Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Building Suburbs That Last #4 – Supporting Home Based Businesses

This is another installment in my periodic series “Buildings Suburbs That Last”. Rather than restate the intro yet again, I’ll just encourage you to read the setup to this series, as well any any earlier installments you care to.

A lot of the discussion of sustainability in the suburbs revolves around New Urbanism. I think this can have a role to play, but New Urbanism is to a great extent concerned with making suburbs look urban areas moreso than act like them. In fact, a principal tool of new urbanism is the so-called “form based code”. Its very name says what it is about. But while I’m all in favor of good urban form (in the right context), what’s truly important is urban function. Modernists decreed that form should follow function while in sustainability debates it is basically assumed that function follows form. I’m not sure that’s always the case. (I should note that New Urbanism itself is far from restricted to suburban settings, but is often discussed there).

I believe there is more that needs to be done, particularly in the area of breathing true economic life into the suburb. You may recall from my earlier post The True City, I classify economic activity into three types:

  1. Local Goods and Services. That is to say, things produced for purely local consumption. Grocery stores, salons, that sort of thing
  2. Branch or Departmental. Captive exports used to fulfill a specific directed demand from elsewhere. The auto plant is the paradigmatic example.
  3. Indigenous Export Industries. Internally directed and generated production to fulfill non-captive demand from elsewhere. This work, often innovative, is what constitutes the independent economic life force of a city

All places have businesses of the first and second type. But without the third type, the indigenous economic life, a place is what I call a “shadow city”. That is, it is a place conjured into existence by outside forces for their own needs. And when those needs are no more, the shadow collapses on itself. You can think of places like Flint, Michigan or Anderson, Indiana as more or less shadows cast by Detroit. And once Detroit no longer needed them…

Most suburbs are shadow cities. That is, the bulk of the commerce that takes place in them are of the level one and two variety. I think of Level Two type industry in the suburbs as something like big box retail. The problem is, the minute problems start to hit, all these uses, and their tax dollars, and flee to the next ring out. To stop that from happening, we need to build suburbs where there is much more indigenous production outside of the local goods and services variety.

One way to do this is to encourage more home based businesses. Most places allow home based businesses, but often only with onerous restrictions that make growing them beyond one or two people problematic. We need to correct that. We should be encouraging home based businesses not just in the city, but also in the suburbs. The vast bulk of these will never get big, but some of them could grow and eventually graduate to local office space. Some may leave the suburb altogether, but you’ve got a much better chance of retaining a business if it started in your town that if it were never there to begin with.

Over at New Geography, Rick Harrison had a great piece on this called Residential Zoning and the Cyber Village. I recommend reading it since he actually operated a home based business and knows it well, plus has some interesting recommendations.

One of those is a new zoning classification he calls “Residential/Business”:

The Residential/Business (RB zoning) would be an entirely new land use, sort of a morphing of an office center and a neighborhood of luxury single family homes. Office complexes typically have a higher degree of landscaping and architectural detail than single family developments. In the RB neighborhood, homes would be large and impressive with heavily landscaped commons that serve as pedestrian access to the businesses that are located within the home structure.

Another type is the “Cyber Office”:

Unlike the Residential/Business solution, homes in the Cyber Village need not be as business intensive or change the character of a neighborhood. A main component of the Cyber Village is the Cyber Office, serving as the community foundation for business activity. This facility, complete with offices, reception services, mail services, meeting rooms, board rooms, reference libraries and office equipment, would serve subscribers (businesses within the neighborhood) for their out-of-office and administrative needs. This Cyber Office location could serve as the hub for deliveries, recycling, storm shelter, resource center, rideshare, and other community resource needs. Subscribers would choose the level of access to the facility based on their own individual business needs. The features of the cyber office would lend credibility and added professionalism to a residence-based business without breaking the bank.

The Cyber Village concept is one I find particular intriguing. When I reviewed Retrofitting Suburbia I noted that most of the examples focused on commercial property, where, for example, acquiring and scraping an abandoned strip mall is easier than trying to figure out what to do with a struggling subdivision.

The Cyber Village perhaps offers a “cul-de-sac retrofit” option. Perhaps existing subdivisions could take some of their common areas, and redevelop them as business centers instead of the traditional recreation center or whatever. Do what you can to import mixed use into the residential environment without changing its fundamental character, something even the biggest advocates of suburban retrofits don’t yet have an answer to.

If you can’t recreate the built form of the urban environment that supported traditional mixed use, then perhaps there are ways to take a suburban development pattern and find a way to make that more compatible with a new kind of mixed use. Even if it didn’t look like what we expected, we could get many of the same touted urban benefits, such as walkable (or no) commutes.

Whether or not new built forms are involved, I think any suburb that wants to be around for the long haul ought to do what it can to make itself friendly to home based and other locally owned small businesses. Again, especially those beyond basic local retail and services. Putting all your faith in major national chains in shopping centers as your tax base is recipe for ruin over the lifecycle of a suburb.

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Detroit Roundup

Jim Meredith, the man behind the excellent Archizoo site, wrote a thoughtful critique of my Detroit plan and offers up a plan of his own. He’s even got his own cross-compare chart at the end.

The Wall Street Journal just ran an interview with Mayor Dave Bing. I’ve been very impressed with Bing so far. He’s starting to confront some of the core challenges of city government. The thing that most impressed me was that after being elected in a special election to replace Kwame Kilpatrick, he did not lay low, trying to avoid controversy, until facing another election just a few short months later. Instead, he started pursuing tough change right away, betting that the voters would back him up. He was right. Here are some snippets:

Yet Mr. Bing is a realist, something Detroit hasn’t had at the helm for a long time. “We’ve been paralyzed by a culture in the city of Detroit, and maybe the state of Michigan, of entitlement,” by which he means ever-rising union wages. “Our people, I don’t believe, truly understand how dire the situation is. There are ugly decisions that need to be made and I’m surely not going to be popular for making them. But I didn’t take this job based on popularity.”

One group that surely isn’t a fan is the public employee unions….”Today in the city of Detroit,” he tells me, “our union employee benefits cost 68% of what their base wage is. I don’t think that happens in any other place in the country.” To give a sense of how excessive those pay packages are, he adds: “When you look at one of the most dominant labor unions in the world, the UAW, they’re nowhere close to what we give our city workers.”
How important is his business experience in running Detroit? “A city is a business,” he replies. “It’s a $3 billion plus business. The past administrations didn’t understand that, and I think that’s got us where we are.” Voters realize that private “businesses create jobs,” he says. “That’s where wealth is come from, and for too long we’ve treated them like enemies.”

He wants to make the city “more business friendly,” but how? “Take the licensing and permitting process that people have to go through,” he explains. “I’ve heard nothing but war stories. So I’m focusing on how we can help businesses cut through the red tape in city government. As an entrepreneur, if you have to spend all of your time trying to get licensing and permits . . . guess what you do? You’re going somewhere else. We’ve got to make Detroit a place where businesses can make a profit again,” he says hopefully.

The new Detroit Public Schools financial receiver, Robert Bobb, also seems to be working away at many administrative challenges there. Let’s hope these two guys are the start of a new leadership culture in Detroit that can bring real change. It’s early days for both, but there’s reason to have optimism.

In other news, the Economist magazine ran a piece on Detroit called The Art of Abandonment.

Time ruminates on the future of Detroit’s only white city councilor.

The head of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. says the state will rebound in 2010.

