Monday, May 5th, 2008

Pecha Kucha: Urban Aphorisms

I was privileged to participate in Pecha Kucha Indy Vol. 2 on April 25th. For those of you unfamiliar with the pecha kucha format, please take a look at the first presentation I gave back in February. I’d recommend this in any case, since not only is it a great presentation, if I do say so myself, but it is helpful background for the more recent one.

For those of you who did not attend my most recent performance, the presentation and script are included below. It is a series of aphorisms about what makes a great city, organized around three themes:

  • A city must follow its own unique path to greatness
  • The most precious asset of any city is people
  • Indianapolis can’t go it alone as just a central city

The vast bulk of the content is not specific to Indianapolis, so if anyone wants to adapt this to another city, please feel free.

  • Rather than a tactical list of suggestions on urban design, I’m presenting more general themes about what it takes to be a world class city, applied to Indianapolis.

  • “Given a choice between a real suburb, and a city trying to act like a suburb, people will choose the real suburb every time.”
  • Downtown Arby’s and Subway isn’t going to cut it, folks.
  • If you’re selling an inferior version of the same thing on offer in the collar counties, only with higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools, don’t be surprised that you don’t have many takers.
  • This applies just as much if not more to the townships as to downtown.

  • “Given a choice between a real big city, and a small city trying to act like a big city, people will choose the real big city every time.”
  • This one is a bit harder to take for some people, I suspect.
  • But Indianapolis isn’t Chicago and it never will be.
  • Sure, better density downtown would be great, so would better transit, etc. I’m all in favor of that.
  • But at the end of the day, none of that will make us Boston.
  • If you think a few infill buildings on Mass Ave. and the like are going to make people coming out of school want to live here instead of San Francisco, you’re dreaming.
  • It just isn’t feasible for Indianapolis to recreate the 19th century urban form outside of select districts. Nor is it desireable.

  • Ultimately, “Indianapolis can only be a world class city by being a world class Indianapolis.”
  • We’ve got to build a city built on what we are, not what we’re not.
  • Like a good wine, a great city has to express its terroir.
  • And you know what? Naptown’s got nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Indy doesn’t have to imitate any other place to go to the next level.
  • Yes, look what’s going on in the world, but don’t mindlessly copy.
  • Instead, get to where other people are copying us.
  • Austin and Portland charted their own path to success. Similarly, we can chart our own path.

  • “People follow jobs, but to an even greater extent jobs follow people.”
  • I always hear people blame the Hoosier brain drain on a lack of jobs.
  • But that reverses cause and effect. Yes, there’s a circular relationship, but I’d argue that having the people comes first.
  • One of the first things any company looks at when deciding where to set up shop is the availability of a qualified labor force.
  • You can’t have a life sciences industry without life scientists.
  • Put enough smart, ambitious, creative motivated people together and good things are going to happen.
  • We have to make Indianapolis be a place people want to live, and to be one of the destinations of choice for the 21st century labor force.

  • “If a city shows it doesn’t care about itself, why should it expect other people to care to live there?”
  • Like it or not, the physical appearance of a city sends a powerful message about it.
  • It’s like Shakespeare said, “For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
  • What are we proclaiming?
  • What do we want to proclaim?
  • Let’s start acting like it.
  • “Ecce Urbs”

  • “Talented, educated, ambitious people want to live in cities where the civic aspiration matches their personal aspirations.”
  • The talented and ambitious, people with big dreams and big plans for themselves, are going to choose to live in places with other people who share their values, and where the city itself has the same ambition level.
  • Indianapolis can’t be successful in the war for talent by being a city where good enough is good enough.
  • And you know what? Never underestimate the motivating power of excellence, or as Daniel Burnham said, “Make no small plans. They have no power to fire men’s souls”.
  • We need to lay out an ambitious vision, one that gets people excited and that creates an emotional connection with a city in the type of people we are trying to attract.
  • You might not agree with their vision, but I think Carmel’s done a great job of this.

  • “Cities are about people, not just buildings. You can’t love the neighborhood if you hate the neighbors.”
  • So often I hear talk soley neighborhood improvement solely in terms of buildings.
  • People say, “Wow, that building would make great condos – you could even put a Starbucks in the ground floor.”
  • But it isn’t hard to imagine who might live in those condos, or drink coffee at that Starbucks.
  • A city can’t survive on gentrification alone. The broader community has to be a participant in its success.
  • That’s why I’m a bit down on the idea of the “creative class” as the road to riches. That’s good so far as it goes, but it’s a really self-consciously elitist vision, one catering to the most privileged in society.
  • Where does the working class figure in to this equation, for example?
  • We had something a lot like this back in the 80’s – back then it was called “trickle down economics”.

  • “A great city needs great suburbs”
  • Nobody is asking you to move to the suburbs, or even like what they represent.
  • But a successful community needs a variety of neighborhoods, each serving a different customer.
  • I happen to believe places like Carmel and Zionsville are a big asset to Indianapolis, just as Indianapolis is a big asset to them.
  • And in a globalized economy, the competition isn’t Indianapolis vs. Greenwood or Avon. It’s Indianapolis versus Kansas City, Dallas, Portland, India, China, London, etc.
  • Fighting amongst ourselves is like beggars fighting over table scraps.
  • We need to find a way to bring the central city up, not tear the suburbs down.

  • “There can’t be a successful Indianapolis without a successful Indiana”
  • Unlike New York, there isn’t a huge cultural disconnect between Indy and the rest of the state.
  • People in Indy are Hoosiers, and I think that’s a source of strength, not weakness. It’s part of that unique culture for us to build our own greatness on.
  • A world class Indianapolis will be a world class Hoosier city.
  • But while the Indy metro area has 25% of the state’s population, it has 60% of the population growth and 80% of the economic growth. That’s not healthy.
  • Like it or not, Indy is dependent on the state for critical infrastructure funds and many other things.
  • The challenge is to help bring the rest of the state along with us on the journey.

  • “So many Midwest cities are shadows of their former glory, but Indianapolis has never been more important than it is today.”
  • So many Midwestern cities are just pale shadows of their former greatness.
  • Detroit is imploding.
  • Cleveland has gone from the fifth largest city in American to the 39th.
  • Heck, Chicago isn’t even the Second City anymore.
  • No matter what those cities do, they’ll never be as important as they used to be.
  • But Indy’s never been a larger, more influential, more important player in the nation and the world than it is today.
  • No, we’re not in the truly big leagues yet. But we’re at our highest point ever and still rising.
  • While other Midwestern towns try to turn around decline, we’re like a rocket still on its way up.
  • I think that makes a big difference.
  • Because a rising Indianapolis, one that sets forth an ambitious vision, one that is inclusive of the whole community and state, can be a formidable force in America’s future.
  • I believe this city has all the ingredients it needs to step up and take its rightful place as the next great American city.
  • “Indianapolis – this is our time!” [Borrowed from the title of a skycrapercity post by Cory Wilson just prior to the Colts-Bears Superbowl game]
  • Thank you.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Civic Branding, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Regionalism, Strategic Planning, Technology, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

4 Responses to “Pecha Kucha: Urban Aphorisms”

  1. Carla says:

    What a clear and honest assessment. It’s funny, I sort of assumed the Pecha Kucha sessions were a substanceless attempt to mimic others’ cultural ideas. Now here you are using the forum to discuss that very notion.

    Excellent presentation.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Carla, thanks for the kind words

  3. Anonymous says:

    You used my comment! I am so flattered Urbanophile!


  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Hey, Cory! That title always stuck with me for some reason. It was the city’s time then, that’s for sure. I believe it is in terms of moving into the future as well.

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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