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Stimulating Cities

Category : Uncategorized · by Mar 30th, 2009

One only needs to stand at Prospect Park and look over Providence at night to see local examples of the irrational exuberance of the recent housing boom. Few of the hundreds of new condos downtown are ever lit because barely anyone lives down there. With at least two large condo complexes still ostensibly under construction, it’s clear that Providence has a glut of high end housing that will likely sit empty for years. That said, it could be worse. At least the extra housing is in the right place, the middle of the city, and not miles away from anything, like many of the housing developments built in the last decade.

I just finished an extremely interesting article about how the economic stimulus money could provide opportunities around the country to redesign struggling cities. The article looks at competing visions for several cities – New Orleans, Los Angeles, Buffalo, and The Bronx – that aim to improve infrastruture, reduce reliance on cars, and reclaim public green space. Many of the plans also try to foster social justice by removing elevated highways that cut through neighborhoods (guess which ones). While there are certainly urban planning problems in Providence, the increased (potential) density downtown seems quite progressive compared to some other sprawl-inducing development plans. At least when things eventually recover, there will be plenty of existing housing downtown that should make Providence a relatively sustainable city. The developers will surely lose money on their buildings but I don’t think there’s much use in worrying about that at this point…

There’s been a lot of focus recently on how the geography of the future will be different from the sprawling, Levitt-esque suburbs we’ve been building thus far. The Atlantic recently ran a brilliant story about how the geography is inextricably tied to modes of capitalist production. Like many articles, it argues that the building we’ve been doing for the last fifty years is both shortsighted and unsustainable. But the ironically named author, Richard Florida, also predicts what kind of geography might be the most viable moving forward. Mega Regions, he argues, will be the best suited for the future by permitting low-emission lifestyles and providing the density required to incubate the creativity necessary to succeed in an information-driven economy.

Providence, it just so happens, is at the center of what Florida argues is one of the world’s premier mega regions: The Bos-Wash mega region. This is why I think the biggest key to Providence’s future success is something that the instate proposals of shovel-ready, stimulus-funded construction projects cannot reach: high-speed rail. There is some money in the stimulus package for high-speed rail initiatives but it isn’t enough and the current plan is to divide it too many ways. After traveling around Europe on the TGV this summer, I am quite enamoured with high-speed rail. Hopefully, Obama and Amtrak Joe will be able to make subsequent funding requests to build a true high-speed rail line in the Northeast Corridor. Providence will really need it.

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