Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Indy: ICVA Hits Home Run with New Brand Concept

Don Welsh, new president of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, is a man brimming with energy and confidence. The ICVA held its annual meeting last week where it unveiled its new brand concept. I’ve written a lot about civic branding and positioning in this blog (see “Our Product is Better Than Our Brand“, “The Brand Promise of Indianapolis“, and “Urban Aphorisms“). Knowing of my interest in the area, the ICVA kindly extended me an invitation to attend, which I was grateful to receive.

They told me in advance they thought I would like it. That’s where the confidence comes in as Yours Truly is definitely a tough, though I think fair, grader. The fact that they told me they were confident I’d like it was already a good sign IMO, since I’ve been saying that’s exactly what the city needs to do, walk forward more boldly, confident in its product and what it has to sell.

Before I get to specifics, I will say that CVB type organizations have a more narrow mission than what I call “civic branding”. To me, a community’s brand it is the sum of its reality, its aspiration, its collective vision, and let us not forget the all important perceptions other people have. The job of the branding campaign is to bring all these into alignment. CVB’s are chartered with luring conventions and tourists. That’s a good thing to be sure, but the type of branding and marketing for this is probably only a subset of what a city should have. Most cities seem to outsource branding to the CVB however. This has some pluses and minuses structurally. Keep that in mind as we proceed.

The ICVA partnered with the local advertising firm of Young and Laramore to produce a branding platform underpinned by the theme of “the Spirit of Competition”. The tag line is “Raising the Game”.

To extend the sports metaphor, this concept is a home run for the city.

Why do I like this so much? Well, there are a few reasons:

  • It is clearly sports oriented, and sports is key to the city’s convention business.
  • The idea transcends sports, and is able to work in other areas, even including arts and culture
  • It recognizes how far the city has come and what it can offer now, without suggesting that the journey is complete
  • It builds on the city’s heritage in sports competition without engaging in any nostalgia. It is completely present and future oriented.
  • It’s bullish on the city without being BS or making over the top claims that can’t be backed up.
  • It is a platform on which to launch a rallying cry to civic betterment – it can be a lure to others and a call to ourselves.

That last point is incredibly important. Remember how I said CVB branding is often just a subset of a city’s overall needs? I happen to think that in this case the ICVA took it up a notch and didn’t just create a brand that is good for conventions and tourism, but one that can (hopefully) inspire a community to remain hungry for future success.

The fact is, Indy has raised the game. Even versus a mere 15 years ago the difference is like night and day. I’ll repeat the story of taking my brother out for a birthday celebration at St. Elmo’s in February while Circle Centre was under construction. Downtown was beyond desolate. Illinois St. was lined with chain link fencing, and the wind swept street was deserted. I was the only person parked on the street just north of the construction zone. What a difference 15 years can make.

Yet, the journey is far from complete. It is easy and tempting to judge our progress in comparison to our own past. It’s easy to look at a building, any building, on a formerly vacant lot and consider it a good thing, even if it actually in the long term takes you backwards. And while Indy has grown as a city, so has the competition. A lot of what has happened in Indy – downtown restaurants, new stadiums, condos, etc. – has happened elsewhere too. The rest of the world isn’t standing still. That’s why keeping hungry and doing things right is so important. Because I can tell you this, places like Denver, Nashville, Charlotte, and Portland are still hungry. Indy does need to keep “raising its game”, which is why a brand like this is so fitting.

Now, there isn’t a single piece of collateral to back this concept up yet. It could still go off the rails in execution. So let’s not lose focus. But things like brochures can always be reprinted if you don’t like them. The critical flaws in anything, the irrecoverable flaws, are almost always conceptual. This is a great concept, so the most important thing is already right.

Beyond the concept itself, the speakers at the ICVA were hitting all the right notes. Don Welsh puts it way more succinctly than I ever could:

“We no longer need to apologize for anything here anymore. There needs to be an attitudinal change.”


And someone else made the comment that we’ve gone beyond thinking about brain drain. This is about changing the attitude to “brain gain”. Amen, again.

Y&L had a great take as well on the competition theme. They talked about “creating the mythos” of the city and how it came to be. They put up slides of cities with great natural vistas and contrasted them with Indy on a non-navigable river. Indy is an artificial city plopped down in the middle of a pancake flat plain on the swampy marshes of a puny river. This is a place that could have been, and by rights should have been, a sleepy backwater burg like lots of state capitals. But instead, this inauspicious beginning, and natural handicaps that extend to this day, inspired the city to fight harder and flat out compete harder than the competition to force itself into the conversation. It a bit reminds me of what someone once said of Texas, “Never has a group of people done so much with so little.” Again, it not only creates the mythos, but like all good myths, it has quite a bit of essential truth to it and informs both the present and future.

The next challenge goes along with what another commenter said in one of my threads. Creating a mythos involves telling the stories of the past. But the city also needs to be able to tell stories that create a narrative in people’s mind they could imagine themselves living in, playing in, or being in today. This is where Y&L is going to have to get creative. The ICVA will be judged based on tourism and conventions, but this sort of narrative is more about attracting talent. The challenge is again to bridge the two.

Also, I would challenge the ICVA and Y&L not to lose site of the underlying “spirit of competition” theme over time in favor of the tag line. The “raising the game” tag line is great, but the underlying competition concept is as well and needs to be kept front and center.

Lastly, I’d like to share the brief statement that IMA Director Max Anderson gave at the event. I thought this was compelling enough to present verbatim. I think this shows a lot of the new brand attitude in action. Thanks to the IMA and the ICVA for permission to reproduce. Let’s turn it over to Max.

Thanks, Don, and thank you Mayor Ballard. I have 4 themes to share in under 4 minutes. We’re very pleased to have all of you today in The Toby. This 600-seat theater is about the size of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s theater—but that one has neither a 65-foot fly loft like that behind me, nor a three-story concert stage like that below me. The Toby is newly renovated in a green way thanks to the generosity of Randy and Marianne Tobias and many other patrons. We went so far as to take apart 600 old seats so that their 24,000 pounds of metal, foam, fabric, and plastic were recycled—-because like our Mayor and Governor, and here’s my first theme: we want Indianapolis and Indiana to be known as a place committed to sustainable practices.

The Toby joins other excellent auditoria and theaters in town with a twist: we will be presenting “culturally adventurous” lectures, films, and performances, meaning that your sensibilities will from time to time be tested, your eyes will regularly be opened, and meaning, and here’s my second theme: that we can help foster a progressive, tolerant worldview from Gary to Evansville by being an unflinching home of the First Amendment in the Hoosier State. That will matter to visitors and business leaders from across the nation, and we need to create a positive image of our state if we are going to compete effectively with Tier 1 cities for leisure and business travelers.

Like Don, I’m an unabashed, unapologetic immigrant happy to boast about our vibrant capital city. We have a safe and clean downtown—and while we need to continue to work on reducing crime like every city, and here’s my third theme: we need as urgently to work on significantly increasing public support for and the visibility of our cultural offerings. Great cities do not become great because they are described as safe—they become great because they welcome and nourish creativity, in all its forms—economic, political, artistic, and architectural, and because they rise above a local definition to an inclusive one. My 4th and final theme: Indy needs to commission an exciting building by an internationally renowned architect. Soon.

No less than our friends in professional sports, Indy’s cultural institutions are well equipped year-round to attract a broad audience for our hotels and restaurants, and by word of mouth send others here in their wake. We have one of only 17 fulltime symphony orchestras in the country, a great Children’s Museum, Zoo, and Repertory Theater, among many other leading cultural institutions.

Founded 125 years ago, The IMA is among the 10 oldest and 10 largest general art museums in the country. We have collections coveted by other museum directors internationally. IMA ranks with only 5 other art museums throughout the US in the depth of our holdings in 19th century European art—the gold standard of art museums–our American peers, as defined by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, are The Met, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and the Clark in Williamstown, Mass. That one indicator of our rank among the world’s leading art museums should give you a sense of why the IMA is not just a regional art museum, but an internationally appreciated one. Next year’s opening of 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park will solidify that stature. And this year’s special exhibitions, European Design and Sacred Spain will help us to attract new audiences, not only from central Indiana, but from around the country and around the world.

With Don Welsh’s leadership the ICVA is our partner in communicating the leading status of our cultural institutions nationally and internationally. Don, thank you for your energetic and visionary leadership, and for launching an ambitious and compelling call to arms to make Indianapolis a top tier city.

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Chicago: Architectural Note – The Midwest Has Winters

One of the downsides of the Midwest’s harsh seasons is that we can’t take advantage of all the cool materials and building techniques people in, say, California can. So many things just don’t stand up to the elements here. Unfortunately, some people don’t get the message. Or even bother to look at neighboring buildings on the same street to see what can result when you dare mess with Mother Nature. Here today I present an example of three structures, all on the 1600 block of Belmont, all utilizing some type of stained wood exterior, all badly damaged by the elements.

First up is Belly’s, a sports bar on Lincoln. The main entrance is on that street, but the kitchen has frontage on Belmont.

In addition to the weather beaten wood, the papered over windows are a nice touch. Oh, and don’t forget the door.


Just down the street is a swankier place, the slick martini lounge Bungalow. No different results here.

This is less noticeable in one respect because it is only the one section along the base. On the other hand, that sticks out in contrast to the rest of the well-preserved facade. The black wooden slats are painted – always a good idea in the Midwest I say.

Lastly, just this fall a new bar opened a couple doors down from Bungalow called The Pony. They decided to take this to a whole new level. Same results.

This doesn’t actually look so horrible – yet. Just wait till another season takes its toll. You can get a glimpse of how this facade looked just a short time ago by looking at the recessed entryway which is partially protected from the elements.

Lastly, a close up seeing the process of destruction in action.

Why do you think this material was used? Ignorance? Was it intentional? (Going for the rustic look or something? Homage to barnyard?) Am I missing something here?

