Friday, February 29th, 2008

The Orchestral Conundrum

The recent travails of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra leads me to repost this essay I wrote a couple years ago. This is the first in an occasional series on the arts, which I consider to be integral to the urban fabric.

Much of the hand-wringing on the decline of classical music is centered on the symphony orchestra. And with good reason. In most towns, the symphony is the flagship performing arts institution. It is typically supported by a Who’s Who of the town and is seen to embody the core of what classical music is all about. It is also the most endangered species of organization.

Firstly, let’s shatter the myth that the orchestra == classical music. I’d argue that’s far from true. In fact, the orchestra represents only the small slice of the vast classical repertoire, a slice consisting primarily consisting of symphonies and concertos. What’s left out? What’s not left out is the easier question to answer. It excludes opera. It misses out on chamber music entirely. Prior to the classical era, only a small amount of music is suitable to the modern large-format symphony orchestra, thus the vast bulk of the music of the renaissance and the baroque eras are not commonly programmed. The 20th century, except for a few tried and true names, is largely ignored.

And of all the areas to specialize in, the symphony and concerto have got to be the worst. The downsides of these genres are legion:

1. They require a large (and therefore expensive to maintain) complement of musicians.
2. They lend themselves to conducting and performance stars who command high fees. (Opera suffers from this as well)
3. They are the genres that I would argue benefit least from live performance versus a recording. I can pay $80+ to see a major symphony perform Beethoven’s 5th, or I can stay home and listen to Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording (price $12) on my high quality home sound system for free anytime I want.
4. They have the most fossilized repertoire. This creates an amazing challenge. Newbies probably want to hear Beethoven’s 5th for the first time. Oldtimers may get turned off by hearing it the 50th. And it to repeat my last point, it almost goes without saying that all of the core repertoire is available in numerous high quality CD editions at reasonable prices far below symphony tickets.

These are structural problems quite apart from execution and it is difficult to see how they can be addressed.

Consider the differences in comparison with other art forms.

The chamber ensemble is small, a lean, mean machine. It doesn’t have a $30 million/year mouth to feed. There is something magical about seeing a chamber performance. There’s a certain intimacy with the music and connection with the performers (often literally – as you can frequently chat with them after the show) you don’t get with the symphony.

An opera is the original multi-media art form. While you can listen to an opera CD, there’s nothing quite like seeing the theater on stage and every performance you see of an opera can be radically different in its production.

The vocal works of the renaissance and baroque likewise lend themselves to more intimate performances in churches and the like, where the ambiance and resonance of the venue are difficult to duplicate in a home sound system. I also find that the uniqueness of the human voice across performers and performances is vastly greater than that of the various instrumental interpretations of the symphony repertoire.

Arguably, orchestras have the most indefensible musical niche in the modern era. Given that the repertoire is not expanding, it is reasonable for a classical music fan to simply acquire a nearly complete CD collection at a fraction of the cost of what it would take to see them by an orchestra live. And in most cases available CD’s contain some of the greatest performance of all time by the greatest orchestras and conductors of all time. So you have a good chance of getting a better product to boot.

The implications here are not good. If I were a community concerned about the arts, I’d be looking to diversify myself away from the orchestra as the flagship institution.

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

The Importance of Aesthetic Design in Transportation Facilities

As I sat down to write a review of INDOT’s nice 46th St. bridge replacement project in Indianapolis, it occurred to me that a sort of prologue was in order. I talk about the importance of aesthetics and design identity in roadway design, but have to date not justified why that is something we should care about.

I argue that there are national and regional trends that lead to this, especially in a Midwestern city. These cluster in three groups:

  1. Trends in international economics and culture
  2. Transformation of the public square in American life
  3. Unique Midwestern challenges

As to the first point, we see a number of trends converging. Firstly is the rise of offshore economic production and domestic productivity increases, which have decimated the Midwestern manufacturing base and threaten to bring similar changes to the service sector. This might not seem on the surface to have much to do with transportation aesthetics, but it does. Previously, Midwestern states could rely on participating in a sort of commodity market for manufacturing jobs. That is, the most important determinants of factory location were access to labor and the cost of doing business. This leads to a strategy of focusing purely on functional efficiency and minimizing cost. The problem is, in a commodity market, the low cost producer wins, and in a global economy with third world labor at pennies per hour, the Midwest will never be a low cost producer again, no matter how much cost cutting they do on highway design. This means a more differentiated strategy needs to be pursued.

