Monday, March 30th, 2009

The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Innovation Competition

I’m pleased to report that the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce just named Yours Truly the winner of a major transit innovation competition. They selected mine over 125 other entries from around the world for a plan to reach the goal of increasing transit ridership to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago. A special Urbanophile Thank You to reader and commenter “de-bug” who told me about this competition.

This competition is featured in John Hilkevitch’s column in today’s Chicago Tribune: “Chicago Transit: ideas to reach one billion rides“. If you can get the print edition, you can see the companion photo. The winning entry is available online. It is more sedate than the article might suggest. Keep in mind too that I was responding to a brief and wanted to win. This is not my own personal proposal, though I support many of the suggestions.

Here is the press release:

March 30, 2009

Contact: Justin DeJong (Chamber) 312-494-6725
Connie French (InnoCentive) 978-482-3389

Chicagoland Chamber, InnoCentive unveil proposals that aim to increase local transit ridership to 1 billion rides a year
Crowd-sourcing approach generates global interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions through improving Chicago’s mass transportation system; more than 125 innovators compete for $5,000 prize

CHICAGO – The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and InnoCentive today announced the results of a global competition that generated more than 125 ideas to increase regional mass transit ridership to reach 1 billion in annual rides with the goal of reducing the environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions released by automobiles. Aaron M. Renn, a Chicago and Indianapolis-based urban affairs writer who currently runs a blog called the Urbanophile, won the Challenge with an innovative, comprehensive, and forward-looking approach that articulated how the Chicago Transit Authority could add capacity, better utilize excess off-peak capacity by attracting new off-peak riders and luring new riders by improving the quality of the user’s experience. Renn states that beyond making transit “better”, it means changing the goals and values that underpin public transit as it exists in Chicago today.

“By using collaboration to encourage innovation, we were able to generate countless new ideas for the mass transit agencies of our region to help them increase ridership so we can decrease the production of greenhouse gases,” said Chicagoland Chamber Foundation President Lance Pressl. “The overwhelming response and interest in improving our regional transportation system brought new, innovative ideas to the forefront which potentially can be put into practice at our local transit agencies.”

Submissions to the competition included ideas from locations as far away as Kenya, Australia and Japan. Some of these ideas included transformational green initiatives, updated approaches to marketing, and new fare structures. The Chicagoland Chamber now plans to compile all proposals and present them to regional transportation officials at the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace.

In the winning entry, Renn detailed recommendations to better utilize existing capacity and add new capacity. Among the recommendations were (1) more efficiently utilizing the existing infrastructure, especially adding new off-peak rides and shifting rides from peak to shoulder periods; (2) adding a new bus rapid transit component to the CTA system; and (3) increasing mainline capacity on rail and bus. The submission also offered methods to entice new riders including (1) a more rider-centric view that focuses on maximizing the attractiveness of transit versus the alternatives in terms of cost, end to end journey time, and quality of experience; and (2) maximizing demand for trips by increasing employment in the Loop and changing policies with regards to land use.

“I’m honored that the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Foundation chose my submission as the winner from a large and competitive field. Transit and climate change are among the key issues of the day, and I’m gratified to have my ideas on them considered by the Chicagoland Chamber and top transit officials in the region” stated winner Aaron M. Renn who will be further honored in May at the Chamber Foundation’s upcoming Innovation Summit.

To launch this global competition, the Chicagoland Chamber worked with InnoCentive, a nationally renowned open innovation network. This network is becoming an increasingly common platform for companies and organizations to tap the public to solve their business challenges, enabling them to connect with creative thinkers from around the world.

“This is the first Challenge posted on InnoCentive by a major metropolitan city, and demonstrates the power of soliciting ideas and expertise from the public to solve a major environmental issue – carbon emissions,” said Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of InnoCentive, Inc. “The Chamber received a wealth of responses to increase ridership on public transportation, but the ones that made the most sense were from Solvers living right in Chicago, which goes to show that the best solutions can often come from the very people who are experiencing the problem first hand and understand the inner workings of their own cities and towns. As with all InnoCentive Challenges, it was fascinating to watch this process unfold—from the initial posting to the conclusion—and the innovative solutions that resulted. This is why open innovation works and why it is so important that companies, government agencies and other organizations look outside their own walls to seek the insight of others.”

