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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thinking about Land

I have worked on issues of urban land for my entire adult life. Even as a kid I liked to think about how land was used - buildings, parks, houses. Of course, I lived in Chicago and had a fantastic landscape to look at.

I saw this post in the Philly planning blog that is in my blog list on the right. The post is about using vacant urban lots for gardening. Now this is not a new idea - urban gardens have been around since at least the 1970s. But Philly is trying something new - greenhouses for urban farming on city owned vacant lots. First, Philly's redevelopment authority does land banking - they acquire vacant property and hold it in a "land bank" until something can be built there. Usually the city would sell the lot to a nonprofit organization to build affordable housing, or sell a group of lots side by side to a developer to build retail or mixed use to benefit the neighborhood. It often takes quite a while to get those kinds of deals organized and vacant lots often sit vacant for years and years. Some cities are still sitting on vacant land that was cleared during Urban Renewal in the 1960s!

The Philly Redevelopment Authority is going to let farmers use their vacant lots for up to 5 years. They are going with larger sized lots (1/2 acre minimum - about the size of a large suburban house with large yard) to start. Greenhouses are not super expensive, but not cheap either. It might not make sense to put a tiny greenhouse on a tiny lot. Anyway, there are several very good things happening in this project. The city recognizes that a blighted vacant lot is not good for the city, but it can be an opportunity if you do something productive with the land. Because urban land markets are not as quick to turn into valuable land as the suburbs, you sometimes need an interim use. So instead of blight, there is opportunity. Another good thing happening is that the city is encouraging sustainable development - grow local, consume local is a very important part of cutting down on our carbon footprint. Instead of shipping vegetables in from Ohio, you can grow it locally and more cost effectively. The other good thing is that most inner city neighborhoods do not have easy access to good produce. This will promote more healthy eating and still stay within a modest household budget. These greenhouses can grow organically, they can grow a variety of different veggies - imagine 20 different types of peppers! The bonus of a greenhouse is that you can use solar panels to grow in the winter. Plus - a greenhouse means you do not have to worry about contaminated soil - you can grow in boxes above the ground.

This project is a win-win and meets the triple bottom line of sustainability - it is economically sustainable, environmentally sustainable, and socially sustainable. It is innovative and not just a gimmicky thing. This is proven technology, a long standing craft, and definitely needed and usable by the public/consumer.

So, look around Camden. You will see a lot of vacant land. At City Hall the answer is always - we can't do anything about vacant land. Well, look across the river because they have a good idea. Urban farming can provide a commodity that can be traded, bartered, sold, and consumed by the grower. Imagine growing, green, productive activity on Camden's most blighted vacant lots. I like it.

Urban revitalization strategy #5: go green, be innovative when it comes to using urban land!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Can You Say Stimulus?

Money is coming down the pike. Get people back to work. Take on infrastructure projects to repair roads and bridges. Build a green energy economy with weatherization of homes, new technology, and more. Our President is serious about getting the economy back on track, helping homeowners, and getting people employed. How will Camden fare?

Camden is the poster city for needed economic recovery. Unemployed - check. Foreclosures and abandoned housing - check. Closed factories - check. Crumbling infrastructure - check (including wooden sewer pipes). Schools that need help - check. We have it all. And we have people that want to work, but don't have skills. We have people that want to open a business, but have no capital. We have students that want to learn, but are in schools that are not educating. We have an abundance of housing - and much of it is crumbling. We have a bit to work with, but need much help to jumpstart new strategies.

It would be fantastic if Camden could become the epicenter for green technology. What better place than Camden - a city that is a brownfield - to go green.

It would be amazing if Camden became a demonstration city for new urban renewal that builds on neighborhoods and residents to bring back community and the economy. Crime would fall.

It would be startling if Camden received stimulus funding and it actually made it to the people in need and wasn't skimmed by law firms, politicians, and others who demand their cut.

What is our COO saying about money coming to Camden? What is the City Council saying and the Mayor saying about stimulus funding? Will the community be brought into the discussion? Who is leading?

Urban revitalization suggestion #4: Camden needs an inclusive strategy to wisely spend the stimulus money to maximize its impact. This approach requires leadership, vision, and an understanding of what will likely succeed based on knowledge of the expectations of the residents and businesses of Camden.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Keeping it relevent, recent, and real

Sometimes life just get's crazy. I have neglected this site for a month. I'll chalk it up to the post-inaugural euphoria and having to attend to my job, etc. I have been busy getting the semester started and all that. I have one class working on a project related to commercial development in Camden's "downtown," such as it is.

I realize the economy stinks right now - no, that's not strong enough. The economy has fallen off a cliff - close, but not quite. The economy is barely breathing and this stimulus bill is an emergency inhaler. It might make us ok for a minute, but our economy is very ill. All the more reason to worry about Camden's future. Right now there is no credit and no investment. Several neighborhoods have plans for new development and unless there are $$ in one of the stimulus bills, they may need to put those plans on hold for a minute. I have two interests in this city - commercial/retail development and turning perceived deficits into assets. Most people see Camden's abandoned housing and vacant lots as a detriment that must be erased. I see them as assets waiting to be used. Of course, those assets need resources, resources that are in short supply at the moment. But timing and positioning are everything. If you are ready, then you can take advantage of opportunities when they come. So many cities just sit around documenting all their "problems" and wait for some other government or foundation to "help." Smart cities are always positioning themselves to be ready to take advantage of opportunities big and small. Camden needs positioning. I have no illusions that Camden will be the next Newark or Cherry Hill or Collingswood. But it can be the next iteration of Camden - which may be more appealing than any of those other places.

I gave a little talk to the CamConnect open house event about the potential of retail development. Not surprisingly, there are many people who want more, different, successful, recognizable retail in Camden - but people are very skeptical that it could happen here. Look around. Reality confirms their worst suspicions. We have a revolving door of retail - stores last a little while, then fail, only to be replaced by the next guy. Storefronts sit vacant for long periods. Functioning businesses are often operating on a shoestring and so amenities, inventory, and marketing are absent. The shopping experience in Camden is bleak.

The market for retail is here - it just has to be positioned. Instead of highlighting poverty, you highlight purchasing power in a high density area. It's an alternative strategy to despair. There are any number of development plans for this City and most are not grounded in a realistic vision. They are replica visions that were created by a consultant for some other city - they all look the same. But no one is positioning this city for its success - which requires a vision made by and for Camden.

Suggestion #3 - Camden should be Camden, not a replica of some other city that claims "success." Camden needs a real vision of itself and then should position itself to make it happen as opportunities arise.