3 CEO’s tout plan to save Michigan’s economy.

And in Time’s Detroit blog, Karen Dybis relates the troubles at the Detroit Symphony and Michigan generally to her own personal story in One More Slap in the Face

The Detroit Free Press last week ran a major eight part series called Rising from the Wreckage, charting the course of the wrenching change the auto industry has gone through and where the future might lead. It had eight major chapters and several related stories. Here are the main chapters:

Related stories:

Here is an excerpt from the series wrap-up editorial:

Education first, last and always…..Somehow, even in its budget struggles, this state has to find a way to invest in improving education or risk prolonging this ugly chapter in Michigan history. That means changing the culture, too, to emphasize the value of schooling beyond the 12th grade and of continuous learning. The days of taking a high school diploma to the local factory and getting a ticket to the middle class are over. They were great while they lasted, but they left Michigan ill-equipped to adjust to the 21st-Century global economy. The future belongs to the smart states — and Michigan had better be among those states if it expects a better one. People who learn are also people who change, challenge, adapt and innovate, the very things the auto industry has struggled to do for a decade. Complacency is born from a lack of appreciation for learning and stretching. And that complacency, as much as anything else, brought Detroit’s auto industry to the brink of extinction.

And here are some excerpts from the letters to the editor:

We have lost sight of where it began. It is not about jobs, wages and benefits. It is all about productivity and a culture of innovation.
We have to be mindful that Michigan’s leadership as the reigning capital of the automotive industry, once the driving force of this country and the world, is indeed “gone with the wind.” It is especially difficult since Michigan was the cradle of its beginning and will probably never rise to this leadership status again. In this technical age, in order to compete with the world’s changes, we must prepare ourselves to meet and understand this challenge in order to sustain meaningful jobs and a living. It must start with the education of both children and adults, where we have fallen short.

Update: Commenter Wad, who is a driving force behind the great LA transit blog MetroRiderLA, posted this as a comment. I thought it was a great story and wanted everyone to be able to see:

An interesting Detroit anecdote I can think of is from the Los Angeles Auto Show, which concluded two weeks ago.

First off, after going to auto shows for 20 years, I must say this year’s was by far the dreariest. This show had the fewest of everything: cars, show models and even car makers. This year, Nissan chose not to attend the show. Even the marketplace only took up half of the convention center space.

GM, in particular, was in a bad way. GM still leased 30 percent of a convention center hall, yet it had only presented its four remaining brands (as well as Saab, which received its death warrant last week). Obviously, this left a lot of empty space at its display.

Yet one of the admirable things GM had done was who it had used to promote its cars. GM brought a few of its automobile assemblers to be the car models. All were wearing cream-colored “GM/UAW quality ambassador” shirts and had name badges and the plants they work at.

The Big 3 had brought UAW representatives before, typically as a token gesture with the workers having their own information booths. This year, though, GM had the auto workers discussing the cars in the job usually done by outside marketing firms.

Not only did the auto workers do a polished job explaining the car, but by talking with them you could quickly tell the dedication they had for their brands. You could ask them of their years they worked in autos and their steps up the ladder. Two people I remembered speaking with was one truck builder who was a Michigan native but transferred to an assembly plant in Texas to preserve his skills. He had been with GM for 35 years.

Another was a woman who had been with GM plants throughout Michigan for 20 years. She is a third-generation auto worker, and she is trying to get her oldest son to follow in the family footsteps.

It’s quite the experience when you meet the people behind the product. I don’t hold GM in much high regard, but this was one of its better efforts.

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

The Safety Bogeyman

In order to implement any sort of major capital project that involves the use of federal funds, cities and states have to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement first. One of the things that is done as the first stage of this is to create something called a “Purpose and Need Statement”. Few people really know or care what an EIS is, and even fewer recognize the importance of the Purpose and Need Statement. Any alternatives that are proposed for the project are to be judged by how well they meet the purpose and need of the project. So if your Purpose and Need Statement only talks about, for example, reducing highway congestion, it is an almost sure bet that some sort of highway widening alternative will be proposed. In effect, you can telegraph the solution simply by correctly defining the Purpose and Need, which is why it is so important to make sure that broader community goals, objectives, and aspirations are included in it. They seldom are.

I want to highlight one particular EIS Purpose and Need for illustrative purposes. That is the one for the US 31 corridor in Hamilton County, Indiana. The purpose and need of the project was three fold:

  • Reduce congestion for the US 31 corridor by improving to LOS D or better
  • Improve the level of safety for motorists using the US 31 corridor
  • Provide for the reliable and efficient movement of commerce and regional travel

This is a pretty standard list. It should come as no surprise reading it that the EIS recommended widening and upgrading it to a freeway. If your purpose and need is “driving nails”, it’s no shock when the outcome is “buy a hammer”. Now, I happen to support this project since it is clearly needed. But the narrow scope of the EIS has important consequences. For example, US 31 is a huge barrier dividing the town in two. The project should have had as one of its purposes “Reducing physical barriers between communities”. Because it was not, unsurprisingly many of the things that would have done that were either not included or deemed not cost effective. For example, there are actually no specifics at all around pedestrian or bicycle facilities.

I don’t want to belabor this particular EIS since I already wrote an in depth review of it. Rather, I want to home in on this idea of safety.

Is US 31 dangerous? The EIS notes that “nine of ten segments along US 31 have had overall collision rates higher than the Statewide average rate for similar facilities.” Seems like there might be a problem. But is there?

Keeping in mind Garrison Keillor’s quip about Lake Wobegon being a place where “all the children are above average”, by definition 50% of all roads will have crash rates above the average. This will be true no matter how many road improvements we make. We could reduce crash rates across the board by 90% and half of road segments will still be more dangerous than average.

What this does is build in a bias for road improvements to address safety issues. This particular EIS did not even attempt to compare crash rates against a target level for this type of facility or any other type of metric of what should be expected apart from comparison to the average. For any road with a crash rate above the average (which is by definition half of them), “improving safety” is an all purpose rationale for highway investment. It’s a bogeyman that can be used to scare us into projects.

Of course it almost goes without saying that the only safety measure the EIS authors bother to discuss was that for motorists. The Purpose and Need Statement literally says that the only safety purpose is improving it “for motorists”. I copied those bullets directly from the document.

In fact, I doubt that there were many injuries or deaths among pedestrians or bicyclists. That’s because this 4-6 divided mega-highway is so manifestly unfriendly and unsafe to anyone not in a car, few others would dare to even try to so much as cross it. This condition, naturally, was not viewed as a deficiency in the Purpose and Need Statement. It shows the subtle ways that even generic, seemingly unobjectionable statements bias the outcomes.

Again, I support a healthy investment in highways and even the particular project in question (presuming they get the pedestrian/bicycle parts in during design). I just think we need to take a hard look at how these projects are justified. I’d be surprised if some standards on crash rates didn’t exist. If not, they could easily be created. Possibly they could be benchmarked to averages, with targeted declines over time. To justify a road improvement by using “safety” as a rationale would require a specific level of deviation from the target, not merely an appeal to being less safe than average.

Possibly there are some guidelines to this effect today, but if so, they would appear to be more honored in the breach. This notion that improvements in highways are justified due to merely being below average in safety and not with regards to some objective deficiency should be revisited.

Friday, December 18th, 2009

A Plan for Detroit

The Bookings Institution published their plan for Detroit in a long article called “The Detroit Project: A Plan for Solving America’s Greatest Urban Disaster” in the New Republic. I recommend checking it out.

I’ve got to confess that I found it difficult to determine exactly what it is Brookings is recommending. They talked a lot about what worked elsewhere, but did not lay out a crisp set of recommendations for Detroit. For example, they talk a lot about the turnaround in cities like Turin and Bilbao, and some of the things those cities did. But is Detroit supposed to copy what they did, or are those just inspirational stories? It’s hard to tell.

I have a lot of respect for Brookings. They do some great work through their Metropolitan Policy Program and are one of the key sources of fantastic data about cities. Nevertheless, based on my understanding of their plan, I have some differences from Brookings. Actually, I agree with a lot of it, but have two main areas of disagreement.

1. Economic Development Paradigm. Brookings and I have a major difference of philosophy here. They explicitly call for a government-led industrial policy. I believe you have to improve the business climate. While I believe the government has an important role to play in economic development, the type of explicit direction of investment to business Brookings advocates isn’t going to work. I fundamentally don’t believe in the centrally planned economy and planners could, even if successful, could never have enough bandwidth to create as many jobs as Detroit needs.

