Transformative Investments: Remaking American Cities for a New Century

Bruce Katz and
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University
Julie Wagner
Julie Wagner
Julie Wagner Former Nonresident Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro, President, The Global Institute on Innovation Districts

June 1, 2008

Editor’s Note: This article was the first published in the June 2008 World Cities Summit edition of ETHOS.

At the dawn of a new century, broad demographic, economic and environmental forces are giving American cities their best chance in decades to thrive and prosper. The renewed relevance of cities derives in part from the very physical characteristics that distinguish cities from other forms of human settlement: density, diversity of uses and functions, and distinctive design.

Across the United States (U.S.), a broad cross section of urban practitioners—private investors and developers, government officials, community and civic leaders—are taking ambitious steps to leverage the distinctive physical assets of cities and maximise their economic, fiscal, environmental and social potential.

A special class of urban interventions—what we call “transformative investments”—is emerging from the millions of transactions that occur in cities every year. The hallmark of transformative investments is their catalytic nature and seismic impact on markets, on people, on the city landscape and urban possibilities—far beyond the geographic confines of the project itself.

Recognising and replicating the magic of transformative investments, and making the exception become the norm is important if U.S. cities are to realise their full potential.

The U.S. is undergoing a period of dynamic change, comparable in scale and complexity to the latter part of the nineteenth century. Against this backdrop, there is a resurgence in the importance of cities due to their fundamental and distinctive physical attributes.

Cities offer a broad range of physical choices—in neighbourhoods, housing stock, shopping venues, green spaces and transportation. These choices suit the disparate preferences of a growing population that is diverse by race, ethnicity and age.

Cities are also rich with physical amenities—mixed-use downtowns, historic buildings, campuses of higher learning, entertainment districts, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods, adjoining rivers and lakes—that are uniquely aligned with preferences in a knowledge-oriented, post-industrial economy. A knowledge economy places the highest premium on attracting and retaining educated workers, and an increasing proportion of these workers, particularly young workers, value urban quality of life when making their residential and employment decisions.

Finally, cities, particularly those built in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are compactly constructed and laid out along dense lines and grids, enhancing the potential for the dynamic, random, face-to-face human exchange prized by an economy fuelled by ideas and innovation. Such density also makes cities perfect agents for the efficient delivery of public services as well as the stewardship of the natural environment.

Each of these elements—diversity, amenities and density—distinguishes cities from other forms of human settlement. In prior generations, these attributes were devalued in a nation characterised by the single family house, the factory plant, cheap gas, and environmental profligacy. In recent history, many U.S. cities responded by making the wrong physical bets or by replicating low-density, suburban development—further eroding the very strengths that make cities distinctly urban and competitive.

Yet, the U.S., a nation in demographic and economic transition, is revaluing the quality of life uniquely offered by cities and urban places, potentially altering the calculus by which millions of American families and businesses make location decisions every year.

Across the U.S., a practice of city building is emerging that builds on the re-found value and purpose of the urban physical landscape, and recognises that cities thrive when they fully embrace what Saskia Sassen calls “cityness”.1

The move to recapture the American city can be found in all kinds of American cities: global cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago that lie at the heart of international trade and finance; innovative cities like Seattle, Austin and San Francisco that are leading the global economic revolution in technology; older industrial cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Rochester that are transitioning to new economies; fast-growing cities like Charlotte, Phoenix and Dallas that are regional hubs and magnets for domestic and international migration.

The new urban practice can also be found in all aspects or “building blocks” of cities: in the remaking of downtowns as living, mixed-use communities; in the creation of neighbourhoods of choice that are attractive to households with a range of incomes; in the conversion of transportation corridors into destinations in their own right; in the reclaiming of parks and green spaces as valued places; and in the revitalisation of waterfronts as regional destinations, new residential quarters and recreational hubs.

Yet, as the new city building practice evolves, it is clear that a subset of urban investments are emerging as truly “transformative” in that they have a catalytic, place-defining impact, creating an entirely new logic for portions of the city and a new set of possibilities for economic and social activity.

