Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Americans rebuild for the 'new urban century'

By John Blake, CNN
  • Rebuilding projects are taking off across America
  • New projects focus on creating vibrant downtown
  • The recession is also forcing Americans to rebuild community
  • Construction worker: "I feel reborn"

(CNN) -- In Charlotte, North Carolina, commuters zip along a sparkling new light rail system into a booming downtown district.

In Sacramento, California, construction workers hammer away at the next generation of green buildings.

And in New York City, rush-hour commuters pedal across popular bike paths that have spread like kudzu across the metropolis.

Those snapshots from cities across America offer a glimpse of the future. Americans are rebuilding their cities and communities to make people, not cars, the center of a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, urban planners and transportation experts say.

"We're creating infrastructure for human beings, rather than automobiles," says Michael Smith, CEO of Center City Partners in Charlotte, a group of business leaders that has helped lead a revival of the city's downtown.

Creating a new infrastructure means new rules, experts say.

What's on the way out: sprawling interstates, suburban living, long car commutes.

What's now in: light rail, green space and vibrant downtown districts.

"As you look at the cities that are going to thrive in the next century, there's a belief that we're entering the urban century," Smith says. "There's a new urbanism that's not about cul-de-sacs or expressways. It's sidewalks, bike paths and parks."

Where America is rebuilding

Smith points to downtown Charlotte as a prime example. During the past decade, downtown Charlotte has added new restaurants, art centers, the soon-to-be-opened NASCAR Hall of Fame and nightspots, Smith says.

There's a sense that America has been built out and spread out too far, and many of us live too far from our neighbors.
--Kathleen Hughes, TV producer

Charlotte's downtown growth was the result of good planning, Smith says. Thirty years ago, the city's business and political leaders decided that Charlotte couldn't sustain its suburban growth. So they began rebuilding downtown and eventually won public support to install a light rail system, he says.

Even the Great Recession couldn't stop Charlotte's downtown revival because the rebuilding projects had so much momentum, Smith says.

"We were fortunate to have 30 cranes swinging in our city center as we moved into the teeth of the recession," Smith says.

What's happening in Charlotte is happening across the country, says Kathleen Hughes, executive producer of "Blueprint America," an ongoing PBS series that looks at the rebuilding of America's infrastructure.

During her research, Hughes says she encountered plenty of communities that are using stimulus money for embracing light rail projects and pushing the revitalization of downtown districts.

"There's a sense that America has been built out and spread out too far, and many of us live too far from our neighbors," Hughes says.

Americans aren't just rebuilding their transportation grid; they're also embracing alternate forms of travel, others say.

Bike lanes are popping up in American cities, says Aaron Naparstek, founder of Streetsblog. It's an online community for the Livable Streets movement, a coalition that seeks to transform cities by improving conditions for cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders.

In cities such as Portland, Oregon, or New York, it's common now to see commuters biking to work, Naparstek says. In New York City alone, 300 miles of bike lanes have been added in the past four years, he says.

Naparstek says he can remember the moment when he thinks Americans' attitude to cars shifted.

"I'm old enough to remember my dad waiting in the gas lines during the first OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] gas crisis," he says. "To me, that was the beginning of the end for the American romance with the automobile."

Rebuilding values as well as roads

As America rebuilds, new industries arise as well.

I feel reborn. That's what the future is all about, staying green and saving the environment.
--Oscar Ortega, "green builder"

Oscar Ortega was a construction company foreman who made about $70,000 a year before he was laid off at the end of 2007. With a wife and four daughters, he performed odd jobs to stay afloat.

"I tried not to let it affect me," he says. "If I walked around the home moping, it would affect my family. I tried to be as strong as I could."

Then Ortega read about job openings at ZETA Communities, a green construction company in Sacramento, California. ZETA builds "net-zero" energy homes (homes that produce as much energy as they consume by using devices such as solar panels).

Ortega applied and got a call back. Two years later, he's working as a green builder.

"I feel reborn," he says. "That's what the future is all about: staying green and saving the environment. This new construction is the wave of the future. I'm really excited to be a part of it."

Americans are not only rebuilding their cities and homes, they're also rebuilding their sense of community.

The Great Recession has also forced some to rediscover the value of community. Some of this has been done by establishing time banks, where members trade services that are tracked by hours rather than dollar value.

For example, one member of a time bank may provide an hour of tax advice to another. Another may weed a person's garden for an hour. Each hour-long act receives a "time dollar" that can be used to purchase someone else's labor.

Time banks are designed to build community, its founders say. It teaches people that everyone has value, even if they don't have a job. Thirty-five states have time banks, group founders say.

"The idea is that nobody's labor is worth more than anybody else's labor. We're all in this together," says Judith Lasker, a time bank member and a sociology professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who is writing a book about time bank organizations.

Some Americans are rebuilding their sense of values as well.

Matt Fredenberg of Alpharetta, Georgia, seems like a rarity in the Great Recession; he's working in a thriving industry.

Fredenberg helps his mother and sister run a Senior Helpers franchise. The national franchise sends workers to homes to help family members take care of aging relatives. Their services range from light housekeeping to running errands.

Fredenberg, 26, says his family franchise has 120 employees after four years of operation. Business has been so good that he says "we're hiring like crazy."

But Fredenberg is not talking about parlaying his success into buying bigger and shinier toys. He says he wants to learn from the mistakes of his parents' generation.

Fredenberg says he doesn't own a credit card, uses coupons to eat out and shuns buying more than he needs. His friends do the same.

"Even with cars and houses, we realize that you don't have to have the best," he says. "It doesn't have to be brand new and huge."

Though times are now tough, Fredenberg says his generation is confident. Better days are ahead.

"People are willing to sacrifice some luxuries to be more practical," he says. "We'll come out of this. People are willing to do what it takes."