Re-thinking Subsidy


Much has changed in cities in the last decade. We no longer move around, buy products or discover new places in the same way. Most of our decisions are made using a small computer in our pocket. Instead of directions or signage we now just need a couple of apps on our smartphones that can give us recommendations for dinner and a neighborhood to go visit. Those same apps can also deliver a car, or scooter, or bike directly to our doorstep. We now can and do discover new urban neighborhoods without caring much at all about safety concerns, location or parking. In many cases we don’t even really have to know where the neighborhood is. Our apps just tell us it’s close and that it will provide us with the experience we’re looking for.  

This rapid change in mobile tech has changed how we discover and experience places, transformed how and where we choose to live, and caused an increasing number of developers to re-think what makes them invest in real estate. The conventional mantra of ‘Retail follows Rooftops’ has evolved, at least to those paying attention, to where ‘Rooftops follow Places.’ The way we subsidize growth has yet to catch up with this shift in urban lifestyle choice. This creates an opportunity. Policy-makers and practitioners should think about how to smartly, quickly, and nimbly invest in place creation - both in pop up and permanent ways - as a way to lure private investment into rooftops and commercial space. Here are four investment tactics worth considering:

1. Programming with a Purpose

Communities across the country throw events. But too often they just last a day and don’t leave behind any tangible benefits. With small investments and a bit of direction that energy can create demand for smart small outcomes related to retail, housing, public space, and more.

2. Phase Zero

Mixed-use villages don’t have to always be expensive and grandiose in scale and vision. It truly is amazing what can happen when you set up some moveable pods, food trucks, or tents on a regular basis. Places are not just built with millions of dollars over the course of several years, they can also be built with just a few thousand dollars over the course of several weeks. Strategically investing in pop up places like Phase Zero concepts is a smart way to leverage tax dollars.

3. Marketing & Storytelling

Public investment in storytelling and branding is a smart and inclusive way to uncover the value of a neighborhood and show the world that there is not only potential for growth, but there may indeed be hidden gems that exist today. Cities should be investing small amounts of money in the tools that enable emerging neighborhoods to develop what they need to highlight their story, history and potential.

4. High Tech meets Low Tech

When the activation of spaces meets tech startups, powerful stories often emerge. The investments just about every city has in tech and innovation should be connected to potential high growth districts and neighborhoods through crowd sourced innovation like pitch nights, public space hack-a-thons, and the temporary testing of ideas. This connection can give innovation investments a more human connection to the city while simultaneously helping to create demand in emerging neighborhood markets.