We define these transformative investments as “discrete public or private development projects that trigger a profound, ripple effect of positive, multi-dimensional change in ways that fundamentally remake the value and/or function of one or more of a city’s physical building blocks”.

This subset of urban investments share important characteristics:

  • On the economic front, transformative investments uncover the hidden value in a part of the city, creating markets in places where markets either did not exist or were only partially realised.
  • On the fiscal front, transformative investments dramatically enhance the fiscal capacity of local governments, generating revenues through the rise in property values, the growth in city populations, and the expansion of economic activity.
  • On the cognitive front, transformative investments redefine the identity and image of the city. They effectively “re-map” previously forgotten or ignored places by residents, visitors and workers. They create nodes of new activities and new places for people to congregate.
  • On the environmental front, transformative investments enable cities to achieve their “green” potential by cleaning up the environmental residue from prior industrial uses or urban renewal efforts, by enabling repopulation at greater densities to occur and by providing residents, workers and visitors with transportation alternatives.
  • On the social front, transformative investments have the potential, while not always realised, to alter the opportunity structure for low-income residents. When carefully designed, staged and leveraged, they can expand the housing, employment and educational opportunities available to low-income residents and overcome the racial, ethnic and economic disparities that have inhibited city performance for decades.

The best way to identify and assess transformative investments is by examining exemplary interventions in the discrete physical building blocks of cities: downtowns, neighbourhoods, corridors, parks and green spaces, and waterfronts.

If cities are going to realise their true potential, downtowns are compelling places to start. Physically, downtowns are equipped to take on an emerging set of uses, activities and functions and have the capacity to absorb real increases in population. Yet, as a consequence to America’s sprawling appetite, urban downtowns have lost their appeal. Economic interests, once the stronghold in downtowns, have moved to suburban town centres and office parks, depressing urban markets and urban value.

Across the US, downtowns are remaking themselves as residential, cultural, business and retail centres. Cities such as Chattanooga, Washington, DC and Denver have demonstrated how even one smart investment can inject new energy and jumpstart new markets. The strategic location of a new sports arena in a distressed area of downtown Washington, DC fits our definition of a transformative investment. Leveraging the proximity of a transit stop, the MCI Arena was nestled within the existing urban fabric on a city-owned urban renewal site. The arena’s pedestrian-oriented design strengthened, rather than interrupted, the continuity of the 7th Street retail corridor.2 Today, the area has been profoundly transformed as scores of new restaurants, retail and bars dot the arena’s surroundings. Residents and visitors rely heavily on the nearby transit to come to this destination.

Ever since the physical, economic and social agglomeration of “city” was established, the function of neighbourhoods has remained relatively untouched. While real estate values of neighbourhoods have shifted over time in response to micro- and macro-economic trends, a subset of inner city communities have remained enclaves of poverty. Victims of earlier urban renewal and public housing efforts, millions of people are consigned to living in neighbourhoods isolated from the economic and social mainstream.

Cities such as St. Louis, Louisville and Atlanta have been at the forefront of public housing (and hence neighbourhood) transformation, supported by smart federal investments in the 1990s. For example, the demolition of the infamous high-rise Vaughn public housing project in St. Louis enabled the construction of a new human scale, mixed-income housing development in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden sections of the city. This redevelopment cured the mistakes made by failed public housing projects, by restoring street grids, providing quality design, and injecting a sense of social and physical connection. Constructing a mix of townhouses, garden apartments and single family homes helped catalyse other public and private sector investments.

What made this investment transformative was that it included the reconstitution of Jefferson Elementary, a nearby public school. Working closely with residents, and with the financial support of corporate and philanthropic interests, the developer helped modernise the school, making it one of the most technologically advanced educational facilities in the region. A new principal, new curriculum, and new school programmes helped it become one of the highest performing inner city schools in the state of Missouri.

City corridors are the physical tissue that knit disparate parts of a city together. In the best of conditions, corridors are multi-dimensional in purpose, where they are destinations as much as facilitators of movement. In many cities, however, corridors are simply shuttling traffic past blocks of desolated retail and residential areas or they have become yet another cookie cutter image of suburbia—parking lots abutting the main street, standardised buildings and design, and oversized and cluttered signage.