2. Need for Bolder, Detroit-Specific Action. Brookings recommends things such as regionalism that they generally tout, as well as other standard playbook solutions. Many of these are good and I’d adopt them, but they aren’t enough for Detroit. We have to go beyond these to come up with additional “only in Detroit” ideas unique to that city.

I took a more complete look at the Brookings plan and how I would improve it in a two-part series for New Geography.

I was also featured this week in a segment on the future of Detroit on the “Detroit Today” program on WDET-FM. The audio is embedded below. My segment starts at around 31:00. If the player doesn’t show up here, you can click through the episode home page to listen. (If anyone wants to edit out just my segment for easy access, I’d welcome getting the MP3.)

In my Brookings take, I didn’t think Detroit was much like the other places it was compared to. I’m not the only one. The Overhead Wire, for example, takes issue with comparing Detroit to Turin.

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Replay: Invert the World

[ This post originally ran on October 12, 2008 ]

“When I am weak, then I am strong” – II Corinthians 12:10

I’ve always struggled with SWOT analysis (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). It seems to me that most situations can be viewed in multiple dimensions. Or, as the well known philosophical proposition puts its, everything implies its opposite.

Consider the case of Eli Lilly in Indianapolis. It’s obviously a huge strength of the city to to have a major life sciences company headquartered there. Lilly money literally built the city. But Lilly is also, in a sense, a weakness. An anchor company like that provides stability and a base to build on, but as we know, an anchor holds you in place. Absent Lilly and other “legacy” employers in life sciences, what would the picture really look like for Indiana in that sector? Would the state be hungrier to build its life sciences industry if these jobs didn’t show up in the surveys, inflating the region’s true performance? Lilly is an opportunity as well. As the company pursues a Boeing-like “systems integrator” strategy where it no longer wants to be a traditional vertically integrated concern, there are big opportunities for Lilly spinoffs to turn into something, and for local services firms to start doing more business with Lilly. The Greenfield laboratory sale to Covance is a case in point. And of course, there are also threats around Lilly. Pharma is a maturing and consolidating sector. While Lilly has made smaller, opportunistic purchases, it has shunned the mega-deals that others have done. Lilly’s board clearly understands that most of these deals are not good for shareholders, and have decided to be wise stewards of their shareholders’ money. That doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t let some other dumb board of directors waste their shareholders’ money. If Lilly were acquired, it would certainly send shockwaves through the region, and I don’t think the city has a contingency or action plan for it.

So in many respects, things are what you make of them. Applying this to the Midwest, I always hear people whining and complaining about how we don’t have oceans, we don’t have mountains, the climate is terrible, it’s flat and boring, etc. Well, this might all be true. But is it a bad thing? Does it mean you can’t compete?

Try this thought experiement. Pick a smaller Midwestern city and exchange its population with that of San Francisco. What do you think the reactions would be. Here’s my bet on what the Midwesterners would say about San Francisco:

  • This place is terrible. It’s an earthquake zone for crying out loud. It costs twice as much to built things here because of that. It isn’t fair.
  • I hate it here. The terrain is so rugged. People today want pedestrian and bike friendly neighborhoods. We could never have that with all these hills.
  • Why did we have get stuck on the tip of this crappy peninsula? We’re isloated, there’s no room to expand, we’ve got all these bridge choke points, etc. This is killing our competitiveness.
  • The weather sucks here. It’s foggy all the time, it never gets warm, you need a jacket in August, etc.
  • Just our rotten luck, we’ve got the ocean, but it’s cold and there’s no good beaches. The winter is yucky and rainy.
  • Woe is us, we don’t have any water since the whole West is nothing but a gigantic semi-desert. Those jerks in the Midwest have the Great Lakes, plus they get plenty of rain too. I can’t believe their luck.

Get the picture?

Try the experiment the other way. What would our friends from San Francisco think of the Midwest? What would they do to build social and built environments to take advantage of what the Midwest has to offer. Consider: the Netherlands is flatter than a pancake, but they managed to turn that into an advantage by creating the most bicycle friendly country in the world. And lest you think the Midwest climate prevents that, I’ll tell you that the Netherlands is famously rainy and not very warm to boot. I think our friends from out west might have a very different view of the Midwest from its current residents.

Yes, there are good hands of cards and bad hands of cards. But often it is just how you play them. The person who has the best hand doesn’t always win. Heck, a lot of time the person with the best hand folds and isn’t even in the game. That’s too many Midwestern places. They’ve already all but folded.

Yes, all things equal, I’d like sunny weather all the time too. Climate has definitely played a role in the migration from the north to the south and west. And beyond the physical environment the Midwest suffers from a host of legacy problems that are legitimate challenges. Nevertheless, I don’t think any of that is a reason the Midwest can’t compete.

We’ve got to invert the world. Stop looking at things from the traditional negative perspective. Start looking at them in a whole new way. Stand the problem on its head. How can we turn our perceived weaknesses into strengths? Why can’t we use flatness and open spaces to our advantage? Why not exploit centrality? Not in a superficial “60% of the US population is within an X hour drive” way but in a deeper, more structural way. Why can’t an agricultural legacy be a strength, particularly with the trends in local, organic, and environmentally friendly food production? There is no possible way to have environmentally friendly farming in California when the state’s entire agricultural complex is dependent on dams and irrigation. Similarly, what’s there in the manufacturing heritage? What about the people and culture? Start figuring out the way to make these things into assets.

I’m not going to offer the prescriptions here, but I do believe that much of changing the game for the Midwest is around changing the mindset. And looking at the region in a new and fresh way is a big part of that.

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

St. Louis: Gateway Arch Grounds Design Competition

Fresh off its success with City Garden, St. Louis is holding an open design competition to re-design the grounds around the Arch, even extending to the Illinois side of the river. For full details you can check out the official project web site.

The competition is using a three stage gating system. This would seem to make it daunting for people without established big name reputations to win, but I’m sure they’ll get plenty of interest.

One of the items they care a lot about is the design philosophy of the team. In my view, this is indeed paramount. This project gives St. Louis the opportunity to really take urban design in the Midwest to a whole new level. If you look at most major civic design projects, especially in the Midwest, they tend to fall into three basic categories:

  1. Starchitecture
  2. Emulation
  3. Traditional

Starchitecture would be something like Milwaukee’s Calatrava expansion or Chicago’s Frank Gehry designed band shell. I’ve got my quibbles with starchitecture. The buildings tend to be more about the brand of the architect than the city they are located in. And their designs are too often self-indulgent. Having said that, many of them are gorgeous. And they serve an important civic function similar to that of Neoclassical in an earlier age. It creates a sacred space and also is a declaration of values and belonging. Once, cities turned to Neoclassical to anchor themselves in the 2,500 year tradition of the finest parts of Western Culture. Today, it is an expression of a desire to belong and be taken seriously among what is believed to be the finest of global values. That’s certainly a legitimate thing to want to do, so having some of these buildings isn’t a bad thing.

Emulation is adopting strategies from elsewhere to the local market. City after city has installed trails and bike lanes, for example. While locals dispute it, I believe City Garden is an adaptation of the Millennium Park concept. Again, nothing wrong with this. You certainly don’t want to adopt a “not invented here” approach. There is plenty of scope of adopting best practices from elsewhere, as long as you tailor them to the local context.

Traditional projects are basic infill type projects in the local vernacular. This is more or less the strategy Indianapolis has adopted for its major buildings. The effect is often “retro” and is done to good effect in such structures as Conseco Fieldhouse, arguably the best basketball arena in the country. These generally don’t win architectural plaudits or break much new ground, but they do have their place. You don’t want every significant building in town to look like it beamed in from somewhere else.

