Stimulate and Harness Neighborhood Value, Urban Sage David Lewis Advises Obama

Like Jane Jacobs, David Lewis held to a resolute belief in the power of traditional city (and small town) neighborhoods during an era when the culture around him seemed largely blind to their value. When he came to Pittsburgh from England in 1963, he found a country that wasn't much interested in the idea of architecture at the scale of the neighborhood, but he persisted in establishing the pioneering urban design program at Carnegie Mellon and in establishing Urban Design Associates as a firm dedicated to the human-scale experience of place. For these things, he received a CNU Athena Award just over a year ago.

Now 87, Lewis sees the cultural and political environment in the U.S. finally ready to grow more supportive of urbanism, but the country is now in the grips of an economic crisis. In an op-ed last week in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Lewis offers President Obama some knowing advice: city and town neighborhoods will be a source of great resilience and investing in them will have compounded economic, environmental and social benefits.

After sharing a moving description of the West Homestead neighborhood he's called home for decades and its place in Pittsburgh's tableau of vibrant walkable neighborhoods, Lewis writes:

In a word, Mr. President, before suburbia drained their strengths, neighborhoods in most of our major cities were like ours -- human-scale livable communities, each with its own special history and culture. Their residential streets had sidewalks and street trees, and their houses had porches, bay windows, dormers and pitched roofs. You knew your neighbors, and you knew your baker and your grocer, your librarian and your minister, and the teachers of your children.

Each urban community was a distinct and special place, linked one to the other by a network of roads and local transit systems. Essentially everything is still there today -- often run down and lacerated, but still there.

Neighborhoods are the essence of urban America, and they are desperately in need of revitalization. We have huge capital value in our urban heritages -- not just in our people and their local cultures, but in our buildings, our streets and even in our utilities and sewers. Yet our local and metropolitan governments are strained to the breaking point to maintain these amenities because tax revenues are inadequate -- tax revenues that in large part now depend on debased property values.

He says highway expansions — too many of which will wind up getting funded by the recently signed Recovery Act — are exactly what's not needed. They would "expand suburbs, industrial parks and big-box retailers, and which would further deplete opportunities for the revival of our cities."

We need precisely the opposite. Our neighborhoods and cities need to rise up and demand to be heard. We need to follow your lead, Mr. President, and say yes we can. We need the financial tools that would empower us to recreate our middle class, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town, all across America. We, the people, can do the rest.

Putting historic buildings back to work is only part of what we have to do. By reviving shops and professional offices on our main streets, by encouraging urban industries and workshops, by restoring our schools so that they are woven back into the cultural life and upward mobility of our communities, and by restoring our residential buildings and streets, we could recreate the economic foundations of our neighborhoods. By revitalizing our walkable neighborhoods, we also could cut back on greenhouse gases and improve the health and life-spans of our citizens.

Just think of the long-term job opportunities that would be generated if federal financing were made available to revitalize urban communities all across America, employing carpenters, plumbers, road and bridge builders, roofers, insulators, electricians and transit workers, to say nothing of generating local investment and small business opportunities. Imagine a new kind of Marshall Plan that would invest in action at local levels, respond to priorities voiced by citizens and be repaid by the regeneration of urban tax bases.

Read the entire essay and coverage of Lewis' acceptance of a CNU Athena Medal in 2007.


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