We also see cultural trends heading this direction. Witness the decline of a homogenized national experience in favor of more specialty, high quality products. Fifteen years ago, Hoosiers got their coffee from the $0.69 bottomless cup at Waffle House. Today they suck down so many $4 lattes that your find Starbucks outlets at interstate highway exits next to the truck stop and Starbucks even put its Midwest headquarters in Indianapolis. In the 1980’s you had your choice of three beers: Miller, Bud, and Coors. Today, the quality and quantity of beers available in even small markets is nothing short of astonishing. There used to be three major TV networks everyone watched. Today there are hundreds of specialized cable networks. If you wanted a good meal in the Midwest, it wasn’t too long ago that you had to hope you were fortunate enough to live in Chicago. Today, virtually every city has a variety of high quality restaurants.

Beyond the general quality explosion and niche markets, we also see the rise of design for its own sake. Today, every product is so sophisticated that it becomes difficult to separate DVD players, etc. based purely on technical criteria. Every new release of Microsoft Word only adds even more new features most users will ever need or care about. What is becoming more and more important is that products simply look cool. The best example of this might be the iPod, which even today is not the most advanced music player on the market. While Apple clearly got the value proposition right, the design of this product played a huge role in its popularity. Starbucks is known as much for the design of their stores as for the actual quality of the coffee. In short, design matters. And the importance of design will only continue to increase over time. This has been well-documented, for example in books like Virginia Postrel’s “The Substance of Style”.

To sum up, Midwestern cities cannot rely on traditional commodity approaches in today’s world. Rather, they need to pursue a more differentiated strategy that recognizes key trends like globalization, the rise of niche markets, high quality, and the importance of design.

Beyond these trends, the post-war transformation of American living patterns has changed the entire nature of the public square and the public experience, though this is often unrecognized. Our interstates and primary arteries are our new “Main Streets”. They are our true public spaces and shared experience. The only impression many people will ever have of a place is driving through it on the freeway. What type of impression does your town want to leave? Cities and towns invest millions in aesthetic improvements in their downtowns, downtowns that increasingly are not the locations that shape people’s perception of a place. Too often the places people predominantly see are neglected. This is where aesthetics is really key.

The Midwest also has a particular problem: the so-called “brain drain”. I happen to think that the concept of brain drain is flawed. Nevertheless, there is a legitimate problem with attracting the talent needed to compete in the 21st century economy to most of the Midwest. Natives get their degrees and leave, and there isn’t enough inflow from elsewhere to make up the difference. This is a result of yet another trend: the mobility of people in our modern society. And while there is a circular effect, in today’s world it is more true that jobs follow people, people don’t follow jobs. One reason you see comparatively few life sciences and high technology jobs in the Midwest is the lack of a skilled labor force. The answer is not just to try to lure jobs, but also to try to lure the people.

This is where aesthetics in transportation really comes in. Why is this? The Midwest does not have mountains or an ocean or perfect weather all the time. So its built environment plays a critical role in the overall perception that people have of it. It also has to play a role in making people want to live there.

That’s the key. Midwestern cities need to make people want to live in them. As I’ve argued before, no one who is bright, ambitious, and has big plans for themselves will want to live in a place where good enough is good enough. The new economy labor force is going to migrate to places where the civic ambition matches their personal ambition. I believe there is no greater marker of the civic ambition of a place than the design of public spaces and buildings, and transportation facilities are, as I noted earlier, the public space par excellence in our modern society.

Consider Wal-Mart. They understand that design and aesthetics say something important about what they are all about as a company. Wal-Mart could easily afford to make their stores look better. But they don’t. Why? It isn’t just to save money. Rather, they are doing it to send a powerful message to their customer that they don’t care about anything but rock bottom prices. This works for Wal-Mart because that design identity fits with who they are as a company. And fortunately for them, they are the low cost producer in a commodity market, hence their enormous success as a company.

But what if your town is giving off a Wal-Mart vibe but is still far from being a low cost provider, particularly when overseas competition is factored in? That’s the place all too many Midwestern towns can find themselves in. And that’s why designing high quality projects that also provide a sense of design identity for a place is so important.

