The United States has a continuous history of development based on exploration and settlement of new frontiers. From the early settlers, the westward expansion and even post World War II suburban growth, settlements have always been guided by the belief that somewhere out there exists a new frontier where the fulfillment of the American Dream is within grasp. The pioneers that have settled these frontiers have been ordinary men, women and children who were moved by curiosity and the desire to improve their own lives and those of their progeny. This trait has not withered with time.
Even today, as we look around, we see countless families looking for ways to become a part of an upward middle class. Where lies their frontier?
We see a reincarnation taking place across the country. Small towns and cities that were neglected for decades and even written off as ghost towns are taking on a new role and a new life, one that places them at the forefront of community building and development. We have identified these as Investment Ready Places (IRP’s). One may ask, “Why now?”. After all, they have existed for decades, if not centuries and are certainly not a new phenomenon. We believe there are 3 major forces at play that are tilting the table in favor of such places:
1. The Great Migration:
People young and old are migrating towards walkable urban areas in droves. Recent research done by Chris Leinberger and others shows how walkable urban places are consistently outperforming their suburban counterparts in property values, overall health and wealth generation per capita. The era of individual automobile is coming to a slow end as bikeshares, zipcars and an almost obsessive emphasis on walkability is redefining how we gauge mobility. WalkScore is the new indicator of prosperity!
This cultural shift places an immense burden on our Gateway Cities like New York and San Francisco, which are already experiencing significant population growth and becoming exorbitantly expensive. (The median home price in San Francisco was recorded at $705,000 in 2012). It also provides an immense opportunity for small towns across the country to capitalize on a fast growing market share. Most of these places were conceived prior to the automobile dominated planning era and are naturally built on a well-connected and walkable framework. Along with their historic building stock and culturally significant institutions and open spaces, they are well poised to deliver a great quality of life at an affordable price tag.
2. The New Techno Mobility:
Every wave of frontier development has been throttled by advances in new technologies that have facilitated the movement of people, goods and services in ways that were previously considered impossible. Westward expansion hinged on railroads. The suburban sprawl we experienced in the past 60 years would have been impossible without the proliferation of the automobile.
We are observing the rapid integration of a new type of engine: The Internet. Consider the fact that most internet giants such as Google, Yahoo, Amazon etc. did not exist 20 years ago. Most social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter etc. are less than 10 years old. Email itself has been in popular use for barely 20 years! And yet these tools have completely reorganized how we access information, conduct business and interact socially. For the pioneers seeking their New American Frontier, this has meant the ability to look at places previously considered inaccessible due to lack of jobs and opportunities.
Small towns and cities today are fully integrated into the global digital network. This has enabled them to compete with larger cities to attract new residents and talent, who can move without having to look for new jobs. It has also enabled longtime residents with an entrepreneurial spirit to tap into a much larger pool of knowledge and costumers using the internet as a platform. To be a creative professional or an inventive tinkerer, one no longer has to be located in a large urban area.
When compared with the oversaturated Gateway Cities or homogenous, isolating suburbs, small towns and cities have a unique advantage: they offer a balance between personal relations (associating oneself with their local community of neighbors and residents), and virtual associations (interacting with the global community of professionals and clients). In addition, small towns and cities provide the ideal balance between creative inspiration through thier rich culture, built environment and proximity to nature as well as a slower pace of life required for creative contemplation. Such a balance was impossible to achieve just a decade ago and has truly transformed small towns and cities from the backwaters to the forefront of innovation, culture and commerce. And the Creative Class is taking note.
3. The Great Reset
Innovation often requires disruption of the status quo. Coupled with new technologies, it can enable great shifts towards new frontiers. As the new normal emerges from the settling dust of the Great Recession, America is indeed looking for significant rethinking of our overburdened housing, financing, transportation, energy and government mechanisms. Small towns and cities were particularly struggling prior to the recession and the catastrophic failures that ensued have prompted many such places to rethink their priorities and strategies towards community building at a fundamental level. Town after town, we are seeing residents taking stock of their neighborhoods and engaging in tactical projects to affect incremental change. No longer are neighbors waiting for the city to fix a street, reimagine an abandoned lot or provide funding for that long awaited public arts program. They are turning community building into a human powered enterprise and utilizing new tools such as Fundrise, Kickstarter, IOBY to secure the small amount of financing needed to realize these projects.
The small scale of these towns and cities gives them an inherent advantage in embracing a start up mentality of trial and error. The enhanced personal connections one experiences in small settlements helps get past some of the old, bureaucratic rules and facilitates new collaborations. The absence of an overburdened, large government structure allows quicker crafting and adoption of new rules. And these micro projects add up quickly to turn a place around. These settlements are large enough to matter, yet small enough to affect positive change and young entrepreneurs and innovators are flocking to these habitats to explore, try and repeat until they achieve their version of the American Dream in this New Frontier.
So, what places are most likely to become exemplars of this New Frontier? What are the tools available for those willing to explore these new geographies? What are the rules we must follow and break to thrive in this new land? Who are the leading pioneers of our times?
These are some of the questions we will be discussing in an upcoming session at the annual planning conference in Chicago this week. Together with Scott Ford, Executive Director for Community Investment, South Bend, IN and Radhika Mohan from the Mayors’ Institute On City Design, we will explore ideas, analyze recent trends and highlight case studies from the New American Frontier.
Details for the session are listed below. We hope you can make it in person or engage online. The New American Frontier beckons us and we want you to join us in exploring it and achieving your own dreams!
Function Code: S479
Title: Investment Ready Places