but it’s primarily those hotels associated with tourism or other recreation. For example, casino’s associated with hotels have definitely embraced social media and recognize the benefits of having a huge following, because they are constantly promoting discounts and packages to get people back in the door. Some branded hotels (i.e. Hyatt, Marriott) are using it for customer retention – a points earned system to keep consumers happy and loyal to the brand.

7. With these technologies changing all the time, what are some ways for a busy property owner or developer to keep abreast of the evolving social media landscape in real estate?

It’s definitely a lot to keep with– I would suggest following “Fan” pages that are relevant to either the real estate  industry (i.e. ULI, NAIOP, and Builder) or communities (i.e. Local Chambers, City municipalities). I would also suggest subscribing to various RSS feeds that forward industry related updates from various blogs and publications as a way of staying informed.

8. What three suggestions can you offer to real estate professionals as they move towards greater adoption of social media tools in their outreach efforts?

First and foremost, stop denying the viability of social media and the impact it has in the real estate industry. This is not a faze, but the reality of how people are and will continue to communicate in the future. Take advantage of the momentum and cost effectiveness of social media to reach your audience. Look at competitor’s sites to see how they’re utilizing their social media efforts. Secondly, take on a little at a time. The potential of social media can be overwhelming, so plan how you’re going to engage and build community – and do it consistently! If you’re an absentee responder or blogger, people will know it and leave. If you’re having trouble keeping up, hire a professional to help with your daily posts and content. Speaking of content, my last suggestion is to make it relevant. Nobody cares what you’re doing, but they do care about how it impacts them. Keep it real, but relatable.

 

Our nation’s cities are a fiscal mess. This financial free-fall has been attributed to declining tax revenues and rising government expenses, with the latter resulting from pension obligations and social program spending. According to the National League of Cities, the proceeding months look even bleaker for local governments as economic prospects spiral further out of control, necessitating cuts in personnel and the cancellation of long-delayed construction projects.

Sadly, cities are often their own worst enemy. Part of the problem is that local governments rarely have to worry about bankruptcy, let alone going out of business. In the public sector, as opposed to private companies, there is virtually no competition to incentivize efficiency and prudent spending. Here’s one example: My wife had the unfortunate occasion one morning of discovering that her father had passed away in his sleep. A 911 call yielded an entire fleet of emergency vehicles, from the gas guzzling hook and ladder truck to the paramedic van. Upwards of 10 personnel visited our house, including three law enforcement officers who arrived in separate cars.  Known in union parlance as featherbedding, a practice where more workers than are needed show up to perform a certain job, this inefficient form of behavior characterizes many city governments, leading to fiscal deficits and waste.

Perhaps the most contentious issue pertaining to city expenses is the stranglehold unions have on local government coffers, particularly the über expensive pension benefits they continue to demand. In his recently released book, Plunder: How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives, and Bankrupting the Nation, author Steven Greenhut decries the irresponsible lack of accountability relative to government treasuries, and the tax and debt implications it will have for generations to come. Greenhut notes that legacy pension plans—which often allow public employees to retire with 100 percent or more of their salary, including cost-of-living adjustments and free lifetime medical plans—are quite common and yet unsustainable. These public-sector compensation packages include massive, unfunded pension liabilities that far exceed those of the private sector and present a barrier to fiscal solvency.

But, there is good news. I believe that our current economic downturn may represent a silver lining in terms of sparking a structural correction in our nation’s cities and local governments. It is during unprecedented times like these that city leaders and the unions they collaborate with will finally pursue long-term, innovative solutions to the fiscal crisis.

However the sea change will come gradually, as the public sector historically has been slow to embrace creative ideas that are common in the private sector. Wasteful habits are hard to break, particularly when there are few market incentives to provide encouragement.

But change is coming, albeit the hard way. Many cities had to ax their annual 4th of July fireworks event due to budget strains. Layoffs are occurring in record numbers, and benefits are being slashed. Even public pools are closing – an ingenious move in many California communities since one in three homes has a pool in the back yard.