By the way, this does not necessarily involve spending huge sums of money. For example, I highlighted 15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis in my Pecha Kucha presentation. I believe that if done right, making it look good doesn’t have to cost a lot of extra money. We have to keep two decisions firmly separate in our minds: what do we want? and how can we get that most cost effectively? It can be the case that we have to compromise on what we want in order to live within what we can afford, but let’s make that choice consciously, not by default.

So that’s why aesthetics and design identity are so important in roadway design. Stay tune for more reviews and previews.

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Carmel Roundabout Renderings Released

Carmel has released its designs and renderings for the roundabouts at 106th St. and 126th St. on Keystone Ave. Construction is supposed to start this spring. As previously reported, both of these are of modified dumbbell shape. However, both feature four lane, not two lane crossings of Keystone. That should reduce concerns over capacity. Here are some pictures.

106th St. looking northeast.

106th St. looking south

A view of the 106th St. underpass.

126th St.

There is also more on Carmel’s proposal for a roundabout at 96th St. and also the Keystone/I-465 interchange. INDOT’s current proposal shows a partial cloverleaf at this interchange, with traffic signals. I wrote in feedback on the project that had two primary points I thought needed to be re-examined. This interchange was one of them. Because traffic to the south is free flowing on Keystone, and traffic to the north will be free flowing when the roundabouts are complete, it makes no sense for the only traffic light within miles to be at an interstate interchange. (My other main point was to make I-465 a true ten lane section between I-69 and US 31. What Wingfield calls a ten lane road is actually an eight lane road with an auxiliary lane. I’d do ten lanes plus and auxiliary lane, otherwise this is a $650 million project to add only one lane – but that’s a pretty minor tweak – overall I was pretty pleased with the project design).

Carmel shares my view and has their own interchange design that would include flyover ramps. There is no rendering of this proposal or 96th St. available online. It would be nice if they uploaded it to their project web site (hint, hint). However, the impression I get is a fully free flowing ramp system. When I read flyover I read expensive. I’m not sure it is necessary to go that far. I think the primary goal should be to move through traffice without lights, not interstate bound traffic. Some type of three-level roundabout or “volleyball” interchange might accomplish this at lower cost.

I’ve linked to this before, but here is a picture of a three-level roundabout in Athens, Greece that even includes an integrated toll both system. Note the free flowing through traffic, the multi-lane roundabout, and the extreme ROW efficiency of this design.

[Image unfortunately deleted from Wikipedia]

Obviously an enhanced design would raise the price tag on the project. However, there may be some partially offsetting ROW savings if designed right.
Carmel wants to coordinate this interchange with construction at 96th St. It sounds to me like there is quite a bit of incremental money to be found for these projects, and Carmel and Indianapolis will no doubt need to contribute to the pot.

I said this before, but in many ways it is now Carmel that is the engine driving the region forward, not Indianapolis. Here we see an interchange well inside Indianapolis, but the Indy city government is absent while Carmel is aggressively fighting for something better. This is yet another example of what I’m talking about.

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

The Next Slum

The Atlantic Monthly has an article in its March 2008 edition called “The Next Slum“. Drawing on trends in urban redevelopment and noted foreclosure problems, especially in newer, starter home communities of cheaply built houses, this article claims that it is our auto-oriented suburbs on the fringes that are destined to become the next slums, while prospects for more traditional communities is looking up. While I think they overstate the case a bit, and minimize the ever shortening cycle of living and shopping trends, this is nevertheless an interesting article.

Ground zero for this phenomenon is the southern neo-boomtown of Charlotte. I noted earlier how many starter home communities were suffering from extensive foreclosures and increasing crime. One elected official referred to these entry level communities as the “projects of the future.” This article follows in that vein.

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in the doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlottee Observer, ‘I had thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dream that stuff like this would happen.’

