James Johnson-Piett

As founding Principal and CEO of Urbane Development, James Johnson-Piett is an evangelist for a new kind of community development that emphasizes community anchor businesses and institutions as agents of change – solving local problems and elevating the quality of life for underserved communities.

An expert in neighborhood scale development and the revitalization of urban commercial and retail assets, James has designed and launched programs that take small businesses of all kinds to the next level.

At Urbane, James provides technical assistance, program development, and thought leadership to a wide range of clients and partners working to strengthen underserved communities.  These include independent businesses, banks, economic development entities, nonprofits, community groups, foundations, municipalities and other public agencies.  James is equally at ease in corporate boardrooms and retail stockrooms, and above all works to customize programs and solutions to best fit the shared needs of his clients and the communities they serve.  (Check out the Projects page to see what he’s been up to lately…)

Prior to founding Urbane Development, James served as program manager for the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative – a $120M public/private loan fund at The Food Trust in Philadelphia.   He also managed the Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative and Green Supermarkets Initiative, which worked to integrate sustainable design and development practices into supermarket development.

James was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture by Brooklyn Magazine in 2016.  He is currently Vice Chair of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and is a 2013-14 BALLE Local Economy Fellow, is a board director of Community Solutions Inc., of New York City, is a Co-Convener of the National Healthy Corner Stores Network, and sits on the advisory board of American Communities Trust of Baltimore.  James is an alumnus of Swarthmore College and attended the MIT Center for Real Estate Professional Development Institute in 2007.

The Urbane Q&A… with James Johnson-Piett

Q.  Why did you found Urbane?

A.  Leave it to The Wire to state it best – “the corner was, is, and always will be the poor man’s lounge…”.  My experiences on the corner – literal and proverbial – led me to Urbane.  If necessity is the mother of invention, the corner is the laboratory.  I wanted to find a platform to harness the creativity, ingenuity, and efficiency found in solving problems in underserved communities and build a venture that could systematize community-level innovations and amplify their effect. It became clear that many of our big problems could be solved in the places we commune everyday – our churches, our grocery stores, our parks, our corners…

Q.  What are you most proud of?

A.  Building Urbane during the recession at a time when many communities were hurting.  We put in some serious work in many neglected areas and got real things done.  And we created really elegant programming that targeted very local problems.  Not being afraid to take a risk, learning from our mistakes.  Let me put it this way: we have clients who tell us we care TOO much.  More in an OCD vs. bleeding heart sort of way, but still…

Q.  What did you learn from visiting food markets in Europe and Africa?

A. The resiliency of the local entrepreneur.  That small is still beautiful.  And food is as catalytic of a connector along the Mediterranean as it is anywhere else.  A very cool market in Casablanca had sacred geometry embedded in its design.  There’s a bodega in every big city, every village… the hustle, the work ethic translates throughout the world.  By and large, grocers and other food purveyors are more knowledgeable and have a longer history with their products, so they really influence shopping behavior.  Real stewardship is built into the craft that’s we’ve lost here, but those lessons offer a lot of opportunity…

Q.  So, what did your mom think of your job?

A. My mom would be proud of me if I was a widget polisher, so she thought Urbane was great. She loved the fact that she could see a project we worked on and experience the results in real time.   And my clients gave her free stuff whenever she came to a project site, so that’s a plus…