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Building Suburbs That Last #1 – Strategy

The problem of the suburbs is one of the great challenges facing urban America today. Older suburbs across America are struggling with population declines, decaying commercial areas, and increasing poverty. As ever more suburbs start to fall into the aging category, this problem seems likely only to grow more severe over time. Even the currently shiny new suburbs on the edge seem unlikely to hold their allure when they too are full and old, with even newer edge burbs just down the road.

Enormous amounts of time, money, intellectual horsepower, and policy attention have been spent on the problems of the central city, but almost nothing has been done for these suburban areas. But arguably the suburbs need the help more. Because the supply of urban style development is reasonably fixed, this means those who want to live in an urban environment are almost forced to move back to the central city. This creates a source of guaranteed demand for center city living. By contrast, because there is always plenty of new suburban product always available, there’s less reason for anyone to need to turn to a struggling older suburban area.

Today I launch the start of a series on building suburbs that last. That is, how can we create suburbs that hold their allure over the long term, that aren’t abandoned as they start aging? Suburbs that hold their attraction to the middle class from generation to generation. Suburbs that are destinations for commercial development beyond their initial growth spurt.

I teed up a lot of these issues in my review of the book “Retrofitting Suburbia”, which serves as essential background reading to this series. I identified five key structural problems that work to render suburbs obsolete over time. In brief, these were:

  1. The strategic dilemma outlined above that there is always a shiny new suburb on the edge.
  2. The problem of overdetermined form
  3. The 20 year depreciation cycle
  4. The accumulation of unfunded liabilities
  5. The fact that most suburbs are economic shadow cities.

I have ideas on how to address all of these problems. Today we start with the strategic dilemma.

People like to talk about running government like a business. In this view, a mayor is like a CEO, professionally managing the business of the town. When you listen to what most people mean by this, however, you typically hear them talk about things like better customer service, cost efficiency, and operational performance. But those are more properly the preserve of the COO, not the CEO. It leaves out two critical CEO functions that are seldom discussed with regards to cities: strategy and capital allocation.

This is the first place to look to solve the problem. I previously described what a strategy is. I also said that it is critical for cities to ask what type of business they are in. There are two basic approaches: the commodity approach or the differentiated approach. The commodity approach is what most suburbs seem to take by default. That is, they sell more or less the same product as all of the rest of the suburbs in the region, with some gradations based on income levels. The formula is low taxes, good schools, low crime, and new houses and businesses on a suburban pattern design template. They are focused on a very broad swath of the suburban living population.

The problem with being in a commodity business is that to succeed in it, you need to be the low cost provider, because price is what matters. We’ve seen repeatedly that businesses which realized they competed in a commodity market were able to take advantage of that to organize their entire business around a cost structure that their competition couldn’t match. Look at Wal-Mart, who realized that the only thing people care about in consumer staples is price. Or Southwest Airlines, which realized that most personal travelers don’t care about anything except the price of the ticket. Those who did not realize they were in a commodity business were in for a rude of awakening when their more astute competitors put them in a squeeze.

Now suburbs aren’t in a pure commodity market where a single figure like price matters. But they seem to function much like it. Once they start to suffer in one of the important dimensions – notably schools, taxes, and crime – decay starts to set in. Given the accumulation of unfunded liabilities that they have, it is almost a certainty that their taxes and redevelopment costs will go up at some point. This often triggers departures for the edge, or a drying up of new arrivals, that triggers the other negatives of income declines and so forth.

What’s more, most suburbs in their early days focus on managing growth rather than operating a mature system. Making the transition from “grow” to “operate” seems to be an incredibly difficult cutover to make. You see it all the time when retailers saturate a market, and what previously seemed to be an unstoppable juggernaut suddenly turns into a company that can’t do anything right. This is clearly an area that warrants more study, but the economic model of growth appears to be very different from that of operate.

In short, what works as a virtuous growth circle on the way up turns into a vicious decline circle on the way down.

So how do we prevent that? I think one key, both for new suburbs and for older suburban areas looking to reverse decline, is to pursue a more differentiated approach. That is, figure out how to more narrowly target focused resident and business segments. Clearly, towns aren’t like a business. They have to welcome and serve anyone who moves there. On the other hand, they can create environments that cater not only to the generic masses, but to specific types of people and businesses.

I actually think this is right in lines with modern consumer trends. We’ve seen in the last 15-20 years an enormous fracturing of the great American common culture into more niche segments. Where once Americans watched three major TV networks, today dozens of cable channels cater to food lovers, home improvement gurus, or whatever your lifestyle happens to be. Americans used to have a choice of Miller, Bud, or Coors. Today, there is an explosion of microbrews and imports available in almost every town. Almost every product segment it seems has experienced an explosion in the quantity and diversity of choices on offer. Seen in that light, it is actually odd that we aren’t seeing the same thing in our suburbs.

Or maybe we are. A lot has been written about the so-called “Big Sort” phenomenon, where people cluster with those who share the same political beliefs. We’ve also seen the publication of books like “Who’s Your City?” suggesting that you need to find the city that fits what you want out of life. So there seems to be at least some latent market demand out there for a more tailored community experience – be it urban or suburban. There are clearly downsides out there, as big sort type of analysis has shown. But when it comes to creating a suburban strategy, it looks like for now at least, the trend is our friend.

So the first thing I’d challenge suburban leaders to think about is, “Who would want to live in our town? Why would anyone want to live here?” It is hard for those who have deep roots in a city, a state, or a neighborhood to divorce themselves from that to see it as an outsider would see it. Thus you often hear suburban leaders talk about their town’s special “sense of community” or its “real neighborhood feel.” But for people who weren’t raised there, who haven’t lived much of their lives there, never raised their kids there, went to church there, have no friends there, etc. is that really true? From what I’ve seen, most towns have a pretty good sense of community and neighborhood feel. Those things do not differentiate you.

I realize this question of targeting resident and business segments is a difficult one and fraught with land mines, particularly since it can involve things like race and ethnicity that people would rather not talk about. But I think it is absolutely critical to consider the matter.

Let me give an example. I mentioned before this one neighborhood group I’d spoken to. Thinking about their problem, they were in an older area with higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools than the new suburbs on the fringes. It was not a bad place by any means – still quite nice in fact – but on the commodity scale it was not going to measure up. So ask, what can we provide that those suburbs on the edge can’t? Looking at the types of people who normally move to the edge – socially conservative families with children – is there an underserved market segment that might prefer a different environment?

The concept idea I came up with was a brand promise of “sustainable suburban living”. That is, creating an environment for those who, for whatever reason, want to live a suburban lifestyle, but are nevertheless very environmentally conscious. This traded off the “in town” location of the area, the fact that its redevelopment would not encourage sprawl, its location along a proposed rail transit corridor, and the existing mature tree canopy in the area as well as a popular farmer’s market. The idea is to create an attraction for the environmentally conscious resident, as well as to try to lure businesses and organizations that complement it.

Which brings us to the second point: capital allocation. How much money should be invested in the “business”, where does it come from, and where should it go? This needs to support the overall strategy. Of course, most of the money invested in the community will come from the private sector, which is always preferred. Beyond that, let’s principally consider the “where should it go” question.

In our example, some things that might be created would include:

  • Building transit oriented development near the proposed transit stop if it is built.
  • Creating an eco-themed charter school in the neighborhood
  • Establishing clubs or other neighborhood groups with various environmental themes.
  • Extending the local agriculture angle of the existing farmer’s market
  • Working with businesses to encourage LEED certification for new development, potentially including a public policy that no tax assistance will be provided without such certification.
  • Actively market the neighborhood as the center of eco-conscious suburban living, including developing and repositioning things like trash pickup, flower and tree planting, and other beautification programs to support this.
  • Ensure the town’s own operations are on the leading edge of sustainable practice.
  • Create an annual award for the most sustainable project in the city.
  • Try to lure businesses that go with the sustainable practice theme: architects, green building supplies, bicycle shops, non-profits in the space, etc.

That is, don’t just randomly implement project, but rather invest your money in the programs that are going to reinforce the strategy and create an appeal that sustains itself beyond the original growth wave. While it is not a suburb, I’ll use again the example of amateur sports in Indianapolis, where the city literally built a large chunk of its downtown around hosting events. That’s why 35 years after it first launched the strategy, and after an enormous influx of competitors, the city is still considered one of the premier cities for hosting sporting events in America today.

The specific example is not as important as the idea. Find a market niche that your town can serve better than anyone else. Of course, a more specialized focus does render a place open to problems if that area falls out of favor. That’s why a town might want to consider serving multiple segments, and making sure it has a solid general appeal and isn’t overly tailored to a niche audience. And of course a strategy is not a one time thing. You have to continuously keep up to date and revisit in light of new market conditions.

One other thought. Don’t assume a targeted strategy has to involve targeting a specific profile of person as in the eco-conscious example. It might target some type of amenity based strategy where a very diverse group of people who have a common interest might want to live. Examples might be having the best hockey rinks or lacrosse fields or some other type of facility that is not that common in a given area.

Here are some real life examples of places where this strategy-led has been successful. Not all of these were consciously designed that way, but they show the point nevertheless:

  • Carmel, Indiana. This is probably the best example of a strategy led civic development I can think of. However, as the most upscale suburb in Indianapolis, this provides them with a natural market niche: the best stuff for the people with the most money. This has happened by default in a lot of places around the country, but Carmel has been very deliberate about their development. I previously wrote a three part series on Carmel you can read here: part one, part two, part three.
  • Lafayette Square, Indianapolis. This suburban area was brought inside the city limits as part of a city-county consolidation. It is 100% suburban in form. In the last few years, it has become a thriving pan-Asian commercial district and key locus of some of the city’s immigrant communities. This is an area that spontaneously regenerated itself around ethnic businesses. Most other similar areas in the region have not fared so well.
  • Fountain Square, Indianapolis. This is a near downtown neighborhood, not a suburb. Nevertheless, it has carved out a niche appealing to “artists and Appalachians”.

I think it would be useful to compile case studies of this from around the country, to see what has worked and what has not. Unfortunately, when “built to last” is the goal, it takes a long time before you know if something worked or not. Whatever the case, I do believe the time is right for suburbs to move beyond “Generica” and start sharping their strategic focus, along with tailoring their investment policies accordingly. The more differentiated your offering, the more like it is to be sustainable over time as it ages, provided you aren’t victimized by niche exhaustion.

