An Inside Perspective on Urban Renewal

Emily Keys Innes AICP, LEED AP ND Senior Urban Planner
The concept of Urban Renewal has evolved since its origins in the 1950s as a federal program created to compensate for substandard housing conditions. The focus of our work has been on using urban renewal legislation to create tools for a community to address conditions that the private market cannot. State requirements for significant community involvement mean that recommendations are community-led rather than driven by top-down instructions. While the focus of an urban renewal plan is on appropriate actions for the community’s Redevelopment Authority, it is rare that a community’s vision will rest exclusively on urban renewal. For this reason, implementation strategies may include actions by other municipal agencies or community organizations that support the overall goals of the area.

The City of Lawrence is creating a new urban renewal plan to address the central core of the downtown – Essex Street, the canals and Merrimack River, and the mills to the south. Part of the challenge is to connect the work/live areas south of the river and canals with the live/work/shop/play area of Essex Street and the historic grid. Developing the combination of regulatory tools, public infrastructure improvements, and direct redevelopment projects for the Lawrence Redevelopment Authority that will spur additional reinvestment from the private sector is the next step in this process.

We enjoy working with communities to develop urban renewal plans – these complex projects touch on every possible discipline— government policy and politics, finance, law, and physical design. The joy and the challenge for us comes from working with the community to develop a vision, determining what is blocking that vision, and then developing the tools that allow the community to realize its goals. The success of these plans lies in the commitment and energy of the community – but first we have to work with them to develop the appropriate set of strategies for their particular needs.