Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

The Forces of Globalization

This is another in my series on globalization, one of the most important changes facing the world in the early 21st century. If your city and region aren’t meeting the globalization challenge, then you’ll end up like all too much of the Midwest, in a state of stagnation or decay. There are winners and losers in globalization, and not often a lot in the middle. We can complain about this, but it is like complaining about the weather. Whether globalization is a force for good or ill is an interesting debate, but ultimately meaningless. Globalization simply is. We can get ready for it, we can ignore it, or we can fight it. But we do have to deal with it.

Thinking about globalization, what are some of the key forces and changes that are resulting from it? I will sketch out a few of my thoughts, then hopefully you can contribute your own.

To me the key theme of globalization is Mobility. Everything is more mobile, and on a larger scale, than ever before. Goods and services move globally. Capital moves globally. Labor moves globally. Ideas move globally.

Things that we previously thought had to be done in one spot can now be done around the world. This includes not just traditional things we have long thought of as offshoreable such as manufacturing. It also includes things like software development, invoice processing, answering the phones, interpreting X-rays, and doing architectural renderings. The key divide today appears to be not between products and services or between industries, but between mobile, tradeable things and things that have not yet become tradeable. This latter category might include hair styling, plumbing repair, landscaping and other services requiring face to face interaction or on site service provision.

It’s also money. “Hot money” flows around the world more freely than ever. Private equity firms invest in companies where ever they see the opportunity for profit. Government money, so-called “sovereign wealth funds”, also invest on a global scale, as seen recently by investments from Asian and Persian Gulf government funds into ailing US financial institutions. By the way, the US also has large sovereign wealth funds of a sort. They are called state pension systems, and are often huge investors in the market. These sorts of funds often invest for other than profit motives, which makes many people wary of the influence they wield. Hedge funds and other investors exploit exchange rates and yields across countries in the so-called “carry trade”. All of this money is intensely subject to changes in sentiment. It can flow in and out of countries in an instant, leaving turmoil in its wake.

And of course there is the movement of people. Chicago has long been in immigrant magnet. Other cities like Detroit and Cleveland were shaped by immigration from previous eras. But the Midwest was long principally white with a significant black minority population. Today it is a different story. Hispanic immigration is changing the entire Midwest, from the big cities to small towns. And it is more than that. Minneapolis has a rapidly growing community of African refugees. Greenwood in suburban Indianapolis has a growing Sikh community. The Midwest is far more diverse than ever, though still lacking compared to other regions. This is creating both opportunities and strains in these communities.

Of course the Midwest is also very aware that people can move domestically as well. Long one of the top award winners in the dubious largest out-migration category, the Midwest has lost people to the Sunbelt and coasts for years. Especially the most talented, the people who are powering the new global economy, have more choices than ever about where to live. They are increasingly clustering in “world cities” and others that are the “haves” of globalization. A growing international elite skips around the world in search of the best opportunities, self-consciously citizens of the world, having more in common with their jet set brethren from a larger global community than they do with their own native countrymen. Various countries do whatever they can to lure these talented immigrants, while trying to shut out the unskilled. In this continuous flow of people, the Midwest is losing out in the battle for brainpower.

And it is increasingly brain power that is important. As the raw tasks of making things becomes every more mechanized and commoditized, it is increasingly specialized skills that matter and are in demand. The other thing that is more mobile than ever is knowledge. These emerging global idea networks, the great global conversation if you will, takes place on the macro and micro scale. It is business analysts emailing and conference calling with software developers half way around the world to collaborate on an IT project. It’s also the multidisciplinary design team sitting around the table at the local coffee shop in London talking about the latest project. The Midwest is often shut out of this global conversation. It lacks the right talent, industry profile, and inclination to get involved. So often the only conversation going on is the one where a company CEO tells local leaders the plant is closing.

So today with all this mobility, the competition is more fierce than ever. Businesses, cities, states, universities, people in the Midwest aren’t just in competition with each other or the rest of the country. They are in competition with the rest of the world. It is often the side effects of this competition that drive the challenges. Sometimes it’s not that the factory moved to China so much as it is that Chinese competition forced Midwest manufacturers to get much more efficient. It is these productivity gains that are often responsible for job losses.

This mobility, this increasing pace of communication, this new, ever more fierce competition is driving change in the structure of the world economy and geopolitics. We’ve seen the rise of emerging economies, particularly the so-called BRIC countries: Brazil (agriculture and commodities), Russia (natural resources and technology), India (information technology and BPO) and China (manufacturing and R&D). These are all huge countries, and if they get their act together, they will be, and to a great extent already are, forces to be reckoned with. India is buying more companies in other countries than vice versa. Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal is the world’s third richest man after Gates and Buffett. China accumulates huge foreign exchange reserves, demands that its own proprietary tech standards be followed in the local market, is determined to climb up the value chain, and is gobbling up all the natural resources it can as its huge manufacturing industry destroys in the environment at as quickly as it churns out toys and cars. The G20 group of emerging market countries throws it weight around at the WTO negotiations. Soaring commodity prices lead to vast petrodollar accumulation, often by unsavory regimes. It has financed the re-emergence of a nationalistic Russia more determined than ever to assert its ambitions. Many countries with oil and other reserves, notably Russia and Venezuela, have effectively expropriated foreign holdings in order to nationalize these sectors.

And of course the pace of technology change continues unabated. MIT has a mouse controlled by computers hooked up to its brain. Stem cells may or may not deliver miracle cures. Biotechnology has become an industry so many cities are now pinning their hopes on. The two leading tech companies of our age are one that was written off for dead (Apple) and other that didn’t exist a decade or so ago (Google). Cloud computing and hosted applications could re-write the software and hardware industry map. Or maybe not. Open source is driving down prices all over the place. Traditional media finds itself imploding as advertisers follow consumers to new online channels like blogs. Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Jay Marriotti just resigned, saying that the newspaper is dead.