The other thing I think warrants more study academically is how cities can manage that transition from “manage growth” to “sustain the city”. Growth in population reduces the unit fixed cost of government, lures new businesses that probably aren’t getting abatements, and thus contributes to keeping taxes low. But when that logic gives out and the unfunded liabilities catch up with you, watch out. I have some ideas on unfunded liabilities to explore later, but modeling how a town can manage this transition is important. Again, it’s a very hard task – even many private sector, purely for-profit concerns can’t make it easily.

Stay tuned for further installments.

More on the Suburbs

Review: Retrofitting Suburbia
The Future of the American Suburb

Building Suburbs That Last Series:

#2 – New Urbanism and Parcelization
#3 – The Mother of All Impact Fees

Carmel: Leadership in Action – Part One, Part Two, Part Three
Daniel Burnham on the Suburbs

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

I Almost Got Killed

It was last week when I was walking to work. I know, I know, strange concept, but bear with me. A woman and me were waiting to cross Delaware St. on the north side of the intersection with Maryland St. in downtown Indianapolis. The light turned, the walk signal came on, and we started to cross. Traffic came rocketing down Maryland and whipped it around the corner from dual left turn lanes at high speeds. The woman jumped and a car swerved to avoid her getting flattened. The car coming at me slammed on his brakes, at which point the driver stared at me with this look that said, “What are you doing in my lane.

People talk about building a transit culture in Indianapolis. Well, you can’t start building a transit culture until you have a walking culture. I continue to be amazed how even highly progressive hip urban types use their car for every trip. Multiple times I’ve had people drive me less than two blocks to a destination – crazy. Or maybe not. Clearly, walking on the streets of Indianapolis is neither safe nor pleasant. Until safety and quality of experience for pedestrians is radically improved, transit will never take off no matter how much money is spent on it.

Let’s take a look at some of what confronts pedestrians in Indianapolis today.

First, I am an avid runner. When I moved to my Fountain Square home, my first instinct was to use College Ave. as a jogging corridor. Here is what I discovered. Heading north, you come across a rail overpass with no sidewalk on the east side of the street:

Note the second rail overpass in the background. We’ll come to that shortly.

Not very safe here. So let’s cross to the west side of the street:

Ah, here’s a sidewalk – but note the tree growing in it. Fortunately it is now winter. But in the summer, that tree’s foliage renders the sidewalk unpassable.

Ok, we made it. Now we come to the next rail overpass just up the street at Washington.

Oops. Now no crossing on the west side of the street. So let’s cross back to the east.

Wait a minute. I can cross to the sidewalk on the far side – but I can’t continue north. So I’ve got to cross from west to east to cross Washington St., then go back to the west side to keep going north on College. Of course, when I do that, I find this blocking my path:

I’m very glad the contractors found the sidewalk such a useful place to put their sign warning motorists about upcoming construction. Clearly, College is not very good if you are on foot. Keep in mind, this is a very busy arterial street with lots of high speed traffic. Darting in and out of that traffic to navigate on foot is risky, no doubt.

So let’s deep six the College idea and try East St. instead. Here’s the east side crossing at Washington:

You might want to click to enlarge this one to see better. What we have are the ADA wheelchair ramps for the crosswalk, but no pedestrian signal or striping. You might be saying, “Ok, not great, but not that big a deal either”. Actually, it is. Because you see, there is actually not any point in the stoplight cycle when pedestrians can cross. There is perpetually a green light or arrow allowing cars to drive through. The wheelchair ramps are for a fake crosswalk that doesn’t actually exist. I hope no disabled people actually try to cross there. Or non-disabled people who don’t want to become disabled for that matter. Washington St. is seven lanes wide at this point, by the way.

Us downtown joggers are a hardy crew of urban adventurers. But I digress.

Back to my walk to work down Virginia. When you get to the expressway, here’s what confronts you:

The sidewalk is cut away to enable cars rocketing down Virginia to make that turn at high speeds without slowing down.

I talked before about all the little rituals that make a place what it is. In Indianapolis, one of the rituals you have to learn as a pedestrian is looking back over your shoulder just to make sure it is safe to keep walking down the same sidewalk you are on. This is Exhibit A of why. Here’s what that look back looks like

I took this shot standing in the wheelchair ramp. Imagine a child or someone in a wheelchair standing there. There’s no way those cars are going to see that person. Even a standing adult isn’t that visible until the car is almost upon you, a dangerous combination when paired with this high design speed turn.

Interestingly, this looks like a freeway on ramp, but it is not. It’s a connector street leading to the on ramp and comes to a stop sign only about 150 feet further on. That’s right. The road was designed for a very high speed turn that leads to a stop sign less than a block away. Nice.

So you might be saying right now, “Ok, Urbanophile. We get it. But come on. This was built in the 1970’s when we didn’t know any better. We’re not building things like this anymore.” Uh, actually, we are. Here is the currently under construction on ramp at Washington St., part of the city’s new $20 million “front door” of which it is so proud.

Not content with a mere six lanes of traffic on Washington, the designers kindly included a dedicated right turn lane with a high speed turn designed to channel rapidly traveling cars onto the freeway without them having to slow down. The building on the left is the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center. I’ve noted relatively high pedestrian traffic in the area (for Indy), and speculate that facility might generate significant pedestrian O&D traffic. Not safe.

Here’s a closeup of the curb that shows the incredible way it was designed to accommodate high speed car traffic.

Incredible. Also, gotta love those poles in the middle of the sidewalk too.

Ok, you might be saying, things might not have been thought completely true, but it wasn’t like anyone pointed this out in advance. Uh, actually, I did. You can read my evaluation of the project renderings, published in advance of the letting, that pointed out this and the many other problems with this project. It made absolutely no difference. People often ask me why I don’t write letters to the city or state with feedback on projects. But after a decade plus of doing that with not one change to show for it, I got tired of the exercise in futility.

Oh, and if I try to walk to work on the other side of Virginia, I’m confronted with another problem. Here’s the crosswalk at McCarty St.

Again, you might need to enlarge to see clearly, but while there’s a wheelchair ramp on the far side of the street, there’s not one on the near side, there is no marked crosswalk, and the far side wheelchair ramp – also useful for people with strollers, luggage, etc – points directly at a non-traversable raised median. Here’s a closeup of that.

Lest you wonder, there is a wheelchair ramp on the other side, but it is pointing out into space:

Given that this leads directly into the middle of the intersection, I sure hope no one actually tries to walk where thing thing points.

“Ok, ok,” you might be saying, “But surely we’re not doing that sort of thing today.”

Uh, actually, we are. Or at least something similar. Here’s a picture from another one of Indy’s showplace developments, Fall Creek Place:

What you see here is that the ramp crossings are offset to the left from the sidewalk. This means anyone, for example, pushing a stroller has to turn left when they get to the corner, cross the street, then turn right in order to get back to the main sidewalk. There’s a mini-detour built in to every single street crossing. Not very pedestrian friendly to put it mildly. Someone must be very enamored of this setup, however, since it appears to be an emerging quasi-standard. I notice it used by Lucas Oil Stadium too. Let’s hope someone changes their mind on this.

Fall Creek Place has several other design problems as well. For example, on the blocks of Alabama St. from 25th to 22nds, the designers thoughtfully decided to exclude any street lighting. That’s certainly not much encouragement for pedestrian or bicyclist to use that street after dark, especially considering that this is still an emerging neighborhood.

Speaking of bicycles, this development is not bike friendly either. Here’s a picture of College Ave. showing cars parked along it. While there is no marked bike lane, you can see that the dashes from the travel lanes mark out a pretty generous space for bikes. My friendly advice: if you want to ride north from downtown any distance, don’t risk getting mugged on the Monon. Take College. If you are only going up to 22nd or so, take Alabama.

Now let’s see what Delaware St. looks like in Fall Creek Place, a new, modern development.

Note here the bump-outs with trees in them, with marked parking spaces. This is supposed to be a traffic calming device. And indeed it does provide protection for people on the sidewalk who would otherwise be directly next to the street. It keeps drivers from using the parking lane as a travel lane if people aren’t parked there. However, there is no space for a bicycle, so cyclists are forced into the main travel lane. Delaware is a one way commuter arterial with synchronized traffic signals that moves large volumes of cars at very high speeds. More free advice: if you value your life, don’t ride a bicycle on Delaware if you can avoid it.

It’s pretty fitting that all of these are in a city known for a famous car race. Because moving cars quickly is the only value expressed by the design of its streets and roads. Lest you think I’m cherry picking bad examples, think again. I’d guess over half the mileage of arterial streets in Indianapolis don’t have sidewalks at all. All of my examples are from downtown or the urban core, so can be expected to have higher quality of pedestrian experience. Indeed, two of them are premier city developments that leaders point to with pride as an example of progress.

I realize that the longest journey begins with a step, and it is going to take a long time to improve the quality of experience in the city’s public spaces. Unfortunately, the city is still moving backwards. The first rule when you’re digging yourself into a hole: stop digging.

Fortunately, there’s a least one example where the city is getting right big time. That is the great Indy Cultural Trail project. This urban trail actually has separate auto, bike, and pedestrian lanes for much of its length. What’s more, on the stretch that has been completed on Alabama, a one way street, the trail designers actually included a red arrow cycle for turns off Alabama when the light is green for through traffic. This gives pedestrians and bikes a clear and safe period to cross the street where even turning traffic won’t interfere. Brilliant.

The challenge, as I’ve noted before, is that Indy has produced some absolutely, totally legitimate world class public spaces. The Cultural Trail, Monument Circle, and the Wholesale District stop lights all come to mind. But none of these are leveraged apart from the isolated location where they are first installed. Indeed, they are often left unmaintained to decay over time.

