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The Post-Mall World

At a time when cities look more and more alike, emphasizing a metropolis' unique assets and identity can revitalize its urban fabric.

June 01, 1997|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a public-policy fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and the Pacific Research Institute

For 10 years, the idea of place has taken a beating. Once the world seemed to be made up of special, nonduplicable locations--Texas cattle towns, old New England villages, relaxed beachside cities. Yet, many now believe that technology, industrial change and globalization are rapidly transforming places into little more than anonymous territories competing for the attention of largely indifferent capital markets.

"We are entering the age of everything, everywhere," business consultant William Knoke insists in "Bold New World: The Essential Road Map to the 21st Century." In this era, Knoke suggests, location decisions will distill to a matter of personal choice and convenience. Companies or individuals will no longer have to stay in any place that does not fit their particular fancy.

For some companies and industries, as well as individuals, "placelessness" has become as much an assumption of the business environment as the direction of interest rates and emerging markets. Companies move from region to region, not only in search of lower costs but also of ultra-safe, homogeneous environments favored by the managements of many major corporations.

In spite of these trends, many Americans still crave some sense of identity unique to the places where they live. This has been reflected in successful campaigns against Disney's attempt to build an amusement park near the site of the Manassas, Va., Civil War battlefield and a real estate firm's scheme to construct condominiums adjacent to Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

To some extent, growing interest in creating or preserving historic places constitutes a reaction against the proliferation of "edge cities"--super-suburbs attached to virtually interchangeable shops and malls, chain restaurants and low-rise corporate architecture on the fringes of metropolitan areas. In these communities, the dictates of economic "efficiency" have produced, along with growth, a dulling uniformity. Nearly two-thirds of the nation's office space is in edge cities, 80% of which did not exist a quarter century ago.

The revival of interest in place may prove to be the cities' last great advantage in their sometimes desperate battle to stay competitive with both edge cities and rural areas. In an analysis of economic growth rates during the early 1990s, corporate demographer David Birch found that activity picked up most rapidly farthest from central business districts. Twenty-five miles out, 2% annual job growth was the norm; within 10 miles, it was 1.5%; 0.5% within five miles, and negative growth within the central business districts themselves.

With large-scale federal efforts to restore urban cores at an end, cities have little choice but to find ways to slow, even reverse the hemorrhaging of jobs, human resources and capital. To accomplish this, most successful mayors have put crime reduction, streamlined regulations and upgraded infrastructure at the top of their agendas.

But, long term, a strategy focusing on reestablishing a sense of urban identity and place may prove more effective. Only when great cities offer something special and different from smaller towns or edge cities can they begin to lure the young, creative people, entrepreneurs and tourists necessary to sustain their economies. Recognition of this possibility has sparked a rash of new urban construction aimed at creating trademark attractions, as evidenced by the development of scores of new aquariums, art galleries and sports complexes in cities across the country.

Such attractions, however, will not alone reverse urban decline; it will take a major revitalization of urban retail districts as well. Given their relatively weak economic performance over the past decade, major cities are understandably eager to lure large retail chains--Banana Republic, Starbucks, Blockbusters, Planet Hollywood or Benetton--to trendy areas such as Manhattan's 57th Street, Old Town Pasadena, Melrose Avenue or Chicago's Old Town.

Yet, the influx of too many such chains threatens to create "edge cities" downtown. Absent the willingness of civic leaders, local residents and entrepreneurs to nurture a singularly exciting urban environment, these neighborhoods could experience the decline that has turned Westwood, once a dynamic hub, into an economically moribund and utterly uninteresting urban version of a second-rate suburban mall.

As in so many things, re-establishing the primacy of place in Southern California presents both greater challenges and unrivaled opportunities than in older, more established eastern cities. In a Boston, New York or Chicago, the most critical development issues concern the central-city environs and receive enthusiastic support from downtown-oriented local media. By contrast, Southern California's sense of place generally has fallen victim to its '90s reputation as a failed, racially charged suburban utopia without any distinguishing marks.

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