The Challenge invited innovative approaches, financing, and novel customer solutions to make public transportation the “first choice” for daily transit needs. By boosting public transportation ridership levels to 1 billion rides, the City can decrease the number of cars on the road and achieve a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. To reach the 1 billion rides per year ambitious goal, the Chamber estimated that a total of 800,000 new individuals must be convinced to ride public transportation. The Chamber targeted 1 billion rides per year because this is the peak level of ridership in the history of the CTA in 1947. Solutions could take on many forms including: (1) aligning the CTA’s capital program with the goal of increasing ridership; (2) improving the “user experience” on public transportation to make the rider’s choice more attractive; (3) engaging the key stakeholders, including private sector employers, community organizations, local governments, in meaningful collaboration to ensure that service delivery and quality are aligned with user demand; (4) exploring innovative uses of capital/funding to secure innovative products that appeal to riders; (5) identifying incentives for employers to encourage employees to use public transportation; (6) adopting an incentive structure at the CTA that rewards innovation and achievement of ridership goals; and (7) shifting the nature of the problem from a “subsidy model” to more of a “business model.”

The Chamber launched the InnoCentive Challenge to support efforts underway within the region’s mass transit agencies and the City of Chicago’s “Chicago Climate Action Plan.” Released by the city in 2008, the plan indicates that reducing automobiles on the road and minimizing the number of miles driven will have a demonstrable positive effect on the City’s greenhouse gas emissions. For example, by removing 185,000 cars from the roads a reduction of one million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions will be achieved or by driving in aggregate 2,500 fewer miles the City would see a reduction of one metric ton of greenhouse emissions.

In addition to recognizing Renn for his proposal, the Chamber also recognized three additional innovative proposals with honorable mention designations. These honorees and proposal details include:

• Susan Beth Thomas from Chicago’s South Side suggested using thousands of square feet of standing seam metal roofs along the Blue, Green Pink and Orange Line routes which the CTA currently owns as well as thousands of standing seam metal roof space on its work sheds and repair garages to generate solar electricity on which to run the trains. Installing a grid-connected, Untied Solar Ovonic, Photovoltaic Renewable Energy System on every square foot of available CTA roof space will drastically reduce, or entirely eliminate the CTA’s electric bill and possibly create a constant income by selling any excess electricity back to the ComEd ‘grid’. The Blue, Green, Pink and Orange Lines all operate on an east-west line creating the Southern Exposure necessary to utilize the sun’s energy most effectively. This effort would transform the CTA into the first major transportation system in America to convert to renewable energy.

• Olympia Moy from Chicago’s West Side detailed recommendations for a new transit pass program, similar to the successful ECO-Pass program in Boulder, CO which encourages a greater number of people to use the public transit system through deeply discounted prices for year-long transit passes. Based on a medical insurance model, a group of residents can create a neighborhood area that elects to collectively buy into the ECO-Pass program. New riders are attracted by the convenience of having a pass that competes with the “car keys in the pocket,” and transit systems benefit by having a secure influx of revenue at the beginning of each fiscal term.

• John Whelan from Chicago’s North Side detailed a three step program to transform public transportation in Chicago. The first is to engage the Chicago Climate Exchange and categorize the project as an energy efficiency program to give the City of Chicago the ability to sell carbon offsets on the open market realizing an immediate monetary value. Second, every time a rider takes the train or bus, they receive a “Chicago Carbon Credit” that is added to their Chicago Card account. This “Chicago Carbon Credit” would be correlated to the actual amount received by the City by selling the CO2 offsets mentioned above. This will create a direct line of sight between the user’s daily action and helping the environment, making it an obvious choice to use public transportation. Lastly the Solver suggests the City should revamp its advertising program with a singular emphasis on making it fashionable to use public transportation. Properly executed, the advertising program would give riders a clear understanding about their individual contribution to helping the environment, a desire to accumulate Chicago Carbon Credits, and, through the donation program, a way to feel good about helping their disadvantaged fellow citizens.

