After writing about and studying this city for two years, I feel absolutely confident that Providence has more potential to restore its former prosperity than any other city in the United States, but it must take the steps to realize it. There are a number of great economic and cultural shifts underway across the country, and if Providence positions itself correctly, it can grow into the city it deserves to be — and Brown must help it do so.
The movement away from in-person work for many white-collar professions is reorienting the economic foundation of American cities. Since the deindustrialization of the American city in the aftermath of World War II, tax bases for many cities have been supported by office space, a shift that aided cities with significant amounts of existing commercial space to grow. However, cities like Providence which never attracted the same volume of offices shrank considerably from the 1950s on. Today, though, the pandemic and the shift to remote work have led to a devaluation of office space, a shift which has leveled the playing field. Now, the most valuable thing a city can offer potential transplants is no longer its office space, but its livability and community.
In this light, Providence is a highly desirable city to outsiders. Its network of dense, walkable neighborhoods with unique cultural offerings is a treasure highly valued by a generation of workers no longer tied to their offices. That said, the city is not quite ready for prime time: It is livable, with strong communities, but it lacks some key features that would truly elevate it and draw in the next generation of workers. For example, the city sorely needs improved public transportation, bike safety and pedestrian safety. Between 2012 and 2021, 2,200 pedestrians and 904 bikers were struck by cars in Providence. Most streets still lack the pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure needed to make the city more desirable for relocating young workers. This, coupled with the fact that the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority is facing a high likelihood of becoming severely underfunded, makes transportation in the city both inaccessible and undesirable. Still, there are opportunities for growth in Providence’s livability: The city just received a $27 million grant that could fund bike infrastructure, an investment that has the potential to enhance the bike network greatly.
This alone is not enough, though. Rhode Island is facing a severe housing crisis: Attracting new residents without housing to accommodate them could lead to disastrous displacement. Providence must build much more housing — both affordable units and more expensive market-rate housing — and it can facilitate this through a number of different policies. It should aim to reduce the amount of red tape standing in the way of approving housing. The vast number of clauses attached to public construction like housing, while well-intentioned, increases the complexity of jobs, and thus their cost, considerably. Providence should also look to successful creative cooperative housing solutions, which increase the density of neighborhoods while preserving their character and affordability. Further, Providence should restructure its zoning requirements to allow for greater private construction of more housing on vacant lots and areas with unreasonably stringent density requirements. Perhaps, the city could even remove parking minimums on larger developments in exchange for developers’ investment in public transportation. All of these measures would help Providence affordably accommodate new workers without displacing existing residents.
Providence must also capitalize on what it already has. The city has one of the most vibrant restaurant scenes in the country, and it should do everything in its power to enhance the diversity and volume of wonderful food offerings. It also has a growing biomedical sector, and further development in this field could position Providence towards the front of an industry that is expected to grow. Additionally, Rhode Island has announced an ambitious plan to provide the majority of the state’s electricity from offshore wind — making it a potential hub for clean energy on the East Coast.
Perhaps Providence’s greatest asset, though, is its wealth of universities and professional institutions. In this regard, however, Providence has largely been disempowered from reaping the benefits, and it is incumbent upon the universities themselves to support the city they call home. Specifically, Brown, as one of the largest and most influential entities in the city, must forge a new path forward with Providence to help its home realize its full potential. If Brown wishes to flourish, it must invest in its relationship with its neighbors.
The University should dispense with the idea that it can exist in a vacuum from Providence. Brown is a part of the larger tapestry of the city, and the fences surrounding it only serve to unravel the ties holding the community together. With this in mind, Brown should welcome the community into its halls. Public school students should have complete access to library resources — not just online databases, but all of the physical study spaces themselves. Providence residents should have access to the campus athletic and recreational facilities. All of Brown’s future developments should consider the needs of the community and the neighborhood’s architectural vernacular.
Most importantly, Brown must pay its fair share to the city which has enriched it so greatly. Making payments in lieu of taxes should not be a great struggle — in fact, Brown should be proactive in assisting the city, perhaps even becoming a partner in the development of affordable housing and public transit. While this may seem radical, Brown flourishes most when the city around it thrives: Providence is as much a selling point for Brown as Brown is a selling point for Providence.
The future of Providence is by no means certain, but for the first time in decades, it seems not just poised for growth, but a true resurgence. The city must be proactive and take the reins of its future with bold leadership. This alone will not be enough, though — Brown too must forge a new path, as Providence’s foremost institution, and walk hand-in-hand with the city into a brighter future.
Gabe Sender ’25 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabe Sender is a Staff Columnist at The Brown Daily Herald with a particular focus on campus issues and development challenges in Providence. He is currently pursuing an independent concentration in urban environmentality.