So while none of these are per se bad, I think there’s an opportunity out there for a city to distinguish itself by pursuing another genre entirely, something you might call “world class local”. That is, create something that simultaneously embodies the best of all these approaches to make something totally new.

While dreaming about building a house for myself in Fountain Square, Indianapolis, I started thinking about what my brief would be. I would want something really world class, something that would look at home in the pages of Dwell or Wallpaper, that would be seen as belonging in a world of starchitecture. Of course, I’d also want it to embody all the latest best practices of sustainability. But I’d also want it to look like it belonged, like a true vernacular piece of Midwest architecture, like something that was really a product of the native soil in a way that looked at home there, but would not elsewhere. Something that might, in fact, inspire a new vernacular, a new type of local home that would ultimately become as locally classic and fitting as the American Foursquare or Italianate. Something that would be simultaneously world class and Indianapolis.

I think there’s an opportunity for St. Louis to hold out for something very much like this. Now the project is a landscape, not a building (a greater – and thus perhaps more thrilling – challenge) and is also a special civic place, not an infill home. But the same principle applies.

I think about this site and St. Louis, a city I’ll admit to not knowing as well as I would like, and here is what I see. You’ve got the Arch, which is already an iconic piece of architecture and in effect fills the starchitecture slot here nicely. So what do you surround it with? I’d suggest something authentically “world class St. Louis” – not “world class in St Louis”, an important distinction. Something that aspires to reach the quality of the Arch, but in a way that is unmistakably of the local soil. The Arch is what modern architecture had to say to St. Louis. This project can be what St. Louis has to say back. It can be a uniquely St. Louis perspective and contribution to contemporary landscape architecture. It can anchor the Arch in St. Louis. Respect the Arch? Yes. Worship before it? No.

The location along the Mississippi River offers an opportunity to again redefine what it means for a city to engage with a truly major river, one prone to significant periodic flooding. And, the Illinois side of the river is included as well, giving a great opportunity to both highlight the individuality of Missouri and Illinois, but also to create a symbol of a regional unity that is clearly needed to compete and succeed in the modern world.

Simultaneously satisfying all of these criteria in a landscape architecture project would be a big challenge – but meeting big challenges is what the best design is all about. The risk in my view is that a traditional “big rep” designer will simply create another international-class design or make only facile allusions to St. Louis. It will be interesting to watch and see what happens. With City Garden and now this, perhaps St. Louis can look at landscape architecture as one area it will use as a differentiator. The Millennium Mall and waterfront offer plenty of additional opportunities.

Read another take on this from St. Louis Urban Workshop.

And here are some great thoughts and proposals from another local blogger.

On a related note, Metropolis magazine had a nice piece on the effect of the City Garden park: The Spirit of St. Louis. Check it out.

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

A Midwest Megaregion?

This is the last installment in my series on megaregions. The first was Mega-Skepticism, an earlier take I had the was down on the concept. The second was a review of the book “Megaregions”, edited by Catherine L. Ross.

In this piece I am going to look for potential applications of megaregional geography to the Midwest. Since my blog is about cities, I’ll primarily focus on the large urban aspects.

While there is not a truly hierarchical relationship between cities in the Midwest, it is useful to think of it like a solar system. Chicago is the sun at the center, and the rest of the large cities orbit around it like planets. The smaller cities of the Midwest orbit these other cities in turn like moons, creating a sort of three tier system. Is there a basis of collaboration across these cities (and their rural surroundings and states they are in) that would lead to synergies? Let’s see if we can find some.

Shared Best Practices

It’s no secret that the Midwest has struggled in the global age. Structural economic changes in agriculture and manufacturing have led to serious problems in many places. Not everyplace is doing poorly, but there are plenty of challenges to go around.

In his book “Caught in the Middle“, Richard Longworth not only documented the problems, he showed how these states and communities were basically dealing with the problems as islands. Not only were people not collaborating across state lines, they usually didn’t even know what was going on in the next city. I’ve seen this myself many times. People in places like Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Columbus are almost totally ignorant of what is going on in the other towns in that group.

Since the conditions and problems are similar, there is plenty of scope for sharing the “R&D” costs of looking for solutions. Longworth suggests a Midwest think tank would be a good place to start, and also a Midwest newspaper. Both good ideas.


Attempting to create a regional political block is one possibility. There are any number of issues affecting the Midwest – trade and industrial policy, environmental rules like cap and trade, transportation, and more – where having a common voice in Washington might be beneficial.

One way to do this would be through a sort of regional legislative caucus. I scanned the list of House caucuses and did not see anything that looked like a Midwest regional caucus, though I did find a “Friends of Liechtenstein” caucus. The closest thing I found was an Automotive Caucus. There’s caucus for Africa’s Great Lakes, but not the Midwest’s.

I don’t want to read too much into these member organizations, but clearly there would be plenty of scope to improve regional coordination on matters of mutual interest. Also, there might be some scope for joint lobbying efforts and that sort of thing.


The proposed Midwest high speed rail network is an obvious area of collaboration. Most of the proposed routes span states. They also involve multiple endpoint cities who need to agree on basic things. The governors of the Midwest states have already signed a statement endorsing a plan to coordinate their efforts on high speed rail and agree on a set of priority corridors.

From the standpoint of other modes, I don’t see as much collaboration possibility, other than traditional urban regional projects such as the Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville. Local transit, airports, and highways seem to be very parochial. It is harder to draw out the common interest and synergies.

The four state study on I-70 dedicated truck lanes is a notable exception. Possibly taking this concept and scaling it up could create a Midwest with a superior freight network – possibly including things like extended trailer-sets and much higher weight limits – that would give it a competitive advantage within the country. If private money built these as toll lanes, even better.

Economic Development

This is a particularly interesting challenge. I would argue that in the golden age of manufacturing, the Midwest was in fact a true megaregion. The Midwest was a true hierarchical system in those days, with twin poles in Chicago and Detroit. There was a true hinterland relationship. It created “agglomeration economics” where the Midwest had natural resources, location, transportation infrastructure, physical and human capital that made it a true cluster in agriculture, automotive and other manufacturing, and metals.

Today that has all broken down as those industries have dramatically shrank. In particular, the global trade regime, very low cost labor, and dramatically lowered transportation costs have reduced the advantage of geographic proximity in these industries. Selected industries like financial and producer services retain the clustering advantage, but within a vastly reduced geographic scope restricted to isolated areas such as Chicago’s central core.

Tridig Banerjee in the “Megaregions” book categorized megaregions as mosaic (mesh) vs. network (hierarchy). The Midwest was a hierarchical network in that framework, similar to my solar system analogy. The question is whether or not there is some class of economic activity for which intra-megaregional geographic proximity is valuable without having to be of the daily face to face sort you find in Chicago’s Loop. In my view, one place to look is in that old hierarchical structure. Can we re-establish some hierarchical subdivision of production that is relevant to the modern age?

I wrote a series of posts in early 2009 called “Reconnecting in the Hinterland” in which I explored this very notion. I started out looking principally at Milwaukee and Indianapolis, the two closest major metros to Chicago. I also made a assumption we had high speed rail connections between the cities. What might this enable us to do that we couldn’t do before?

I identified two possible value points here. The first was expanded labor markets, which I wrote about in my article “Metropolitan Linkages”. The idea here is to target people who seen to be in Chicago semi-regularly (say a day or two per week) for face to face sessions but otherwise live in a place like Indianapolis. Read the original article for full details.

The other was “onshore outsourcing“. The Midwest is a perfect place for BPO in my view. Its small manufacturing cities in particular would make good candidates for service centers. I actually use the example of a finance and accounting center in Danville, Illinois. (With the South Shore connection already in place, South Bend might be a particularly well placed locale for Chicago-centric BPO). I also noted legal services, where lower cost firms in regional cities could partner with Chicago’s large firms to handle the more routine side of some legal matters. I can tell you of at least one reader of my blog who makes a good living as a patent attorney in Fort Wayne from work he gets sourced from Chicago because he is significantly cheaper.