I’ve heard reports of similar types of incidents from other cities, though nothing this extreme. It does make you wonder if many suburban communities were prescient in banning this type of development through mandating higher end design and construction standards. I’m actually a big fan of market based solutions to affordable housing. These types of development play a key role in helping people buy into the American Dream with their own home in a solid school district. So going too far in the direction of squeezing out working class people from home ownership is something I’d definitely oppose. I do think this model needs to be revisited, and indeed I expect most of the builders in this space to start looking at how they can tweak their product and sales practices to avoid this in the future. A development that goes south like this can be a major black eye to a builder, and that’s something they will want to avoid having on their reputation. One can proudly build an entry level product that luxury buyers sniff at, but something that turns into a nightmare for buyers isn’t good for anyone. So I expect the builders, prodded by both the government and commercial considerations, to modify their development approach.

Before people with higher incomes brush this off as not their problem, it is affecting higher end communities too. The article cites a similar example from Sacramento where home prices were in the half million range. Admittedly, that’s at California prices, but the principle applies.

The authors go on to suggest that while these problems are being perhaps triggered by the subprime crisis, they are not likely to go away in a cyclical recovery because of structural changes in the preferences of Americans and shifting demographics.

In the 40’s, many Americans were cramped into squalid urban apartments that they were happy to leave behind post-WW II. This led to the decay of our inner cities and their well publicized problems. The city was the source of bad things and dysfunction, in the popular imagination as well as reality. The article cites films like “Escape from New York”. Today, it is the city that is portrayed on TV as the hip and happening locale and the suburbs that are the source of anomie. Contrast Seinfeld and Sex in the City with a Todd Haynes film or Desperate Housewives. This has been backed up in the real world with escalating urban real estate prices and condo building spurts across the country.

Other factors weigh in too. The baby boom generation is about to retire, leading to a new market of empty nesters to whom a large house where you can’t walk anywhere is a burden more than a benefit, and where school districts no longer matter. Families with children make up a smaller percentage of households every year. As gas prices remain high, the cost of commuting from a home far from work becomes almost like a tax, to say nothing of ever escalating traffic congestion.

Put together trends in lifestyle preferences, demographics, energy prices, and the lifecycle of housing and commercial development, and researchers like Arthur C. Nelson are forecasting a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes by 2025, equivalent to 40 percent of such homes now in existence.

Personally, I think this overstates the case. The urban condo boom has largely been limited to America’s largest cities, which are outliers whose experience is not applicable to most places. Even in my favorite example of Chicago, which has comparatively moderate prices and has experienced perhaps the largest condo building boom of any city in the United States, the population is still declining, or stagnant at best. People are still moving out as fast as others move in. Most of these new neighborhoods remain playgrounds for the upper classes, not the broad-based neighborhoods of yore.

Still, we’ll see what happens. I was at a business dinner a couple weeks ago at Spiaggia on Michigan Ave with a mostly 40 and 50-something crowd of business associates and their spouses. Of those from Chicago, 100% of them with children in or nearing high school said they were planning to move into the city as soon as their kids were out of the house or out of college. Friends of mine who used to live in Hinsdale put their toe in the water with a pied-à-terre, then dumped their house to move downtown full time. I have multiple younger friends in the city with small children who’ve said that they are planning to not only stay in the city with their kids, but send them to public schools. One particular woman has been volunteering at the local elementary school with other upscale parents, trying to make improvements before her daughter is old enough to go there. Perhaps the greatest hope for our urban schools is that middle and upper class parents decide to start sending their kids there.

The author doesn’t expect us to all go for the hard core urban experience. He also extols walkable suburbs, such as traditional towns along the railroad lines and those with a strong walkable core. And that traditional suburban neighborhoods closer to these walkable cores might be insulated from the shakeout. He touts especially newer “lifestyle centers” as creating walkable environments that appeal to today.

This last bit is where he really over-reaches, IMO. Lifestyle centers are shopping centers, period. Throwing a tiny amount of residential or office space in there doesn’t make them mixed use communities. The fact that many towns are now referring to lifestyle centers as their downtowns is a bit amusing to me, personally. The principal difference between a lifestyle center and previous shopping centers is aesthetic. It is retro Main St. feel. But functionally it is not that different from an enclosed mall.

