Friday, October 24th, 2008

Kansas City in Monocle, Cincinnati in Minneapolis

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of Monocle magazine. While it certainly has its “lifestyles of the rich and famous” side to it, which might turn some people off, it also has great international and urban affairs coverage. This month there was a nice four page spread in there about Kansas City. It includes several pictures, including the skyline, the Power and Light District, the airport, and more. Give the demographic of this magazine’s readership, with a large international contingent, this is great exposure.

Monocle articles aren’t online for non-subscribers, but here are some excerpts:

“When Sean Hopkins first visited Kansas City for a job interview, he had no clue what to expect. The stereotypes rolled through his mind: farms, cornfields, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. Upon arrival though, California and Florida bred Hopkins was pleasantly surprised. ‘I loved the feel and the flavor’, he says. ‘Kansas City has something to offer that a big city doesn’t – a slower pace of life that’s good for the soul.'” Ok, that might not be what city leaders would hope to advertise, but it is still a positive statement.

“Like many US regions, Kansas City touts itself as a biotechnology hub and seems to be making progress. The Stowers Institute for Medical Research opened in 2000 with a €1.3 billion endowment. It has lured 400 world-class scientists, including neuro-biologist Debra Ellies”. This is an interesting story. Kansas City is one of the rare big cities without a medical school and academic medical center. Concerned they would miss out on what they saw as an essential industry of the 21st century, life sciences, local billionaires decided to endow a medical research center from scratch. This reminds me of what I said previously about being hungrier when you don’t have anchor legacy assets to fall back on. This may not have been the right industry for KC to focus on, frankly, given that they started from a weak base, with no intrinsic competitive advantage, and this is an industry everybody wants a piece of. Still, you have to admire the “go large” philosophy.

The #1 thing Monocle says needs to be fixed? Public transport. Kansas City is going to the ballot on Nov. 4th to vote on constructing a 14 mile light rail line. This involved a sales tax increase. It will be interesting to see how this fares, so to speak.

Update: A local Kansas City blog reaction – priceless.

Meanwhile, a group of leaders from Cincinnati paid a visit to Minneapolis to see that city up close. I think these sorts of things are critical. You have to get out into the world and see what is going on. So many people never visit the city right down the street, much less successful places around the country and the world that might have lessons to be learned. If you are never exposed to the best of what is going on elsewhere, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing the narrative of your own progress. By that I mean that most cities are constantly undertaking civic improvement initiatives. It is is very easy to judge the success or failure of these solely in terms of what they replaced. New convention center on what used to be a weedy lot? It must be great, right? But when you actually visit other places, especially top performing cities, you see where you really stack up. Every city these days has restaurants going in downtown, condos, etc. So much of what is conventionally viewed as progress is really just riding the trends.

Minneapolis is a good place to visit because it is a bit larger, but not so different as to make its lessons seem inapplicable. I also has a great reputation for its progressive urban policies, has a thriving urban center, a major airport, many corporate HQ’s, etc. Here are some sample excerpts:

“I was impressed by the Minnesotans’ self-esteem. They really seem to believe they are exceptional.”

“Charlotte and Minneapolis are very focused on the future, while we talk too much about the past”

“If we want our region to stand out as one of the best places to live, work and play, then we have to have big, bold ideas and not be afraid to get out of our comfort zone to implement ideas.”

“I was not in Charlotte, but I did go to Minneapolis, and I heard the question come up a second time: How do we define ourselves as a region? What do we do well that makes us unique? What can we tell someone about our city in the length of an elevator ride that might make them want to move here?”

Again, Minneapolis is a place with a lot of pride, swagger, and ambition. They don’t let being in the frozen north be a deal killer. Instead, they embrace the winter and winter sports with pride. They are going out and hiring the top world architects to design their major civic structures, such as a Jean Nouvel’s new Guthrie Theater. They are building light rail lines. Basically, they took the conventional wisdom about what a hip, livable city should be and are trying to really implement it. And they are having some success. Again, our friends at Monocle put them on the list of top 25 global cities.

Still, a lot of this is not distinguished. Starchitecture and light rail only get you so far. The more important things to me are items like the embrace of the outdoors and natural landscape of Minnesota. The other key thing that is often overlooked is how Minneapolis-St. Paul made having “twin cities” be an asset for them, not a liability. In many places this would have simply caused unbearable civic strife. They figured it out. Again, it’s not the hand you’re deal much of the time. It’s how you play it. Invert the world.

Also, a visit can highlight what is not replicable. Minneapolis-St. Paul is the only true primate city in the Midwest. It dominates its state as thoroughly as Chicago does Illinois, but is also the state’s capital and home to the state’s flagship university. Also, one visit to Minnesota will quickly leave one with the impression, and a correct one, that this is one of the single whitest cities in America. Check the racial makeup of that city sometime. It’s easy to talk a good game of urban progressivism when your entire metro area is lily white. Notwithstanding that, as immigrants have started arriving in the area, the politics have shifted to the right, a trend Longworth noted in his book.

In Other News

To bring this back around to Monocle. They recently held an online panel discussion about the future of the city. It’s 20 minutes long and definitely worth watching online or downloading to your iPod.


Cities: Cincinnati, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul

5 Responses to “Kansas City in Monocle, Cincinnati in Minneapolis”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    I can buy that Minneapolis is a fairly successful city, but you have to be completely insane to put it on the top 25 list of global cities. It barely makes the top 25 in North America.

    The ambitious architecture won’t help, either. Despite all the new construction projects, Minneapolis proper is still bleeding people; its population is down to what it was ninety years ago.

  2. Dave Reid says:

    Yea to me Minneapolis is a lot of hype. Would I pick it over Charlotte (another hype city) yea probably. That said they should be applauded for their attitude about their city.

    Here in Milwaukee, we have what I believe to be a great city, but the local attitude is so negative. It’s funny when national press visits Milwaukee always gets rave reviews but the locals maintain this negative self image which I believe hold Milwaukee back. So good for Minneapolis for at least getting the attitude right!

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    Dave, I don’t think that attitude is limited to Milwaukee. It’s common in many smaller cities.

    A person I know in Indianapolis says there are two kinds of people in that city: those who love it and those who hate it. Interestingly, many of the people who love it are the ones that moved there from other places. But the haters are almost all locals.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Dave, New York has nothing but positive self-image, and it still grows at glacial rate, and is unable to solve its pressing issues.

  5. Jim Russell says:

    I’m a fan of Minneapolis. I lived there for two years in the early 1990s as our country was climbing out of a recession. I’m not crazy about the climate, but the city has fantastic cultural assets and I could feel the energy. I still miss the jazz and blues bars of St. Paul.

    Minneapolis is a good city to study for other urban areas who also haven’t won the weather lottery. What makes Minneapolis unique (and hard to copy) is the Nordic mentality, which allows for gobs of public money to be thrown around. All those cultural assets don’t come cheap.

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