Cities like Portland, Oregon and urban counties like Arlington, Virginia have used mass transit investments and land use reforms to create physically, economically and socially healthy corridors that give new residents reasons to choose to live nearby and existing residents reasons to stay.

Portland conceived a streetcar to spur high density housing in close-in neighbourhoods that were slowly shedding old industrial uses. The streetcars traverse a three-mile route through residential areas, the water front, to the university. Since its construction, the streetcar has not only expanded transportation choices, it has helped galvanise new destinations along its route—including new neighbourhoods, retail clusters, and economic districts.

Parks and Open Space
City green spaces (such as parks, nature trails, bike paths) were initially designed to provide the lungs of the city and an outlet for recreation, entertainment and social cohesion. As general conditions declined in many cities, the quality of urban parks also declined, to the great consternation of local residents. Green spaces were turned into under-used, if not forgotten, areas of the city; or worse still, hot spots of crime and illegal activity. Such blight discouraged cities to transform outmoded uses (such as manufacturing areas) into more green space. In cities with booming development markets, parks failed to be designed and incorporated into the new urban fabric.

Across the US, cities are pursuing a variety of strategies to reclaim or augment urban green spaces. Cities like Atlanta, for example, have created transformative parks from outmoded economic uses, such as manufacturing land along urban waterfronts or by converting old railway lines into urban trail-ways.

Cities like Scranton have reclaimed existing urban parks consumed by crime and vandalism. This has required creative physical and programmatic investments, including: redesigning parks (removing physical and visibility barriers such as walls, thinning vegetation, and eliminating “dark corners”); increasing the presence of uniformed personnel; increasing the park amenities (such as evening movies and other events to increase patronage);3 and providing regular maintenance of the park and recreational facilities.4

Many American cities owe their location and initial function to the proximity to water: rivers, lakes and oceans. Waterfronts enabled cities to manufacture, warehouse and ship goods and products. Infrastructure was built and zoning was aligned to carry out these purposes. In a knowledge-intensive economy, however, the function of waterfronts has dramatically changed, reflecting the pent-up demand for new places of enjoyment, activities and uses.

As with the other building blocks, cities are pursing a range of strategies to reclaim their waterfronts, often by addressing head-on the vestiges of an earlier era.

New York has overhauled the outdated zoning guidelines for development along the Brooklyn side of the East River, enabling the construction of mixed-income housing rather than prescribing manufacturing and light industry uses.

Pittsburgh and many of its surrounding municipalities have embarked on major efforts to re-mediate the environmental contamination found in former industrial sites, paving the way for new research centres, office parks and retail facilities.

Milwaukee, Providence and Portland have demolished the freeways that separated (or hid) the waterfront from the rest of the downtown and city, and unleashed a new wave of private investment and public activities.

The following are underlying principles that set these diverse investments apart from other transactions:

Transformative Investments advance “cityness”: Investments embrace the characteristics, attributes, and dynamics that embody “city”—its complexity, its intersection of activities, its diversity of populations and cultures, its distinctively varied designs, and its convergence of the physical environment at multiple scales. Project by project, transformative investments are reclaiming the true urban identity by strengthening aspects of the ‘physical’ that are intrinsically urban—be it density, rehabilitation of a unique building or historic row, or the incorporation of compelling, if not iconic, design.

Transformative Investments require a fundamental rethinking of land use and zoning conventions: In the midst of massive economic global change, 21st century American cities still bear the indelible markings of the 20th century. In the early 20th century, for example, government bodies enacted zoning to establish new rules for urban development. While originally intended to protect “light and air” from immense overbuilding, later versions of zoning added the segregation of uses—isolating housing, office, commercial and manufacturing activities from each other. Thus, transformative investments require, at a minimum, variances from the rigid, antiquated rules that still define the urban landscape. In many cases, examples of successful transformative investments have become the tool to overhaul outdated and outmoded frameworks and transform exceptions into new guidelines.