Let’s hope the Cultural Trail will be different, and that it will inspire the city to think differently about quality of space in its public places. Again, the mark of a great city isn’t in how it treats its special places, but its ordinary ones. If Indy ever hopes to create a downtown worthy of what it is, a transit system that is well used, and much more, it needs to start changing the game on pedestrian friendly design and other parts of its public space. I’ll be optimistic and hope that the Cultural Trail inspires us to do that. It’s an absolutely essential part of having a “safe and liveable” city.

In the meantime, if I stop blogging without explanation, you’ll know what happened.

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

Miscellaneous Musings

The character of a city is often shown in the smallest of rituals. Thinking again about Chicago, I can’t help but think of transit etiquette and the way people behave on the L. At morning rush, it’s a veritable fight for a seat, pregnant women be damned. In the afternoons, people stand in haughty disdain next to seats that go empty. Perhaps a desire to read the paper drives the behavior some of this, but I find it curious. What about your town? Any other small rituals or traditions?

Oh, and I must admit to being neglectful on my Burnham Plan take in not highlighting this great series by Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin. Here are links to a number of posts from his blog that are well worth reading:

I’ve been writing for some time on the future of the American suburb. I’m starting to see a lot of others picking up the theme as well. Allison Arief, co-founder of Dwell, writes about it in the NYT. And Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution add their take over at Newsweek.

I previously wrote a positive review of Bruce Mau’s “Massive Change”. Well, I stumbled upon this interesting negative take that is worth a r”>posting about Detroit, I threw out the idea of prison reform as a radical idea Michigan might need to explore – the state spends more on prisons than education. Well, they are exploring it.

Speaking of Detroit, check out this must see web site called onlynDetroit. You’ve all seen the famous Michigan Central rail station. Well, not like this. This site posts the photographs of the station Keith Jolly took in 1973 when it was still a functioning rail terminal. Many of these are contrasted with shots from today. Incredible.

Here’s a story that shows the challenge of regional collaboration. PDS Biotechnology is relocating from Cincinnati to Indianapolis thanks to $2 million in state grants. In a mega-regional world, this would be a net zero for the region. However, in a more traditional view, it’s a gain for Indy and a loss for Cincy. It’s hard to fault anyone for competing hard for business, but I think it goes to show the beggar thy neighbor econdev approach that is prominent in the Midwest. The challenge is really to build a region where rising overall prosperity obviates the need for things like this. In the meantime, the only thing I can see practically that might stop this is some sort of mutual non-compete agreement. The idea would be something like Indy has with its suburbs. Regionally, companies could move and people could offer incentives, but the home town would have right of first refusal, and only if they couldn’t make a deal would it be more open. In this case, I believe Ohio doesn’t have the equivalent of a 21st century fund, so the move might have occured anyway. As long as people believe that their neighboring cities and states see them as fertile poaching ground for econdev, there will never be sufficient trust for true cross-region collaboration. In the meantime, may the best city and state win.

Here is an interesting op-ed column from Dayton. What I find notable is the fact that the author up front acknowledges, “There is no longer a specific need for the city of Dayton to exist.” That actually sums up any number of Midwest cities. They no longer have a raison d’etre in the 21st century economy. The challenge for them is to rethink themselves to become relevant, though for many that future will involve getting a lot smaller.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City is still looking for $60 more million. I previously contrasted the hefty sum being spent on the building versus the relatively paltry operating budgets of the institutions that will be housed there in “Kansas City’s Edifice Complex“.

Denver thinks it can successfully ride out the recession.

The Tribune carries another “big sort” type article talking about how American communities are increasingly becoming ideologically polarized. It’s an ongoing threat to our nation, IMO.

A cool web site of Pittsburgh signs.

The US Conference of Mayors predicts job losses this year. Not surprisingly given that it is the largest metro, New York is expected to lead the pack with a decline of 181,000 jobs.

More on the outmigration from California.

The IHT reprints a couple of old but good Monocle articles on cities (hat tip Richard Layman)

President Obama’s official urban policy is now online.

Other News

Low trading leaves Chicago Stock Exchange in danger (Chicago Tribune)
A never-ending fight to fix roads (Chicago Tribune)

Properties going once, going twice, going nowhere (Indy Star)

Twin Cities
Burnsville goes for broke with its city arts center (Star-Tribune)

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Quotes from the Burnham Plan

After launching my Burnham Plan 100 anniversary and having teased you last year, I will keep the ball rolling with some quotes from the Burnham Plan itself. People just don’t write like they used to. It’s a shame, because there was some great rhetoric back in the day. IMO, there is no substitute for reading primary sources. Particularly in this case when it is so readable and so accessible. As you read these quotes, and hopefully read the plan for yourself, consider the opinions expressed both as they relate to the challenges of the era as they experienced them, and to your own personal thinking and conventional wisdom on urban planning today.

The page numbers are from the Princeton Architectural Press reprint edition of the Plan of Chicago, available via Amazon Marketplace. You might find Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City a useful companion guide.

“The people of Chicago have ceased to be impressed by rapid growth or the great size of the city. What they insist asking now is, How are we living? Are we in reality prosperous?”, p. 32

“City life has attractions that make a strong appeal to human nature. Opportunities for large success, for wealth and power and social consideration, for amusement and instruction, for the increase of knowledge and the cultivation of taste, are greater for the average person in the city than in the country. The city, therefore, is constantly drawing from the country the young men and women of ambition and self-reliance, who are lured thither by the great prizes which in a democracy are open to the competition of all.”, p. 33

“To many who have given little consideration to the subject,a plan seems to call for large expenditures and a consequent increase in taxation. The reverse is the case. It is certain that civic improvement will go on at an accelerated rate; and if those improvements shall be marshaled according to a well-ordered plan great saving must result. Good order and convenience are not expensive; but haphazard and ill-considered projects invariably result in extravagance and wastefulness.”, p. 4

“Density of population beyond a certain point results in disorder, vice, and disease, and thereby becomes the greatest menace to the well-being of the city.”, p. 48

“People flock to those cities where conditions of work are good, where means of recreation abound, where there are attractions for the senses and the intellect. Persons of wealth and refinement seek such cities as their abiding-places; and those who have accumulated wealth in a city bent on improvement remain there. Moreover, there is no stronger appeal made to the American citizen of today than comes from the call of one’s native or adopted city to enter upon the service of creating better surroundings not only for one’s self, but for all those who must of necessity earn their bread in the sweat of their brows. Nor is the call of posterity to be denied. To love and render service to one’s city, to have a part in its advancement, to seek to better its conditions and to promote its highest interests, – these are both the duty and privilege of the patriot of peace.”, pp. 81-82

Much more to come, including various topical discussions on urban design and highways.

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Chicago: A Declaration of Independence

One might fear the degree to which the city had declared its independence from nature, but at the same time one could hardly help feeling wonder at its audacity.

Other cities soon had railroads and elevators and refrigerator cars as well, but it was Chicago that first revealed the importance of such things to the West.

– William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis

As promised, I commence my year of looking back at the Burnham Plan of Chicago on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. To set the stage, let us first take a look at Chicago – its present, past and future. And the fundamental challenge it faces that no one is talking about.

Change and Success in Chicago

Chicago is arguably America’s greatest modern day success story. From the troubled remains of a faded Rust Belt colossus, Chicago reinvented itself as a global city. Within just the last 15 years, the transformation of the city has been incredible to behold. Over 100 new skyscrapers pierce the skyline dating from the last decade. I visited Chicago as a kid in the 1970’s and took a picture from the Sears Skydeck to the northeast with my Instamatic. Looking at that photo today, it’s like the city is missing. The incredible growth in that period is undeniable.

The quantity of quality on display and available for consumption in the Chicago has blossomed beyond belief. There’s a stunning array of sophisticated and inventive restaurants, a far cry from even the mid-90’s when Chicago magazine proudly proclaimed Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba one of the city’s ten best. The city’s cultural institutions are top notch and innumerable galleries dot the urban core. The world’s design leaders have planted their flag in the city, with almost any high end furniture brand in the world readily available. Cutting edge fashion isn’t just available for purchase in Chicago – it’s being made there. Strips of decayed industrial areas have been reclaimed as shiny new shopping districts. A thriving in-city Home Depot does business where not too long ago hookers walked the streets in broad daylight – one of many major retail developments. A condo boom of epic proportions, probably the greatest of any city in America, turned vast tracts of the city into upscale playgrounds. The extent of this last matter simply cannot be understated. When I moved to Lincoln Park in 1992, people would look at you funny if you lived west of Racine. Today, condos sprout almost throughout the city, from the South Loop to Humboldt Park to Albany Park. Thousands upon thousands of units selling for hundreds of thousands each have been added to the city’s inventory each year. The Chicago of today is a far cry of the Chicago of 1992, when, upon occasion of a job interview, the company bragged about how Chicago was now an outpost of that uber-hip coffee shop chain Starbucks.

Global Chicago

How did this happen? Globalization happened. Globalization transformed Chicago. Just as the fall of the industrial age felled the Chicago of yesterday, the rise of globalization created the Chicago of today, the global city of Chicago. There are many theories of global cities, but the best known is probably Saskia Sassen’s. The Cliff Notes version goes something like this. As businesses became more globalized and more virtualized, this created demand for new types of financial products and producer services – notably in the law, accounting, consultancy, and marketing areas – to help businesses service and control these far flung networks. These financial and producer services are subject to clustering economics, and end up concentrated in a relatively small number of cities around the world. These global cities serve as control nodes for various global networks and key production sites for these services.

Chicago is one of these cities. Its legacy as a financial hub and business services center left it perfectly positioned. Thus it has made the transition to the global economy in a way that no other Midwestern city can claim, rising as high as #8 on some lists of top global cities. Where once Chicago was the king of the Midwest, ruling its agro-industrial hinterland from its lordly domain, today it turns its back to a Midwest increasingly failing or at best falling behind. In effect, Chicago has declared independence from the Midwest, and from its own past, betting that its future is better served articulating itself with the global economy and the league of global cities than in trying to hold on to a past or a region that seems increasingly obsolete.