Maywood, California, the third-smallest incorporated city in Los Angeles, deserves credit for boldly and painfully taking a step toward addressing its fiscal inefficiency. On July 1st amid a $10.1 million general fund deficit and the loss of its general liability and workers compensation insurance, it laid off most of its city employees and the entire police department. To reduce costly duplication of services, it now outsources its finance, records management, parks and recreation, and street maintenance services to the neighboring city of Bell. Law enforcement will now fall under the purview of the local sheriff.

Vallejo, California, which filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2008, has used the economic downturn to force the hand of its intractable unions to rein in spiraling compensation and benefit costs. This action may be the saving grace for this Bay Area community of 121,000.

Despite frequent criticism for his unorthodox, political methods, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago is not afraid to pursue bold, privatized measures to generate revenues and reduce expenses for the Windy City. Recently he proposed plans to lease space on bridge houses along the Chicago River to generate city revenues.

It’s clear that these revenue generating/expense reduction tricks will become more of the norm as cities recalibrate for the future. With numerous local governments reporting worsening fiscal and economic conditions, we are likely to see cities participating in high-stakes competition for tax generating entities. Regional collaboration will also rise as cities look to create greater economies of scale and less duplication in the community services they provide.

Cities would also be wise to focus less on housing starts and more on the jobs necessary to pump dollars into local economies. Economic development agencies must think beyond their outmoded practices and pursue more creative solutions for job generation. Those that have proven successful in their recovery efforts recognize that it begins by linking education or training with emerging job fields. Ultimately it’s about strategically branding a city to capitalize on area resources and strengths, rather than just attracting new industries to town.

While painful, the impact of the economic downturn may be a blessing for cities perpetually stuck in neutral. As battles erupt over pieces of a shrinking pie, now is the time for local leaders and the corresponding community to stretch beyond their normal thinking and reach for new models of fiscal growth and sustainability.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement WebCity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com

Urban mobility has been generating frequent conversations lately, and for good reason — it has profound implications on societal quality of life and the global carbon footprint.

Today, many metropolitan residents, workers, and even tourists find themselves increasingly confronted with the challenge of making short-distance trips to various city destinations. Whether visiting the local grocery store, commuting to work, or trekking to a favorite arts venue or museum, the age-old dilemma continues to be how to efficiently travel short distances that are too far to walk.

Like Pavlovian dogs, many of us are conditioned to reach for the car keys, even for the shortest of trips. This behavior is deeply embedded in our consciousness, largely attributed to an auto-centric mindset that has been nurtured in us for years. What is perhaps most tragic are the lack of short-range options that could provide alternatives to our carbon-spewing vehicles.

But, let’s give credit where credit is due. Innovative companies like Zip Car and Car2Go have adroitly positioned themselves for where I believe the auto market is headed: namely, short-term, just-in-time rentals that eliminate the expense of owning a car. And since my family has only one car, I personally have benefited from a corporate account with Enterprise Rental for any commutes beyond my immediate, local area.

Car2Go Vehicle in Downtown Austin Texas

Nevertheless, I’m often reminded of a business trip several years ago to the wonderful island community of Bermuda. I was intrigued to discover that because of its dense configuration and geographical size, cars weren’t allowed on the island until 1946. Today, only residents are permitted to drive cars on the island, and only one car is allowed per household.

As Bermuda is a heavily trafficked tourist destination, island guests would be wise to question what forms of transportation are available. In posing this inquiry to an amused hotel bellman, I was hurriedly directed to a lot full of mopeds and scooters. Through this experience I discovered that these low-power transporters were the predominant form of transportation for visitors to the island.

As president of Folsom, California-based Glide Electric Cruisers, Chris Wiggins is hoping to capitalize on the global demand for short-range transportation options. His invention is ideal for short commutes and has virtually no impact on the environment. What is it? A series of motorized electric scooters with top speeds of up to 38 miles per hour. Currently in a first production run stage, these “cruisers” have attracted a wide swath of interest, from law enforcement agencies to senior groups. “I personally believe they have the potential to revolutionize short-range commuting in the U.S. and beyond,” says Wiggins. “My greatest hope in developing them is that they will have a meaningful impact on the quality of life, as well as improve the environment.”