Frankly, even the most educated and informed of us can have trouble keeping up with this or figuring out what it means to us personally. I’ve seen my own industry turned upside down by globalization. I couldn’t have predicted it ten years ago. I seriously doubt I can predict the next ten years either. And this is for something I know intimately. How much more so cities that were built to be competitive in another era who now find their future in doubt, with an increasingly angry base of displaced workers who demand quick solutions now. There are no easy answers.

But the questions have to be asked. Every Midwest city, every government, business, and community leader in it needs to be thinking about globalization and how their city is going to get positioned to succeed in a 21st century world that is going to be very different from the 20th. Some claim America is in decline. I don’t think it has to be that way. But it will be if people don’t rise to the challenge and have the courage to seek out solutions and make the case for change.

So think about globalization. Think about it for yourself, your business, your city. Think about these forces. Look at what’s going on out there. What do you see? Anything to add to the list? Any thoughts to share? I don’t profess to have it all figured out. But I know that the challenge has to be met for the Midwest city to survive and succeed.

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Mini-Review: I-74 Interchange at Ronald Reagan Parkway

ATTENTION: If you want to know if you can use Ronald Reagan Parkway to get to the Indianapolis Airport directly from I-74, the answer is No. The road is not yet completed. You need to take I-465 to I-70 West.

The new I-74 interchange at a newly constructed segment of the Ronald Reagan Parkway in Brownsburg on Indy’s west side recently opened. This will be a major congestion reliever for the main SR 267 interchange, and is a key link in the north-south corridor through eastern Hendricks County. This project was described by some local leaders as Brownsburg’s new front door. The price tag on the project was $18.1 million.

Loyal readers know that I consider the design of transportation facilities to be of paramount importance in the modern age. Not only are these vital functionally, and so have to be rock solid from a design and engineering standpoint, but they also must have a high level of aesthetics and embody the identity and character of the places they pass through. Especially in the Midwest, which lacks stunning mountains or ocean views, the quality of the built environment plays a key role in shaping people’s opinions of a place. They are the new “main streets” of our day, our true public realm and shared space. They send a powerful message about who we are as a people. “For the apparel oft proclaims the man”.

With that in mind, I will tell you that this is a simple diamond interchange with a rather wide spread as is common in more rural interchanges. Both ramp termini are controlled with stop signs. This is probably adequate for now since only a short segment of Ronald Reagan Parkway, about one mile or so from 56th St. to Crawfordsville Rd., was actually built. Signals can easily be added later if warranted.

The road itself features a five lane cross section with shoulders and open ditches. The center lane is basically a TWLTL. There is no raised median. It is constructed of concrete to support the anticipated heavy truck volumes. Here’s a picture.

This cross-section befits a high speed highway and is built to a 55 MPH design standard. This is a quasi-rural design. In fact, replace the concrete center lane with an open grass median and this is basically a standard “expressway” design for INDOT. It is not a road I would describe as a parkway.

Here’s a closer view of the drainage ditches.

Welcome to Brownsburg, indeed.

Interestingly, Hendricks County, Brownsburgh, Avon, and Plainfield spent a great deal of time and money putting together a Ronald Reagan Parkway Master Plan that was supposed to guide the design of the roadway, as well as the land use and development along it. This plan talks a lot about the type of roadway design that was supposed to be envisioned for the corridor (see Section 6). Here’s a quote:

“The Ronald Reagan Corridor Master Plan provides the unique opportunity to establish a design aesthetic and guidelines that will influence both the land use patterns within the corridor and its design aesthetic before it is built. This ability to shape the corridor ‘before it happens’ provides an exciting avenue for establishing a series of goals and having the ability to implement them with less constraints than on an existing roadway enhancement project. The master plan creates opportunities to promote high quality, innovative, and unique design treatments that reinforce the community’s vision for the corridor.” (page 6-2, emphasis added)

I can’t even begin to go into all the detail of what’s in Section 6. It has numerous cross-sections and renderings that show a true parkway, something far closer to Hazeldell Parkway in Carmel than the photo I posted above. But here are a couple of illustrations. First, Figure 6.6, a sample cross-section.

This road clearly beamed in from a different starship than the one I photographed above. Note the curb/gutter section with enclosed drainage. There is no shoulder and no drainage ditches. There is a raised median with extensive landscaping and a highlighted multi-use path on the left side of the roadway. It’s also designed for 45 MPH not 55 MPH operation.

Here’s a rendering of an aerial view of what they anticipated the road looking like. It is Figure 6.8 in the master plan.

What’s the point of a three ring binder sized master plan if you aren’t even going to attempt to follow it? If I lived in Brownsburg, I’d probably think somebody sold me a bill of goods with this master plan.

It would make an interesting case study to see how this project came to deviate so totally from the master plan. All is not lost. Clearly, someone could walk, bike, or jog on the paved shoulder, even if it wouldn’t be too pleasant to have semis zipping past at 55MPH. But it is a protected zone that can be used.

But at the end of the day this roadway is basically yet another mega-highway plopped down in the middle of the suburbs. It displays a lack of conceptual imagination and is designed with the sole apparent goal of functionally moving cars and trucks at high speed, full stop. For an interchange that was supposed to be the new front door to Brownsburg, this is a major opportunity missed.

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Deepening the Linkages Between Indianapolis and Indiana

This article is a bit out of sequence. I had intended to write at least one precursor first. But recent news and a recent experience caused me to switch things around.