Transformative Investments require innovative, often customised financing approaches: Cities have distinctive physical forms (e.g., historic buildings) and distinctive physical visions (e.g., distinct districts). Yet private and even public financing of the American physical landscape, for the most part, is standardised and routinised, enabling the production of similar products (e.g., single family homes, commercial strips) at high volume, low cost and low quality. Transformative investments, however, require the marrying of multiple sources of financing (e.g., conventional debt, traditional equity, tax-driven equity investments, innovative financing arrangements, public subsidy, patient philanthropic capital), placing stress on project design and implementation. In addition, achieving social objectives often require building innovative tax and shared equity approaches into particular transactions, so that appreciations in property value can serve higher community purposes (e.g., creating affordable housing trust funds). As with regulatory frames, the evolution from exceptional transactions to routinised forms of investments is required to ensure that transformative investments become more the rule rather than the exception.

Transformative Investments often involve an empirically-grounded vision at the building block level: While a vision is not a necessary pre-requisite for realising transformative investments, cities that proceed without one have a higher probability of making the wrong physical bets, siting them in the wrong places, or ultimately creating a physical landscape that fails to cumulatively add up to “ cityness”. It is easy to find such examples around the country, such as isolated mega-projects (a new stadium or convention centre) or waterfront revitalisation efforts that constructed the wrong projects, having misunderstood the market and the diversifying demographic.

Telescoping the possibilities and developing a bold vision must be done through an empirically-grounded process. A visioning exercise should therefore include: an economic and market diagnostic of the building block; a physical diagnostic; an evaluation of existing projects; and the development of a vision to transform the landscape. From here, disparate actors (public, private, civic, not-for-profit) will have the best instruments to assess whether a physical project could meet specific market, demographic and physical needs—increasing its chances of becoming truly transformative.

Transformative Investments require integrative thinking and action: Transformative investments are often an act in “connecting the dots” between the urban experiences (e.g., transportation, housing, economic activity, education and recreation), which are inextricably linked in reality but separated in action. This requires a significant change in how cities are both planned and managed.

On the public side, it means that transportation agencies must re-channel scarce infrastructure investments to leverage other city building goals beyond facilitating traffic. It means that agencies driving a social agenda, such as schools and libraries, have to re-imagine their existing and new facilities to integrate strong design and move away from isolated projects.

In the private sector, it means understanding the broader vision of the city and carefully siting and designing investments to increase successful city-building and not just project-building. It means increasing their own standards by using exemplary design and construction materials. It means finding financially beneficial approaches to mixed income housing projects and mixed use projects instead of just single uses. In all cases, it requires holistic thinking that cuts across the silos and stovepipes of specialised professions and fragmented bureaucracies.

For the first time in decades, American cities have a chance to experience a measurable revival. While broader macro forces have handed cities this chance, city builders are also learning from past mistakes. After investing billions of dollars into city revitalisation efforts, the principles underpinning particularly successful and catalytic projects—transformative investments—are beginning to be clarified. The most important lesson for cities, however, is to embrace “cityness”, to maximise what makes them physically and socially unique and distinctive. Only in this way will American cities reach their true greatness.

  • 1Saskia Sassen defined the term “cityness” to be the concept of embracing the characteristics, attributes, and dynamics that embody “city”: complexity, the convergence of the physical environment at multiple scales, the intersection of differences, the diversity of populations and culture, the distinctively varied designs and the layering of the old and the new. Sassen, S., “Cityness in the Urban Age”, Urban Age Bulletin 2 (Autumn 2005).
  • 2Strauss, Valerie, “Pollin Says He’ll Pay for Sports Complex District, Awaits Economic Boost, Upgraded Image”, Washington Post, Thursday, 29 December 1994.
  • 3Personal communication from Peter Harnik, Director, Center for City Park Excellence, Trust for Public Land, 6 June 2005.
  • 4Harnik, Peter, “The Excellent City Park System: What Makes it Great and How to Get There”. San Francisco, CA: The Trust for Public Land, 2003. Available online at