Glide Electric Cruiser

While electric-run, personal transportation is relatively new for the U.S., bicycling seems to have taken hold in many metropolitan areas. Denver is one of a handful of cities that is actively promoting the use of bicycles as a viable short-run commute option. This year the city introduced the first large-scale bike-sharing program in the U.S. A partnership between Humana, Trek Bicycle and the advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, this initiative flows from the shared belief that bicycles should serve as a vehicle for positive health and environmental change, as well as an important part of a community’s transportation ecosystem.  It’s this latter point that has gained the attention of nearby Denver hotels and the convention center, which are seeking to provide visitors with mobility tools that compliment the downtown’s free bus system and walkable grid.

Bike Station in Downtown Denver

With our deeply ingrained auto-centric habit, it’s hard to say if any of these baby steps will gain traction toward smarter urban mobility, and if it does, where it is likely to lead us. But one thing is for certain: movement is happening, signaling a new narrative for how to approach short-distance trips and fostering a debate that is, at the very least, a carbon footprint in the right direction.

Michael Scott is the editor of Urban Engagement WebCity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com

Michael Scott

Kathryn Bohri is an undergraduate student at the American University in Washington, D.C. We crossed paths last year on Twitter, thanks to our mutual interest in the future of cities. Kathryn is on a quest to make her mark on Allentown, PA, the city where she was raised and to which she hopes to return after college.

Kathryn Bohri

“My god, I have missed the Valley. I love these people. I love this place.” This was Kathryn’s May 11th Tweet after she returned home for a visit.

The place she is referring to is Lehigh Valley, which encompasses the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. It is the third most populous region in Pennsylvania, behind the metro areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the 52nd most populous in the U.S. This area has the distinction of being cataloged as a part of the Rust Belt — a term that refers to a swath of old industrial cities around the Great Lakes, such as Gary, IN, Detroit, MI and Buffalo, NY. These cities are characterized by barren shells of once-robust manufacturing sites, dilapidated structures, crime, and job loss, and where the vestiges of this plight still remain.

Billy Joel’s infamous song has given Allentown a recognizable name, to the dismay of its sister communities Bethlehem and Easton. But there is a growing realization that espirit de corp between all three is critical to rebuilding the region. A town of 109,000, Allentown registers in as Pennsylvania’s most populous city. Among its attributes, it boasts a highly regarded farmers market and world class parks system. Bethlehem, still licking its wounds from the demise of the Bethlehem Steel factory in 2003, is known as the birthplace of Musikfest, the largest free music festival in the nation. And Easton, the smallest of the three cities, is the hometown of former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes, otherwise known as the Easton Assassin. Despite long-held vestiges of Rust Belt decline, population growth in the Leigh Valley has been brisk, attributed to the area’s distinction as a bedroom community to the larger urban centers of Philadelphia and New York.

But let’s get back to Kathryn. A sociology major, Kathryn is intrigued by the intersection between urban centers and people, particularly in her native Allentown. “Growing up, I lived in a suburban community on the fringe of Allentown. And being there made me realize how car-dependent we had become as a community. Sadly, if I had walked for an hour, the only place I would have eventually stumbled upon is a local fast food restaurant.”

Bohri said this led to her fascination with the role of “Third Places” in fostering civic connection. “In the more urbanized section of the city, I found a wonderful coffeehouse that seemed to serve as the gathering place for local residents. It was here that I began to ask myself, ‘Why are there so many people hanging out here?’ The conclusion I drew was that places like this represent key locales for conversation and social connection, with coffee itself being secondary.”