I hypothesize that the Midwest has a unique cost profile. If you plotted the cost of doing business on say one of Richard Florida’s spike charts, I think you’d find a big spike in Chicago that plunges precipitously at its border. Where else in America can you go from a moderately expensive housing market like Chicago to Indianapolis, the cheapest big city housing market in America, in just a three hour drive? Figuring out how to exploit this cost gradient to me looks like the major opportunity area.

Another thing I might suggest is non-compete agreements. Indianapolis already has a fairly successful regional non-compete. Various towns in the metro area have agreed not to offer incentives to existing businesses to relocate within the region unless the current town of residence grants a waiver. I don’t have all the details, but it seems to work well in practice. And towns do in fact offer such waivers. Is there something similar that could be done across regions? It would probably be difficult. I’m not sure it could be done on a state level, but perhaps metro areas could do it, starting on a bilateral basis. It’s something to explore at least.


A good number of the major research universities in the Midwest are already part of the Big Ten conference, so know each other well and get along well in many respects. However, theses universities have programs that overlap heavily and are often directly competitive. Spin-off rules and such seem to privilege local environments.

If there were one game-changer in the Midwest from collaboration, it would probably be some sort of academic specialization, reciprocal in-state tuition, and more geographically generous technology transfer programs. You already see academic specialization and hierarchies within states, where it often works well. I think Indiana’s a great example. However, the prospect of this happening across states seems extremely low. We can always dream though.


The examples above illustrate the principles at work. Go down the list of functional domains in a city and ask if there is a way we can leverage the megaregional geography for something unique it enables. As noted in previous installments, value levers including things like specialization and the division of labor, fixed cost efficiency, diversification, and purchasing/monopoly/cartel power.

I’ve primed the pump with a list. I’d be very interested to hear any additional contributions from all of you, so please add your thoughts on additional applications in the comments.

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

The Good News

I thought I would lead off a few pieces of very good recent news.

First, Louise Nippert donated $85 million to Cincinnati arts groups. $75 million of this goes to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, making it the largest gift in that institution’s history and one of the largest to any orchestra anywhere.

Also, the Indianapolis Regional Center Design Guidelines won the 2010 National Planning Excellence Award for a Best Practice from the American Planning Association. Columbus, Ohio won in the Best Practice for Implementation category for its University District revitalization. And Chicago won in the Outreach category for its Wicker Park Bucktown Master Plan. The APA web site has the full list of winners.

Ideas For Cities

Back in September at Velocity Grand Rapids, an energetic bunch of urban enthusiasts came up with a collection of ideas for cities. I participated and previously shared some of the thinking this event stimulated in me. Recently, GOOD Magazine started blogging a huge collection of ideas that were captured from that event. It is called Ideas for Cities and is worth checking out. You won’t agree with all of them, I’m sure, but you are sure to find some good things on the list as well.

It’s Not a Race – But What If It Were?

I don’t know the original source of this video but I found it via Human Transit. It shows the progress of rail line construction in various cities over time. On your mark, get set…

If video does not display, click here.

2010 Housing Outlook

Pittsburgh’s Chris Briem pointed me at this Fortune magazine housing outlook for 2010. Pittsburgh happens to be the only market projected positive for 2010, though several markets turn positive in 2011. Here’s the Midwest cities from the list. The rank is in order of best to worst housing markets for the top 100 metros.

  • #1 – Pittsburgh: +0.41%
  • #7 – Kansas City: -1.81%
  • #8 – Louisville: -2.24%
  • #12 – St. Louis: -2.39%
  • #24 – Indianapolis: -3.23%
  • #30 – Milwaukee: -3.92%
  • #34 – Chicago: -4.30%
  • #40 – Minneapolis: -4.99%
  • #50 – Columbus: -6.54%
  • #51 – Cleveland: -6.98%
  • #57 – Cincinnati: -8.30%
  • #65 – Detroit: -9.40%

A Tsunami of Freight

The Cincinnati Enquirer has a great series of articles on increasing truck traffic in the region and insufficient investment in roads to keep up with it. I-75 is now the busiest north-south trucking route in the US, and 47,500 trucks per day pass through Cincinnati.

I know there are a lot of people out there that are anti-highway. But a lot of the arguments around it relate to local land use and development patterns and ignores freight. Clearly, rail freight and intermodal transport are growing at a rapid clip and need investment. But trucking is always going to be a very important part of our national economy and keeping freight moving on a national and regional level is critical. For a big rig, every hour of delay costs about $67 – that adds up quickly.

I support transit development but also believe we need highway investment. With almost every Midwest city and state saying distribution and logistics are going to be a big part of its economy, highway investment is even more critical. If your region has big time congestion and roads with obsolete dimensions, that’s dramatically going to hurt your business climate for transport intensive industries. The cities that figure out how to make this investment are going to distinguish themselves.

One of the things I said I was going to do when I started this blog was call them like I see them, and for this I know I part ways with many. We absolutely need major highway investment in our cities. Do we need transit investment as well? Absolutely. I believe they are actually complementary, not substitutes. Transit works well were highways don’t and vice versa. We need to complement urbanized cores with transit appropriate development patterns with strong regional and national highway networks. It’s a matter of AND not OR.

More from the Enquirer:

World and National Roundup

I want to highlight two long but fascinating and troubling articles about international cities. The first is The Dark Side of Dubai from the Independent (UK). (via @a_me1). It is an incredible peek behind the glittering facade of this Middle Eastern Oz.

The other is a piece in the Observer (UK) on Rio’s drug war. This piece is another example of why the Guardian/Observer is the best newspaper in the world.

Design Boom takes a look at some of the coolest subway designs in the world. Highly recommended. Nothing in the United States featured, of course.

Foreign Policy magazine published their first annual list of the top 100 global thinkers.

Forbes/Kotkin: The World’s Smartest Cities

PD Smith has an opinion piece in Wired UK proposing to use taxation to get people back into cities over there. You wouldn’t have to tax me to get me to move to London! Just offer me a job. It might be my favorite city in the world.

The Guardian: How locals transformed streets into public spaces.

The Atlantic: Mayors vs. Governors. How cities are getting short changed on the stimulus.

Glaeser: What Makes Cities Great

NYT: Entering the super-project void – Bemoaning the lack of transformational infrastructure projects in America.

Essay: Dawn of the Deal Mall (via Kaid Benfield)

A study shows that wind farms don’t harm property value.

CS Monitor: Five cities that will rise in the New Economy (via Houston Strategies)

Reihan Salam: We’re all Michiganders now

Elizabeth Warren: America without a middle class.

David Brooks: An Innovation Agenda

New York Magazine: The Encyclopedia of Counter-Intuitive Thought – a compendium of some of the best works of counter-intuitive thinking from the last decade. Very stimulating. (Via @jwalkersmith)

New Geography: Will New Urbanists Deliver a Home Win with Miami 21?

NYT: Trouble in Philly, Lessons in New York. There’s a backlash against bicycling in Philadelphia after bicyclists killed two pedestrians. It would be tempting to just bash cars more here, but biking advocates need to address the legitimate concerns about how biking affects pedestrians. Clearly there is an element of the biking community, albeit a minority, that rides rudely and hazardously. We need to educate and encourage bikers to share the road with pedestrians just as we do the same with drivers.

Streetsblog New York: MTA Doomsday Redux?

Five days that shook Seattle. A look back at the WTO meeting and riots (via @OtisWhite)

Sizing up a sharp turn at the Denver Art Museum. A look at that institutions progress as 20 year director Lewis Sharp departs.

How two cities revived train stations. The Detroit Free Press examines how Kansas City and Nashville reused their train stations, seeking a model for saving the Michigan Central Depot.

Nashville: Medical Mart chooses convention center home. (via Brewed Fresh Daily)

Kaid Benfield: Texas (!) becomes first state to adopt smart streets rule. I’m not as surprised as he is. With that Texas attitude, when they think they are behind on something, they make a point to catch up, which is why Texas actually bests almost the entire Midwest on most measures of urban progressivism.