This, I believe, highlights the real problem many urban lovers have with the suburbs: their key issue is aesthetic. And it can be easy to drive down some multi-mega-lane thoroughfare lined with car dealership after strip mall after fast food joint and conclude you’ve arrived in some strange version of hell. While I’m all in favor of good aesthetics, if what comes after is largely functionally equivalent to what was there before, what does that ultimately accomplish in terms of changing the game in where people want to live? Craig McCormick highlighted this to great effect in his Pecha Kucha presentation on strip malls, where he noted such design requirements as faux second stories, 360 degree facades, and “frosting” that nevertheless left the Platonic form of the strip mall intact. Lifestyle centers are simply the latest fad in commercial design. It may last a while, and indeed may be better than the soulless strip malls of the 70’s, but styles will change to something else at some point, leaving these lifestyle centers just as obsolete.

The real problem, as I’ve highlighted, is that of staying power. When you build a suburban environment that copies the fashions of the day, whether that be “power centers” and subdivisions or “walkable” lifestyle centers, you still haven’t created a reason why anyone would want to live there 25 years later when preferences have changed and there is something elsewhere that is more in tune with contemporary tastes and which is brand new to boot. The decaying older suburban areas of the Indianapolis townships should show where that path leads. If poor construction quality and the subprime crisis are causing new suburbs in Charlotte to get there faster than in the past, that’s just a difference in degree, not kind.

The author has a good idea, but it need to be tweaked a bit. You need to create an environment with staying power. One that is going to give someone a reason to want to live there 25 years later. Some of the suggestions made about mixed use, walkable urban cores and transit are a start at that. I’ve highlighted before the great things going on in Carmel, which is really trying to build a differentiated environment that will be here for the long haul.

So I recommend reading the article. While clearly it is as much wishful thinking on the part of the author as prediction, it is still definitely worth looking at and thinking over.

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Are “Safer” Roads More Dangerous?

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it is worth bringing up again. Wired Magazine published an article in 2004 about Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, and a trend he started to improve roadway safety by making things appear more dangerous.

The theory goes like this. Putting up signs and designing to remove all possible things that interfere with traffic makes roads appear safer than they really are. Drivers react by becoming more relaxed and less vigilant, resulting in accidents. But if you make roads appear dangerous, for example, by removing signs, people pay more attention and there are less accidents.

Monderman has several real life examples.

Riding in his green Saab, we glide into Drachten, a 17th-century village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. We pass by the performing arts center, and suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. It’s the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior – traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings – and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn’t contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it’s unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous – and that’s the point.

Monderman and I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. ‘I love it!’ Monderman says at last. ‘Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.’

This theory is being applied in many places across Europe and the US. I think it is in intriguing because it is based on modern knowledge of human psychology, not traditional fluid dynamics based engineering, where everything is about vehicle flow.

It applies to things other than roads as well. Any system with extensive safety measures and procedures becomes at some point prone to catastrophic failure. We’ve seen this in situations as diverse as the recent subprime crisis (where instruments designed to spread and thus mitigate against default risk actually destabilized the financial system), nuclear power accidents and of course 9/11, where security and hijack procedures led to routinized behavior that was exploited to horrific effect.

That’s not to say that we should remove all safety measures and devices. But the instinctive reaction to a problem is always to add more layers of protection, and at some point, this takes us backwards. I think this type of understanding of human behavior is something we should definitely take account in the design of roads and other systems.

As a decidedly anti-safety aside, check out Wired’s coverage of Alex Roy’s incredible New York to Los Angeles “cannonball run” in only 32 hours, 7 minutes.

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Pecha Kucha Night

I had the privilege of participating in the inaugural Pecha Kucha Indy night on Friday, February 1 at the Harrison Center for the Arts. I had no idea what Pecha Kucha was until invited to submit a presentation proposal. It is a sort of rigid format “open mic” night that originated in Japan. Rather than have people drone on and on about their work, each person instead gets 20 slides, shown for 20 seconds each. This 20×20 format keeps things moving quickly, ruthlessly prunes the fluff, and allows a dozen or so people to have their shot at fame. To keep it interesting, conversation in the crowd is encouraged during the show, and there is an open bar in the back. It’s your presentation versus free beer and may the best man win.

This format has taken off and spread to cities around the globe. You can probably find one of these going on in your town if you are not based in Indianapolis.