A Tale of Two Cities

The way globalization has disconnected cities from their traditional hinterlands has been well-commented upon. Richard Longworth noted it in his recent book. Sassen speaks of how cities have become un-moored from their own city regions. Indeed, globalization is ripping cities themselves asunder, as the spate of articles in the last year talking about the Europeanization of American cities or a “great inversion” gives evidence – that is, a booming, prosperous core surrounded by an impoverished periphery.

Chicago has seen this too. There are increasingly two Chicago’s. One is the global city of Chicago, consisting of its urban core and selected upscale and business suburbs. This is where globalization’s winners live, work, and play. This is the land of the shiny skyscrapers and smart shops. This is the place where the nation’s highest sales tax, the nation’s highest real estate transfer tax and an ever greater array of fees designed to part residents from their money are complained about, but are more annoyance than threat. This is the Chicago tourists, conventioneers, and business travelers see.

Then there’s the other Chicago, made up of the impoverished minority neighborhoods, the traditional white ethnic enclaves, many inner ring burbs and outer exurbs. While some of them are populated with new immigrants who bubble with entrepreneurial zeal, others are home to the middle and working classes who are ever more squeezed in a Chicago that no longer seems to have a home for them. Even many locals of the other Chicago rarely see these places, except as glimpses caught from the freeway or a Metra train.

Put these two Chicago’s together and you get a metro area that, despite its impressive core, has rather unimpressive aggregate statistics. Last year the Chicago MSA grew by only 0.7% in population, less than the national average. While some central cities are seeing strong central city growth – much maligned Atlanta is up almost 17% since the last official Census, and it’s a local topic of conversation as to whether the city might flip from majority black to majority white – Chicago has flatlined. The Census Bureau estimates that the city’s population has actually declined since 2000 to the tune of 62,700 people. More ominously, Chicago is suffering out migration. While it remains in immigrant magnet, the influx of new international arrivals is more than offset by the departure of domestic migrants. Last year alone, the Chicago MSA had net domestic out-migration of 57,000 – about the same raw number of people as left Detroit. This is a pace of almost 600,000 people per decade choosing to leave Chicago. Chicago even has a problem with its Midwestern balance of trade in people. Between 2000 and 2005, it lost a net of about 7,000 to Indianapolis. The creative class is flocking, but it looks more and more like everyone else is leaving. This is where the argument about Chicago as success story starts to break down. Success for whom?

Public Policy Favors Global Chicago

In a manner counter-intuitive to common perception for a city and state controlled by Democrats, Chicago’s public policy actually favors the successful Chicago over the failing one. It has pursued a high tax, high service strategy to provide ever increasing public amenities to its upscale residents. The city built Millennium Park, de-converted State St. from a busway, spent hundreds of millions on a revamped Wacker Drive, has implemented many miles of streetscape improvements, with median planters, new streetlights, etc., has installed miles and miles of bike lanes and bike racks, and much more. The CTA is frequently derided (though I think the CTA is getting much better), but is an anomalous blip. Even where the city was not directly involved, we’ve seen an immense investment in public infrastructure, cultural facilities, etc.

The intellectual edifice for this is provided by people like Richard Florida and his Creative Class theory. Starting with the well known fact that any business needs a qualified labor force, his analysis suggests that cities are in a war for talent, trying to lure that fickle and demanding group of workers who constitute the essential labor force of the new economy. I’ve expressed sympathy to this notion in the past, noting the problems that smaller Midwestern cities have had in luring the educated to want to live in them. Yet I’m troubled as well. Florida’s theories are like a left wing version of trickle down economics. But instead of supply side stimulus to business, the idea is to provide financial favors to artists, designers, and other members of the favored quarter of the intelligentsia in the belief that this will fuel the economic fires of a city in the globalized economy. The working classes, the non-creatives, form a sort of lumpen-proletariat in this worldview. They’re a hopeless case that it is nevertheless the duty of the creative class to figure out how to help. Even a more descriptive reporter like Richard Longworth notes that globalization needs lots of highly skilled workers, and lots of high school drop out type labor, but not much in between. This means that the middle class dream that Chicago once offered the immigrants who came to its shores will end up out of reach for many. They can be globalization’s coolie class, but not much more.

Clearly I am troubled by policies that cater only to the most privileged in society. But in a sense, what choice did Chicago have? It is easy to point at places like Kansas City or Charlotte or Atlanta and talk about their low cost of living, low taxes, booming job market, etc. But could Chicago have adopted policies to implement a similar environment? Clearly it could not. Its geography, history, and culture conspire to ensure it never could. Chicago will always have relatively bad traffic congestion, tax levels, housing prices, etc. Its selling point has always been that among cities that have those things, it was the big city that was more liveable in terms of them. Just as smaller cities sell the “big city amenities at with low costs and a great quality of life”, Chicago sold the same product at a higher level in the urban order (“almost as good as New York but so liveable and cheap”). While Chicago likes to act like it is a notch above those smaller cities, I’m always amazed how similar it is in a way. For example, just this month in CS, a luxury shopping and lifestyle magazine for the city, someone starts out an article with “When I mentioned Chicago to people on the coasts, their eyes widened with horror at everything they’d heard about the winters. Or they expressed disbelief that one cannot, in fact, see the other side of the lake. Or they tried to mask boredom as I explained that yes, the city is at times quite windy, but the nickname actually refers to a long history of bloviating politicians.” The details are different, but this article could have been written in Columbus, Ohio or almost any other Midwestern city. The narrative arc is identical. The desperation to seem like a member of the club is palpable, often in direct proportion to how much the author studiously avoids trying to act like it.

With cities like New York, London, etc. pouring huge amounts of money into civic upgrades, Chicago would have had to respond, if nothing else to retain its relative standing. And take a look around. Other than success on the dirt cheap, which again Chicago could never offer, it is difficult to find a successful model of a Midwestern city for Chicago to emulate. The global city approach, while certainly having its downsides, is as at least a model one can point to as having some success. Most others don’t even preserve the urban core, except as a regional civic gathering place sustained on enormous quantities of tax subsidies.

Beyond this, Chicago has always been a gambler’s city, one that wasn’t afraid to dream big, bet big, and double down when the pressure got tough. That’s one tradition the city has stuck to. And I believe Chicago has decided to make a very big bet indeed. Namely, that it is now growing beyond that Mini-Me version of New York into an elite global city in its own right. One where business feels compelled to plant its flag, one where people will pay any price, bear any burden for the privilege of living there, playing there, doing business there, etc. By raising sales taxes to 10.25% in the face of a declining economy, quadrupling parking meter rates in the teeth of a recession, Chicago is sending a powerful message about where it thinks it is. Time will tell if the city is right, but let it never be said that the city hasn’t put down the marker.

Chicago’s Challenges

But the critique of Chicago as an increasingly two-tier city and as a city whose taxes are too high is old hat. Many have made it. And the leadership of the city has clearly examined the issues in depth and made their decisions.

No, I’m not here just to recapitulate the standard critique of the global city. Rather, I intend to talk about two other ares where Chicago has also declared independence from its past. Two areas where Chicago faces a more subtle but more serious challenge.

Chicago is Out of Ideas

First is that, as I’ve noted before, Chicago is out of ideas. The second is Chicago’s declaration of independence from its own essential character in favor of an international homogenized global city goo.

Chicago is out of ideas. This concept might seem crazy, as Chicago is constantly coming up with new things to pursue, such as the Olympics in 2016. But there’s a fundamental problem. Sassen’s theory as outlined above actually makes the case. If the globalized economy needs global cities to function, then in a sense Chicago is an artifact of that economy. Its success is less a result of anything it did to get ready for the future than a matter of blind luck that it was in the right place at the right time. The best illustration of this is to look at other global cities and see if many of them share the same story arc. And they do. In Sassen’s book “The Global City” she notes the glum position of New York, London, and Tokyo in the 1970’s – similar to Chicago’s own Rust Belt malaise of the same era. Recently, those cities have all been booming much as Chicago has. Coincidence? Did all of those cities just happen to turn themselves around at the same time? Or did some outside force act on all of them in a way that caused their renaissance, perhaps in the same way outside forces destroyed the traditional Rust Belt economy? It seems more likely the latter, and that these global cities are simply an emergent property of the global economic network more than the product of any great decisions they themselves made. Much as the needs of Chicago and Detroit created the rest of the rural areas, small towns, and small industrial cities of the Midwest, the needs of globalization created Chicago. It is now no longer the actor, but acted upon. It is the artifact, not the architect.

I argue that there’s a big difference between the Chicago of today and the Chicago of yesterday. It’s not just the level of success, it’s the type of success. Chicago was successful in the agro-industrial era. It’s also successful in the globalization era. But Chicago dominated the agro-industrial area. What’s more, it was the architect of the age. Chicago wasn’t just the capital fo the Midwest, it was the orderer. To a great extent, it created the Midwest. Though Chicago had enormous natural favor and was definitely in the right place at the right time in the 19th century, it wasn’t just a passive recipient of outside forces in becoming what it was in that day. Time and time again, Chicago didn’t just see the world it faced, it understood what it meant. It understood how to position itself to take advantage of what the industrial age meant to America. And that understanding made Chicago the greatest city of its age.

Lots of cities had success in that era. But there was only one Chicago. It was Chicago to which people came to see the embodiment of that era. Again, it can often seem like Chicago was a city of destiny, but it was no such thing. When we see success or failure, it is easy to Monday morning quarterback and suggest that this was obvious all along. But at the time it was no such thing. Cincinnati was the original “hog butcher for the world”, the original Porkopolis. It was the Queen City of the Midwest, ruling its age completely in a manner that only Chicago would ever equal or exceed. St. Louis too once had its pretentions to be the principal city of the west, its Gateway Arch as much monument to those failed ambitions as anything. But only Chicago succeeded.

In Chicago’s heyday, there really was a tangible hierarchy of cities. New York was America’s fiancial capital. Chicago was its interior colossus, which ruled a vast hinterland. Today, scholars well versed in central place theory draw maps of a “dominance hierarchy” of global cities, but these seem to be descriptive only of scale, not actual power relationships. For example, one commonly cited study used branch office locations of companies headquartered in London as a measure of importance in the global economy. As the dominant city of the interior of the world’s largest economy, it makes sense that these London firms would plant their flags in Chicago. But what does that really tell us?

