The Green Column #51

More evidence that Lincoln is a special place

June 22, 2011—Earlier in May, I attended the bi-annual national conference of organizations and individuals with interests in the “deconstruction” of buildings, Decon11 (deconstruction is a process of building removal that is distinguished from demolition by an objective to save and reuse as much of the original materials as possible, instead of disposing of the material in landfills).

The programs and presentations attracted approximately 400 persons from cities and municipalities, private and non-profit organizations engaged in materials salvaging, reuse and recycling (similar to Lincoln’s EcoStores Nebraska and Deconstruction contracting), and also persons and organizations interested in the potential of deconstruction operations as a focal point for urban employment and social services for the disadvantaged.

Many of the workshops focused on districts within cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Flint, and others that have experienced extreme financial and unemployment challenges, as well as out-migration to the suburbs. Such cities now find themselves with whole neighborhoods or districts of deteriorating, unsafe buildings. These districts were typically central, or near central city neighborhoods, constructed mostly of wood frames in the period of 1900—1940. They now represent the stereotypical slum, or blighted neighborhoods of both social and physical deterioration.

Deconstruction contractors are often acquiring contracts with the city governments for removal of multiple, sometimes hundreds of these structures at public expense. Very often the primary objective is simply “slum removal” with little or no concern for the use of the resulting vacant land, or even the disposition of the materials salvaged from the deconstruction.

The shocking characteristic of these deconstruction projects is the net loss of all of the elements of urban vitality—connected mixed uses for residential services, stable social units, economic exchange and interaction, civic facilities, safe streets, walkable neighborhoods, etc.

The context for deconstruction in Lincoln is remarkably different. Practically all the deconstruction and most of the demolition contracts in Lincoln have occurred because of new plans for new projects to replace older, less useful and less efficient structures. And the project plans and designs are related to, guided by the existing Comprehensive Plan for Lincoln and Lancaster County, and usually, approved within the principles of the plan.

Not only is Lincoln different in its attention to comprehensive planning, but the economic and social conditions are distinctive. With an unemployment rate of approximately 3.2 percent and essentially no slum neighborhoods, we stood out like a shining light in this conference. And yet, the stark distinctions should be studied for avoidance of their fate.

The comparisons of declining central cities to Lincoln, as a place of apparent growth and opportunity for becoming a larger, more diverse and sustainable city, causes one to wonder if a similar fate is yet to come here? Are we delaying an inevitability?

Perhaps the same comparative evidence that puts us in a healthy perspective also presents us with strong evidence that the traditional practices of urban development, driven exclusively by market oriented “project and program planning,” in the face of new external demands, will not sustain the desired qualities of life now enjoyed, or expected by citizens in the future. Most of these cities were built and populated by the developer-driven project-by-project strategy.

Up to now we have been successful in developing our city on the basis of one project at a time, then another, then a new residential development, then a school or public facility (for example, an arena, an Innovations Campus, a downtown plaza, etc.).

Ostensibly, avoidance of the consequences of inefficient, disconnected, spot planning is why we spend time, resources and human energy on comprehensive planning—the process is supposed to result in an integrated whole of all the parts of a functioning, efficient, and sustainable city. Lincoln has been served well by the comprehensive planning process.

But, even here there often is a disconnect between the public policies, the interpretation of “market” forces, the economics of city operations, the expectations and desires of the citizenry, and the existing comprehensive plan.

Is it possible that we now are entering into a totally uncharted, new phase of urban size and age, surrounded by new external demands—such as environmental (i.e., climate change and weather threats), economic (i.e., living with less, lower consumer expectations amid greater pressures for conservation), technologies (i.e., deteriorating infrastructure and new demands from diminished supplies of energy), and socio-cultural changes— impacted by all these externalities?

In the apparent demands for new thinking, different allocations of our limited resources, and changing life-styles—resilience in the face of external demands beyond our control—is there enough integration, interdependent thinking, predictable and measurable planning, and acknowledgement of long-term consequences of our actions in this model of urban administration?

My sense of lessons to be learned from these older and larger cities is that time, the pace of change, recognition of the interdependencies within the urban context, and leadership are our most precious commodities in continuing to move Lincoln into an ever more sustainable place.

The urgency to get this next comprehensive plan right (LPlan2040) could not be more timely. It must move planning in Lincoln into a frame of public policy that will conserve all our existing positive attributes, give future leaders the guidance for collaborative interdependent thinking and decisions, and allow for adjustments to the unpredictable nature of the unknown externalities.

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