Just don’t ask me how to pronounce “Pecha Kucha”. Being the pretentious fellow that I am, the Urbanophile took a shot at pronouncing it the “right way”, but didn’t quite get it. Pretty much by unanimous consensus the crowd decided to Hoosierize this by decreeing it “peh’-chuh, koo’-chuh”. To me this is one of the great things about Indy, btw. There is no need to pretend that everyone is a bunch of Parisian sophisticates hanging out in the salon. Instead, we can skip the posturing and get right now to business and pleasure.

Here’s a picture of the very first presenter, Jim Walker and his “The Big Donut”.

Just reading the above intro would take up about 15 of your 20 slides, so you can see that in Pecha Kucha, you need to get to the point, not my strong suit to put it mildly. Nevertheless, in script form, I’m including my presentation from the evening below in a slightly modified format. Click the slides for full sized versions. I can provide this in Power Point format on request.

  • Projects like the Cultural Trail, a stadium or a light rail line can really transform a city.
  • But these cost tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to build, and take years to implement.
  • Tonight I’m going to talk about some things we can do starting right now, that are either free or don’t cost much money, but could make a big impact on Indy
  • These are focused in the areas of building an urban design identity, and the urban design/cultural tourism spaces.

  • Everyone instantly recognizes this city because of the iconic landmarks
  • Landmarks can really give a city a sense of place
  • Indy has its own landmarks like the Soldiers and Sailors Monument
  • This is the logic behind the Indy Gateways initiative
  • But there’s another type of visual design identity a city can have

  • This is the same city, still instantly recognizable
  • But here it is the design of ordinary things that give that sense of place – a bus, a police uniform, even a phone booth.
  • I argue the design of the ordinary is actually a more powerful factor than landmarks, because of the pervasiveness throughout a city.

  • The mark of a great city like London isn’t how it treats its special places – everyone does those up right – but how it treats its ordinary ones
  • This is where Indy has struggled a bit
  • My suggestions today are going to focus on the ordinary, and how to improve the design and experience of the ordinary to build a visual design identity for the city.

  • These locally designed stop light masts are truly world class
  • They are best I’ve seen in any city in the world
  • They are simple, clean, elegant, timeless classics
  • Every time there is a new or replacement stop light in the city, it should use this mast.
  • By ordering in bulk, you even drive down the incremental unit cost

  • These street lights are historic replicas, yet they still manage to have a futuristic look to them – very nice.
  • Sadly, the city isn’t installing a lot of street lights these days, but when they do, this is what they should use.
  • Imagine the 38th St. streetscape project with this street light and stop light combo – much more powerful.
  • [You’ll note that I’m constitutionally incapable of correctly referring to the Wholesale District]

  • Indy has a pretty awesome city flag – it is even better than some countries’ – but you rarely see it.
  • You should see the city flag everywhere the US and state flag are flying
  • It ought to be on every city letterhead, uniform and vehicle
  • Private businesses and citizens should be encouraged to fly it as well.

  • Speaking of, design a new street sign that incorporates the city flag. How hard is that?
  • Even better, use that as the base design, but if the street is named after a person or place, replace the flag with an artist’s rendering of the eponymous person, as in this example in the lower left from Madrid.
  • (Thanks to my brother for Photoshop assistance to create this sign)

  • Do I really need to see a big green sign to tell me I’ve arrived at the interstate?
  • These are nothing more than gigantic billboards that visually blight our streets, even right downtown.
  • Kill these and you actually save money while making the city look better.
  • Chicago and other cities just use small interstate shield signs on the side of the road. If it works there, I see no reason why it would not work here.

  • This interchange design at 86th St. is very nice.
  • Note the masculine metal arc, which echoes the Circle, the new library, and the JW Marriott.
  • There are lot of different colors and textures, landscaping, etc. – a lot going on here
  • I already see that the 38th St. design is different. Why?
  • By standardizing on this design you make the city look good, build a visual design identity, and save money by not having to reinvent the wheel every time.

  • Note here the grass parkway separating the sidewalk from the street.
  • So often, even in brand new developments downtown, there is a narrow sidewalk along the street, where half of it is blocked with various poles and such, and a grass buffer between the sidewalk and the building.
  • Firehouse Square is a good example of what I’m talking about.
  • Where ever right of way permits, do it like in this photo. Very nice.

