Neighborhood revitalization

A clickable image map showing possible infrastructure improvements

Urban renewal projects and infrastructure spending in distressed neighborhoods

A clickable image map showing possible infrastructure improvements
Neighborhood revitalization can be supported through infrastructure spending.

Engaged and active neighborhoods have streets that answer the needs of their community. There is no single way to revitalize an empty downtown strip or create a new vibrant district. Every community’s needs are different. However, when there are infrastructure dollars available, municipalities can make smart investments to support the process of engagement. A combination of political will and thoughtful design encourage a street’s renaissance. Neighborhood revitalization requires creating safe, accessible, walkable spaces with thoughtful infrastructure. This setting supports a community in imagining what is possible.

How to revitalize a neighborhood

Revitalizing a neighborhood in the age of big-box stores means creating attractive spaces that answer people’s needs. Here are 9 strategies for neighborhood revitalization:

  • Celebrate the area’s history and unique qualities
  • Use the Power of 10+
  • Involve the community
  • Create walkability—and bikeability
  • Embrace universal design
  • Calm traffic
  • Support transit
  • Add trees, plants, and public art
  • Give people a place to meet

Celebrate the area’s history and unique qualities

Historic preservation helps link the past and present. In communities, this can create a powerful feeling of inclusion and identity. Being part of a larger whole gives people meaning. Research shows that a sense of social cohesion supports well-being. Neighborhood identity or place attachment helps create that social cohesion.

The Power of 10+

The Power of 10+ approach by the Project for Public Spaces shows that places thrive when users have 10 or more reasons to come into an area. Art, food, music, places to gather, shopping, activities, history, and architecture can all be part of an area’s unique draw.

Involve the community

A 2013 Urban Studies and Planning paper from MIT says, “We stress placemaking empowerment of community through the ‘making’ process. In placemaking, the important transformation happens in the minds of participants, not simply in the space itself.” When residents and workers are engaged and asked what’s important to them, their creative answers often highlight the culture that’s already in place. Cultural festivals, unique events, block parties, playground or sports equipment, public art, tournaments, and other region-specific activities help build cohesion and inclusion.

A nighttime photograph of a street with a median with trees and public art in Boston
A large expanse of asphalt has been calmed with one-way traffic, a median, trees, bollards, and art.

Create walkability—and bikeability

Active transportation brings people to street level, which engages community. Walk score and walk appeal increase the value of residences and businesses in an area because people like places they can be present in.

Businesses skeptical of losing parking to bike lanes or wider sidewalks can celebrate research that shows that walking, biking, and transit help support and sustain retail business.

Embrace universal design

Universal design makes sure that those with disability are welcomed into public space. Yet the approach goes beyond retrofitting for accessibility. Instead, a universal design approach uses the built environment to create a better quality of life for everyone, regardless of their ability. The resulting design is less frustrating for all users.

Calm traffic

Traffic calming helps with walkability and the sense of neighborhood. Fewer lanes, speed reduction, intersection management, and connected roads help people navigate on foot. A sense of security assures the pedestrian that the neighborhood is as much for people as cars.

A traffic-calmed space often recalls the quaint historic downtowns that developed before the rise of the automobile.  These urban villages are very attractive to people. Walkable communities are shown to increase people’s satisfaction with their lives.

Add transit

Transit by itself cannot revitalize a neighborhood. However, as a neighborhood grows it helps alleviate the pressure of traffic, and makes the area accessible to a greater number of people from all different economic strata. A vital district has events, entertainment, and amenities: transit makes all these things more accessible and draws people in.

A tree-lined street in front of brick buildings in downtown Cleveland
Trees are an excellent investment for environment, social health, and economic benefit.

Add trees and public art

The research is clear: trees positively influence people’s health and wellbeing and create places people want to be. Tree-lined streets increase property values, slow traffic, and bring people to the sidewalk.

Like trees and other greenspace, public art and design can bolster the happiness of individuals and the sense of collective wellbeing. Research has shown that simple things like a painted crosswalk can make a difference to the social cohesion of an area.

Give people a place to meet

Street furniture, parks, public patios, or parklets built into parking spaces, and other places to meet allow people to gather in public spaces. Benches, tables, shady nooks, and seats that face each other all create social space to draw people in. A place to sit also supports people of all abilities and ages, whether it is a senior who needs to rest during a morning shop or a young family whose children need to sit and snack.

Infrastructure spending and neighborhood revitalization

Many of the components of neighborhood revitalization require a local approach. There is no top-down substitute for engagement and vision with a community. However, infrastructure provides the setting for neighborhood revitalization strategies to be successful. Smart investment of infrastructure money allows the built environment to serve a double function of city building and community support.

Traffic calming

Traffic calming is done best through environmental queues and built environment, rather than relying only on posted speed limits and traffic enforcement. Calming road infrastructure can include:

  • Chicanes
  • Neckdowns
  • Roundabouts
  • Boulevards
  • Speed bumps
  • Medians
  • Trees

Water management, bioswales, and trees

Trees are important for walkability and help create inviting spaces. They can also have an extremely important role in managing water and flood zones over concrete hardscape, capturing run-off and reducing flood risk. Planted spaces also help replenish ground water.

When managing infrastructure project, adding trees to the design is important to address many needs.

Cycling infrastructure

Protected bike lanes with bollards, planters, or curbs encourage people of all ages and abilities to get onto the road and increases cycling traffic. These protected bike lanes are an infrastructure investment with economic benefits.  Cyclists, like drivers, also need parking infrastructure. Bike theft can discourage people from cycling again, and so safe storage is an important way to keep people riding. Bike lockers are best for those parking for more than two hours. Bike racks and bollards are better for short term parking.

A brick building, Faneuil Hall, has a public square with benches and planters beside it
Small public parks and parklets can attract people to gather and bring community together.

Street furniture

Benches, waste receptacles, bus shelters, tables, fountains, and other amenities allow people to live in outdoor spaces. Sidewalks are often full, giving space to patios, signs, parking meters, trees, curbside trash pickup, and other necessities. Finding creative places for parks and parklets, whether they’re in alleys, parking spaces, or closed blocks can make a big difference to the vitality of an area by inviting social interaction.

Supporting vital neighborhoods

Infrastructure dollars alone cannot bring neglected neighborhoods back to life. People need safety, emergency services, affordable homes, transportation networks, and economic opportunities. However, well planned infrastructure investment can serve more than one goal. Evaluating long term development strategies before road and sidewalk investment allows planners to get more bang for their buck. Neighborhood revitalization can start with a good foundation: a healthy city built from the ground up.