I guess what I’m saying is this. Chicago is a passive beneficiary of the forces of globalization. It’s a first class passenger on the ship to be sure. But it’s not the captain. We’re in the early days of globalization. By analogy to the industrial age, we’re somewhere around the 1830’s. This means the winners are yet to be chosen. In 1830 the railroad had yet to really make its mark. Who knows what globalization might bring.

But I do know this. Nobody ever became #1 by simply copying what other people are doing. But that’s exactly what Chicago is doing now. All of the ideas it has implemented were pioneered elsewhere. Now that’s not to say that the person who invents an idea is always the one to profit from it. Far from it. But simply copying what other people are already doing, and often doing it better or at larger scale, ultimately gets you nowhere. Look at what Chicago has done. Bike lanes, fashion, art, green buildings, restaurants, condos, etc. All of them have already been done as well or better in other places. All of them. There is nothing you can point to in this globalized era that one can say, “Chicago did this”.

In the agro-industrial age, if you wanted to know where to go to find out what it meant to be an industrial metropolis, you went to Chicago. Where do you go in the global era? Somewhere in Asia, the Middle East? Where ever that might be, it sure isn’t Chicago.

This is the imperative facing the city, to find out how to do for the global age what it did for the agro-industrial era. To find out how to become the epicenter. The globalization era, as with the industrial era, will one day fade and give way to something new, at which point its cities will have to reinvent themselves yet again. There’s nothing new in that. But that’s not the challenge that faces Chicago. Rather, in the global era itself, the true winners are yet to be chosen. Chicago seems to be indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation about all the accouterments of the global city it has successfully gathered to itself rather than figuring out what it needs to do to win the game.

There’s certainly reason to believe that Chicago might in fact be in longer term danger. It’s not an accident that I drew the comparison between Chicago in the global era and hinterland cities in the industrial era. Those cities were created to serve certain specialized functions. But the minute those functions were no longer needed, they were tossed overboard like yesterday’s news. Will the same happen to Chicago? No, Chicago will never become Flint, Michigan. But Chicago is in sense specializing in only what globalization demands of it, much like those earlier hinterland cities. Remember when Chicago aspired to be the “Silicon Prairie” and put its hope in Flip Flipowski? Where are those dreams now? Chicago is nowhere in high tech beyond legacy employers. Dittos for biotech and the life sciences economy. In effect, Chicago is a one industry town – finance. The smart shops, swank restaurants, ritzy condos, and fancy galleries were all, in a sense paid for with finance money. In a post-bubble era, what will become of this? We’ll see. I actually happen to think that the current crisis might strengthen Chicago’s relative position, but that doesn’t mean that Chicago has moved beyond being a shadow city of globalizaton.

Again, the winners haven’t been chosen. The field is wide open. I believe there’s an opportunity out there for a city like Chicago to step up and grab the reins, to find out what it takes to differentiate itself, to truly understand the forces of globalization and what they mean, and to uniquely position itself for success. Unfortunately, I don’t see any evidence that Chicago is doing this. Rather, it seems to be engaging in a fairly standard game of keeping up with the Joneses. Does this mean Chicago will fail? Of course not. Heck, even 150+ years after its Porkopolis days, Cincinnati is still a solid place. But it certainly could wake up one day and ask, “Hey, how did we get passed by? Why didn’t we end up in the top ten like we thought we would?”

To avoid that, Chicago needs to take the right kind of risk. It needs to stop following the trends and start creating them. It needs to not just create them, but understand what they mean, just as it understood what the railroad, the futures exchange, the skyscraper, and yes, urban planning, meant.

That’s great, you might say, but what does it mean practically? What are the ideas? Well, since I am The Urbanophile, I have some thoughts. I won’t profess to have all the answers, but I can at least give some idea of the problem space. That is part of what I’ll explore over this series of postings.

Strengthening a Unique Sense of Place

The first I’ll cover in this one. And it’s the second of my problems with Chicago today. This one revolves around the character of a city. So many Midwest places flail around looking for a brand image or identity. Not Chicago. In fact, the identity and stories of Chicago overflow the page. They are too numerous to be written in but a mere blog posting. Yet, what is Chicago doing but declaring independence from these as well. This, I believe, is a mistake.

To me the trend of the Europeanization of the American city as in Chicago is but a facet of the overall homogenization of the global city. Global markets demand standardized commodities that can be graded and traded. This includes cities. This forces cities increasingly into a standard model of what one expects. I’ve repeatedly noted in this blog the example of the Wallpaper guides to world cities. These travel guides, ostensibly a guide for the modern, sophisticated urban traveler to the best of each locale, often seem identical except for the name on the spine. One modern boutique hotel, one swank restaurant or bar, one fashion outlet, is much the same as another in any city you visit around the world. The frosting might be different, but the cake is the same. And once you’re commoditized, you’re done.

So it is too with Chicago. I noted in my review of the city’s street lighting what appears to be a deliberate downplaying of the city’s rough-edged, masculine past in favor of a feminized, generic, even suburban motif. You see this repeated throughout. Ask yourself what more than anything epitomizes Chicago. To me, it is none other than Mayor Daley himself. Listen to him speak. Barack Obama he is not. But character he has, lots of it, and what’s more, a fanatical dedication to making Chicago the best city it can possibly be. Is there a lot of corruption in Daley’s Chicago? No dobut. Does Mayor Daley desire to have maximum power over politics in his city? Of course. But nevertheless I get the impression of a guy who every morning wakes up and asks himself, “What can we do today to make Chicago a greater city?” This is a quality of leadership all too lacking in most Midwestern cities. The character of Chicago and the character of Mayor Daley himself seem to me to have so much in common.

Ironically, under Mayor Daley, the city has pursued a policy of abandoning its past, of abandoning the image of the city as evidenced by the mayor himself. You walk down Michigan Ave., through Millenium Park, around the newly thriving neighborhoods, and you expect that city to be led by a Dr. Smooth type character, not a blunt, plainspoken man like the Mayor. But if only the Mayor saw the value in a city that presented a face like his own. A city not ashamed but proud of its rough and tumble edge, of the fact that it was where generations of ne’er-do-wells and hustlers came to wear out their shoe leather trying to make it big, a city that both Al Capone and Paddy Bauler thought not ready for reform, a city that drew generations of farm boys off to its earthly delights, a city from Bridgeport not River North. That’s Chicago. Not a genteel, refined metropolis, not a swank, sophisticated type of town, not a city on a hill. No, but a city of dreams nevertheless, where people came to get rich, to reinvent themselves, to change the course of world history. That’s Chicago.

No, Chicago will never be the Chicago of Cyrus McCormick and Philip Amour and Aaron Montgomery Ward and all the rest. You can’t live off the past. That’s nostalgia and there’s no more corrosive force known to mankind. But you can know who you are, what you stand for, what your heritage is, and how it fits into the future. Not a clinging to the past, but letting your essential character be a guidepost to the future.

The fifth Frank Gehry titantium Bilbao clone, the n-th swank restaurant or shop, the latest in Italian furniture – ultimately none of them will make Chicago Chicago. It’s going to take the real city, an expression of its own terroir and primal identity to do that.

I happen to think Chicago can do it. If it changes course and gets way from following the trends to creating its own future. If it steps up and makes sure the world knows that Chicago, and not just yet another generic world city, is in the house, ready to step up and claim its rightful place.

The real declaration of independence that needs to take place is that of Chicago from the trends of globalization. Chicago will only realize its potential for greatness if it is willing to let go of its insecurity and desire to be a member of the club, and dares once again to think of itself as it did back in the days of the Burnham Plan as a city destined to be the greatest in the world, a city proud of its unique self and not afraid to boldly chart its own course into the great unknown of the future, confident in its capacity to prove victorious and triumphant.

More on Chicago

Reconnecting the Hinterland Series

Part 1A: Metropolitan Linkages
Part 1B: High Speed Rail
Part 2A: Onshore Outsourcing
Part 2B: On Innovation

Economic Development
Chicago: Corporate Headquarters and the Global City
The Financial Crisis: Good for Chicago?

Architecture and Design
The Streetlights of Chicago
High Mast High Jinks in Chicago
Pride of Place
Modern Wing Exterior
Modern Wing Nichols Bridgeway

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Detroit Roundup and Other Miscellany

The Detroit Free Press has an article about national and international journalists discovering Detroit. They included links to a number of articles, so I thought I’d include the summary here.

An amazing piece I linked to before from the Weekly Standard: Where the Sirens Never Sleep.

From The Guardian:

English language coverage from Der Spiegel: End of a Dream

From the Irish Times: Where the American Dream Breaks Down

From the Times of London: Mighty motor city, broken and humbled

From the Independent: From Motown to No-Hope Town

From the New York Times: Coming Home to Rough Times in a Tough Town

On a more pleasant note, for my readers in “the ‘Ville”, the Idea Festival now has a tool for people to nominate folks they’d like to see present. If you go to this web page, you can download a button to your browser bar. If you see and article or site mentioning someone you’d like to see, you can press the button and they’ll be added to the list. It’s part of a crowdsourcing experiment for them.

Our friends at Chicago Carless have another great post, this time dissecting the tourist info sites for Cincy and Chicago. He picks up on something I’ve long noted about Cincinnati as very telling: calling itself “CincinnatiUSA” instead of Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s like Cincinnati is embarrassed about what state it is in. It also points out again that solipsim you see there, for good (the regional flair it has retained in an era of Generica) and ill (the impermeability of the city to outside ideas). I once said that a world class Indianapolis would have to ultimate be a world class Hoosier city. Trying to cut yourself loose from your roots I think is ultimately a failed strategy. Is there nothing of Ohio good for Cincinnati, or vice versa? Mike also makes some very valid observations about the similarly challenged Chicago site.

Speaking of Chicago, check out this super-cool site about “fun with the CTA bus tracker“. Oh, and apparently the bus tracker has lots of fans in Norway. Who knew?