Ohio Faces ‘Mobility Crisis’

Urban Cincy highlighted a study that talked about the precipitous decline of transportation option other than automobiles in Ohio. He’s got all the details you should definitely check out, but I wanted to share the maps of non-auto transportation links in Ohio in 1979 vs. 2009.

First 1979:

Now 2009:

Policing Levels

Urban Cincy has a another great piece, this one on police staffing levels in Cincinnati It’s an interesting and provocative analysis in an area in which the discourse is dominated by a political culture in which no one wants to appear soft on crime.

He had a great chart of police officers per capita for Midwest cities. Here is the research, in terms of police per 100,000 residents in the year 2000:

  • Cleveland: 381
  • Milwaukee: 335
  • Pittsburgh: 310
  • Cincinnati: 307 (2010 data pro forma with planned reductions)
  • Kansas City: 284
  • Louisville: 269
  • Columbus: 245
  • Minneapolis: 236
  • Toledo: 220
  • Indianapolis: 207
  • Portland: 190

Names and Identity

The New York Times had a great piece Sunday called “Vancouver Talks Tough to Itself“. That’s Vancouver, Washington. One of the key focus areas of the article is how sharing a name with Vancouver, British Columbia kills their brand recognition. One local even created a shirt saying, “Vancouver (not B.C.), Washington (not D.C.), Clark County (not Nevada), near Portland, Oregon (not Maine)”.

The town is actually considering the step of renaming itself back to its original moniker of Fort Vancouver in an attempt to eliminate the confusion.

This story made me immediately think of Columbus, Ohio. It’s another city that struggles under the weight of a fairly generic name. It’s not that it is overshadowed by a more famous or bigger Columbus, but rather that Columbus is simply a common name for cities in America (Columbus, Indiana; Columbus, Georgia) and that the word Columbus to many people means the Columbus in their own state. Also, until recently Columbus was in the shadow of Cleveland and Cincinnati, so didn’t have longstanding historic recognition. It is probably the biggest city in America where you always have to give the state, not just the city name – Columbus, Ohio. It is probably the largest city out there where a Wikipedia search on its name takes you to a disambiguation page.

It prompts an interesting question: should Columbus change its name? That would be a radical step for sure, one fraught with danger. But also a potential game changer for the city. Just the act of doing so would generate huge press. If I were them I would consider it except that such exercises are inherently so difficult, as most corporate branding initiatives show. I lived through the transition from Andersen Consulting to Accenture. So I know that finding a good name is problematic, and even the best of names sounds stupid when you first hear it. (I think Accenture did one of the better jobs out there). Would anyone pick, for example, Chicago as a city name today? No. The name has meaning because of the history and what it represents. So even the coolest of names would take a long time to “break in” so to speak. If someone really did come up with a great name though, it would be something to debate.

Cincinnati Agenda 360

The Cincinnati Enquirer did a major feature on Agenda 360 last week. Agenda 360 is the region’s strategic plan for the future, focused around raising the number of young people with college degrees, adding jobs, and more.

As the piece notes, however, the goals seem unattainable in the target timeframe, especially with the recession. The Agenda 360 organization is still thinking big, however. According to executive director Myrita Craig, “We wanted to aspire to not just an incremental increase, but to a quantum increase. Love it or hate it, that’s what it is.” The Enquirer suggests that they will be forced to re-evaluate these goals and I agree. I think it is good to set stretch goals and dream big, but if attaining them is patently impossible, it is time for a rethink. Having said that, there is still plenty of good in Agenda 360, and particularly in the process they used.

I previously took an in-depth look at Agenda 360 back in March.

The Enquirer also shared thoughts from several other people on the plan:

The Cleveland Infrastructure Challenge

A couple of news articles out of Cleveland got me thinking again about the infrastructure challenges facing not just that city, but most of our cities. The first was a piece on the recontruction of the Inner Belt bridge. This nine figure project is going to result in six years of construction and traffic disruption.

The other was about the city seeking $219 million to shore up the Cuyahoga River bank. A section of it is in danger of collapsing, which would disrupt the shipping channel, destroy a major sewer line, and take out a roadway.

When you look at expenses like this – and others such as CSO remediation – it shows again the problem that our core cities are forced to spend huge amounts of money just to replace or repair aging infrastructure. When suburban areas build infrastructure, at least they get the benefit of mostly net new product. But after a lot of these expenditures in our cities, they have more or less the same product. Fixing a decaying bank just holds off problems, but doesn’t add to Cleveland’s competitive advantage. Indeed, to the extent that local funds are used, it only adds to the fiscal burden. In my view this is again where federal assistance could help our cities tremendously.

Also, it is critical to find any way we can to get value add out of these projects. Too often instead we get value engineering that strips these down to the bare minimum to save on budget. The end result is a project that doesn’t move the needle for the city or region, but still costs a fortune.

The Asian Invasion

Illinois recently poisoned the Sanitary and Ship Canal in order to kill off Asian carp, and invasive species working its way north from the Mississippi River. There is a huge fear that these voracious eaters would devastate the ecosystem of the Great Lakes if they managed to make it to Lake Michigan.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to force Chicago to close the Chicago River locks to stop it. She’s even threatening legal action. Subsequent press coverage indicated the Army Corps of Engineers is actively considering a temporary closure.

Let’s face it, Chicago would never have been allowed to reverse the flow of the Chicago River today. Other Great Lakes states have long seethed at this arrangement and the threat to the ecosystem is a foot in the door to re-open the issue of whether Chicago can continue to divert billions of gallons of Lake Michigan water. This could get interesting.

More Midwest

Comparing the Modern Wing and the Pritzker Pavillion (Build Blog). The authors reach more or less the same conclusion I did.

Casino, convention center, medical mart and other downtown projects need something else to succeed – more people (Plain Dealer) – via Brewed Fresh Daily
Cleveland’s Euclid corridor has paved way for economic development (Plain Dealer)
RTA’s Euclid Health Line faring well in ridership, innovation (Plain Dealer) – An architecture review of the new BRT line, with video.
Cleveland’s RTA exploring ways to saving on utility costs (Plain Dealer)

Grand Cobo Ideas Not So Far Fetched (Free Press)
Population loss costs Michigan $4.3 billion (Detroit News)
Downsize Detroit: Strengthen city by phasing out depleted neighborhoods (John Mogk @ Detroit News)
Hundreds of Michigan road projects slashed (Detroit News)
Rethinking Talent Retention (Generation Y Michigan) – via Burgh Disapora

Indianapolis displays the art of ‘Sacred Spain’ (AP) – A fantastic review of this exhibition from the Associate Press
Place making in Irvington (A Place of Sense)
New Lease on Life for Old City Hall? (IBJ)
Roadside America gets flair (American Dirt)
Zoning board to vote on I-465 sign request – PLEASE, PLEASE VOTE NO

Louisville sidewalks get $7.4 million makeover (C-J)

Regional Transit Authority caught in a funding tangle (J-S)

Regionalism: What Is It Good For? (Politics and Place)
Pittsburgh tuition tax plan spurs student fears (Philadelphia Inquirer)

St. Louis
Renewed Metro (transit) tax campaign will test St. Louis value (Post-Dispatch)

Twin Cities
Minneapols-Duluth rail price tag rises to $1 billion (Star Tribune)
What deficit? Vikings fans rally for new stadium (Star Tribune)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Randomly Quotable

Corine Mauch on Manufacturing in Cities

Corine Mauch, mayor of Zurich, Switzerland, had this to say in Monocle Issue 25 when asked, “Do we need to bring back craft and manufacturing to our cities?”