As I noted in my Pecha Kucha presentation, there can’t be a successful Indianapolis without a successful Indiana. Why should the Central Indiana region care whether the state as a whole is healthy? Two reasons:

  1. Indy is ultimately dependent on the state for significant support such as money for highway construction. A struggling state won’t be able to afford these. What’s more, with only 25% of the state’s population, Indianapolis is not, like say Minneapolis or Chicago, in a position to dominate the state politically. This means it is dependent on the goodwill of the rest of the state to secure, for example, funding mechanisms for Lucas Oil Stadium. The region will no doubt be asking the General Assembly for help with transit funding and with government consolidation to pick a couple of things. But if Indy is prosperous while the rest of the state is suffering, you can believe that this will inspire resentment. It’s the same all over the world. For example, it is extremely difficult in India to get highways and airports built to serve the emerging technology industry there because the bulk of the people are in dire poverty and they don’t see why the government should be investing to help the already prosperous. It is easy to see how this dynamic could play out in Indiana.
  2. It’s the right thing to do. People in Indianapolis are culturally Hoosiers. It’s not like NYC and upstate New York or Chicago and downstate Illinois. The bonds of common culture and brotherhood if nothing else should inspire a desire to see everyone share in prosperity. While the poor we will always have with us, our sense of social justice calls us to minimize inequities where we can do so in an appropriate way.

What we see today, however, is a troubling situation. This was recently highlighted by the latest state jobs report. Indiana’s unemployment rate went up to 6.3%, and the state as a whole lost 16,500 jobs, the third highest state total in the nation. Now Indiana’s unemployment situation is better than all of the surrounding states, but that’s a low hurdle to jump. However, while the state is continuing to lose jobs, the Indianapolis region hit an all time high in employment with 918,500 jobs. The Indianapolis area actually gained 5,600 jobs. This means the rest of the state actually lost 22,100 jobs. I’ve read some accounts that suggest that the Indianapolis area accounts for about 80% of the state’s total economic growth. That’s just not healthy.

It’s no secret what is driving this: globalization. Agriculture and manufacturing have been subjected to relentless competition from around the globe. The auto industry in particular is going through a major restructuring. With Indiana the most manufacturing dependent state in America and with a large concentration in the auto sector, it is no surprise it is getting hard hit. Manufacturing output is actually up. Contrary to popular belief, the US is still the world’s largest manufacturer and manufacturing output hit an all time high last year. But the industry has experienced such productivity gains that it is producing that output with far less workers than before.

Globalization is also concentrating economic returns in large cities. Places like London and New York are prospering in the new order. That’s because these cities are where knowledge talent is concentrated, and the economic growth areas for the 21st century are in those fields that require a highly educated workforce. This plays to the advantage of Indianapolis. It is not one of the world’s elite cities by any means, but as a metro area of 1.7 million people, it has achieved the minimum scale to be successful in the globalized world. Most of the rest of Indiana, other than those counties in the shadow of large out of state based metros like Chicago, is not so lucky. Indiana’s smaller metros and rural areas are suffering because they are still manufacturing dependent and have traditionally not been homes to the new economy workforce. The national average for percentage of adults with a college degree is 27%. In the Indianapolis area, 29.5% of adults have a college degree. In the state as a whole, only 19% hold college degrees. Again, when you factor out the above average Indy region performance, the rest of the state must be even lower than that.

Indiana needs help. One logical place to look is to Indianapolis. How can the capital city become more of a motor pulling the rest of the state, or at least the central 2/3’s of it, forward? I have some ideas on this front that I’ll be exploring in this blog. But this is no charity mission. Indianapolis also needs Indiana. Why do I say that? Well, while Indy has the minimum scale to play in the new economy, it is still too small to be a major player in many ways. I’d say a city would ideally have a minimum size of 2.5-3 million people to be able to efficiently support the types of things Indy needs to have to be in the game. For example, Indy is a small market for pro sports teams. It needs to leverage an expanded statewide fan base to the greatest extent possible. It needs an extended regional pull for its airport to get more flights. It would help to have more people to patronize downtown attractions such as the zoo. The more that Indy can tap into that larger market, the better economies of scale that can be achieved. Otherwise Indy’s smallish tax and consumer base will have to support all those things solo.

So while outstate Indiana certainly needs help in getting connected to the new globalized economy in a positive way, there are plenty of things Indianapolis needs as well. This isn’t a mercy mission either way. It is a common people standing together for the common good. As they say, if we don’t all hang together, we’ll surely all hang separately.

How do you get people to do this? Well, before you can work on specific programs, you need to have trust. And one way to establish trust is to share common values, culture, and experience. While Indianapolis is culturally Hoosier, the rest of the state has often been disconnected from it and in fact viewed the city with suspicion and hostility. But I think some things could be changing there in a positive way, and I’ll share some personal experience to show how.

I grew up in a rural area of far southern Indiana across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. In fact, we were part of the Louisville metro area. Thus, while there was a lot of cross-river rivalry, especially in college hoops, we were far more aligned to Louisville than to the rest of Indiana. I remember one day opening the Courier-Journal and seeing basketball standings showing Indiana with a record of something like 5-16, which puzzled me to no end, since I knew the Hoosiers were doing great that year. I had no idea that Indiana even had a pro basketball team, and that it was the Pacers I’d seen listed. I think I visited Indianapolis a grand total of three times growing up. I did briefly read the Indy Star during that short period pre-Gannett when they were doing statewide distribution. But I liked them mostly for the color front page (the C-J was still black and white) and their more conservative editorial stance.

I was recently back home for a high school reunion and there is a big difference. Firstly, the whole area is ga-ga over the Colts. My family has many rabid Colts fans and trips to the games are common. One person in my class who still lives in the old home town has Colts season tickets. Even my 90 year old grandparents follow the Colts. There has probably been no greater force in putting Indianapolis on the statewide map in a positive way than the Colts. Interestingly, this phenomenon seems to hit a wall at the river. The Colts made few in-roads into the Louisville market on the Kentucky side of the river.