She has now become a big proponent of the New Urbanism movement, a concept that advocates the development of compact, walkable, mixed-use cities and towns. Attending school in Washington D.C. has further opened her eyes to what an urban environment can develop into. “I’m still very much a small-city girl, so I operate in a space between loving and hating D.C. On the one hand, I enjoy having alternative forms of transportation at my disposal — the wonderful metro train system, buses, and a bike route. However, the extreme variations of culture have been difficult to adjust to, particularly having been raised in an area where the very conservative Pennsylvania Dutch values predominate.”

Like many long-term residents, Kathryn Bohri is committed to the reinvention of the Leigh Valley. But many challenges exist along the path to shedding its history as a Rust Belt bellwether: a tepid job market, housing market downturn and other economic factors. Another thorn in the area’s side is the lack of commuter rail services for workers who trek into Philadelphia, New York, or New Jersey on a daily basis. This is notable because the Lehigh Valley is the largest East Coast metropolitan area, by population, without passenger rail service.

Matthew Turk is Assistant Director of the Allentown Economic Development Corporation. Before moving to Allentown, Turk had similar positions in Boulder, CO, Bellingham, WA, Philadelphia, PA, and Columbia, SC. “Historically, the Lehigh Valley has been a place where the 62 municipalities have taken an ‘every man for himself’ approach to community and economic development, but our organization has been steadily working to combat this mentality, and some cities are finally starting to get the message.” And, he adds, there are a number of trends currently surfacing for Allentown and the greater Lehigh Valley landscape. “When I look to the future for the City of Allentown, the two major influences are regional cooperation and a renewed focus on manufacturing.”

Turk notes that the current approach involves growing existing manufacturing businesses, with a goal of reestablishing Allentown as the manufacturing center of Lehigh Valley. “We are watching as manufacturers employ a different profile of worker, more attuned to urban living and creative class needs. We have also seen consumer tastes trend toward local production. Companies that offshored production in the 1990s are re-shoring production in this decade. There’s a renewed interest on the part of real estate developers and construction professionals in rehabilitating existing industrial buildings rather than building new in sprawling suburbs. Manufacturers are interested in developing a community of fabricators, and all of it coupled with a national policy of green/clean job development. This points toward a new era of manufacturing, and we believe that Allentown can be at the forefront of that trend.”

What would stand in the city’s way? Public perception. Turk says the local opinion is that Allentown is unsafe, has unsuitable building stock, doesn’t make things any easier. “Trying to stay in front of local word of mouth spreading around the world is a major challenge.”

Despite the obstacles, major progress is being achieved through collaboration between community partners and stakeholders. Working through the regional economic development corporation, these parties are jointly contributing to regional development strategy and marketing the city as a part of the greater Lehigh Valley.

Some believe that the biggest hurdle to reinventing the Lehigh Valley is its conservative nature. The ingrained Pennsylvania Dutch mindset encourages people to approach change very cautiously. This attitude is helpful when things are stable and going well, Turk says, but doesn’t work as well in a crisis.

That being said, American University student and Allentown native Kathryn Bohri remains optimistic. “Allentown is a city that has changed me and saved me in so many ways. There is nothing like being in a small town and having close community ties. Where it takes you two hours to leave the grocery store because of all of the people you know. This is where I want to make a difference; this is where I want to be.”

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com

“Owning your own home made sense when people cold hope to hold a job for all of their lives. But in an economy that revolves around mobility and flexibility, a house that can’t be sold becomes an economic trap, preventing people from moving freely to economic opportunity.”

Excerpt from Richard Florida’s new book entitled The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post Crash Prosperity.


Earlier this month, my 19-year-old stepdaughter moved to her own apartment. As a parent it was a bittersweet moment: On the one hand, a sense of trepidation; on the other, the knowledge that all young people must undergo this rite of passage to develop and mature as individuals.

Once the dust settled from her move, I began to reflect on my own early apartment experiences, including noisy neighbors and a diet of top ramen noodles. My first rental was during my sophomore year at the Ohio State University. Three roommates and I lived in a rat-trap house just off campus. My portion of the rent was $69.13, which underscores the condition of the property. In the ensuing years, I rented two more off-campus apartments in seedy parts of town. Looking back, I consider myself fortunate to have lived to talk about it.

