What makes a great 21st century city and how can a city striving for success and greatness uphold its historic character while simultaneously attracting the next generation of forward-thinking movers and shakers?

Ed McMahon

Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute and a leading authority on economic development, addressed these questions as the keynote speaker for the Downtown Mobile Alliance annual meeting Sept. 26, unveiling what he believes are secrets of successful communities.

Before the meeting, Lagniappe had the opportunity to sit down with McMahon one-on-one to talk about the bigger, national trends affecting other cities and how those trends could be applied right here in Mobile.

For the first time in 75 years, cities are growing faster than their surrounding suburbs due to a changing economy, changing demographics, technology, consumer attitudes and market trends, but out of the 25,000 incorporated cities and towns in the U.S., only a handful could be considered truly successful, McMahon said.

A native of Birmingham who obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from Spring Hill College, McMahon has worked in more than 700 communities in all 50 states over the past 30 years, leading to him to some conclusions as to why some cities are successful and others are not.

“I think that the number one successful communities always have a vision for the future and those successful visions begin by inventorying your assets, whether that’s natural or cultural or architectural or historical,” he said. “ … It’s not so much about what you don’t have. It’s about what you do have.”

According to McMahon, economic development used to be about “smokestack chasing,” “shotgun recruitment,” cheap land and cheap labor. In Alabama, especially in rural areas, he noted economic plans always focused on widening highways.

“Then we’d line the highways with a bunch of junk,” he said. “That just doesn’t work in the world we live in today. Today, it’s about laser recruitment, it’s about high-value positioning, it’s about highly trained talent, it’s about quality of life and amenities because capital is footloose in the world we live in today.”

Today, anyone can run a business from anywhere in the world, so McMahon asks the question: “Why would you pick Mobile over any other city?”

McMahon said cities must differentiate themselves, and Mobile is a city that has what he calls “great bones” in its grid of streets, a lot of historic character, open spaces, the Mobile River and “unlimited potential.”

“You have all this historic character here, which we’ve been systematically destroying for the last 50 years instead of systematically restoring it … they [successful cities] make it easy to do the things you want people to do,” he said.

While McMahon said developing a strip mall in an empty field used to be easier and more common than building a downtown building, he said communities are starting to say, “Well, let’s make it easier to build downtown where we’d actually like to have some development,” which leads to another one of his secrets to a successful city—pick and choose among developmental projects.

“All development is not created equal,” he said. “One of the biggest impediments in my judgment to better development in small American cities has been a fear of saying no to anything. If you’re afraid to say no to anything, you’ll get the worst of everything.”

According to McMahon, Charleston, South Carolina Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr., who has been in office for 36 years, denied the development of high-end, high-rise condos along the two rivers surrounding Charleston. Instead, he decided to put parks along the rivers so he could give the best of the city to everyone, McMahon said. Now, the land next to those parks is the most valuable land in the city.

McMahon also cited other cities that have capitalized on riverfront property, noting Baltimore’s seven-mile long, 35-foot wide promenade and Detroit’s five-mile promenade along the St. Clair River.

As far as the proposed I-10 bridge, McMahon believes it is important that the bridge be multiuse and include a bike lane, stating it would be less than 1 percent of the total cost of the bridge. According to McMahon, a 300-mile network of bike trails was developed in Portland, Oregon for the same cost as one mile of four-lane urban freeway.

However, he said it is always a mistake to put all your eggs in one basket. There is no one big thing, like a convention center, casino, aquarium or park that will magically make a city successful, and it is always small things working synergistically together off of a plan that makes sense, he said.

“The places that people most want to visit are attractions in and of themselves, it’s not just one building or one block or one attraction,” he said. “It’s where the city itself has got a character that people find like a New Orleans or a Charleston or a Savannah, and [Mobile] could be just like those kinds of places but even better.”

According to McMahon, these cities pay attention to community aesthetics and have strong leaders and committed citizens. He praised the leadership of the Downtown Mobile Alliance, saying “all of the good things you see downtown, they have a hand in those things somewhere.”

McMahon also believes now is the time for “mixed-use” developments, which can include retail outlets, grocery stores, fitness centers, pools and apartment units where residents can sleep upstairs and shop downstairs.

Seventy-five percent of American households without school-aged children, such as empty nesters, retirees, young professionals and unrelated singles living together could utilize and benefit from these types of developments.

“We’ve built housing in America for 40 years like every single family was the Waltons – the mom, the dad, the two kids and the dog,” he said. “Turns out that’s a tiny minority in American families today.”

McMahon also said successful communities use education and incentive, not just regulation, and he noted one of the major things downtown Mobile lacks is an educational facility.

“You need more than just a restaurant and entertainment area, you need to have housing. You need to have some educational facilities,” he said. “You need to have parks and you need to have arts and culture. It’s sort of all of those things working together will make this downtown an even better place.”

Ultimately, Mobile has all the ingredients to be a great city, especially with major businesses like Airbus bringing jobs and economic growth to the city, McMahon said.

“Downtown is the heart and soul of any community,” he said. “If you don’t have a healthy downtown, you simply don’t have a healthy town. The apple rots from the inside out. It’s kind of hard to be a suburb of nothing … If you don’t have that heart and soul, the rest won’t be as strong as it could be either … Downtown has a big future, and I think I’m going to come back to this city in 10 years, and the downtown will be a very different place than it is today.”