MJ's Ennis Davis Attends Next City Vanguard Conference

June 19, 2013 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville's resident urban planner, Ennis Davis, provides a review of Next City's 2013 Vanguard Conference in Cleveland and suggests what it could mean for Jacksonville's future.

Founded in 2003 and based out of Philadelphia, PA, Next City is a nonprofit media organization dedicated to connecting cities and informing the people working to improve them.  

Next City provides daily online coverage of public policy and current affairs from an urbanist perspective. My knowledge of Next City dates back to 2011, when the organization published an article about Metro Jacksonville that was submitted by Sarah Gojekian, a Metro Jacksonville intern at the time.  Earlier this year, fellow Transform Jax founder, Wiatt Bowers, suggested that I apply to be considered by Next City for acceptance into their 2013 Vangaurd Class.

Each year, Next City selects 40 people under 40 to their Vanguard Class and past members who have demonstrated their ability to have an impact on their city or the national dialogue about urban issues, bringing them together to collectively learn and think about how to improve our cities. After hosting Vanguard conferences in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and St. Louis, this year's conference was held in Cleveland.

Vanguards exploring downtown Cleveland by bicycle.

I've always found Cleveland to be an intriguing city, especially when it comes to many of the issues facing our community.  For example, Cleveland has a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system, a revitalizing downtown, a convention center under construction, and happens to be the home of the largest urban farms in the country.  Furthermore, while the pre-consolidated City of Jacksonville has lost 50% of its population since 1950, Cleveland has lost almost 60%. So an opportunity to explore Cleveland's urban renaissance and witness the good, bad, and ugly was right down my alley.  After being notified of my selection in May, I started planning for the trip.

With transit and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) on my mind, I landed in Cleveland hours before the start of the conference to check out a few modes of mass transit and explore a couple of neighborhoods on foot.  After a stroll through University Circle and Little Italy, I hopped on the HealthLine BRT and headed to downtown Cleveland to meet my fellow Next City Vanguard class inductees at the conference's opening Evening Meet-up.

Upon arriving at Chinato, a swanky Italian restaurant and bar on East Fourth Street, the first fellow Vanguard I met was Melissa Sobolik, a young lady who's a Fargo, ND City Commissioner and the Director of Agency & Client Services for the Great Plains Food Bank. While engaged in conversation with Melissa, Luis Nieves-Ruiz, the Economic Development Manager at East Central Florida Regional Planning Council in Orlando introduced himself. Luis happened to be the only Floridian in Vanguard's 2012 class.

As the networking continued into the night, I quickly fielded several questions from other Vanguards about the performance of Mayor Alvin Brown, Peter Rummel, our local Urban Land Institute (ULI) Chapter, and the Better Jacksonville Plan. Soon it became apparent, to my surprise, that Jacksonville isn't a complete afterthought to the rest of the country.

Despite a scheduled early start for the next day, a few of us were not ready to call it a night so we headed out to Ohio's first certified green restaurant, the Greenhouse Tavern. There, we met social media mogul and fellow Vanguarder, Alex Dodds, the Online Communications Manager of Washington, DC's Smart Growth America.

The next morning at the Cleveland Design Collaborative, the meat of the conference began with three hours of rapid introductions where each Vanguard member was required to talk about their work for 60 seconds. We were also required to answer a follow up pop question by Next City's executive director, Diana Lind.  After briefing the group on my history, I was asked about what I considered to be the main difference between work for a company and on my own.  I responded that being an independent consultant allows me the opportunity to not have outside forces attempt to muzzle the conversation of Metro Jacksonville.

I found the rapid introduction process to be an exhilarating experience as some of the smartest young minds in the country and Canada briefed the crowd on what they had done for their communities. One of the most memorable introductions was given by Kimberly Dowdell, a project manager with New York's Levien & Company.  Kim introduction was presented in the form of a Parents Don't Understand, Will Smith-style rap about how the struggles of her childhood home, Detroit, gave her the burning energy to get involved in a profession that will one day allow her to become a part of the city's rebuilding process. She's also the co-founder of SEED or Social Economic Environmental Design. SEED maintains the belief that design can play a vital role in the most critical issues that face communities and individuals, in crisis and in every day challenges. To accomplish this, SEED provides tools that guide design professionals toward community-based engagement with design practice.

Lunch in Perk Plaza. Photograph courtesy of Next City twitter page.

After our introductions, I had lunch from the strEAT Mobile Bistro with Luis Ruiz, Keome Rowe, City of Fort Worth, Assistant to the Mayor and Chief of Staff; Jessy Schlinger, founder of San Francisco's The Coliving Cooperative, and Rosa Mayer, Economic & Housing Development Associate with the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis. There, sitting in Perk Plaza, a space similar to Jacksonville's Hemming Plaza, I learned about initiatives such as St. Louis' T-REx, a 60,000-square foot co-working space and technology incubator going into an building being vacated by Macy's. I also enjoyed discussing the results of the Better Jacksonville Plan and JAXPORT's expansion plans with Patrick Sabol, a Brookings Institution Senior Research Assistant.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on a bike tour of three inner city Cleveland neighborhoods in different stages of the revitalization process. Anchored by the historic West Side Market, Ohio City's streets were lined with restored storefronts, restaurants, bars, and creative bike corrals.  However, I found the Ohio City Fresh Food Collaborative's Ohio City Farm to be most impressive due to its shear size.  Created in 2010, it's one of the largest urban farms in the country.  