After graduating college and accepting a job that paid $18,700, I decided to upgrade my living accommodations to a fancy apartment on the northwest side of Columbus. Having not yet received my first paycheck, my mother cosigned on a $500 loan for me from Ohio National Bank — a move that not only covered my deposit and first month’s rent but also allowed me to establish my first source of credit.

For many years thereafter, I continued to rent my living spaces, bucking the often prescribed route of home ownership. And, despite the loss of tax advantages, this lifestyle has served me well by providing geographical flexibility and unencumbered career mobility. Nevertheless purchasing a home remains an alluring prospect — the proverbial American dream. That being said, we are not the savers we once were. Instead, we have become a nation of “homeloaners” versus “homeowners,” mortgaged to the hilt and susceptible to the whims of a nationwide home investment frenzy.

Today's Uncertain Economy Has lead Many Americans to Closely Examine the Risks of Purchasing a New Home

As growing numbers of Americans find themselves trapped and underwater compliments of the recent housing bubble, an interest in renting as a housing option has taken on new life. Paul Krugman and Edward Glasser are among the growing choir of economists who argue that more Americans should relinquish the prospect of purchasing a home in favor of a lifetime of renting.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are currently 38 million renters in the U.S., comprising one-third of all households. In California, where I currently reside, renting is in vogue, with approximately 45% of households renting their home, the second highest level in the nation.

The notion of a burdensome mortgage is one factor contributing to the uptick in renters. Another is that some states allow renters to treat all of their rent or at least a portion as a tax deduction or credit. However, according to the aforementioned National Low Income Housing Coalition report a family must earn $38,500 a year (or $18.44 an hour) to afford a simple two-bedroom apartment at the 2010 National Fair Market Rent of $959.00. According to housing advocates, this fact alone justifies the need for a greater supply of low-income units, as well as rent controls. To the contrary, free-market advocates such as Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell beg to differ, arguing that these practices place unfair market restrictions on the owners of these properties, at times to their demise.

Denver's LoDo District Has Seen Growing Numbers of Condo Units Converted to Rental Housing as a Hedge to the Tepid Real Estate Market

Perhaps the most controversial issue in the rental housing sphere is a concept referred to as section 8, where the federal government subsidizes rental payments for families with very low incomes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development serves as a funds distribution portal for local housing agency authorities—also known as public housing agencies—with rent prices regulated through a government-instituted standard called Fair Market Rent.

In light of increasing public scrutiny on the cost of the federal government’s involvement in social programs, politicians and society overall should consider a new business model for low-income housing residents. Frankly, the long-term sustainability of funding for low-income housing has a greater likelihood of success if the monies are used as a bridge to a better life versus just a resting place.

Similar to the Welfare to Work program championed by former President Bill Clinton in the ‘90s, residents should be permitted to rent for only a short duration, while they receive federally funded career training and dependent care services. The goal would be to encourage residents to pursue a self-sustaining lifestyle where they can reach a reasonable standard of living, allowing them a larger set of housing options over the long run.

While we’re on the topic of best interests, college graduates would also benefit greatly if they were to consider renting as a first option. Here’s why: Young professionals that pursue a path of home ownership prematurely can find themselves weighed down by a mortgage, restricting any career options that require a geographical move. Why not enjoy the freedoms inherent at this time in a young person’s life? Trade in the tired mindset of homeownership in favor of something more realistic. This generation’s new mantra should be: Go to college, get a good job, and rental sweet rental.

Actually, demographic trends suggest that young professionals will be the primary drivers of the rental surge. To this point, Harry Dent in his book “The Great Depression Ahead: How to Prosper in the Debt Crisis of 2010-12,” suggests that the needs of this demographic will be a major driver of apartment demand in the foreseeable future, a boom to developers in this area.

