I was in Louisiana last week to lead instruction of a new program I’m doing with ULI for Entrepreneurial Developers, focused on urban infill. We experienced two great days of conversation and project tours.  Post Katrina New Orleans is a fascinating place, and most of our discussion revolved around the value of tax credits in fueling urban regeneration in challenging markets such as New Orleans.  This city is a place rich in old urbanism, that thrives despite what one of our attendees called being ‘a city of deferred maintenance’.

But it was local architect Peter Trapolin who shared a very interesting observation at dinner.  If you add up the ‘cost’ of historic and new market tax credits, compared to the ‘cost’ of urban renewal – just in terms of tax dollars spent – which has had a better return?  The ledger would no doubt point overwhelmingly to the Tax Credit path, not only because it is a more efficient use of dollars, but because it results in the kind of fine grained, incremental regeneration that creates long term resiliency and authentic places.  If you look at the legacy of urban renewal – big, bombastic interventions at a mega block scale with huge infusions of public money – they have rarely had the kind of enduring, or even catalytic effect that was always hoped for.

But small scale, surgical interventions – what one of our participants called ‘urban acupuncture’ has the ability to be agile, adapt to various uses, spread money over multiple blocks, and create a mosaic of regeneration that over time can continue to fill in, take on its own unique personality, and thrive.

The analogy I find compelling is the successional strategy of ecosystems, where pioneering species move into areas and take hold, setting the course for success of a rich diversity of new species over time.  This is what we want to do with neighborhoods -  provide the tools and the capital to allow pioneers to create a path for others to follow incrementally – not in one fell swoop – and to slowly rebuild the fabric to a unique texture and sense of place that can only mature with time.

Sure, there are times when a ‘big bang’ is required – Mission Bay in my backyard is doing beautifully after UCSF located their life sciences program to kick start the former brownfield.  But more and more, we can see that resilient, urban regeneration is best achieved through incremental and organic actions that are coordinated and nurtured by public policy and thoughtful stimulus – not big projects with huge tax subsidies.