Note that the Chamber does not endorse ideas or policies submitted in the proposals in instances where they conflict with the Chicagoland Business Agenda approved by the Chamber’s Board of Directors.

About the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce

Since its founding in 1904 as the first regional chamber of commerce in the United States, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s mission is to make Chicagoland the most business-friendly region in America and enhance its members’ success through aggressive programs of advocacy, member benefits and services, and actionable information. The Chamber’s 2,600 members employ more than 1.2 million individuals in the region. Learn more by visiting

About InnoCentive

Founded in 2001, InnoCentive built the first global web community for open innovation, enabling scientists, engineers, professionals and entrepreneurs to collaborate to deliver breakthrough solutions for R&D-driven organizations. InnoCentive Seekers, who collectively spend billions of dollars on R&D, submit complex problems to the InnoCentive Marketplace where more than 170,000 engineers, scientists, inventors, business people, and research organizations in more than 175 countries are invited to solve them. Solvers who deliver the most innovative solutions receive financial awards ranging up to US$1,000,000. InnoCentive’s Seekers include commercial, government and non-profit organizations such as Avery Dennison, Procter & Gamble, Pendulum, Eli Lilly and Company, Janssen, Solvay, SAP and The Rockefeller Foundation.

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Cincinnati: Agenda 360

What does a civic vision plan look like? What should it look like? A recently issued report by a group called “Agenda 360” in Cincinnati gives us the opportunity to examine these questions.

Agenda 360 is designed to be a “Regional Action Plan” to “transform Cincinnati USA, by the year 2020, into a leading metropolitan region for talent, jobs and economic opportunity for all who call our region home” The project originated as a way to rally the community around a shared vision and objectives so that everyone is on the same page about where the community needs to go and what it needs to do. It’s focused on four Ohio counties, though recognizes Cincinnati as a bigger region and patterned itself after a Northern Kentucky initiative called Vision 2015, the idea being to align the two studies for more comprehensive vision. In that light, the plan focused on six main areas:

  • Quality Place
  • Business Growth
  • Qualified Workforce
  • Transportation
  • Inclusion
  • Collaborative Government

The project took about two years to complete. It involved a Who’s Who of public sector, business, and community leadership, and over 1000 volunteers. There was also a very extensive public involvement process.

Something to consider about these studies is that the end result or content is not always the most important outcome. Rather, efforts like this can be as much about the process, and the resulting bridge building and relationships that result, as any actual output. One of the things that distinguishes the Agenda 360 plan is the ambitious goal of trying to involve and align the entire community around civic betterment. This is something that being a smaller metro gets you. It really is possible to create relationships and such that span the entire region.

I previously identified extreme regional fragmentation, a city-suburb gap, and an Ohio-Kentucky gap as key problems bedeviling the region. Breaking down those barriers and building trust is a key imperative for Cincinnati to change its civic trajectory. A project like this isn’t likely to do that all by itself, but it can be a piece of the puzzle and set the right tone for how things should be done.

Speaking of setting the tone, I was very impressed with how this project transcended its roots in the business community to try to set a more inclusive process. Lots of communities have business driven civic plans, and these can be good. But in Cincinnati, where there is a lot of distrust that a handful of corporations run the place for their own benefit, it is great to see that an attempt was made to reach out to other constituencies.

So anything I say about the plan itself should be seen in the context of the overall process and the attempt to build bridges in the community. That is arguably more important for Cincinnati than any plan documents.

That’s a very good thing, because in many respects the report itself is fairly generic and does not appear, with some limited exceptions, to outline a vision and action plan that I see materially moving the needle in Cincinnati. In that regard is its not much different from the vast bulk of vision and comprehensive plans that I’ve read. For those of you reading this who aren’t in Cincinnati but want to create a community vision, the bulk of my comments here are of general applicability.

With that, here are a few observations about the plan. (Here is a link to the final report).