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

Review: Retrofitting Suburbia

What to do about the suburbs? This will be the great urban development challenge in coming decades. As growth radiates out ever further from the central city, older suburban areas lose their allure. They are selling an obsolete version of the same basic auto-oriented development style as newer suburbs, but with higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools. This puts them in a strategic rough spot.

Inner ring suburbs across America are starting to decay. The first sign of trouble seems to be decayed, abandoned strip malls and commercial buildings. One neighborhood group I spoke to was puzzled by this in their neighborhood because the demographics of the area were still strong, with a large percentage of college-degreed professionals. Yet, how long will it stay strong? Many of those well-maintained homes are occupied by long time residents, sometimes the original owners, and there is not a new generation waiting in the wings to move in. Retailers sense this and get out while the getting is good.

What’s more, even today all too many of the boomburgs on the edge are failing to heed the lessons of the past. They are more or less building the same thing as before, only with today’s preferences in floor plans, aesthetics, etc. These new suburbs will have no more staying power than the old. Once they have filled their boundaries and stop growing, and there’s an even newer, shiner suburb on the edge, when those production homes start needing major renovations, when the commercial space is fully depreciated and obsolete, they too will come face to face with decay. We’re storing up an untold harvest of woe for future generations to deal with, just as we deal with the legacy of the decisions of the past. The switch from managing growth to operating what you’ve got is a tough transition. Just look at the many retailers who’ve fallen on hard times when they saturated their market and could no longer rely on new store openings to generate growth. So it is too with cities.

Suburban revitalization will prove to be a much more challenging task than urban redevelopment. Urban living might always appeal to a minority, but because we are not building many new urban areas today, the only places people who want an urban lifestyle can turn to are our old core cities. By contrast, those who prefer suburban living always have a shiny new product on the edge they can turn to.

So this gives us two great challenges: how to redevelop yesterday’s struggling suburbs and how to make sure that new suburbs are built on a more sustainable base.

This neighborhood group I mentioned asked me if I knew of any other groups or places around the country that were in the same boat as them. I wasn’t aware of any off hand. While I certainly knew inner ring suburbs in various places were struggling, I didn’t know of any proven strategies, apart from the Carmel example locally, for revitalizing an area like theirs. I did extensive online research and came up more or less empty handed. The literature on this seemed fairly barren given the magnitude of the problem we’re facing.

That’s why Retrofitting Suburba: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson is so welcome. This is the first book I’ve come across that is specifically targeted at how to redevelop and reposition suburbs for the 21st century world.

Retrofitting Suburbia takes a look at a cross-section of sub-urban forms, principally commercial, and shows how they can be redeveloped. This includes a mixture of both technique and case studies. I think the case studies are particularly relevant. Because the area of suburban redevelopment is so new, it is critical to get feedback from the real world about what is working and what is not. The book provides many examples to study, in areas ranging from enclosed malls to edge cities. The authors are pretty fair in showing both the good and the bad of these.

What’s more the notes section provides a wealth of links and references for further reading. Dunham-Jones and Williamson did the research for us. We can now benefit from that. One thing I’d like to see is someone take this and turn it into an essential reading list.

It is wonderful to have something that is dealing with the challenge at hand, and which can be used to educate and inspire. A few Midwest cities were used as examples in the book, including Carmel, which is great.

The “Urban Design Solutions” portion of the title shows the thinking of the authors. In their view, suburbia as a design form is flawed in its concept. The solution is not to build better suburbs, but rather to figure out how to make our suburbs more urban. In effect, it is a new urbanist tract. They contrast the signature attributes of urban vs. suburban development (single use vs. multi-use, auto-dependent vs. multi-modal, low density vs. high density, etc.) and basically show projects that all are designed to turn the dials in a more urban way.

This is certainly one valid approach and it appears to be popular. In fact, it seems to be the orthodox strategy of the moment. It also appears to be working in some places. However, I think we need to be cautious about promoting one-size-fits-all solutions, as well as rejecting the development patterns of suburbia. As I noted in my recent posting about mid-century modern architecture, we did this once before. The previous generation decided that it was the traditional urban form that was obsolete and “unsustainable”. Their solution was to obliterate that form and replace it with something that they saw as self-evidently better: ie., urban renewal.

I think the history of failed conventional wisdom planning solutions should inspire in us a dose of humility. While I’m all for trying out the idea of urbanizing our suburbs, we have to be sure we cast a wide net, try a lots of different things, be ready to abandon our theories when they don’t work in practice, and avoid collapsing to a single “school solution” that is promoted to the exclusion of all others.

It is also clear that Dunham-Jones and Williamson mean something different by sustainability than I do. One thing that has always irked me is how ordinary English words get co-opted as terms of art with a political agenda embedded them. (e.g., “organic” food – as opposed to what, inorganic?). Sustainability is one of those words, though that’s clearly not the author’s fault. The dictionary definition of sustainability is “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged”. But sustainability as a term of art today refers to a preferred lifestyle and policy set including pedestrian, bike, and transit oriented design; green design, local agriculture, etc. Clearly, this is the definition that Dunham-Jones and Williamson have in mind. As with all definitions, its truth is assumed rather than proven. They take it as a self-evident that these things are what one should strive for.

I’m not going to say those are bad goals or wrong goals by any means. But they miss what I consider the fundamental problem of true suburban sustainability in the long term. That is, how do we keep a suburban town relevant, and economically and demographically successful over the long term? How do we keep suburbs from falling into physical and economic decay, and having them be abandoned by the middle classes? There is a powerful assumption embedded in the book that by changing the development form of the suburb, it is put onto a sustainable base. That could be true, but I’m not sure it is.

Addressing the problem of sustainability in the suburbs involves addressing the fundamental challenges that underlie it. There are probably more than this, but here is my list:

  1. The strategic dilemma I outlined at the top. When there is always a shinier, newer version of the ‘burbs to be had, the clock starts ticking on your town the minute the ribbon is cut at the grand opening.
  2. The problem of overdetermined form. That is, the buildings of the suburbs, unlike those of the old city, are built with such a rigid “form follows function” design paradigm that they are difficult and expensive to retrofit for other uses. This isn’t only a problem for the suburbs, but it’s a bigger problem there.
  3. The 2o year depreciation cycle. Buildings, especially commercial structures, are built on a 20 or so year business case. Once the building hits the end of that useful life, it can be safely abandoned, with any salvage value as gravy. Which brings us to,
  4. The accumulation of unfunded liabilities. Enormous infrastructure and redevelopment costs, the legacy costs of our traditional cities for example, are created whenever you build a new town, but those liabilities are not funded. What’s more, the liabilities attach to the land, not the people, so when the bill comes due, people can just move out, leaving behind an impoverished, decaying husk. It’s like being able to run up a huge credit card bill in somebody else’s name, then skip town.
  5. The fact that the vast bulk of suburbs are shadow cities. Many of them take steps to explicitly keep out the types of people and businesses that would produce the economic conditions necessary to be a true city. This renders them highly vulnerable to obsolescence.

Except possibly for point #2, few of the case studies or ideas in the book address these fundamental problems. Absent that, I don’t see them creating truly sustainable suburbs, though they might revitalize a community for a period of time and/or accrue advantages to early adopters. This is probably an unfair criticism, since the authors are architects presenting architectural techniques of redevelopment. I don’t think they’d claim to be solving all the suburbs’ problems. But I want to point out that a more holisitc strategy is required to get our suburbs on a sustainable base. The architecture and planning driven solutions of Retrofitting Suburbia are only a piece of the puzzle.

The majority of the case studies in the book involve converting commercial sites into mixed use “town center” type developments. I like town centers. But when these new town centers are themselves 20 years old, and every suburb has multiple of them, many of which are newer and represent the next generation of design and taste, what then? My money says we’ll be right back where we started.

I could write a book on my suggestions for addressing these problems (if someone wanted to pay me to do so that is), but I’d like to keep the focus on this book, so I won’t share my thoughts on them today. But let’s just say that while the new urbanism solution presented here is a good start, it’s not enough. We’ve got to dig deeper and think harder about the true root of the problem.

Also, I am a bit skeptical of the idea that the suburban form is fundamentally broken. I live in the city. I love cities, obviously. I like to walk to places, take the bus, etc. I like urban grit and urban discovery. Traditional sprawl suburbs with winding roads and cul-de-sacs full of semi-identical houses are close to my personal definition of hell. But that’s the key: it’s my personal definition. Other people have different tastes and desires. Clearly, many people have decided that they love living in the suburbs. There’s clearly something to it that continues to draw people out there.

It is incredibly difficult to separate our personal preferences from what ought to be. And when someone comes along and says that our choices are not just great for us, but represent the greater good, and that other people’s choices aren’t just different but are actively destroying the planet, it is tempting to buy into it. After all, we typically think pretty highly of our own points of view. I think we need to take care to truly be open minded, to truly value diversity, and to figure out how to rise above our own personal desires to see other people’s choices as being as valid as our own and not evil or resulting from malicious, manipulative forces.

Does the suburban form have its problems? Of course. Everything has problems. But the key is do you try to fix the problems or reject the suburbs altogether? Again, previous generations made the choice to reject the urban form, and wrought horrific damage on our cities. Are we that much wiser that they? I don’t think we can categorically make that claim.

As I noted in my mid-century posting, it’s difficult for most us to imagine much of this architecture as inherently valuable. Now mid-century is actually in a good position because it has long had a core of passionate supporters. But where the passionate supporter of the regional mall? Even I have difficulty finding redeeming value in strip centers and such. But there aren’t that many enclosed malls in America. It’s not hard to imagine a day when all of them have been redeveloped and radically changed if not outright destroyed. While we may not mourn them today, this would represent a loss of our heritage. How can we preserve the best parts of our suburban history while updating as well? It’s a challenge. When your town is falling into blight, saving some old, rundown buildings that are functionally obsolete is not at the top of anyone’s list. And that’s exactly how vast swaths of our 19th century buildings got whacked. Retrofiting Suburbia treats destructive redevelopment as good, without significant concern for what is being lost. Now it could be that we’ll never be sorry we lost the mall. After all, we don’t wax nostalgic about the days when soot blackened the skies and front porch swings of our cities. But I think it is a question worth pondering.

