3 Ways to Change a Place for Good

At the 2016 Chicago Forum on Global Cities held in the Windy City this week, planners, architects, developers and politicians gathered to tackle the challenges faced in urban areas around the world. Because the one thing that’s constant for any city is change, many of the discussions centered around how experts and residents alike can push for developments that benefit entire communities, rather than splitting a municipality into winners and losers. Here are three ideas I found particularly engaging.

Virtually any well-planned transportation project is going to pay off in property value.

Desmond Kuek at the Chicago Forum on Global Cities Thursday

Desmond Kuek at the Chicago Forum on Global Cities Thursday

As moderator Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic for the Financial Times put it, “The impact of even a small investment in transportation can be massive and life changing.” His panel certainly agreed. Thomas Wright, president of New York’s Regional Plan Association, told the audience about a study where they looked at 60,000 property sales in northern New Jersey. They found that every time the transit agency could save passengers one minute of transit time with improvements to the system, each home within a half mile of a train station gained $3,000 in value. “The model is very strong,” he said. “The market, of course, knows this. The policy is obvious.”

Desmond Kuek, president and CEO of SMRT Corporation Ltd. in Singapore told a story of the market acting on such information. He said he was casually looking at residences in a new development and someone recognized him. The next day, the marketing had changed for the development, suggesting that a new transit station must be coming to the area, because he had visited. He laughed but noted it made some amount of sense for them to do so: “The moment you announce a new line or station, the market price of property goes up.”

Places that plan for public use are healthier and happier

Helle Søholt, founding partner and CEO of Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects warned that those who live in places that neglect to reserve 25 to 30 percent of their space to parks and gathering spaces will suffer consequences. “All cities need to have public life,” she said. “If we don’t provide public space in the future, we will have conflict.”

Helle Søholt at the Chicago Forum on Global Cities Thursday

Helle Søholt at the Chicago Forum on Global Cities Thursday

For Lamar Hasbrouck, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, it’s a matter of caring for the next generation. “[Children] thrive with access to green spaces,” he said, noting that that’s why some doctors such as himself “like to prescribe nature. We like to prescribe fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Søholt added that community gardens—where interaction between generations can happen more easily—can make a big difference with very little investment: “If we want to have families in cities—which I think we do—we have to design them with kids in mind.”

Even if new development is messy, that’s OK

A question from Heathcote opened one session with the notion that the most desirable place in many cities is the historical area, that already has a solid sense of place. He wondered aloud if it was even possible for architects and developers to recreate such sought-after space: “Why are people so fond of historic neighborhoods? What is it that we are lacking?” he asked. “Do we not know anymore what constitutes a good city?”

Ricky Burdett, director of LSE Cities at the London School of Economics and Political Science said those who want to created truly loved places inside their cities should look to replicate two elements of great spaces: density and complexity. “Nothing kills the feeling of a city like not having people around you,” he said, urging architects and planners to try to learn from the “incremental nature of citymaking” to create more authentic places.

But the panel also noted that new development should only be done in concert with the residents of the community, even if that means it takes longer or faces additional hurdles. “When you are renewing a community, it really takes purposeful planning so those people have a place to land,” Hasbrouck said. “When you strip people of their sense of place, you strip them of their sense of self.”

Meg White

Meg White is the managing editor for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]realtors.org.

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