Guest Commentary by Carol Coletta

It’s a glorious moment to be in the business of promoting the built environment. I use “built environment” to encompass the way we build our buildings, arrange our neighborhoods and public spaces, and interact with one another in place. We’re all consumers of place as individuals, and we are constantly aware of our surroundings. But there’s something bigger going on:

The evidence is mounting that the built environment is hugely important to the success of cities.

We should start by acknowledging this key fact: 64% of the most mobile people in our society – college-educated 25-34 year olds – say, first, they choose the city they want to live in, then they look for a job.

What this means is that quality of life is now more influential than having a job offer when people are deciding where to live. Livability seems to be the new competitive advantage.

Just to put a point on it: 25-34 college-educated year-olds make up the demographic all cities are fighting over.

Now, the built environment is not the whole of quality of life – for 25-34 year-olds or anybody else. But the built environment is a substantial part of how people value cities today.

Let me give you three powerful examples.

First: The growing strength of the center city. You can see evidence of it in cities everywhere.

Over the past four decades, there has been a steady increase in the relative preference of young adults (ages 25 to 34) for close-in neighborhoods – that’s the central business district in metropolitan areas and the 3-mile radius around it. In fact, college-educated young adults today are more than twice as likely to live in these close-in neighborhoods than are other Americans.

This is a 40-year trend that just keeps accelerating.

85% of millennials say they prefer urban-style living, and the numbers prove that they are acting on their preferences.

What is it about the built environment that makes the core city newly valuable to millennials? You know the profile: this part of the city is typically dense, walkable, bikeable, mixed use, mixed age, mixed-type building stock. These are the kinds of neighborhoods we forgot how to build for the past 50 years. Then all of a sudden, we woke up to a back to the future moment.

Now, jobs are following millennials (and increasingly boomers) to core cities. Companies like Google, Biogen, Coca Cola and Visa are moving their offices downtown to tap into the growing talent pool living in cities. It’s happening even in struggling cities like Detroit—where Quicken Loans is explicitly working to promote downtown revitalization.

It’s also true that since the recession, housing prices in America’s most walkable neighborhoods – the ones with higher WalkScores that have more daily destinations nearby — have recovered far more quickly than housing in neighborhoods where you have to drive to get to everything.

See the pattern here? These are no longer anecdotes. This is happening in cities all over the U.S.

The right built environment attracts and keeps mobile talent. The right built environment attracts jobs. And the right built environment adds real estate value.

But there are other ways the built environment Increases the value of cites.

Think about most neighborhoods in your community. They are probably like neighborhoods in Miami or in my hometown of Memphis. The rich live in enclaves, and poor people live in a different part of town. That’s the pattern in cities all over the U.S.

But new research is showing us how deadly that approach is to opportunity… specifically the opportunity to improve your economic status. It turns out that growing up poor in an economically segregated neighborhood significantly lowers the chance that you will improve your financial circumstances.

If zip code is destiny, then the American Dream is dead.

Having people of different incomes living in close proximity to one another and, in effect, sharing their lives in public as people in a community naturally do, results in far more upward mobility for people than does growing up in an economically segregated neighborhood.

Having a civic commons – libraries, parks, rec centers, and the like — that welcomes and delights people of different incomes augments and accelerates the advantages of economic integration. (This is not easy, by the way.)

Consider this: America is becoming ever more bifurcated by income – the rich are getting richer and there is more difference in the incomes earned by those with more and less education. People with less money and less education are getting stuck in place.

If the right built environment can help tackle that problem –delivering even a modicum of progress by bringing rich and poor people into closer physical proximity — that is significant, because today, we are going in the opposite direction.

The right built environment delivers more opportunity to Americans. That’s the second big value-add to cities.

There’s one more piece to the puzzle. The right built environment delivers the kind of engagement that actually moves cities forward.

You may know that Knight Foundation is built on the premise that informed and engaged communities are essential to strong democracies. And the sad fact about engagement is that we’re not doing a very good job of it in most of our communities.

How many of you have been to a public meeting lately?

How many of you enjoyed it? (Count the masochists.)

How many of you think it was a productive discussion about the future of your community?

Clearly, something is wrong here. I’ve run public meetings. I’ve participated in public meetings. I am on a public board that has publicly commented – twice – in each meeting. And it is mind numbing, right? There must be a better way.

Well, a few weeks ago, that better way revealed itself in a most unexpected way. I was interviewing the founders of modern day Portland – the people who became mayors, aides to mayors, state legislators, transit officials, and architects who led important citizen initiatives. They kept using the terms “civic involvement” and “citizen engagement”, and finally I stopped the conversation and asked, what do you mean specifically? What did that look like in Portland?

Their answer stopped me cold.

Here’s what they told me: “For too long, decisions about the future of Portland were made by a few people in the basement of a downtown hotel. We decided that we had to lure people out of the comfort of their living rooms and into public life so that they would engage in an ongoing conversation about the future of their city.”

That was their aim: Get Portlanders to live life in public.

To support that, they began changing policies to allow sidewalk cafes, music in parks, music in taverns, stop the building of expressways through neighborhoods… and you can see the result of that today in Portland: vibrant, compact neighborhoods demarcated by relatively narrow, slow through-streets filled with small commercial enterprises mixed with mid-rise housing.

It is so different from what you see in most American cities, and it all resulted from a desire to get and keep citizens engaged – continuously — in shaping the future of their city.

As the Portland experience shows, citizen engagement is not an event. It is not a process run by consultants. It’s a culture. It’s a constant. It is, crucially, an ongoing conversation about the future of the city. And the built environment, as Portland shows, either supports that kind of ongoing conversation by encouraging people to live life in public, or it discourages it. In fact, in too many places, the built environment actually makes such a conversation impossible.

So why are we surprised when the pitiful processes we create for “engagement” don’t work?

The good news is that we are building smarter and better today than we have in 50 years. The bad news is that we still get it wrong too often. When you get the built environment wrong, you have to live with your mistakes for a very long time.

So growing an engaged citizenry that understands what good design is, why it matters, and will advocate for it forcefully is urgent if we want our cities to be successful. We can’t win this one battle at a time. We can’t treat advocacy for good design as an event. We have to make it part of the culture – the “way we do things around here.” – the rule, not the exception… what we expect for our community.


Carol Coletta is Vice President and leads Community and National Initiatives for Knight Foundation.  You can follow her at @ccoletta.