1. There’s very little Cincinnati in the Cincinnati agenda. I read every one of these types of plans I can get my hands on. One thing that repeatedly jumps out at me is just how similar they all are. It is the same thing with municipal comprehensive plans. This one is no exception. It is not so much that its recommendations are bad. In fact, many of them are good. But they are motherhood and apple pie statements that could be from any city.

Here is a list of some items the plans lays out for Cincinnati to do:

  • Protect and improve the environment
  • Empower neighborhood revitalization and growth
  • Enhance and connect the region’s arts and culture assets
  • Improve the system of education from birth to age 16
  • Increase college graduation
  • Create a regional transit strategy

These could have been priorities for any city anywhere. They are good and of course any community should be working on them. But they don’t tell you anything about Cincinnati. It should come as no surprise that 94% of residents surveyed agreed that “safe, proud and vibrant neighborhoods” were an important priority. (Makes you wonder who the other 6% are). Even most of the photos could be from a stock house for all that they tell you about what city you’re in.

I probably could take this document and in a day or two turn it into a report for another major city such that you’d be hard pressed to tell I’d done it. (To let you in on a “secret”, this is exactly how consulting companies work, which is why all these documents look so similar. The cost to produce a truly original report would be much higher than communities are generally willing to spend). This plan is basically an agglomeration of conventional wisdom thinking on a variety of topics.

This is a shame since Cincinnati is such an incredible city, one like no other in America. Every time I go there I am blown away by what it has. This isn’t just another American sprawlburg, it’s a place with amazing character. I’m not the only one who feels this way, as Mike Doyle’s long take shows.

Let’s think of some of these “only in Cincinnati” things.

  • The amazing legacy of being the real “Queen City” of the early 19th century, the original Porkopolis and hog butcher to the world.
  • The fantastic geography of the hills, the river, etc.
  • Its position in a tri-state region that makes it a cultural meeting place and crossing ground.
  • Amazing, dense historic neighborhoods in an architectural style unlike the rest of the Midwest
  • A patchwork quilt of lots of tiny, distinctive towns
  • Top notch high culture institutions unlike any similar sized city
  • Its unique regional culture, products, and institutions (the Charter Party, Cincinnati-style chili, Cincinnati Bell Telephone Company)
  • Far more major corporate headquarters than most any similar sized city
  • Major super-regional assets (King’s Island, IKEA, etc)

There is not another city in America in Cincy’s general size range that has anything like this. Not even close. But this stuff is almost totally missing the report.

It also raises the question: if Cincinnati has such powerful assets, why is it lagging cities that don’t have them? What fundamentally is Cincinnati’s problem? Things like jobs and an educated workforce aren’t causes, they’re effects. They are the result of what the city brings to bear on the era that it finds itself. To be more blunt, what is Cincinnati doing wrong? This is the flip side of the question and one that needs to be tackled head on.

I’ll offer one interesting hypothesis. That is, Cincinnati’s problems fundamentally derive from an over-supply of long-existing historic assets. If when I am weak, then I am strong, the reverse is also true. Assets can anchor a community strategy, but what does an anchor do? It holds you in place. The roots of Cincinnati’s problems today are in its Queen City era. This resulted in its extreme conservatism (defend what you have instead of embracing the new and getting ready for the future, living off “glory days’, etc) and its incredible aristocratic/solipsistic attitude. Add in extreme community fragmentation, most notably in the area of race relations, where Cincinnati has one of the worst situations in America, as well various other divides and you’ve basically got it covered I think.

What does Cincinnati look like in 2020? Not just, what is the conventional wisdom on what all American cities should look like, but something specific to this unique and wonderful place called Cincinnati. The report opens with “You know this is a great place to live. That’s why you’re here.” But what does that greatness reside in? When every regional city has a similar ambition list, what is going to differentiate Cincinnati? That did not come through at all to me. As I’ve long noted, this is really hard. But it is the question that needs to be answered. If Cincinnati re-energizes itself and gets on an above average growth plan and achieves the ambitions laid out, what will it look like? How does it function? What’s different?

Now, let me be fair in citing a few areas where they got it right. The first was, as I said earlier, recognizing the fragmentation of the community as a problem and starting with a process designed to start changing that. The beauty is, they didn’t just say, “Here’s what we should do”, but rather, through the process they used to create the report itself, demonstrated what the community should be doing.