For now, though, the jury is still out as to whether more Americans will embrace the notion of renting as a legitimate housing option. On the surface it does make sense, as we have all watched homeownership develop into a nightmare for those who could not afford one in the first place. And amid today’s uncertain economic times, being able to relocate quickly without the shackle of a mortgage is a blessing in and of itself.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com


As one of our nations most progressive small cities, Davis, California, is already a cool place to live for its 63,000 residents. It is the quintessential American small town, with a Birkenstock vibe and politically active culture. Home to an eclectic mix of environmentalists, students, academics, and entrepreneurs, this bucolic area just west of California’s capital city is a model for smartgrowth livability. Residents with graduate degrees outnumber those in almost every other U.S. city. An abundance of bike paths support the highest per capita number of bikes of any U.S. locale.

Not content to rest on its laurels – or perhaps laureates — Davis is now seeking to further its coolness reputation by becoming America’s first carbon neutral city. This ambitious undertaking stems from the mind of David Gershon, author of Low Carbon Diet: A 30Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds and a catalyst for a movement known as the Cool Communities Campaign. Building on an extensive body of experience including a beta project yielding an average household CO2 reduction of 22% for Portland, Oregon over 300 cities worldwide are now vying for this highest honor. The litmus test: Seventy-five percent of all households must contribute to the reductions targeted for a given city.

Davis may have a leg up on its competition, however. Located in the Sacramento region due east of San Francisco, the city has a longestablished reputation as an ecologically innovative locale. It boasts a series of distinctive firsts: the first dedicated bike lanes; the first city to adopt legislation requiring energy efficiency tied to the local climate—a precursor to California’s Title 24, which was the first state law of its type in the nation. Davis also has a strict growth ordinance to ensure that the built environment is managed in a sustainable fashion.

Downtown Davis, California

Using parameters ensuing from California’s landmark AB 32 legislation on carbon reduction goals, the City of Davis has set up an initial target of reducing up to 50% of the community’s carbon emissions by 2013. Recognizing that half of an areas carbon footprint is at the residential level, city leaders are actively encouraging grassroots participation from the local populous. “Our goal is to position Davis to be at the forefront of the climatic transitions currently taking place worldwide,” says Mitch Sears, director of sustainability for the City of Davis.

A lofty goal, to say the least, but how will the city know when it has hit its target? How will it actually measure success? Sears says that the City of Davis has gone to great lengths to ensure that its carbon reduction efforts are supported with solid industry based data. “We’ve tried to capture information from regional organizations such as the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the California Air Resources Board, among others, to ensure that our expectations are realistically grounded. That being said, we recognize that the numbers we are using aren’t exact science or bullet proof.”

Daniel Lerch, author of “Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainties,” the first major local government guidebook on peak oil and global warming, says that on a macro scale it’s nearly impossible for most of us in the modern world to achieve “pure” carbon neutrality. However, he adds, this should in no way discredit efforts like those of the city of Davis to make an impact on this pressing issue. “There are many good reasons why we should all try to reduce our carbon footprint, and global warming is only one of them,” says Lerch. “But at the same time, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can erase our impacts. At best, we can minimize them—and frankly that’s plenty good enough.”

While known for activism and outreach, it remains to be seen whether this otherwise forward-thinking community is truly up for the task. “The single biggest challenge we face is in engaging the community—moving them from interested bystanders to active participants,” says City Director Sears. “Nevertheless, we believe that we’re better prepared to do this than any other city in the nation, based on our long history and track record regarding sustainability.”

Indeed, if there is a city that merits consideration is terms of readiness for this goal, Davis deserve top consideration. Even if the outcome fails to hit the stated target bulls-eye, any substantive reduction will represent a major feat–another first in the city’s cap.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com

A recent Pew Research survey rated the nation’s top 30 largest metropolitan areas for livability. Off the top of your head, which city would you guess was named number one in the nation? Portland, the prized jewel of the northwest? How about the Windy City of Chicago? Sunny San Diego? None of the above. Denver, the Mile High city, took the top spot.