Next, one of my classmates had opened a winery and vinyard there. This was where we held the reunion. He had recently entered his wines in the Indy International Wine Competition. He had also participated in other Indy wine events. And his plan for the future is to hopefully get some limited retail distribution in Indianapolis. I was pretty surprised to hear this since I figured his natural market would have been Louisville, but for Indiana based wineries, Indy is where the action is. Similarly I’ve noticed that Indy’s beer geek bars often have brews from around the state. For example, J. Gumbo’s has a selection of Three Floyd’s beers from Munster and Mad Anthony beers from Ft. Wayne. Similarly, Indianapolis restaurants and markets are becoming outlets for much of the local organic agriculture produced in an expanded region. In a sense, Indianapolis is becoming the cultural common ground for artisal producers of various stripes from around the state.

I also noted something similar when it comes to other things. For example, the Star noted gays from Marion and other places around the state who attended Circle City Pride this year. The more tolerant attitude in Indy versus some smaller places can make the city a refuge for those who don’t quite fit in or can’t be themselves elsewhere – and that doesn’t mean they even have to move to Indy to do it.

Not all of the expanded Indy relationships are necessarily positive for the rest of the state. For example, when I was growing up, I couldn’t name anyone in town who had moved off to Indianapolis. However, in my class of 50, multiple people have. I did some research at the reunion and estimate that probably 8-10 people got college degrees, about average for the state. Of those that did, four of them live in Indianapolis – including the top three students in the class. In effect, Indianapolis sucked up 40-50% of the college grads in my class. That leaves fewer educated workers behind for the new economy. My theory on this is that it is logical for cost reasons for people to attend in state universities. And if you go off to an in state university, the companies that recruit there are primarily Indy based. (I actually suggested to a group studying the talent attraction problem in Louisville that they should get more Louisville companies doing recruitment at Indiana’s state schools if they want to retain those grads).

Still, moving away isn’t the end of the world. In fact, that’s one way you build extended statewide connections. How do you connect many of these Indiana counties to the Indianapolis economy? One way is to leverage the embedded relationships that come from people who’ve moved back and forth.

So I think some of the deepening linkages between Indianapolis and the rest of the state are a positive sign. It is these sorts of things that set the stage for working together because you seen that common bond and common ground. How can these linkages be deepened even further in a positive way? Some ideas I have are:

  • Focus on being the market for Indiana’s artisinal producers. Every beer and wine produced in the state should be carried by some restaurant or store, preferrably multiple, Indianapolis. The more Indy distribution these products have, the more people in those outstate areas see the benefits of an Indy linkage for themelves. Plus Indy helps wean itself of mass market chain products. A win-win.
  • Leverage the heck out of the Colts. The city has just made a gigantic investment in the Colts stadium. I think part of the ROI should be that the Colts organization should go out of their way to establish themselves as a statewide team. That’s in their own best interests anyway. Make sure players and coaches are regularly putting in appearances throughout the state. Show the rest of the state that you care. When Tony Dungy joked about holding the Super Bowl in Fort Wayne, it made the newspapers in there. Those types of small gestures go a long way. Heck, the Colts even have lots of fans in downstate Illinois, which I think is another fertile ground for building Indy connections. Though that would be the equivalent of going for a masters degree when we haven’t finished high school yet.
  • Every festival, event, etc. in Indy should try to think about how to cater to an expanded geography. The State Fair is already a statewide event. I mentioned Indy Pride. Others could certainly look for ways to expand their reach. This isn’t just about marketing for more attendees. It’s about finding a way to engage at a deeper level.
  • Indy’s cultural organizations already do some work with the rest of the state. This could be expanded. For example, the ISO already plays concerts in various cities. The IMA provides conservation expertise to other Indiana museums. How can organizations achieve a greater statewide engagement in a win-win way?
  • Why not try to get more tourist synergies? The fabulous modern architecture of Columbus is only 45 minutes south of Indianapolis, for example. Why not help organize tours there that depart from downtown Indy oriented towards visitors to the capital? Again, the benefit to Indy here is that it is, to put it mildly, not exactly a hotbed of contemporary architecture. This is way to pull up the city’s woeful architectural reputation. Again, a win-win.

Ok, so maybe these suggestions are of the “more of the same” variety, but that’s ok. The trend lines are already positive here. Anyone have other ideas?

Again, I believe Indianapolis and Indiana need each other. Part of figuring out how to work together is establishing trust. These cultural linkages are a big part of making that happen.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

The Streetlights of Chicago

Chicago, that toddlin’ town. What comes to mind when you think of Chicago? Al Capone and gangsters. Skyscrapers. Steel mills and stockyards. L trains rattling by overhead. Trains and planes. Testosterone drenched sweat pouring off shrieking traders in the commodities pits. The Loveable Losers. The blue collar Bears. Rough and tumble immigrant neighborhoods. Machine politics. Old Style at the corner bar.

Like many Midwestern towns, Chicago has always had a decidedly rough edge and masculine character. It’s a place where millions of foreigners came to find the American dream. Where hustlers of all stripes wore out their shoe leather trying to make it big. It’s a place where dreams could become reality. A town that once was confident it would be the world’s largest city. Nothing summed this up quite like Carl Sandberg’s poem “Chicago”:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

I often talk about building design identity and a unique sense of place. And how things as simple as the designs of street lights and signs can create that. Chicago was traditionally Exhibit A in how to do it right. Plop me down on any random street corner in Chicago and I could instantly recognize the city. It’s design just rises up and slaps you in the face.