Now the nice thing about most of the projects in this book are that they are reaonsably small scale. This makes them useful experiments and they don’t involve wholesale destruction of the existing suburban fabric. A few things I really found useful in reading them was how the authors provided the development history of the towns and the sites for context, insights into not just the results but the process for getting there and the hurdles encountered, and focused on the context of the development, such as how it connected and related to its surroundings. In this regard, it is a useful record of redevelopment experiments. While I would not try to treat this as a “cook book” – in fact, I’d be strongly opposed to that – there are a lot of lessons learned to draw from.

Its primary focus is commercial spaces. Subdivisions themselves and how to recreate them are given less attention. This is another hard and difficult topic. One place the Dunham-Jones and Williamson did cover was the famous Levittown, New York. They noted that thousands of identical homes had been built originally, but almost none remained in their original state. Where there was once monotony, there was now variety as people renovated their homes and personalized them in different styles. This really highlighted to me the huge weapon that older suburbs have in their arsenal over the long haul versus new ones: their lack of restrictive covenants and totalitarian homeowners associations. New suburbs are built to almost literally be frozen in amber. Homeowners are legally restricted from making any significant alteration to their houses. Talk about overdetermined form. Older suburbs don’t have this, which makes them much more adaptable to the future.

The problem with restrictive covenants will likely rear its head down the road as newer suburbs age. I believe they will prove such an impediment to redevelopment that states will likely declare them illegal, much like the old “whites only” deed restrictions.

While Retrofitting Suburbia is a bit of a new urbanist evangelistic tract, it’s also highly useful practically. If you don’t agree with the agenda of the authors, you can safely ignore it. If you do agree, you’ll like it even more. Given the wealth of case studies and reference materials, I think this a book that deserves to be on the shelf of leaders in all suburbs in need of redevelopment. Anyone looking at how to redevelop a suburban commercial site should study it.

Here are some chapter titles to give you a feel:

Instant Architecture, Instant Cities, and Incremental Metropolitanism
Retrofitting Garden Apartments and Residential Subdivisions
Retrofitting Social Life Along Commercial Strips
From Regional Malls to New Downtowns
Edge City Infill
Suburban Office and Industrial Park Retrofits

Again, lots of examples, lots of case studies.

While I like the book, I should warn you it is a bit pricey and also dry and academic. It’s accessible to the layman for sure, but is not written for a popular audience.

Despite its limits, Retrofitting Suburbia is definitely on my recommended list.

Read my in process series on addressing the challenges outlined in this posting, “Building Suburbs That Last”:

Part One – Strategy
Part Two – New Urbanism and Parcelization
Part Three – The Mother of All Impact Fees

Read more on the suburbs:

The Future of the American Suburb
End Property Tax Collection in Arrears
Carmel: Leadership in Action – Part One, Part Two, Part Three

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

“Cincinnati is Cool”, “Some of Us Chose to Live Here”, and Other Musings

Design Cincinnati points us at a slightly old but still very relevant posting from Chicago Carless called “Cincinnati is Cool“. It’s a great and entertaining read. He starts it out with:

“Despite my pre-trip trepidation to travel to the land of the abandoned subway, as it turned out, Cincinnati is cool. And don’t you know, ex-New Yorker and current Downtown Chicagoan that I am, I half-expect to turn into a pillar of salt for saying so. I had been jonesing for a break from blogging before the end of summer, so when Cincinnati Jamie asked if I wanted to ride shotgun on a weekend trip back home to check on his Queen City condo, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t expect more than a few quiet days in a quaint backwater, a plate of chili, and some gratuitous references (on my part) to WKRP… I admit it. Cincinnati blew me away.”

Read the whole thing. I found his observations very consistent with what I previously described in my article on Cincinnati. (For a more negative take, see this entry from Twin City Sidewalks).

You may recall me saying of Midwest cities and Indy that they have two problems in luring people there: getting on the list, and closing the deal after a visit. As you can see from the Chicago Carless entry, Cincy has horrible brand headwinds to fight. But it most assuredly does not have the same problems that other cities do in making a great first impression. Like New York and San Francisco, Cincy actually does hit you in the face with how cool it is on the cab ride into the airport, as you experierence a fantastic skyline vista on the way. Plus all the old, dense architecture, the geography, etc. Partially perhaps because expectations are so low, Cincinnati does a great job of wowing visitors. I always leave impressed. The challenge for Cincy could possibly be the reverse as for Indy. The quality of the built environment might inflate expectations of how cool living there might be to the point of setting people up for disappointment later. Nevertheless, this is a huge asset for Cincinnati and something the city can really leverage to great effect. If Cincy’s growth ever ignited again, this environment is like gasoline sloshing around on the floor ready to turn that growth fire into a raging inferno. It is easy to envision how Cincinnati could turn into a really special Midwest success story, if it overcomes its challenges and gets on the right path.

One other thing. It was again interesting reading that someone else had the same experience I did where racial remarks that would be considered completely unacceptable elsewhere were stated out in the open in Cincinnati. This is a major, major problem with the city. Given what I know of the place, I’d have to put better race relations as by far top priority for that city. This problem will sabotage everything else they do if not addressed.

For Indy readers, Mike Doyle of Chicago Carless recently contributed here in my posting about the city’s brand. Remember what I said about the physical appearance of the city? Well, Mike stopped briefly in downtown Indy on his way back from Cincy. After waxing poetic about how much he liked Cincinnati, here is what he had to say about Naptown.

“We finally did make that stop in Indy, too. Downtown there was certainly monumental, but small given the size of the surrounding city. I couldn’t help thinking of Milwaukee, another Midwestern burg with a downtown curiously unimpressive for a place of its size. (After several hundred more miles of boring Hoosier farmland, I also couldn’t help thinking God put Indiana on the map to make people appreciate Illinois and Ohio better).”

The problem of the poor physical appearance and quality of space in Indianapolis is a five alarm fire, but the community doesn’t even smell the smoke. Making a serious effort to start addressing this is absolutely critical to the city’s future success. Imagine a guy like Mike Doyle, a New York native living in Chicago, with two equivalent job offers in his hand, one in Cincinnati, the other in Indianapolis. Which one do you imagine he might pick? Indy is fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

On another topic, I was reminded this week of another statement someone made about Indy. He’d moved here from a top tier coastal city and often is around the city’s elite at various functions. He was annoyed at how often those people whisper and snipe to each other about how bad Indy is compared to Chicago or New York or where ever. He said he wants to just tell these people, “Some of us chose to live here.” Remember what I said about most of the haters being natives? It reminds me of these dysfunctional corporate cultures you sometimes see where people spend their days complaining to co-workers about how horrible the company is. That sort of thing is toxic and corrosive. I won’t claim this is unique to Indy. It appears to be a near universal affliction among smaller cities. But it has similar negative effects.

I sometimes ask people who think Indy is worse than City X, “Why not move there?” Price isn’t the object. My brother, a graphic designer and actor, two famously low paying professions, was able to make the move from Indy to Chicago to pursue his acting career. New York City might be financially out of reach, but there are many cool places that aren’t. I think it’s a totally legitimate question to consider.

Now obviously I have my complaints too, as with the poor physical appearance of the city. But I’m optimistic that this is like being a teenage boy with braces and bad acne. With proper treatment and a little time, I think the city can grow up to be a stallion who’s in like Flynn with the ladies so to speak. I don’t think people need to be rah-rah all the time. But constant carping about how bad things are a la the Indy Star message boards is a morale killer for a city just as it is at a company. The city’s not perfect by any means, but it’s got a lot good doing for it. And like Richard Stallman said of free software vs. proprietary software. “The question with free software isn’t ‘When will this feature be done?’ but ‘How can I help get it done quicker?'” Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

David Hoppe over at Nuvo weighs in on the airport art controversy. “This level of institutional risk aversion goes a long way toward explaining why it is Indianapolis has yet to really invest in a landmark work of public art worthy of the name. It’s not because of the money such a piece might cost, but because of the lack of confidence the people with money in this town have in their own taste and judgement when it comes to anything aesthetic Therefore, when someone — anyone — complains about a piece of public art ala Wolin’s photograph, alarm bells ring, panic buttons are pushed. That’s because the powers that be here keep confusing art and advertising. As far as they’re concerned, Wolin’s work of documentary art isn’t an expression to be experienced, weighed and responded to (yes, the person who complained was certainly within their rights to take umbrage), but a promotional statement intended to persuade.”

Clearly, part of the aim of the airport art program was to telegraph messages. There is a promotional aspect to it and I don’t object to that. But as it turned out, the message the airport delivered ended up being different from what they intended. Wise words from Hoppe.

More on talent and mobility from Jim Russell at New Geography. “The rub is that greater investment in your human capital will make your young adults more likely to leave. This is the mobility paradox. Regional workforce development has the unintended effect of increasing out-migration.” Lots more good stuff in there.

Here’s an interesting chart showing the price to rent ratio for various cities.

America’s museums are making major budget cuts to deal with shrinking endowments.

An interesting article on using the heat from roads to warm up water or even generate electricity.

A video series called “Perils for Pedestrians“. The episode I linked is about pedestrian access to bridges. This is certainly of relevance in Kansas City, where there is a controversy of MoDOT’s decision not to include any pedestrian or bike access on the new Paseo bridge.

Cincinnati. The Enquirer has a great interactive section about CVG airport.

Columbus. The city is asking for light rail money from the stimulus.

Detroit. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Motown Records. Detroit has long been one of the creative epicenters of music in the United States. Motown Records is the centerpiece of that.

Indianapolis. Sustainable food in Indy (via Go Indy Go!)

Speaking of public art, next year George Rickey is the featured artist in the downtown public art program.

INDOT releases its statewide transit study. Warning: It’s 430 pages!

CICP wants to make the state a center of clean technology. The race to do this is getting quite crowded as many states are trying to get a piece of this action, just like life sciences.

St. Louis. Good news from the St. Louis Symphony, which actually saw ticket sales and revenues go up in December.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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