Our next stop was the neighborhood of Detroit-Shoreway. While millennials fuel Ohio City, Detroit-Shoreway's revitalization centers around affordable housing initiatives. Noticing the amount of occupied retail storefronts with apartments upstairs, Detroit-Shoreway's model could be worth exploring for economically distressed Jacksonville neighborhoods like New Town, Durkeeville, the Eastside, and Brentwood.

The last neighborhood visited and the most interesting was the Stockyards. To deal with population decline, vacant homes are being demolished in favor of larger yards and community gardens. While the residents of the neighborhood are proud of this strategy, the urban planner in me wonders if this solution is a fiscally viable one, long term.

Happy hour inside the loft of Marika Shioiri-Clark, principal of SOSHL Studio.

While my group toured Cleveland's Westside, two other groups of Vanguarders toured the waterfront and the Eastside.  That night, I met Baltimore Housing's Mara D'Angelo. Along with Westley Bayas III, New Orleans Director of Stand for Children, our conversation revolved around an issue that seemed to be on the minds of most Vanguards...gentrification.  While millennials are flowing to cities nationwide, there was strong desire among the Vanguards and Clevelanders to discover and promote methods where revitalization occurs for all social and economic segments of the urban market.

We met at the new Museum of Contemporary Art in University Circle for the conference's finale. What Next City refers to as "unconference" sessions were the highlight of the day. These sessions were facilitated by Vanguard members that Next City believed had the background and experience that would benefit intimate conversation-based workshops on specific topics. I had the opportunity to participate in three of the nine unconferences.  The first, which focused on Public Interest Design and Tactical Urbanism was co-facilitated by me, Kimberly Dowdell and Kareeshma Ali, an urban designer and planner with Asakura Robinson, in Houston, TX.  Running out of time, our group discussion was so engaging, a suggestion was made that we continue our conversation on Tactical Urbanism via platforms like Google Plus and Skype.

The second session I attended as co-facilitated by Efrem Bycer, Manager of Economic Development at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and Brian Burch, City of Holland council member and public relations director of Grand Rapids' ArtPrize, an event that our recent One Spark Festival was modeled after.  Personally, this session's highlight was the revelation presented by Eric Shaw, Salt Lake City Corporation's Director of Community and Economic Development, that his city does not provide incentives to businesses that are interested in coming to its community.  He mentioned his mayoral administration believes that if you want to be a part of the community, you come on your own accord.  That position is a complete 180 from Jacksonville's economic strategies. The last session I attended focused on the future of Detroit and was co-facilitated by Detroiters, Dekonti Mends-Cole, a fellow with the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative, and Dan Kinkead, executive director of Detroit Future City.  The conversation was a very engaging experience that provided detailed insight into the fiscal challenges the city is struggling to overcome.  Our local challenges are a walk in the park, compared to what this proud community faces.

A discussion on gentrification being facilitated by Diana Lind and Randy Vines, co-creator of the St. Louis-inspired graphic design company STL-Style.

Heading back to the airport, Mara D'Angelo, Luis Nieves-Ruiz, Kareeshma Ali, and Cecelia Thompson, director of projects at Action Greensboro, joined me for a ride on the HealthLine, one of the most successful recently implemented BRT systems in the country. While the system is easy to understand, operates 24 hours a day and is reliable, I think all four will agree with me that there is a huge difference in quality between it and rail. I believe our packed bus ride may have lasted longer than Mara's flight back to Baltimore, as it seemed the HealthLine stopped a just about every block between University Circle and downtown's Tower City Center.  For those selling BRT-lite to local residents as a suitable substitute for rail, my advice would be to stop.  Promote and call it for what it is.....reliable local bus service.  Anything else results in high expectations that will eventually end up in local disappointment.

In closing, outside of having an opportunity to learn more about Cleveland's urban renaissance, I had no idea of what to expect out of the Vanguard Conference.  However, the end result was something I never fully imagined.  A new network of allies and a strong support group for urban initiatives, not only in Jacksonville, but across the entire country. The staff of Next City should be commended for their efforts in creating invaluable opportunities for urban connectivity and synergy on a countrywide level.  To put it in local terms, the group of Vanguards I encountered where just like the passionate members of the Metro Jacksonville community, just on a countrywide level.  I enjoyed the experience so much, I'm already looking forward to attending next year's conference which will be held in either New Orleans or Phoenix. Moving forward, I see my role is continuing to pollinate these new-found relationships in a manner that helps improves Jacksonville and peer North American cities.  This detailed review of my Vanguard Conference experience is a part of that process.

Page 2: Vanguard Conference Review by Photographs

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