The street lights of the city have always been a big part of that. Chicago is probably the best lit city in America, maybe the world. There are few sights more impressive than flying over the city on a clear night on approach to O’Hare. The streets literally look like ribbons of light. If you can’t do this, then being in the Hancock observatory at night is the next best thing. Heck, even the alleys are well lit.

Not only was Chicago well lit, it also had a unique street lamp design that fit the image of the city perfectly. Please, as I show these photos, don’t focus on the condition of the lights. The city basically ceased maintenance on the older style lights so it is very difficult to find well-preserved examples today. Imagine them without the rust, however. Without further ado, here’s that light.

Now that’s a street light befitting the “City of Big Shoulders”. Simple, masculine, solid, unpretentious. This is what was used on major streets like this one. A smaller scaled version was in use on residential streets.

These variations provided context appropriate scale while maintaining a continuity of design.

Some time during the 1990’s, the city decided that this classic Chicago design was no longer appropriate to its new “world city” aspirations. As the city embarked on a major program of neighborhood infrastructure and streetscape renewal, the city jettisoned the classic design in favor of new ones. Several iterations have been tried in the last decade. The first of the new designs was this one:

The contrast with the original lights could not be more stark. These highly feminine and decorative standards are radically different from the previous version and Chicago’s traditional brand image. They would be perfectly at home in the suburbs. In fact, here’s a close replica in west suburban Glen Ellyn

This is close, but not close enough. If you want to see an even more stunning example, you’ve got to take a 180 mile drive south to Carmel, Indiana, the Naperville of Indianapolis, where you’ll find these lovelies installed on the streets.

This is almost the exact same street light with a pedestrian level gas lamp bolted on. What works beautifully in a suburb like Carmel is a miserable failure in a city like Chicago.

Even Chicago quickly came to this conclusion. After installing these lights in only a few neighborhoods, though including high profile ones like Lincoln Park and Chinatown (!), it backed off and stopped deployment. Instead, it switched to these new “acorn” lights.

This is a better entry to be sure. The perpendicular crossbar at the top adds a more masculine feel. But the little curlicue brace is a basically art nouveau flourish and the little point at the top an example of “ode de wrought iron fence”. Additional excessive decorations include the clamp around fake base at the bottom and the grooved pole. Here’s a closeup of the top of this.

While this is better, it ultimately is inconsistent with the traditional brand image of Chicago. What’s more, it is undistinctive to boot. I don’t have photos of other locations to compare to, but I’ve clearly seen this design before, in renderings if nowhere else. (Take a look at the cover sketch on this document for example).

To compound matters, these are often interspersed with pure replica gas lamps like this one:

The larger lights often feature hanging flower planters such as these, which provide a nice touch of color and plant life to the concrete of the street.

Of course, these are again straight out of the suburbs. Here again, another photo from Carmel, Indiana.

Think Chicago is trying to change its brand image? You don’t have to look any further than the street lights to realize there’s no doubt about that. Whether this is a good thing or not is to be determined. Great cities, ones that sustain their greatness over the long haul, aren’t afraid to change what needs to be changed order to get fit for the world tomorrow. Chicago has clearly decided that the City of Big Shoulders has got to go. Instead, it wants to be, as near as I can tell, the City of Venti Lattes. Part of this is a deliberate suburbanization of the inner city, something I’ve written about before. The idea seems to be to appeal to a broader base of person than the traditional kids out of school, artists, gays, and empty nesters. Rather, the city wants to figure out ways to keep upscale professional families in the city, and there has been a wholesale remaking of much of the city to try to cater to this.

I’m sympathetic to it to some extent. I’ve long said that no city can be successful until it appeals to the broad middle class. You can’t get by on the suburb’s rejects and the poor. Still, this is not without risk. Chicago is throwing its heritage as a city out the window. It’s jettisoning its traditional masculine, no nonesense, Sandburgian image in favor of an undistinguished “new urbanism” type look. This might pay off for the city, but this is one I’ve been skeptical of. I don’t believe that this type of radical brand shift usually works well or smoothly, and that you’re better off being a new improved version of who you are, than trying to reinvent yourself completely. Even if the reinvention works, so often it has no staying power.

Beyond whether the rebranding is a good thing or not, there are three serious problems with the street light designs. First, the new designs are undistinctive as I noted, in constrast to the previous more unique designs. Second, the proliferation of these types of lights has fractured the sense of design unity the city had. It’s not just that the city is part way through the refresh cycle either. Beyond the three designs above, the city has dabbled with several other designs. Here are some examples.

First, what I call the “IDOT style”.

I call this the IDOT style because it was first used on the Kennedy Expressway reconstruction. It has also been used on south Lake Shore Drive and select other locations such as here on Damen Ave between Diversey and Fullerton. The steep angle misleads a little bit. This is a piece of steel that bends over to a 90 degree angle. While I don’t like this as well as the original, it is sort of like a modernized, streamlined take on the traditional brand image. I think this would have been a better choice than the decorative types that were ultimately selected.

Here’s another variant on this style.

This was also used in a smattering of places, primarily on the south side, such as the Chicago Skyway and Indianapolis Boulevard. A variant of this light is what is in use as the new residential street light standard.

Again, this one is more consistent with the traditional brand image, and works well Chicago, though I would prefer a painted color rather than plain galvanized metal. However, this highlights the third serious problem with Chicago’s new street light scheme, namely that the major street lights and the residential street lights no longer harmonize in style. In fact, they are radically different. What’s more, I’d suggest that if you were going to pick these two styles, you’d actually reverse where they were put, with this design on the major streets and the more feminine designs on the residential streets.

Here you can see how much of this comes together at an interesting intersection with four different styles of street lights all going at the same time. What a mishmash. This is the intersection of Damen, Diversey, and Clybourn, by the way.

And by the way, I’m not done with the recent proliferation of lights. Here are designs used on Michigan Ave. in the Loop and Wacker Drive.

