Although there is never a ‘perfect time’ to be whisked away from your day-to-day work routine, the opportunity to participate in the 11th Sustainable Cities Design Academy  (SCDA) in Washington, DC turned out to be just what I needed. At SCDA this past September, I was able to see how many of the issues we face in cities are related, despite a city’s size, as well as get to meet new people from different sectors in urban development. At first, I was a bit intimidated; the district for which I served as a resource team member, the Atlanta team’s Fulton County, Georgia, was 15 times larger than my little New Haven district. However, the preparation provided before the commencement of the event as well as the format of the workshop helped facilitate team building and easy engagement into the process.
The Atlanta team —comprised of some amazing individuals from Fulton County’s business improvement district, and planning departments —came with decades of combined experience overseeing and implementing vital design, planning, and economic practices. Their thorough familiarity with the issues facing the corridor as well as their intensive engagement with the district throughout the years have enabled them to move toward realizing a corridor with enhanced mobility and safety. My colleagues on the resource team also came equipped expert insight and drew from their diversified pool of knowledge from fields such as design, planning, business, and real estate. However, the charrette magic started early, and we felt as one combined team, throughout.
New Haven’s Mill River District  was a project brought to SCDA 8 in 2012 by our public-private partnership team members, including the City, the EDC of New Haven, and local manufacturing business, Spacecraft. The team looked at issues of maintaining sustainable, jobs-rich industrial economies within waterfront/flooding prone districts , especially given mounting land value pressures in a city that needs more housing. These pressures often push light industrial outside of fragile environments. Although the planning efforts were in motion, and we had a great consultant team on board, we were encountering particular issues that we were interested in vetting with outside advisors and with others from different cities. At SCDA 8, we got valuable insight from some of the waterfront development experts and engaged in to peer-to-peer information exchange at the event. The work we did at SCDA became a core part of our scope for additional analysis and work on the project.
Despite the scale difference, it was possible to apply some of the implementation strategies that we developed for Mill River to the Fulton Corridor project. Fulton County Industrial Boulevard is a 7-mile long industrial corridor just outside the city limits of Atlanta. Near one major commercial airport and a highly utilized private one, and replete with amazing links to commercial truck transportation networks, it still suffers from a legacy of decline over the years, as newer industrial districts were built out in other areas of Metro Atlanta. The most visible part of the corridor was plagued by crime, noticeable signs of infrastructural decay, and marginalized businesses. This was a landscape built for trucks, and still provided inexpensive industrial space in an otherwise burgeoning market. Although the master plan had been nearly completed by the Fulton County representatives, including The Boulevard Improvement District (CID) , the solutions to really change the dynamic of the area still seemed difficult to accomplish—and the opportunity to come to SCDA gave them a chance to take a step back, and see how other cities and experts may have moved these types of projects forward.
As the national economy shifts to on-demand delivery, and lean inventory practices, logistics and speed to market are becoming increasingly important—Fulton corridor is perfectly located to help businesses succeed in this market. Therefore, we quickly recognized the need to work at the scale of the truck, a key distinguishable feature of corridor businesses. We also focused on finding ways to make a district that improved logistic activity with upgraded technology, mitigated travel and idling with careful planning, and improve the truckers’ lifestyle, ultimately hoping to lay the foundation for a sustainable paradigm shift. In a room full of progressive urban thinkers, who are used to encouraging transit-oriented development and engendering districts with cycling infrastructure and walkability, it seemed daring to consider a unique complete streets plan that included (and actually prioritized) trucks.
A few key issues that we found worked with Mill River in New Haven, and helped form our conversation on the Fulton Corridor project include:
Know the local market, intimately—Not only was it important to build out the community of businesses to help support the district planning process, but it was also vital to engage the businesses as the key ambassadors of the district. Additionally, understanding what each of the businesses’ needs were, such as their markets and their supply chains, would lead to the ability to understand the DNA and character of the place—key to catalyzing sustainable growth. Focusing solely on national trends or the ‘top ten’ visible companies will not suffice—for these projects, it is important to understand the breadth of day-to-day business issues that these companies encounter, as well as who they regularly interface with: vendors, suppliers, logistics, and peers or competitors.
Identify strategic stakeholders and leverage partnerships—Look at institutions and resources that might want to partner with businesses that exist in the corridor, or might need inexpensive space for ancillary activities. This diversifies the population of people going to the district, and raises the visibility of the district. For example, the presence of a leading truck logistics company in the area can be utilized to harness innovation at the intersections of businesses, logistics, and education and training. Such initiatives can be realized by creating a truck-logistics innovation center, perhaps by partnering with university and corporate leaders in the field.
Initiate small projects to build momentum—We identified short-term strategies to communicate visible progress in the district, and build a sense of community that would begin to change the dynamic of the district. As momentum builds around new activity, it will also build upon itself, eventually forming a base of support that could provide financing for future district improvements. We developed a series of implementable steps, illustrated by some project ideas, and organized them in a framework of short-term to long-term strategies. Each step building on the preceding step, as the district builds momentum and resources. Short-term ideas bridged from “Food Truck Fridays” for the 30,000 employees in the district to artistic competitions to paint the buildings, particularly those most visible to deter the idea of decay in the corridor. Intermediate projects included infrastructural improvements that might be accomplished by partnerships with corporations or private/institutional anchors that would be interested in using the district as a pilot area. Longer-term projects, such as key infrastructural improvements, were organized from simpler realignments in the short term, to highway interface upgrades, as financing and regulatory resources appeared.
The SCDA experience is an example of what I call “Connective Development”—to borrow a phrase from my recent thesis on strategies that accelerate the innovation economy–a potent force in building a sustainable economic development for our cities. By leveraging peer-to-peer sharing and pragmatic expertise in order to create real solutions and productive and useful relationships going forward, you are better connecting resources to challenges. Too often we get caught up (or limited) in our localized environment and project constraints and are unable to take a step back or learn from other experiences. Adding new voices to the conversation, if only for a brief time, will reorganize or affect an existing conversation that might have been circling for quite some time, leading to valuable insight. Additionally, as highlighted by these city networking opportunities, such as SCDA, solutions can present themselves ‘at scale,’ meaning there are advantages for cities to come together with similar challenges, connect projects, and cooperatively source appropriate resource.
Whether teams at SCDA 11 embarked on new and energetic efforts in their respective cities or took a more reflective route and re-evaluate the process they might initiate to consider complex urban decisions, the charrette atmosphere provided the foundation for a variety of experiences in an environment that supports a sense of agency, experimentation, and collaboration.
Anne Gatling Haynes, AIA, LEED AP, has over 20 years of experience in leadership roles with urban economic and community development, architecture, and project management. As a recent mid-career Sloan Fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Anne pursued original research resulting in a thesis titled “Connective Development: Recognizing the Networked City in Forming a Progressive Urban Economic Development Strategy.” After pursuing coursework in Real Estate/Infrastructure Finance, Financial Budgeting and Organizational Strategic Design, she received an M.B.A. in June 2013. Prior to her work at MIT, Anne was the CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of New Haven (EDC), a public-private partnership between the City of New Haven and Yale University that was a primary agent of business development and economic and real estate planning for the city. Anne’s past experience includes serving as the Design Director/Program Manager for the City of New York, Office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as a lead representative for the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, and as a Senior Associate at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects of New Haven. Anne received her Master of Architecture at Yale University and Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Virginia.
Featured image of Atlanta Team at SCDA 11 in Washington, DC. (From left) Tom Dalfo, Randy Beck, Anne Gatling Haynes, Michelle Macauley, Gil Prado, (standing) Joanne Shelly, and Kent Walker.