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Forums to focus on strengthening St. Louis neighborhoods

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 14, 2012 - Strong neighborhoods are the building blocks of strong regions.

That is the underlying theme of a new series of forums that kicks off Thursday night at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to explore the link between vibrant communities and regional growth. The “Great Neighborhoods for a Great Region” series is a collaboration between Washington University and UMSL aimed at engaging the public in conversations about community building.

The inaugural forum feature a panel discussion, along with a presentation by Todd Swanstrom, the Des Lee professor of community collaboration at UMSL. Swanstrom and colleague Karl Guenther recently published a report on the role of nonprofits in community development. Among their many hats, they staff the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis, a network of about 30 local nonprofits that work in the field.

Swanstrom applauds this collaboration between UMSL and Wash U because he says the relevance of the topic reaches well beyond the groups “on the ground” currently doing community development.

“The issues are about the region — and about our ability to compete in a global economy, to attract young, educated workers and to sustain a culture of creativity and innovation,” he said.

Swanstrom said his presentation will focus on how neighborhoods in St. Louis city and county have been changing and the impact of broader regional trends on their ability to compete and succeed. An important subtext of the discussion is the looming cutbacks in federal and state government funding for community development, something Swanstrom believes will be a fact of life in the months ahead.

“Even with the win by the Democrats in retaining the Senate and presidency, I still expect significant cuts to be coming in many of the programs members depend upon,” he said. “That means that if we as a region are going to move forward and create great neighborhoods for a great region we are going to have to have investment by banks, corporations and foundations, as well as governments.”

Swanstrom said that regional trends present both opportunities and challenges for neighborhoods.

Among the challenges: decades of urban sprawl.

“We have routinely, for decades, built more new housing units than there are new households in the region,” he said. “By definition this means we have to have abandonment at the end of the chain. Older parts of the region suffer from an oversupply of housing and it’s a game of musical chairs. Who’s going to end up with the abandonment? That is not a healthy situation. This is not a presentation about sprawl or smart growth, I am taking that as a fact, as something we have to deal with.”

While urban sprawl has slowed, Swanstrom said that neighborhoods, particularly those in the inner suburban ring, are still dealing with the consequences of a thinned population. At the same time, he sees opportunity in the region’s changing demographic composition: More small, single and empty-nester households are embracing an urban lifestyle.

“The millennial generation is a larger portion of the population, and these groups tend to favor living in smaller housing but also walkable neighborhoods that are pedestrian-friendly, with amenities such as parks and walking and bicycle trails,” he said.

Swanstrom says the list is growing of neighborhoods either undergoing revitalization or have “a buzz” about them. Those include: Soulard, South Grand, the downtown loft district and communities such as Maplewood and Ferguson in that vital inner ring.

“The key is how can we lift them up, take advantage and move them to the next level,” Swanstrom said.

An obvious success story is the Central West End, which has established its own identity and marketing pull, said Swanstrom. He points out the community’s racial and economic diversity, as well as its mix of residences and businesses.

Swanstrom describes St. Louis neighborhoods as a “crazy quilt” of the strong and the weak. An illustration of this is that the values of comparable homes can vary by hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes within blocks of one another.

Connecting the region’s islands of renewal is vital to overall growth, he said. Also key is developing a mix of housing to attract a diverse population to neighborhoods.

“I am not at all pessimistic because I go these neighborhoods and see what they’re doing,” he said. “But the economic inequality means it’s a tale of two cities. For every positive, there’s a negative. So that’s the trick. If you create a reasonable mix of incomes, it works.''

The city’s financial health, along with the quality of schools and crime prevention are all important, he said, but so is public perception.

“For cities to compete they need to have an image of being an exciting place to be, where things are happening. And I think there’s a lot happening in St. Louis, but I don’t think it’s lifted up and celebrated,” he said.

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