Cities are expensive locations, and so firms must be innovative instead of producing at the lowest costs. Besides the service sector, research and development as well as custom-built products are examples of industries that could remain within city borders. Nevertheless, diversity is important for a city and this includes craft and manufacturing. There must be affordable space for niche producers and experiments

I am a big believer that we need to strive to maintain manufacturing capabilities in our cities and that craft and specialty manufacturing is the way to go. See my post, “The New Industrial City” for more on this.

Emmylou Harris on Nashville

There is an interview with Emmlyou Harris in issue nine of Lula magazine. She had an interesting take on living in Nashville that think is very relevant to many cities of similar size. This is in response to the question, “How would you describe Nashville to someone that’s never been there before?”

You know I really love it. I don’t know if it’s a place you immediately love though. Nashville’s a little funky, the downtown area is in a period of transition, it’s got a lot of touristy stuff with the country music thing, a lot of really junky tourist shops, but then there’s Vanderbilt University, there’s Centennial Park which is really quite beautiful….but for me I think you really have to live there. When you live in a place for a long time and you know how to get from one place to another, and you have really great friends that you can actually bike to their house and you have funky little neighborhoods, you kind of fall in love with it. It’s not like you get a crush on somebody, it’s like an old friend that you gradually realize that this is the person you want to spend your life with.

When you visit New York City, its coolness smacks you in the face immediately. Dittos for lots of other cities. But for smaller cities, like Nashville and the places I often talk about in the Midwest, it’s not like that. It’s like the buildings you see in Mexican towns. The outside is rather blank and sparse, but open the doors and find a beautiful, lush courtyard. The beauty is on the inside. Instead of surface flash, there are more discreet charms only accessible to those in the know.

For any Nashvillians out there, it is worth picking up this Lula. The guest editor is Karen Elson, who I believe lives in Nashville now. It is sprinkled with Nashville references and connections, rather tastefully and well integrated into a publication where London, New York, and Los Angeles are more commonly heard. But it is done without excessive boosterism or self-consciousness. Definitely worth checking out.

Pitchfork on Indianapolis

IU grad student Eric Harvey, writing an album review at Pitchfork, had this to say about Indianapolis:

It aired back in 2007, but I still vividly remember the end of VH1’s documentary “NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell”, when the talking heads were mulling over what had become of the formerly dangerous and tawdry Times Square, placed in contrast to that historically accursed year. “They turned it into Indianapolis,” Jimmy Breslin succinctly said. And more or less, here you go: Aside from David Letterman and the Colts, Indy gets a bad rap, when it gets a rap at all….My uncle used to jokingly tell out-of-towners he was from “India-no-place,” as a way of acknowledging the sort of cultural invisibility that guys like Breslin attribute to Indy.

I’m not surprised Harvey remembered that quote from two years ago. Hoosiers are a modest, self-effacing people by nature, but quick to take offense at and remember slights. Clearly, the national reputation of Indianapolis – apart from the Colts and Letterman – is either non-existent or negative. That’s a fact. But while I think it is always good to get your message out in a positive way, you can’t let people in the likes of New York or Chicago get under your skin. Those cities define their own coolness in part by how un-cool they like to think of everyone else. So it is impossible to ever measure up. Rather than plan that sucker’s game, a better course is to put that famous ornery, contrarian Hoosier nature to work and chart a path to your own success. You won’t please everybody, but if you’ve got a message that appeals to some, you’ll find your own niche and your own place.

Thanks to longtime reader Ablerock for sending me this link.

Richard Rodriguez on the City and the Newspaper

Writing in the November 2009 issue of Harper’s, in a lengthy piece on the death of the newspaper as told though the lens of the San Francisco Chronicle, Richard Rodriguez (not the one who is CTA President) had this to say:

We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I”. Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnectedness from body, from presence, from city.
Something funny I have noticed, perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a cafe table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hardcopy in the “New Establishment” issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London; they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and DO NOT DISTURB signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART), they will do it.
We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses. (Moby Dick is “not a really good piece of fiction” – Feb. 14, 2009 by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill. – two stars out of five). We are without obituaries…

This article is not online unless you are a subscriber. If you are one, click here to read. If not, it is worth grabbing the hard copy to get it at the news stand. It is the least we can do.

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Review: Megaregions, Edited by Catherine L. Ross

The long-term utility of the megaregion as a distinct planning scale is still unproven. Does the megaregional approach confront or evade the core planning issues of equity, democracy, livability, economic vitality, and design excellence? If Jane Jacobs old quip about a region being ‘an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution’ remains cogent, then the current interest in megaregions represents either a logical territorial scaling up to match the rapid expansion of regions, or another attempt by stalwart regionalists to re-assert (and update) the relevance of their old schema.” – Scott Campbell in Megaregions

This review of the book Megaregions, edited by Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Catherine L. Ross, is the second in my three part series on megaregions. I put my cards on the table in my post with initial skepticism about the usefulness of the concept. I will follow this up with a look at potential applications of megaregionalism in the Midwest.

I was very struck by the quote at the top when reading the book. How often to do you find people questioning the very validity of the topic at hand when writing a piece for a book on it? The fact that Ross brings in people who are willing to ask tough questions about megaregions is a testament to her intellectual integrity. It would have been very easy to simply glom onto a topic that shows some early stage notions of being popular in the world at large and trying to flog it for all it was worth. Indeed, Ross is known on this topic, but here she takes an opportunity to shine a light on this emerging concept to see what she might find without excessive boosterism on the subject. As she notes herself in the book, “The quality of a new idea can be judged by the possibilities it creates, especially when such possibilities stimulate new and unbounded interpretations and allow more innovative and beneficial outcomes.” I see this book as dedicated to exploring some of those possibilities and trying to collect and develop frameworks for understanding it and applying it.

The book consists of thirteen chapters, each written by different authors, exploring some aspect of the topic, including looks at Europe and Asia. I will focus primarily on the United States, but don’t want to mislead into thinking this is a US only book.

One of the key questions to answer is, just what the heck is a megaregion? There are a few definitions, but the one I thought was best came from America 2050, a project of New York’s Regional Plan Association. They describe it as “a large, connected network of metropolitan areas that are joined together by environmental, cultural, infrastructural, and functional characteristics.” In short, it is a collection of linked metro areas in a given region. There is an entire chapter in the book devoted to ways to identify and delineate megaregions. And, of course, map them. Here’s the map America 2050 created using their approach:

A few things jump out from this map. First, the megaregion is really an eastern US concept. West of Texas, most of these regions have one main dominant metro, possibility with a satellite or two. The exception the Pacific Northwest “Cascadia” region. Second, the megaregion concept relies heavily on intuitive eyeball appeal. That is, we look at the map and see these clusters of regions and it just seems to make sense that they are related, apart from any academic methodology of boundary delineation. That’s not to say there isn’t logic behind the map, but I believe a lot of the popular appeal comes from its intuitive plausibility. America 2050 does a great job of recognizing this when they reference the cultural aspects of the megaregion. We think of, for example, the Midwest and Northeast as having distinct regional history, culture, values, and economic structures. This powerfully reinforces the intuitive appeal of megaregions. The idea is that we have cities in close proximity, with a lot of common culture and problems, so wouldn’t it be great if they figured out how to work together to solve them?

America 2050 doesn’t have the only map going. Richard Florida, a leading popular exponent of megaregions who wrote a paper on the subject with Tim Gulden and Charlotta Mellander called “The Rise of the Mega-Region“, used images of light emissions from the space to draw boundaries of areas that seemed continuously developed. Here’s his map:

Florida’s definition is based on continuously built up areas, but doesn’t necessarily imply any functional integration, though he has posited this is the case.

And here is the map that is being distributed with the Ross book’s promo materials:

Reading the book and looking at these maps really crystallized in my mind possibly the biggest appeal of megaregions to federal level planners in the Unites States and Europe, even though I have never seen it actually stated anywhere. Namely, megaregions are a convenient abstraction for federal level thinkers to make sense out of the large number of diverse metro areas in America and Europe.