I believe these are replicas of old lights that used to be used on Michigan Ave, so perhaps this one off is more defensible.

Believe it or not, I could cite still more examples, such as the “double gas lamp” designs that exist in a couple of varieties in the Loop, but I am out of pictures. I think this goes to show that Chicago has gone schizophrenic on street lights, and not in a good way. A city that once set the standard on how city should use street lights has lost its way.

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

The Sustainability of Urban Amenities

This week’s Indianapolis Business Journal runs a great article on the need for significant upgrades to the IU natatorium and track and field stadium, as well as the Indianapolis Tennis Center. The natatorium and track were built in 1982 for the Pan Am Games and were state of the art facilities at that time. However, they’ve basically been allowed to decay since then, with the result that they need significant upgrades to retain the major events they currently host. What’s more, without these world class facilities, the sanctioning bodies that were key to the amateur sports strategy’s long term, sustainable competitive advantage may leave. IUPUI owns the facilities, but they are not core to the university’s mission and they do not have revenue streams to pay for maintenance.

This failure to maintain the legacies of the past has been something that has plagued Indianapolis, as well as other cities. Millions of dollars are invested to create state of the art buildings and landscapes, but then they are not maintained over time and eventually fall into decay. The visual blight that results is a major negative whose impression on visitors and locals cannot be overstated.

Here, for example, are two pictures showing the current state of Pan Am Plaza

What message do you think this was sending to the folks at GenCon this week? Or any other visitors who cross this plaza.

The city spent millions to redo the streetscapes around Circle Centre Mall when it opened, but look here what the railings around the flower beds on Washington St. look like today.

There’s nothing wrong with these plant beds a simple coat of paint wouldn’t fix. But there hasn’t been any money dedicated to this.

I could give many more examples. The newspaper boxes the city installed a few years back are mostly horribly rusted, for example.

This week the city held its grand opening for the brand new, very good Lucas Oil Stadium. But the city doesn’t even have the money budgeted to operate it yet, much less maintain it in a state of the art condition over the years.

One important lesson from this, something everybody in business knows, is that capital investments come with an operating tail and a depreciation tail. And that preventive maintenance today is the best way to avoid major repairs later. Unfortunately, all too often in the civic space the focus is on getting to the ribbon cutting, but beyond that the operations and maintenance are not priorities. In fact, government entities typically don’t even depreciate their capital stock on the operating budget side of their books. This is a major “shadow expense” that isn’t always well understood.

Fortunately, there are signs that local leaders understand this problem. The budget for the Indy Cultural Trail, for example, includes an endowment to pay for the trail’s maintenance. Without this, there is little doubt the trail would just be left to decay over time like everything else. The IMA’s Art and Nature Park also has an endowment component to sustain that park. Indeed, their entire institution operates off an endowment such that admission is free.

I think this is the model that ought to be followed. Before pulling the trigger to built a major public capital asset, leaders should make sure that revenue streams are available to pay the operations and maintenance. For things that involve public fundraising campaigns, the original fundraising goals should include an endowment amount to cover this. Now that perhaps isn’t going to cover the periodic “capital refresh” that you have to do when facilities reach end of life or major mid-point milestones (and perhaps the natatorium and such fall into this category). But for those some type of long range plan or map needs to be put in place. Again, just like the private sector – for example, condo associations who do reserve studies – does every day. Then you at least know when the major repairs are probably coming, and try to plan for them.

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Modern Architecture, Hoosier Style

Apart from Columbus, Indiana is not known as a hotbed of modern architecture. But good examples of it can show up in surprising places. One of these is New Albany, a city in far southern Indiana across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. Three major civic buildings there were done in a modern style, and are clustered together on Spring St. between 1st and Scribner. Here are some pictures.

First is the city-county building.

I think this is a rather handsome structure. According to a historic marker there, this building was originally the site of an 1822 school building that in 1880 became Scribner High School, an all black school. That building was replaced in 1907, then closed in 1952 when desegregation took effect.

The city-county building was constructed in 1961, and according to a plaque there was the first building in the state constructed under Indiana’s building authority act. I’m not familiar with this act, but the Indianapolis city-county building dates from about the same era, so perhaps it had something to do with facilitating joint city-county courthouse replacement projects.

Here is a frontal shot of the entrance.

I love those seals at the top. Here are some closeups.

Very nice design, indeed.

There were two previous county courthouses in New Albany. The original was built in 1824. This was replaced in 1865. The 1865 court house was razed (similarly to the Marion County Courthouse) when the new city-county building was built. I’m not sure where that was located, but one map I saw had the court house labeled at State and Market, though this might have been the original 1824 ones. Old timers could certainly tell us for sure.

You may have noticed the Corinthian columns flanking the new structure. I presume these were rescued from the old court house. The plaque there says “erected in 1967”, which I presume refers to the column installation. Here’s a closer look.

Here is a rendering I found of one of the old court houses. I do note that there are four Corinthian columns in front of it, though this drawing makes them look taller than these. You can see the discontinuity in the middle of these new columns, so perhaps they removed a section from the middle when installing them in order to give a more human scale.

Across the street on the north from the city-county building is the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library at 180 W. Spring St.

The library was founded in 1884. It moved into a Carnegie library building at 201 E. Spring St. in 1904. This new library was built in 1969 and the old library building converted into a museum. Here is a picture of that old library, now called the Carnegie Center for Art and History.

You might have noticed the sculpture at the front of the new library. Here’s a closeup of that.

This is not as successful as the city-county building, IMO. It’s a bit too brutalistic for me, but nevertheless is a rather tasteful infill structure as these things go.

Lastly, we’ve got the federal building, which is across 1st St. from the city-county building on the east at 121 W. Spring St. This houses an outpost of the US District Court for Southern Indiana among other things.

