Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Conclusion

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Editor's Note: This excerpt from Are We There Yet? concludes the weekly blog post reprinting of the book, which began 40 weeks ago on Nov. 27, 2012.

As discussed throughout this report, America is in a period of transition, pushed forward by changing demographics — a rapidly aging population, an increasing number of single person and single parent households — and a changing economy. If manifest destiny drove America’s ever-outward expansion, facilitated first by wagons and railroads and then by highways and suburban tracts of single-family homes in the last century, the younger generation and boomers alike seem to be driven by a need to return to the center in the 21st century, redeveloping older communities to make them more complete, and making our economy more resilient and sustainable by doing things more efficiently across our regions.

In this report we have measured and discussed a broad spectrum of factors that contribute to the creation of complete communities, yet Reconnecting America recognizes that there are so many more that contribute to a community’s vitality and desirability but which can’t necessarily be planned for or quantified. These “intangibles” have much to do with whether we are attracted to a place and whether we decide to stay there, and they result from complex influences that include a community’s history, its people and its cultural traditions, its aesthetics, architecture, food, arts and music, and the proximity of our friends and family.

Community is the nexus where all of these elements come together. It is this great mix of intangibles along with the stuff that we can touch and feel that give a community — and the region where it is located — its character and sets up the people who live there or the businesses that operate there for success.

Ultimately the challenge we face as a country is about connecting 21st century Americans with 21st century opportunities, embracing the changing demographic composition of our communities and putting aside antiquated methods of addressing problems. This means forging new partnerships and collaborative efforts and seeking better and more efficient linkages between federal and state policy and what we are striving to realize on the ground.

The Living chapter included an excerpt from a blog by Clare Thompson, who writes about how she fears for the future of the socio-economically and ethnically diverse suburb of Seattle where she lives. She loves the community because of its diversity but can’t envision where and how everyone’s interests can converge. She concludes that living in such areas is complicated and not necessarily comfortable, but that this is exactly the point: Neighborhoods like this are crucibles for developing tolerance, openness and understanding.

In the Moving chapter Sarah Goodyear writes eloquently about how she views the street as an extension of her home, and that she believes streets are a shared public space that give communities their character and that provide places where people can meet and become neighbors, forming the relationships and social networks that can then be called upon when the going gets rough.

The observations of both Thompson and Goodyear concur with the findings of the Gallup polling firm and the Knight Foundation in their “Soul of the Community” survey, which finds the three main factors that attach people to place are how accepting a community is of diversity, its wealth of social offerings, and its aesthetics. Gallup and Knight concluded that what connects us to a neighborhood doesn’t change much from place to place, and that one of the main outcomes of people feeling connected to where they live is local economic growth.

This sentiment was echoed by well-known urbanist and writer William “Holly” Whyte in his book published in 1988 titled City: Rediscovering the Center, who used direct observation of urban activity centers to develop his understanding of the role of cities in American life: “ [T]he center is the place for news and gossip, for the creation of ideas, for marketing them and swiping them, for hatching deals, for starting parades. This is the stuff of the public life of the city — by no means wholly admirable, often abrasive, noisy, contentious, without apparent purpose. But this human congress is the genius of the place, its reason for being, its great marginal edge. This is the engine, the city’s true export. Whatever makes this congress easier, more spontaneous, more enjoyable is not at all a frill. It is the heart of the center of the city.”

How can we begin to realize that potential? As the examples in this report show, the effort has already begun in many places. There are new transit lines connecting more people to jobs, new financial tools for building and preserving affordable housing in opportunity areas, pop-up parks and fresh food access in underserved communities — these are just a few of the many activities transforming neighborhoods into complete communities.

In addition, the preceding chapters provide examples of successful policies and strategies for completing communities — from zoning changes to suburban retrofits to community benefits agreements. In many cases, the public sector will play a critical role in sparking innovation and investment. Government at all levels — because of its authority over regulations and permitting, taxes and bonding — has both the tools and the responsibility to create public policies which promote completing our communities. While many of the solutions are locally driven, addressing the challenges that our communities face requires partnerships that transcend the local level and involve state and federal entities as well. Federal and state programs for housing, transportation, agriculture, food, health and other elements of complete communities are perhaps the greatest influences on the shape of America’s communities, and local solutions are most effective when state and federal policies work in tandem with local efforts to meet local and regional goals. As Congress and the administration wrestle with national fiscal and economic policy decisions, our federal leaders must not lose sight of the local needs identified in this report. We must all work together to align federal policies and programs with state and local efforts to provide more support for transit and for mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods, as these investments are the very essence of true economic development and resulting prosperity.

We know elected officials and community leaders across the country are already involved in bringing people together to develop regional strategies for improving performance and quality of life. The metrics we’ve developed and the grades on current performance are not meant to condemn, but to help communities target the areas in which they should focus their efforts and resources. In some cases these metrics will be integrated into work already underway; in others they will help stimulate comparisons, conversations and efforts in other regions. By outlining what constitutes a complete community — living, working, moving and thriving — we aim to provide a valuable tool that regional leaders should use when prioritizing activities and investments. Reconnecting America has a keen interest in working closely with diverse partners to help regions hone in on their priorities and develop the most effective strategies for moving forward.

One further note about the grading: In our development of the metrics, we experienced ongoing challenges in accessing consistent and reliable data to measure progress across cities and regions. While we believe that the information presented in this report is the best that is available today, we also believe it would advance our efforts to build complete communities if we could work with other organizations to develop a shared national data set to track progress in building complete communities at the regional level and at other appropriate levels. By tracking this data over time, we can identify the best practices and strategies that help places improve their performance, and we can identify those sure-fire investments that produce better outcomes.

We recognize that transforming a neighborhood, let alone an entire region, does not happen overnight. The challenges we face today were decades in the making, and it may well take decades to bring all regions up to passing grades. No one individual, no one government, no one generation can complete this task. Instead, it will take concerted effort by government leaders at the local, state, and federal levels; by business leaders, nonprofit and philanthropic entities; and community residents, if we are to achieve the goal of building complete communities in which people of all incomes and backgrounds can thrive. This will be a generational effort — a task undertaken not just by and for ourselves, but by and for our children and grandchildren. Yes, the task before us is a big one —too big to complete in a single generation — but not too big to begin.

We at Reconnecting America look forward to being a part of the journey, as we all work together to get closer to “there.”

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