Think about it, there are a huge number of metro areas in the United States. There are a bit over 50 metro areas of over one million people. The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program deals with the top 100 metros in America. These numbers are simply too high to give proper attention to each.

I’ve championed the notion that there is no one size fits all urban policy and that cities need to develop unique strategies and solutions based on their unique local context (see, “The Mayor as CEO” for instance). But think about it from the standpoint of a think tank in Washington or New York, or from that of Adolfo Carrión, director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs. How do you cope with policies for 250, 100, or even 50 metros? It would be extremely difficult. But it is certainly feasible think about 10-12 megaregions. I think that’s one reason why people so much want there to be validity to the megaregion concept. It provides a very convenient intermediate level of abstraction between the large scale United States (or Europe) and the fine grained detail of individual metro areas.

Brookings did this by positing a “Great Lakes” region to help organize a portion of its thinking. And I did too. As someone who has expressed skepticism on megaregions, I’ve got to admit that my own blog is to some extent a product of that thinking. One of the keys to its success was to pick a topic scope greater than the individual city (and thus to have more than purely parochial interest) but smaller than the nation (where I likely would never have been able to gain traction amongst long established big names). The 12 one million plus metros I focus on is conveniently similar to the total number of megaregions in the US (and the 12 Florida identifies in Europe). And I’ve been able to extrapolate out lessons from them that are relevant cross-regionally, and also to a broader audience as well. The metros of the Midwest actually have a lot of diversity. The strengths, weaknessnes, challenges, and opportunities of, say, Chicago, Detroit, and Columbus are radically different. They require very different policy approaches. Nevertheless, there seems to be some benefit in thinking about them together.

So apart from any real world manifestation megaregions might have, they are an important organizational construct in creating a hierarchy in any sort of large, multi-city geography like the United States or Europe. Megaregions enable people to conceptualize and manage these complex, fine grained territories. It is applying to metro areas the same regional aggregation concept used for functions like the Federal Reserve System (12 regional fed banks) or the federal district court system (11 appellate districts). That is, megaregions are necessary purely as a level in the hierarchy, even if they prove to be a phantom level. They can be defended purely on the basis of organizational and managerial theory even if they have no other application. Indeed, the fact that people persist in trying to find applications for them despite the lack of clear cut success to date shows that at some level they intuitively understand this organizational need.

Robert E. Lang and Arthur C. Nelson had a chapter that hints at this as well, noting that the mere act of formalizing a construct by the government causes people to start paying attention to it. Their example is how the OMB created the construct of “micropolitan areas”. Clearly the idea is that if the federal government created official megaregion definitions, and reported data against it, the concept would take on a life of its own by virtue of that. (Data collection would likely be trivial since megaregions would no doubt be made up of counties, such as by creating a layer above Economic Area). Their idea seems more to create something called a megapolitan area rather than a megaregion, however.

Tridig Banerjee has an interesting chapter further trying to refine the megaregion concept by identifying types of megaregions along a two by two matrix (which, with my management consulting background, I of course love). The dimensions are “galaxy” vs. “corridor” and “mosaic” vs. “network” (hierarchical). The Midwest would be a galaxy-network. Scott Campbell has a chapter asking a number of useful questions, such as the one at the top of this piece.

Ross herself seems particularly interested in the transportation aspects of megaregions, and this is one where it seems to have the most direct applicability. For example, most of the various high speed rail proposals out there revolve around megaregions. There are shared corridors of interest, such as interstate highways, and other important features, such as the Great Lakes. The question is whether these are items of relevance to a megaregion properly so-called, or if they are just the focus of ad-hoc “coalitions of the willing”. I actually suspect the latter as there are many of these (think of the I-69 and I-35 NAFTA corridor coalitions for example, or California’s high speed rail proposal) that exist independently of megaregions. In my view a megaregion would need to represent some true community of interest, in the way that a metro region does, to represent some sort of truly functional element, and I haven’t seen it yet. In fact, I have argued that even things like the Midwest high speed rail network shouldn’t be thought of as a network, but rather as a series of point to point connections linking outlying areas to Chicago. Chicago will not be an HSR hub in the way that O’Hare is a hub – that is, for traffic interchange. Indeed, in we see this in Europe, where there is very little transfer traffic of this type. There seems to be something to this megaregional transportation idea, but I’m not sure what is yet.

The piece I found most compelling was the chapter by Saskia Sassen. In my original piece on megaregions I noted that lots of people talk about them, but no one says what it is we should actually do with them in order to create real value. Sassen suggests how this might happen. Here’s an excerpt:

I argue that the specific advantages of the megaregional scale consist of and arise from the coexistence in one regional space of multiple types of agglomeration economies. These types of agglomeration economies are distributed across diverse economic spaces and geographic scales: central business districts, office parks, science parks, the transportation and housing efficiencies derived from large (but not too large) commuter belts, low-cost manufacturing districts (today often offshore), tourism destinations, specialized branches of agriculture (e.g., horticulture or organically grown food), and the complex kinds of agglomeration economies evident in global cities. Each of these spaces evinces distinct agglomeration economies and, empirically at least, is found in diverse types of geographic settings, from urban to rural, from local to global.

The thesis is that a megaregion is sufficiently large and diverse to accommodate a far broader range of types of agglomeration economies and geographic settings than it typically does today. This would take the advantages of megaregional location beyond the notion of urbanization economies. A megaregion can then be seen as a scale that can benefit from the fact that our complex economies need diverse types of agglomeration economies and geographic settings, from extremely high-agglomeration economies evinced by specialized advanced corporate services to fairly modest economies evinced by suburban office parks and regional labor-intensive low-wage manufacturing. It can incorporate this diversity into a single economic megazone. Indeed, in principle, it could create conditions for the return of particular activities now outsourced to other regions or to foreign locations.

I wrote a four part series in early 2009 called “Reconnecting the Hinterland” which was all about searching for value in attempting to foster a re-created interlinked economy between Chicago and the rest of the Midwest. An answer to Sassen’s question is actually what I was looking for. The simplified idea being, to find some economic activities in which geographic proximity, though not necessarily always in a dense, face to face setting like downtown Chicago, is a source of value; to ask, is there some medium between the “spiky world” of Manhattan and the Loop and the “flat world” of China and India?

I don’t want to jump the gun and go into detail, since that is a part of the next part in this series, but if you are interested, you might want two check out two pieces in that series, “Metropolitan Linkages” (about extended labor markets) and “Onshore Outsourcing“.

One curious omission from this book was the difference between megaregional and non-megaregional locations and whether there was some benefit to being in a megaregion. I can’t help but notice that in the Midwest, Kansas City (in most maps) and Des Moines are both outside of the megaregion yet are two the of the absolute best performing metro areas. Not being part of a megaregion does not appear to have hurt them any. I’d be interested to see some analysis on this.

In any case, for those interested in these things, this is a nice survey book to pick up. It is accessible to the general educated public, but is written in the style beloved of academics, so is likely to be very dry to all but those who are wonky about this stuff. Read the Sassen excerpt to get a sense of what is in store. For those who are in the planning or related fields, it is worthwhile to educate yourself on the megaregion concept to be able to parse a lot of the rhetoric out there about it. Reading this book would be a good way to do so.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, to give a perspective from one of the all time great screedmasters on this subject:

Instead of creating the Regional City, the forces that automatically pumped pumped highways and motor cars and real estate development into the open country have produced the formless exudation. Those who are using verbal magic to to turn this conglomeration into an organic entity are only fooling themelves. To call the resulting mass “Megalopolis”, or to suggest that changes in spatial scale, with swift transportation, in itself is sufficient to produce a new and better urban form, is to overlook the complex nature of the city. The actual coalescence of urban tissue now taken by many sociologists to be a final stage in city development, is not in fact a new sort of city, but an anti-city. As in the concept of anti-matter, the anti-city annihilates the city whenever it collides with it.

Don’t hold back Lewis, tell us how you really feel.

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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