Reaching this pinnacle is a tall order, but Denver’s mountainous, mile-high altitude gives the city a decided advantage. Blessed with scenic topography, bright skies, and 300 days of sunshine each year, this 24th most populous region in the nation is poised to capture growing numbers of newcomers who are fast becoming attracted to its progressive, positive vibe.

With a population of nearly 600,000, Colorado’s capital city exudes descriptive adjectives: friendly, cultured, and sophisticated, among those more frequently used. Livability is supported by a wealth of urban, exurban and suburban neighborhoods, with high walkability scores and a plethora of amenities supporting a high quality of life.

Unlike most major cities, Denver’s growth emanates from the heart of downtown, one of the most economically robust central business districts in the nation. The core of this city’s metro vibrancy is the 16th street mallway, an urban planning gem with streetscapes teeming with foot traffic. A catalyst to street retail, dining and entertainment activity is the über-impressive transport bus system, which makes regular stops along this thoroughfare. These hybrid green vehicles provide free rides to a steady stream of people—business professionals, panhandlers, university students, and city visitors—many of whom connect to the light-rail lines traversing the area.

A View Along Downtown Denver's 16th Street Mall

The downtown Union Station promises to further fuel the transportation infrastructure as the city has recently received millions of dollars to redevelop this historic landmark into a transit hub, connecting light-rail, commuter rail, buses, streets and public spaces. This will also expand the pedestrian feeder system, which supports perhaps the most dense concentration of professional sports complexes in the world. Denver is a haven for spectator-sports junkies. For example, in the central city area the Pepsi Center is home to the Denver Nuggets (basketball) and the Colorado Avalanche (hockey). Invesco Field hosts the Denver Broncos (football), and Coors Field showcases the Colorado Rockies (baseball). Soccer enthusiasts can also rejoice. A short distance outside the city, the Colorado Rapids play at Dick’s Sporting Goods Field—considered the largest state-of-the art soccer stadium in the world.

Union Station

Residents seeking close proximity to the spectator-sport scene or abundant social and cultural events should check out the Lower Highlands area, one of Denver’s rapidly gentrifying sections on the fringe of downtown. Another popular neighborhood is Lower Downtown, a bustling set of city blocks featuring beer pubs, fine dining and the Tattered Cover bookstore, a mecca of bibliophiles worldwide. LoDo, as it is affectionately known, is also home to the nation’s largest concentration of Victorian and early 19th century structures.

The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver's LoDo District

Closer to the downtown core are a wide mix of communities offering livability. The Capital Hill neighborhood, near the state capital building complex, is a cosmopolitan enclave with a strong gay-friendly orientation. It features an eclectic mix of high-rises, rehabilitated houses and evolving neighborhoods. Another up-and-coming locale is the Bluebird District, a 17-block area with stunning views of the downtown skyline. Colfax Avenue, one of its main arteries, once sported an unsavory reputation as a red-light district replete with prostitution and illegal drugs. Bolstered by the reconstituted Bluebird Theatre, a venue regularly hosting well-attended concert events, Colfax Avenue now features a bohemian, artsy crowd that patronizes local coffee houses, galleries, bars, dining venues and independent businesses. This area also boasts the infamous City Park, the most prominent, notable park in outdoor-oriented Denver. Modeled after New York’s Central Park, it contains 314 acres of pristine land on which sit the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Other favorable communities include Stapleton and Cherry Creek, although these options are slightly further from the city prime.

Not everything is perfectly aligned in Denver, though. Its notoriety as America’s “Beer Capital” along with its rapid emergence as a booming medical marijuana destination strike some as simultaneously odd and progressive. And the media attention swirling around John Hickenlooper, the highly popular, entrepreneurially minded mayor who announced his candidacy for state governor, has locals murmuring about how the city would fare in his absence. These musings notwithstanding, Denver has a solidly positioned livability niche, which bodes well for the city’s long-term growth and future success.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com