A New Era for Cities: Reimagining Real Estate Development

Blueprint and Aspen Institute’s second virtual Future of Cities Townhall. | Panelists: Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Federico Negro, Mark Falcone, and Emily Talen | Moderator: Nicole Flatow

Cities are fashioned brick by brick. Inside their margins, and at times spilling beyond, the only constant may well be the hum of change.

And yet, the building practices that prop up these spaces and places have hardly evolved over the past century. City structures have remained largely stagnant since the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the automobile, keeping many American metropolises unresponsive to the needs of their residents.

“Spatially, the ruling fauna of cities has been cars for a very long time,” said Federico Negro, founder of The Canoa Supply Co., a collective of designers, engineers, and scientists committed to creating healthier built environments through efficient design.

“The problem that we have is equity. It’s inclusiveness. It’s affordability. It’s climate.”

—Federico Negro

Negro spoke on Friday, January 22 at the second of Blueprint and Aspen Institute’s virtual Future of Cities townhalls, “A New Era for Cities.” He and the other panelists discussed the shifting priorities of urban communities and how we can reimagine the process of planning and real estate development to better fit modern inhabitants and their concerns.

“The problem that we have is equity,” Negro said. “It’s inclusiveness. It’s affordability. It’s climate.”

Addressing those big, hairy challenges requires an appraisal of the strategic and philosophical principles that influence how and why development takes place.

Innovation and Experimentation in Urban Development

The real estate development industry is traditionally slow to innovate, but some developers around the world are building differently. | Photographer: SAKARET | Source: Shutterstock

For starters, quality urban infrastructure in the 21st century ought to be adaptable to the inevitable stretches and shifts it will endure. The city of the future must be both flexible and resilient, in the day-to-day and long-term.

At the outset of their dialogue, Negro and his fellow panelists came to the agreement that cities are inherently human constructs.

“We like to say we are fundamentally human ecologists,” said Mark Falcone, founder and CEO of Denver-based development firm Continuum Partners. “I’m in the business of trying to manufacture the human habitat.”

He quickly caveated that the industry is “incredibly resistant to innovation.”

“We build assets that have a 40- to 60-year payback,” Falcone said. “And so people go, ‘Look, you want to experiment with air conditioning? Do it in that guy’s building.’”

“Over the years, we’ve recognized that development, although a powerful tool, is also a very blunt tool to use in our cities,” Negro noted. “We needed something that was a bit more surgical to use … on a community scale.”

As an example, a current client of Negro’s is Miami-based REEF Technology, a parking and mobility solutions company that crafts lots into logistics and operational hubs, providing neighborhoods with micro-retail to support the vision of a 15-minute neighborhood.

“This is not one large project,” Negro said. “It’s hundreds or even thousands of little projects that very much optimize the local fauna to each individual community’s needs.”

Both he and Falcone remain hopeful. “I do think we can begin to spur more innovation if we start to analyze and assess the effects of our cities in a more biological frame of view,” Falcone said.

To do so, the Denver developer tries to take on small projects “where we don’t have to persuade a big, institutional capital partner of what we’re doing. We can fund it with our own resources, learn from it and then show people how it works.”

His team has dedicated roughly two years to an experiment: a four-unit, single-family house. “There’s tremendous resistance to the densification of single-family neighborhoods,” he said.

Nimble teams with digestible problems to solve are the name of the game for Falcone.

“That’s where most of our innovation comes from,” he said.

“I know I can’t lower the cost of housing,” he added. “I’ve got to work with what we have. What I know I can work with is the cost of ownership and the mechanism … the ownership apparatuses.”

An Opportunity to Rebuild Our Cities

It turns out, clever financing can prove effective for both private and public entities.

Panelist and Mayor Daniella Levine Cava says she’s seeking federal and state support, along with social impact bonds and adjustments to the community’s bond portfolio, to accomplish a variety of infrastructure projects in the Miami region.

Levine Cava, who assumed office in November 2020, admitted that she never planned to be the mayor of Miami-Dade County in the middle of a pandemic. “I guess for me, the fact that I’ve always worked on issues of resilience and equity means that through the lens of a pandemic, those issues come to the forefront all the more and create greater public awareness…”

Last March, anxieties were sky-high surrounding the role that urban density played in the spread of the novel coronavirus, with all eyes on New York City, the epicenter of COVID-19 in America. At the time, some argued that people and businesses in communities that were more physically, economically, and socially connected were worse off than their isolated peers.

Manhattan skyline through window.
New York City was an epicenter of the pandemic in America last March. | Photographer: stockelements | Source: Shutterstock

But pandemics, while devastating to communities of any shape or size, have historically forced positive change. The bubonic plague, which wiped out roughly one-third of Europe’s population, helped inspire the sweeping urban improvements of the Renaissance era. Cities cleared filthy, cramped living environments, developed quarantine facilities, expanded and invested in public spaces, and more.

Similarly, Levine Cava sees this moment and the challenge of connectivity as an opportunity. Noting that her community does “not have good transit,” hovering around “4 percent ridership” pre-pandemic, she’s endeavored to merge the public works and transportation departments in the Miami region. “It’s an opportunity to look at total mobility: first-mile, last-mile. Bicycle safety … it’s an opportunity to become a world-class transit hub.”

Indeed, the University of Chicago’s Emily Talen recommends looking beyond the span of the pandemic for an understanding of what cities need and how civic leaders and city planners can respond.

“To me, the pandemic is going to be over a year from now in terms of our response to it,” Talen, a professor of urbanism, said. “…Some of the trends that were happening already, the pandemic accelerated that—threw fuel on the fire.”

For all the potential and positivity that city building can bring, Falcone worries out loud, saying, “Some days, I feel like the people who invented pesticides. We solved hunger but, oh boy, we created a lot of other unintended consequences.”

But by promoting a more accessible and flexible built environment that encourages social cohesion and a more equitable distribution of resources, by investing in civic institutions and community-based organizations, and by crafting support structures for long-term resilience, that’s when the magic of place-making can really occur.

Stealing the words of recently inaugurated President Joe Biden, the phrase “Build back better,” rings rather true.


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