I believe this building was completed in 1971 and is now named after long time 9th district congressman Lee Hamilton. Here’s a closer view of the east side of the building.

These three buildings are all in different styles, yet are clearly all an expression of modernism. They work well with each other, and, probably because of their smaller scale, aren’t the urban planning disasters of so many modernist projects. These are understated, solidly executed projects that blend in so well in their setting that it is easy to almost pass them by without realizing you just passed such a collection of buildings.

I did not have time to contact the local historical society to get all of the details. I could not determine the architect of any of the buildings, for example. But should you be interested in things like this, it should be easy enough to find out.

Note that these buildings are only about a block or two from the I-64 interchange serving downtown New Albany, so are easy to check out even if you are just passing through.

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

Mega-Regional Migration

I previously voiced skepticism about the concept of mega-regions. I used as an example the cities of Indianapolis, Louisville, and Cincinnati, which are close enough geographically that they seem like a logical expanded region, yet found few practical ways for those cities to collaborate.

Well, Jeff of Daytonology turned me onto this handy web site at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that provides easy clickable access to migration data. It shows the estimated migration from county to county in the United States from 2000-2005 based on IRS tax return data. This is a standard source for intra-census migration figures. The Census Bureau has downloadable raw data files, but I’ve not found the leisure time to create a database of it.

In the meantime, I used the web data above to draw the following chart. It shows the migration between our proposed super-region of Indianapolis, Louisville, and Cincinnati. For fun, I threw in Columbus.

I notice a few things. Firstly, the Cincy-Columbus flow is by far the heaviest, showing the importance of in-state ties. I wonder how much of this could be accounted for by Ohio State University? Also, the Louisville-Columbus flow is the weakest, as one would expect from the greater distance between those cities. Indianapolis is the domestic migration champion of the Midwest, and these figures show this, as Indy has a modestly positive migration balance with all three cities.

I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this. But it represents a data point to consider.

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

I Have a Dream: Public Sculpture Edition

I had an epiphany while on an invigorating tour of the Meridian St. corridor a couple weeks back. My tour guide noted the plaza that was built around the elevated section of I-65 along the north side of downtown. These contain Octagonal designed surfaces at the corner of Meridian on the north side of I-65. Here’s a picture.

I’ve never been a big fan of octagons and hexagons, which were en vogue in the 1970’s. I think the use of hexagonal pavers is the weakest part of the Cultural Trail design. These things bring back too many memories of bad urban design such as the ill-fated State Street busway/pedestrian mall in Chicago. Still, this isn’t bad. But it does seem underutilized. Another one across Meridian creates a matching set.

This picture gives a bit more of the context of the setting as well.

When I saw this it really hit me: this is the perfect site for a pair of coat hangers!

To refresh your memory, the library is planning to install an artwork by Peter Shelton called “thinmanlittlebird”, consisting of a tall wire figure and a squat torus. These will be mounted on the pedestals flanking the Cret building entrance as shown in the rendering below.

The appearance of these caused one message board poster to dub them the “coat hanger” and the “donut”, which are as good as anything.

While I don’t mind the sculptures pair itself, I am not a fan of the site chosen for them. To refresh your memory, my reasons are:

  • The contemporary designs clash with the classical formalism of the memorial mall. This could work in another neoclassical setting such as the old city hall, which could use a breath of fresh air like this, but does not pass muster in this most special space.
  • It’s unbalanced design destroys the axial symmetry of the memorial blocks. Even the modern library addition respected this.
  • The coat hanger is completely out of scale to the building and the nearby memorials. It will be clearly visible from even the World War Memorial building.
  • Most importantly, these sculptures are thematically and aesthetically at odds with the solemn formality of the memorial mall. These blocks are literally hallowed ground, dedicated to Indiana’s war dead. The sculptures, at that location, show profound disrespect for Hoosiers fallen in battle. I can’t imaging many veterans groups happy with this. Gratuitous gestures of this nature only turn the public at large against contemporary art. These sculptures have already been referred to by those who applaud Mayor Ballard’s proposal to terminate of city art funding (though city funding is not paying for these).

The designs themselves are growing on me, and I think they could work well elsewhere. And I believe the Meridian/I-65 plaza, in the middle of those octagons, is the perfect site. Here’s a picture looking down Meridian right at where they would be:

I would put the coat hanger on the left, where it would be in scale with both the Anthem building and balance the existing tower on the right. The solidity of the donut balances the squat Anthem tower. In effect, the existing framing of downtown is echoed at smaller scale and balanced by thinmanlittlebird.

I will admit to being a pro-symmetry bigot. The human eye is just programmed that way anyway. We like symmetrical things. So I’ll give an alternative. Commission Shelton to make a matched pair. Well, not totally matched. You want symmetry of a sort, with just enough off about it to bring a bit of tension an interest. Two slightly different coat hangers like giant pillars on Meridian would be in perfect scale to the area and make a great gateway to downtown without obscuring the view. They’d even help provide visual relief and a touch of whimsy to passersby on the interstate. Then take the two donuts and put them at the library after all. This would eliminate the biggest problems with the current proposal. If you made the little bird an appropriate species (a dove comes to mind, but this is rather facile – it should be possible to get a better answer), you could even solve the thematic problem. This would combine balance, proportion, contemporary art, theme, and emotional tone in a way that respects the nature of the site.

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

The Great Inversion

The New Republic is carrying a lengthy article by Alan Ehrenhalt on the demographic inversion of many American cities. What they mean by this is largely the re-population of the central city by affluent whites while blacks and other minorities are pushed to the periphery or inner ring suburbs. Their poster child for this is Chicago, where vast tracts of formerly ethnic and working class neighborhoods have become gentrified into homes for yuppies.