Also, two of the report’s themes were Inclusion, and Government Collaboration. This is a clear recognition that by far the number one barrier to community growth in Cincinnati is poor race relations. Until this problem is fixed, until racist comments are no longer acceptable in public conversation or on air, until the black community of Cincinnati feels like they are a valued part of the community and that there is a region wide commitment that African Americans share in overall civic success, nothing will change for Cincinnati.

Let’s just pick on example: streetcars. The city wants to implement a streetcar system downtown. The local NAACP is opposing this and even made an effort to amend the city charter to ban it. This is the sort of conflict that will paralyze decision making until their is significant improvement in race relations.

Similarly, with governmental fragmentation, including three separate states in the region, and low levels of regional civic trust, better collaboration is an absolute imperative.

2. The recommendations are not operationalizable. The problem with motherhood and apple pie visions is that they don’t tell us what we should do. For example, improving education. I’ve yet to meet anyone of either party who doesn’t say this is important to the community and important to them personally. But that doesn’t rally anyone behind a program to improve it. In fact, we see election after election where the outcome is agreed to – better education for our kids – but there is fierce debate over the way to get it done. In our education example, the things the report says we should do are insufficient to call a program: “quality early-childhood education; family engagement in learning; teacher recruitment, development and retention; career pathways and responsive post-secondary systems.”

Now of course in a vision plan you don’t necessarily detail out the actions for every goal you set. For some goals, the first step is to figure out how to get there. But it certainly helps for goals like that to have an objective that is reasonably specific. Also, I don’t think that it is unreasonable to expect that for a report that bills itself as “A Regional Action Plan” that somewhere in there are the actions that we are actually supposed to take.

One of the beauties of Daniel Burham’s Plan of Chicago is just how specific it was. He said, let’s build this bridge here over Michigan Ave, with these design characteristics, in this location. He said, let’s build a civic center at Halsted and Congress. Other parts of the plan were more conceptual, but there was enough concrete stuff in there (often literally, maybe too literally – it was a public works oriented plan) so that people knew what the city should do and there could be support mobilized around it. Is Agenda 360 the type of plan you could teach kids about in school like they did Burnham’s? I don’t think so.

Again, to be fair, there are instances where this shines through. For example, one of the business growth recommendations was “Protect Air Service”. CVG is a delta hub with non-stops to Paris and many other cities. This is very unique among Midwestern cities its size. The report cites the companies that located there for access to this air service. This is a way to create a unique advantage. Cincinnati is going to try to preserve its unique level of air service and use that as an economic development tool to lure businesses for which that is a requirement. Indianapolis and Columbus won’t be able to compete as easily.

Another example was in fact very Burnham-like: “Replace the Brent Spence Bridge”. Bam. There you go. And another good one was to become a national center in diabetes/obesity and cancer programs. The rest of the plan should have been full of strategies like these two.

3. The grow business recommendations did not have sufficient depth and strategic focus. Guess what the emerging business clusters for Cincinnati will be? You guessed it, advanced energy, information technology, and life sciences, exactly like every other city it competes with. Its fourth sector is “consumer products and creative services”, but hasn’t P&G and its vaunted marketing group been around forever? That should have more appropriately been put into its legacy clusters area. And the legacy clusters themselves appear to be more location quotient drive (i.e., based on having a greater than average employment base in an industry) rather than functioning as a Silicon Valley like cluster (i.e., based on synergy and the whole being greater than the sum of its parts and/or generating continuous innovation and new firms).

If Cincinnati is going to compete in the life sciences game, why is it going to win over every other place that is also staking its future on that industry? What segments will Cincinnati win in? Life sciences is actually the best one from this plan, because they give some examples. Again, the diabetes and cancer examples come to mind. And they want to have a world class health center, perhaps indicating a specialty on the treatment side. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital is one of America’s absolute best, so perhaps pediatrics is an area.

