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What Makes a Neighborhood Successful? City Expert Weighs In

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With roles both Chicago and Washington, D.C., government that revolved around urban design, planning, and transportation, and a tenure at Zipcar helping the car-sharing service get off the ground, Gabe Klein has firsthand experience seeing how new forces, from technology to transportation, have helped cities change and evolve over the last decade. But in his new book Start-Up City, Klein offers a formula for improving cities that mixes both results-oriented, high-tech entrepreneurship with an old-fashioned focus on walkable urban living. "It's pretty simple, give people what they want within a quick walk," he says.
As progressive views of the city as an ecosystem take hold, Klein advocates that local governments welcome technology and innovation, while welcoming neighborhood development and public-private partnerships. In the midst of the Curbed Cup competition, where readers vote for their favorite parts of their city, Curbed spoke to Klein, who lives in D.C., about important factors in the future success of city neighborhoods.

The best transportation plan includes the least amount of transportation possible
"Fundamentally, people want to have the majority of what they need in a five- to ten- minute walk. It's about curating interesting shops and services, the fundamentals that people need. Look at Shaw in D.C., a neighborhood becoming an epicenter of activity, with a mix of different businesses and retail (which has made efforts to remain affordable amid gentrification). I think for many years, we focused too much on transportation instead of focusing on land use. I feel good transportation plans involve moving people as little as possible. In some sense, the need to move people, especially vast distances, is a function of poor planning. When I go to talk to cities about this, I try and change their thinking by showing them images of their city before sprawl. Before sprawl, the downtown was everything, and we walked everywhere. The car facilitated an entirely different way of living that isn't sustainable on a number of fronts."

"When you look at where real estate is the most expensive, it's where people have everything they need within a five minute walk. Don't call walking and biking alternative modes of transportation; that's bullshit. In certain neighborhood, including many around D.C., it's the primary mode of transportation. The government's job is to facilitate choices, and people will make better choices. Look what Robert Moses did with the Cross Bronx Expressway; he sent a signal that you should live in the suburbs and work in the city. Washington, D.C. is the capital of transit-oriented development, and we're starting to see suburbs reinvent themselves as mini-cities, whether it's Rockville, Maryland, or Arlington, Virginia."

Get ahead of technology, such as autonomous cars, so you can shape change instead of following it
"The idea of the internet and internet of things in the physical world has been a big thing for about 10-15 years. When we were working on starting Zipcar, we were using GPS, cell phone networks, all that stuff to connect our vehicles to people. It's important to look at the technology and realize that without the entrepreneurs, it wouldn't go very far. I would also like to see the focus stay on creating great neighborhoods and using the technology to compliment, instead of making the mistake that Robert Moses made in having the neighborhoods follow the technology. It was a huge mistake. Look at what we did with highways; we decimated our way of life. If we do that with autonomous cars, we will have failed miserably, with a technology that could have a utopian outcome. Is the technology great? Well, it can eliminate deaths and create new forms of transportation. Ridesharing may end up more like buses. But if we don't make the right policy choices, and understand the future we're creating, we'll have made a big mistake."

Design diverse, 24-hour neighborhoods
"There's a movement towards utilizing streets 24 -7 and playing to their strengths, and trying to respect history and not fill it with glass buildings that have no character. And while history is very important, you also have to welcome change. It's easy to blame gentrification or national retailers for certain woes. Activate the neighborhood. Action produces other action -- the nature of business and cities is that you're either growing or shrinking. You want to guide that growth. You can grow and get what you want, and make it a win win. I think we have to be particularly careful, especially in retail, to not skew towards one particular modus operandi, such as big box retail. Diversify your portfolio and make sure there are lots of local businesses. In Fulton Market in Chicago [a near west side neighborhood filled with warehouses and meatpacking businesses], we designed a flex street and tried to maintain its industrial feel and heritage. There are all these bars and restaurants open in the evenings, makers creating things during the day, and shipping companies sending thing out in the middle of the night. We said, 'there's a real symbiotic relationship here.' We created a way to open the streets for cafe seating in the evening, clear it away for shipping at night, and then provide space for shipping at night.