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From the


The Oxygen Mask Theory Patricia H. Gay

“Times do change, but the dynamics that make cities work have evolved over thousands of years and our cities, with their historic urban plans and their remaining historic architecture, still have more potential for posterity than anything we can create new.”

We all know the instructions given by the flight attendant before take off, which include putting the oxygen mask on oneself before assisting others. This has made me think of cities and helping people in need.   Our cities have been reduced in population (through public policies, by the way) and have not been in a position to provide adequate city services and thriving economies — jobs, schools, public transit, police protection, decent neighborhoods, accessible grocery and other stores, for starters — to those most in need. Lower income residents are not as able to compensate for these deficiencies and would benefit the most from a thriving city. While urban revitalization benefits the entire community, it is essential for those who cannot afford to leave and go elsewhere.   Yet efforts to build up the city’s population, economy and tax base, if crafted with true urban revitalization as a goal, are generally not welcomed, even opposed, for fear of gentrification or for fear of diverting funds from direct assistance to people in need. A city should strive to do both, but for sure cannot provide an economy that generates jobs, good schools, thriving neighborhoods and other necessities with the low tax revenues and blighted areas that population decline perpetuates. Cities, which are in fact living organisms that have been greatly harmed, need oxygen masks in order to provide a better quality of life for all.   John O. Norquist, president of the Congress for New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has a deep understanding of the needs of cities, works daily to accomplish goals for our cities, and has written impressively about the subject. I have recently looked again at his book The Wealth of Cities, published in 1998. The first chapter is titled “You Can’t Build a City on Pity.” By the time he wrote this, most cities had been suffering from population decline, at least inner-city population decline, resulting from public policies over several decades. He wrote about how this all got started in the 1930s: “Once the highest achievement of U.S. culture, cities began to be defined as the problem, even by themselves.” And mayors began asking for handouts from the federal government for their poor cities. But, as Mr. Norquist pointed out, “Cities grow, trade, produce, erect buildings, evolve neighborhoods, send out thoroughfares, spin off factories and stores and churches and theaters and universities — with or without higher forms of government. They may be helped or damaged by government, but they are not the creatures of government. As empires and nations come and go, some even in this decade, cities, with few exceptions, endure.” 10 Preservation in Print • OCTOBER 2012

  Public policies have actually increased poverty in cities and increased the need of so many remaining residents. While this is not the problem addressed in this column, we must remember, or we must learn for the first time (several generations of U.S. citizens have not experienced viable cities) that cities are critical to an advanced and capable civilization. “The Latin word civitas is the root for both city and civilization. Cities fostered civilization,” Mr. Norquist pointed out in his first chapter. Almost 15 years since The Wealth of Cities’ publication, I would add that the concept of “ring cities” or “edge cities” that so many have thought a better idea and the wave of the future is a failure — we did not have a better idea, and we should start providing oxygen to our cities. The edges, as we have seen, will die also unless we do. We could have had it both ways — suburban growth without destroying cities. But we chose otherwise.  Of course, through historic preservation programs we have seen urban areas and many old neighborhoods returned to the vitality they once had. Many people are gradually beginning to learn that a city is no longer a place to avoid, but a place to be. Cities have invaluable architectural resources that provide a unique identity and a sense of place in which economies can thrive. We snuck all this urban revitalization activity in through the National Preservation Act of 1966, with very minimal funding for creative programs at a time when billions, ultimately trillions, were being given to cities with no lasting impact, for the most part.   This imbalance in funding continues today. Public policy continues to address urban issues in terms of poverty rather than in terms of urban vitality, which is desperately needed by so many urban residents, or in terms of “big bang” projects such as costly public projects like stadiums and private development like high-rise construction that do not stimulate the smaller scale private investment so essential for a thriving economy.   A writer recently wrote a column “Will the Centers Hold?” referring to these large-scale projects that so many cities have undertaken. The centers will hold only if care has been taken to balance the large-scale projects with incentives to rebuild populations and neighborhoods and if care has been taken to ensure that the projects do not destroy that which we seek to revive. The importance of specific efforts to rebuild urban

populations is usually omitted as grand waterfront parks or new stadiums are built. The big projects certainly can help, but only if the specific efforts are put in place. Efforts to put the flesh back on our cities are essential for, to use an over-used word, sustainability with thriving neighborhoods that provide the jobs and the quality of life we all seek.   Fortunately the media is featuring more and more columnists and organizations focusing on cities, in particular urban planning. However, we must remember, as Mr. Norquist said, that our cities were “once the highest achievement of U.S. culture” so a lot of new creative planning is not really called for. Times do change, but the dynamics that make cities work have evolved over thousands of years and our cities, with their historic urban plans and their remaining historic architecture, still have more potential for posterity than anything new we can dream up. We must not remain in denial of the damage done to our cities/civilization, and we must understand the invaluable urban resources that remain. For the sake of those in need and for the sake of civilization we need to apply the oxygen masks right away. Preservationists have shown what can be done — we must maintain preservation programs that have breathed life into so many cities, because much more oxygen is needed.   Unfortunately, disasters occur that damage cities, such as Hurricane Katrina, or, as already mentioned, public policies that cause population loss. Action must be taken, help might be welcomed — but only the right kind. The most effective means to address urban problems and worse should not come from pity, but from building on resources and the facilitation of sustainability. The most critical factor in New Orleans’ recovery following Katrina was the remarkable energy and determination of citizens to rebuild their houses and neighborhoods, with volunteer assistance and private donations from around the world. Although government programs were problematic, one actually helped save the city, which would have been leveled immediately had it not been for Section 106 Review required by the National Preservation Act of 1966. As Jane Jacobs pointed out, cities are far more capable to address their own problems, and for regrouping when faced with disasters, better than (presumably) wellintentioned forces.   See a graph about America’s urban vitality on page 15.

The Oxygen Mask Theory  
The Oxygen Mask Theory  

From The Director October 2012