This is something that has been noted for some time now. I’ve written about it myself before (here and here, for example) and it has been covered elsewhere extensively. Think of it as the “Europeanization” of American cities. Americans are used to thinking of a still thriving but dull after dark small downtown, surrounded by miles of blighted “inner city” areas, surrounded by prosperous suburbs, largely racially segregated. What you see in Europe is a historic core populated by the economic and intellectual elite (which American tourists visit), surrounded by inner rings of soulless housing blocks (which they pass through in their cabs on the way in from the airport), surrounded by the middle classes in europrawl developments (which tourists rarely see). American cities, at least some of them, are starting to take on this cast, as downtown becomes a 24×7 live/work/play environment and surrounding areas become home to the new creative class. There’s no place for minorities or poor people (or often even middle class people) in this new geography, so those groups are forced to the inner rings suburban areas.

The TNR article provides some interesting facts. Here is their take on NYC:

Before September 11, 2001, the number of people living in Manhattan south of the World Trade Center was estimated at about 25,000. Today, it is approaching 50,000. Close to one-quarter of these people are couples (nearly always wealthy couples) with children. The average household size is actually larger in lower Manhattan than in the city as a whole. It is not mere fantasy to imagine that in, say, 2020, the southern tip of Manhattan will be a residential neighborhood with a modest residual presence of financial corporations and financial services jobs.

Incredible as it seems, even Manhattan is getting converted into a strollerville. What has been driving this? The article posits a number of potential reasons. Among these, de-industrialization eliminated much of the noise, dirt, and other pollution that drove people out of the city in the first place; horrible traffic and high gas prices are driving people back to the center; urban crime is largely confined to gang warefare that bypasses the elite; and Generation X and Y have a very different living preference than Baby Boomers did.

The places this is happening may surprise you. If there’s a poster child for the back to the city movement, it actually isn’t Chicago, it’s Atlanta. Altanta is on is way to becoming a majority white city in short order, something that seemed inconceivable just a few short years ago and which is causing consternation among black leaders. Atlanta had added 67,000 people to its population base since 2000, or 16% in just seven years, without annexation. By constrast, despite its gigantic condo boom (it is adding about 14,000 housing units per year in the city alone), Chicago has actually lost 56,000 since 2000, though obviously on a far larger base.

But what is clear to me, and which the article implicitly illustrates, is that this trend is most noticeably in the largest cities, especially those with “world city” aspirations. I would argue that the trend of globalization and the resulting “spiky world” is driving convergence across world cities, whether they be in Europe, the US, South America, or Asia. Increasingly we see the same demographic patterns, the same cultural attitudes, the same type of built environments, etc. I believe it is part of the expression of the development of a homogenous transnational elite that while nominally diverse when it comes to things like race and sexual orientation is in fact pretty much alike in all the things that matter. I have been fortunate enough to get to travel to various cities around the world and while there is always some degree of local flavor (tango in Buenos Aires, bullfighting in Madrid, for example), and some sort of a unique vibe to a place, I often notice just how similar so much of the feel is, particularly among people in the intellectual, creative, and business fields. You see this illustrated very clearly when you pick up something like the Wallpaper city guides and see pretty much semi-identical international hipster jet set elite places touted for every city. The only thing distinguishing most of these guides is the city name on the cover. I argue that this is leading to the creation of a dangerous “urban monoculture” that is weaking the intellectual and creative core of the city and leaving it vulnerable to unexpected shocks. This is related to the “big sort” phenomenon, and there will be a forthcoming posting on this soon.

Also, as we’ve seen white upper class families become predominant in city neighborhoods, they are importing their values along with their strollers. This has led to the ever increasing suburbanization of the city. This includes everything from rows of semi-indentical production housing (witness the thousands of cheaply constructed by highly priced cinder block condo buildings in Chicago), ever more big box chains with “lifestyle center” type architecture in the city, and the demise of gritty, artsy independent businesses in favor of the boutique of the week. The city often sides with these new residents in forcing out clubs and other non-kid friendly venues. In effect, the real creative class is getting squeezed out as the wealthy accessories such as financiers, lawyers, and such move in. Mayor Daley of Chicago has actively tried to make that city more kid friendly, spending millions on Navy Pier as a family attraction, cracking down on traditionally rowdy festivals, harrassing music clubs with ridiculous licensing requirements, and even trying to cram a children’s museum into Grant Park where there is only supposed to be open space.

On the flip side, some suburbs have radically improved themselves. This is not your father’s Naperville with nary a coffee shop to be found and where the best dining alternative was Chili’s. Instead we’re seeing the top suburbs up their game with better shopping, better architecture, better dining options, their own real downtowns, etc. While some inner ring suburbs suffer in poverty, there is less of a gap between the best suburbs and an ever more suburbanized inner city. Again, as with the urban monoculture, we’ll see the long term effect this has.

What’s more, I’m troubled that the new inversion appears to be less than fully market driven. It has been helped along by city governments eager to cater to the moneyed classes and with writers like Richard Florida providing the intellectual justification for doing so. I noted previously that I strongly speculate that Chicago deliberately ran many of is former CHA residents out of town when it demolished the projects. I’m convinced there’s a Pulitzer out there for the reporter who can dig into where the former residents ended up and how they got there, and blow the lid off this.

So stay tuned to see what happens here. What will the long term bring for Chicago, Atlanta, etc? Will this trend really fully make it to the smaller cities like Indianapolis? (It is interesting to note that in Indy Center Township appears to have stablized in population and has even slightly increased in the last couple of years. Is this an inflection point in the making?) I don’t think anyone knows, but this is clearly a trend to keep tabs of and to figure out how to respond to. While the renaissance of city living as been almost universally praised by progressives, it is not without its downsides.

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.

About the Urbanophile


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.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures