America has a deep-seated anti-urban streak, which happens to dovetail, in the eyes of many, with a mistrust of government at every level. The Republican presidential primary has flared with anti-urban rhetoric, which is particularly shortsighted given the still-weak state of the economy, one in which urban areas are bouncing back faster than their rural and exurban counterparts. That cities are the country’s economic engine seems obvious almost to the point of being self-evident, so why is it still seen as politically advantageous to denigrate urban areas? And why are urbanists so bad at making the case for cities with the public?
Meet Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. His mid-sized city is currently engaged in building three important, interconnected urban projects, which could bring a real spark to downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. One project will create a new mixed-use neighborhood in between the city’s riverfront stadiums, along with a generous new waterfront park. The first phase of the Banks, as it is called, is complete and the second is breaking ground within the month. The latter is a coordinated redevelopment—including renovation and new construction—of a large piece of the Over the Rhine neighborhood, just north of downtown. The third, and arguably most important, project is a long-planned and hotly contested streetcar line connecting both areas with downtown in between.
And Cincinnati is no bastion of progressive urbanism. It has long been plagued with a history of racial strife, white flight, and purse strings controlled by wealthy, exclusionary suburbs.
Mallory has been extremely effective in making the economic case for these developments as a necessary strategy for Cincinnati’s competitiveness. In a recent video for Smart Growth America, the mayor articulated his vision: “We’ve got to be able to attract and retain young people, and we’ve got to be able to attract and maintain the companies that are going to create jobs. People are looking for public transportation when they are deciding which city they want to be in. They are looking for public infrastructure to be in place. All the elements you see in larger cities that are stable, that have growing populations, we are trying to incorporate into Cincinnati so we can level the playing field.”
Mallory is making the case for Cincinnati’s urbanity, for its cityness, as a competitive advantage, something that many small and midsized cities have long scorned. He has put public space, place making, and mixed-use development at the center of his mayoral agenda. And he makes the case that it’s not downtown versus neighborhoods or city versus suburbs, but that an integrated, economically dynamic region only thrives when the center really holds.