Neighborhood transformation for communities that have experienced serious disinvestment is about more than realizing just a single design project on a site. It’s about a spark or catalytic set of actions that leads to other positive planned and unplanned activities initiated by that project. It’s about dramatic and comprehensive change to the physical, social, cultural, and economic aspects of a neighborhood. And it requires trust, vision, cooperation, consensus, partnership, and investment to be successful.
Successful neighborhood transformation must start with a common will. Communities must first want it to happen and believe that it can happen. And then the facilitators of change must earn the trust of the community and garner their support for change. We all know that change can be frightening. Even for those who are convinced that neighborhood transformation is needed, it may still be hard to agree to participate as a “change agent” because “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” This is particularly true for people in lower income brackets who have seen promises go unfulfilled time and time again. And any constituents, rich or poor, private sector or public, must understand that change cannot happen if they alone are the only ones who want it. Real and successful neighborhood transformation requires the support of many. Cooperation and forming a consensus centered on finding “win-win” solutions are critical elements of change.
Establishing a common will must be paired with creating a common vision. This usually entails gaining community-wide cooperation and encouraging stakeholders to listen to one another and express their ideas in a safe and non-hostile environment. If community members feel that they can openly and candidly voice their wants and needs for neighborhood transformation, the probability of arriving at consensus and acceptance of change increases. And when the community can share ownership for change, the likelihood of success is more assured.
Not all aspects of neighborhood transformation can or should be planned. Just as neighborhoods and cities evolve organically over time, neighborhood transformation can and should spark other creative and entrepreneurial activities and events that generate broader and more constructive change. Once there is agreement on the level of quality and the overall desired outcome, the actual responses can often materialize in unique and unexpected ways. In effect, the “chemical reaction” of both planned and unplanned activities initiated by the catalyst must be encouraged to provide a positive and impactful result.
Comprehensive neighborhood transformation is often dependent upon a successful first step—a single project or action reflecting that common vision—which is followed by other steps by other parties that feed off that first step. Strategic location and the level of quality achieved in that first step are critical determinants in establishing the degree of success of the ensuing transformative activities. And for the desired catalytic effect to occur, the first step must be successful, attracting follow-on financial and communal investment that will ensure the ultimate desired positive results. This initial successful investment must be considered as leverage toward other future transformative activities and developments that will lead to comprehensive returns to the entire community.
Public/private partnerships are often also essential for realizing successful and comprehensive neighborhood transformations. The larger footprints associated with neighborhood transformations usually require the involvement of public partners to assemble land and garner neighborhood-wide participation. Private partners are then called upon to supply their expertise and capital to create innovative and economically viable outcomes.
True neighborhood transformation addresses not only the physical imprint of a neighborhood but its social, economic, and cultural aspects as well. As the mix and makeup of a neighborhood changes, these less tangible factors all enter into the picture, with the overall result being the transformation of the lives of the people who live, work, shop, and play there. Social and cultural benefits can be derived from the services, amenities, and opportunities that take root in the community. And the economic transformation of the neighborhood must be available to a broad spectrum of the community’s residents—not through displacement but through enrichment. True, positive neighborhood transformation cannot happen without all of this occurring in a balanced fashion.
When neighborhood transformation is successful, “all tides rise together”— one step feeding the next, with exponential impact over time. Torti Gallas + Partners’ commitment to community education and to listening to stakeholders to facilitate consensus about the need for and the direction of change has resulted in catalytic developments that have sparked dozens of successful neighborhood transformations.
This essay is abstracted from Torti Gallas + Partners: Architects of Community, published by Vendome Press in June 2017. To purchase a copy of the book please click here.