  • This 38th St. median is very nice. It has a sort of formalistic design that is very appropriate to an urban environment.
  • Where ever the city undertakes a major streetscape project, don’t design a new median, just use this one instead.
  • Replace the maple leaf with a location specific image – or a city flag!

  • Naptown is a great city nickname – it beats the heck out of Beantown, I can tell you that.
  • Who cares if it started off as an insult? So did the Windy City.
  • It means what we say it means, it could mean the image on the right (Ken Vandermark), not the one on the left if we choose it.
  • So I say let’s embrace the nickname and rename this the Naptown Pecha Kucha night!

  • Wouldn’t it be nice if someone tracked and published developments in competitor cities?
  • That way Indy could measure itself against not just its own past, but the best of what is going on out there, pick up on trends, find good ideas to copy, etc.
  • I figure this is a part time, entry level job at the chamber of commerce or something.
  • Heck, I was practically providing this service for free in my spare time for lots of cities on my blog.

  • The existing city guides are all put out by booster groups, and thus focus on being comprehensive and don’t tell you what it is you really should and shouldn’t see, particularly for the been there, done that urban tourist.
  • A thinner guide to the real best of Indy, modeled on these Wallpaper guides but better, would be very helpful, particularly for the design and the culturally interested.
  • (The Wallpaper guides are nice as far as they go, but they target a generic international urban hipster jet-set lifestyle. A better guide would focus on the unique qualities of the city in question).

  • Create architectural walking tours with iPod audio guide accompaniment.
  • Include a photo of the building, or even a video of the interior, construction, etc.
  • Put this up on iTunes for free, easy download.
  • Create a printable PDF map to go with it, and you are set.

  • Cities like Brussels are known for their murals. Every guide book mentions them.
  • But Indy has some great murals too – this is one of my favorites.
  • Create an online map of these with addresses, photos, and even downloadable GPS coordinates.
  • Be sure it is easily printable, unlike the public art guide, so people can take it with them in the car.
  • (Thanks to ablerock for taking this photo for me).

  • Hardened urbanites such as myself love public transit
  • But even I don’t like to take the bus in a strange city, because I’m afraid I won’t know how it works and I’ll end up looking like an idiot or easy mark.
  • IndyGo has a How to Ride guide, but it needs improvement, and ideally an accompanying video that shows exactly how to put the money in the slot, etc.

  • Thanks a lot
  • If you only counted fourteen ideas, my fifteenth is the notion of treating the ordinary as more important than the special
  • But if you want a real fifteenth suggestion, kill those giant high mast light towers at interchanges. They just look like cell phone towers and are ugly. Replace with more human scaled individual light standards.
  • Thanks again and good night.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

An Odd Occurrence

I was greatly struck by something I read in the Indianapolis Star yesterday. This was a transcript of a 1968 speech given by Robert F. Kennedy immediately after the killing of Martin Luther King. Here is the background. Kennedy was scheduled to speak to a largely black crowd in Indianapolis on April 4. He received the news of the killing before it was generally known. Rather than retreat from a potentially explosive situation, he went on with his speech and broke the news of King’s death to the shocked crowd, while appealing for calm. Indianapolis was one of the few cities without riots that day, an occurrence attributed to Kennedy’s presence and speech.

The thing that popped out at me reading this transcript was that Kennedy appealed for calm by quoting Aeschylus, whom he said was his favorite poet. “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” This is shocking on so many levels. First, Aeschylus is one of the great poets of revenge, and his Orestia supplies vengeance quotes aplenty. (“Right’s anvil stands staunch on the ground / and the smith, Destiny, hammers out the sword / Delayed in glory, pensive form / the murk, Vengeance brings home at last / a child, to wipe out the stain of blood shed long ago” and the like).

But that’s just showing off my knowledge of Aeschylus. Just try to image a politician today saying that Aeschylus was his favorite poet, even to an upper class white crowd. It’s astonishing to think of it. Yet Kennedy didn’t hesitate to hold up the ideals of the Greeks in encouraging that black crowd to follow their nobler nature and not give in to any justifiable anger in their hearts. “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

It just goes to show how much our world has changed. Not only did Kennedy know the classics, he held it as self-evident that the wisdom of classical civilization was universal wisdom, appealing to all men in all times. Apparently, on that April night, it did.

Topics: Urban Culture


The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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