Saturday, November 1st, 2008

Bad Example

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” – Matthew 25:28

The word of the Cross is to those who are perishing foolishness” – I Corinthians 1:18

Christian apologists have sought to find various digestible moral meanings in the harsh story of the Parable of the Talents, but what if the intent was merely observational? Rather than instructing on how we should live our lives, maybe the parable just relays an unpleasant truth about the world, namely that, to put it in a modern idiom, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Columbus, Indiana was recently named the most historic destination in the United States by National Geographic magazine. Not only does it have a traditional 19th century downtown, but also a world-renowned collection of modernist masterpieces from the last 50 years – one of the best anywhere. A local businessman agreed to pay the architectural fees for any local civic structure if the town picked an architect on his list. The result is an architectural treasure chest. Today Columbus is the strongest traditional small manufacturing city in Indiana by a country mile. It’s reasonable to speculate that there might be a link between the enlightened architecture and the economic outcomes.

But have other places in Indiana or the Midwest followed this example and utilized quality of space and architecture to try to retain relevance in the modern era? With extremely limited exceptions, No. Why is this?

Often cities fail to learn from their own good examples. Monument Circle in Indianapolis is one of America’s great urban spaces, but it has not inspired that city to even attempt creating similar spaces elsewhere. Why not?

I used to believe that what we needed to transform our cities were good examples, something to show people the possibility of what could be. It’s not that our Midwestern cities are willfully doing the wrong things, it’s just that they don’t know any better. But is that true? I’m increasingly skeptical. There seem to be examples aplenty, they just aren’t emulated.

It seems that only a certain type of city is able to learn by example, and it is disproportionately those places that are already successful to begin with. Thus we see successful cities going from strength to strength while the weaker sit paralyzed. So much of the Midwest falls into that latter category, its cities “sour and crumbling”, unable to muster the will to fight against the physical, environmental, demographic, and economic ruin into which they are falling.

Cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, and Madison are successful. Yet they do not inspire emulators. Conversely, those places themselves are early adopters of good ideas from elsewhere. Every other day there is an article in the news about the success of places like Austin, Charlotte, or Dallas. About the striking urban renaissances in places like Boston or Seattle. Or the life sciences boom in San Diego. But no one learns the lessons. Even the most successful Midwest cities like Columbus, Ohio do not, and while they can take solace in out pacing their Midwestern peers, they still continue to be passed by up and comers like Charlotte and Nashville, relative non-entities twenty years ago. The dying small industrial cities of the Midwest cling to traditional approaches despite the hollowing out that has taken place.

It’s not like we haven’t figured some things out. While the disasters created by previous grand urban planning visions should certainly inspire a great deal of humility, we know much more of what works and what doesn’t. Successful examples teach us what actually worked in the real world, how they work, what it took to get them done, and a great measure of why they worked. They are actual templates for action, too seldom copied, not grand unproven theories.

Why do so many places seem unable to learn even from their own successes, much less others?

I think there are two principal reasons.

One reason is that good examples are often seen as extraordinary one-offs. Paradoxically, to the extent that a policy, a design, or an outcome achieves truly exceptional results, it will be increasingly likely to be seen as sui generis. Monument Circle is such a unique place that it is difficult to imagine its values informing the design of the average city street. Columbus is so amazing that its collection of modernist buildings can be viewed as a sort of artifact of nature like the Grand Canyon, as something that simply is but was not created. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan aren’t role models, they are demigods.

That is why it is so important not just to focus on examples, but the right examples. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

“The mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones.”

Every small town in America bricks up its Main St. And while that might help create the sense of the sacred essential to the city, it doesn’t inspire us to see ourselves or our city in a different way. It often doesn’t move us to overall civic betterment. The design of the average street is so much more important than the design of the main street. The design of the local elementary school more important than that of the war memorial. It is critical to create examples that permeate the city in a way that can instruct. Crucial details like a street sign, well maintained sidewalks, a freshly painted fence around a park. These are what shape our view of what a city is and should be.

When everything about the environment we live in tells us one thing, it’s very difficult for something with a different message to break through and be seen as something that could be applied broadly to ourselves.

The second challenge is more fundamental. Like Machiavelli said, “It takes a wise prince to profit from good advice.” Research suggests that those who score poorly on a test are less likely than those who score well to be able to predict their own performance. In short, the worse we are, the less aware we are of it, and without awareness of our own deficiencies, we’re unlikely to be able to understand what it is we need to do to improve.

This is a key stumbling block. Until we are able to see the linkages between what our city is and does and our own civic performance, we’ll never be able to recognize good examples and use them to improve. That’s the tragedy of the Parable of the Talents. In the Midwest we are too often like the servant who got one talent, and unable to conceive of how we might profitably invest, fearfully cling to what we have, desperate not to lose it. We watch other places use their windfalls to build still greater success while burying what we do have in a hole in the ground.

That’s what we’ve got to overcome. The Midwestern city needs to be inspired to see itself like the cities with ten and five talents. Chicago did that. It looked at New York and London and said, “No, we can’t vie to be the world’s premier city like those two can, but we can sure as heck learn from them and figure how to be sure we’re at least playing the major leagues.” Minneapolis said, “No, we can’t be Chicago, but look at what other mid-tier cities in Europe have been able to achieve – we can certainly play in the game.” Indianapolis looked at what other much bigger cities had done to host the Super Bowl and said, “Why not us?” Columbus, Indiana said, “We can’t be all things to all people, but we can place a bet on architecture.”

But the further one gets from success, the harder it is to will ourselves to change and copy success, much less to innovate. That’s the fundamental challenge facing the Midwest. The challenge is vast and it will take enlightened and courageous leadership to face up to it. But I’ve seen the successful examples like Columbus. That shows me that there is a path forward and a potential bright future for the Midwest if we can figure out how to break through the torpor and get people to start seeing the examples that are right before our eyes for what they really are.

Topics: Urban Culture

2 Responses to “Bad Example”

  1. Radarman says:


    Cincinnatians have historically classified their own city and citizens as conservative. That is all too often seen as an endearing trait. The truth is that the city and the citizens are timid, and there is nothing in the least endearing about timidity.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments

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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