I was surprised not to see was anything about taxation or regulatory structures, typically among the most prominent elements in business location decisions. Was Cincinnati’s business climate benchmarked against others? And what did it show? Where is Cincinnati uniquely good or bad? How to leverage or correct?

Also, there are big problems throughout the Midwest around creating an entrepreneurial and risk taking culture. In the Midwest people often work to live, not live to work. They want to work normal hours and spend time with friends and family. The easy pace of life is a key part of its appeal. But in other places people are more ambitious to get rich or change the world. They are hungrier. If the Midwest wants to compete, it needs to change the culture. I don’t know Cincinnati well enough to say for sure, but it seems to me that its conservatism and domination by large corporate employers might encourage a “civil service” mindset among people, where the sought out positions are staff roles in large companies where you can work out your days until a comfortable retirement instead of risking all your chips on Red-14 by starting a company.

The report notes the disproportionate presence of Fortune 500 companies (Cincy is a top ten city for them) and below average job growth in the same passage, but fails to make the connection between the two. Fortune 500 companies are largely not generators of employment, but their employment characteristics can suck up the best and brightest who might otherwise be starting the small businesses that are the growth engines of tomorrow. It’s like France where everyone dreams of being a fonctionnaire. The idea that economic success equals large megalithic employers is yesterday’s economic model. That’s true as much for the office as it is for the manufacturing plant. Today’s knowledge intensive industries and clusters are made up of networks of smaller firms, often orchestrated across the globe. This is where Cincinnati is missing out. (Again, let me be fair and point out that the report makes one suggestion that is right on point here: looking for opportunities to spin-off other businesses from these large employers)

Changing the culture – not a revolutionary change in the character of a people, but an evolutionary change – has to be a be a part of any solution in any Midwestern city.

4. The goals in the plan are problematic. The challenge with non-specific goals is how to know if we got there. What does success look it? The press release announcing the report site out three regional goals to achieve by 2020:

  • Add an additional 150,000 20-34 year old to the work force
  • Add 200,000 net jobs to the region, a 50% growth in the historical growth rate
  • Create economic self-sufficiency for all, with household income at a level 250% of the federal poverty rate.

The first question that comes to mind is whether or not these are attainable in any possible scenario. The idea of self-sufficiency for “all” is clearly not achievable. I’m not certain what Cincy needs to change in its demographic trends to achieve the first, but it seems rather high considering that the entire metro area is only adding people at a run rate of about 110,000 people per decade. This study seems to imply growth rate in 20-34 years olds in the next decade 50% greater than total population growth in this one. Also, the problem with increasing job growth by 50% is the ramp up period. With only ten years of runway, if you don’t hit your numbers in the first couple, the logistics of hitting the end target become daunting.

I believe in stretch goals. If the community doesn’t fail to achieve some of its goals, it clearly didn’t aim high enough. It’s like my one buddy used to say, “If I don’t miss a flight every other month, I’m spending too much time in airports”. However, if you set goals that are clearly out of reach, you can end up like the EU’s Lisbon Agenda.

Also, I like the overall outcome based goals – a lot – but I’d like to see program level goals added as well to complement them. That’s the beauty of specific actions. For example, if you want to replace the Brent Spence Bridge, you can just look out your window to see if you did it. If your goal is to be “recognized as one of the Top 5 consumer marketing regions in the world.” you can probably figure out a way to measure that. (I’d argue Cincy is already close to there in reality).

Possibly this report just doesn’t connect with me because its organization and text focuses on the motherhood and apple pie aspects rather than the concrete and tangible parts of “Here is where we want to go; here is what we want to do; here is how we’ll measure it”. Most of the best parts were seemingly throwaway lines like that Top 5 consumer marketing region one. But that is arguably the strongest goal in the whole thing.

To summarize, I this plan needs to be much more specific about Cincinnati as a unique American city (which it is), be more specific in the actions that need to be taken, fill in the gaps, and tighten up the measurements.

The idea of a civic plan is one that I’ve thought a bit about. Developing my idea of what a 21st century civic plan should look like is something I’ve been working on a long time. One of my handful of dream jobs would be to have someone hire me to lead the development of such a plan. For a city the size of Cincinnati, however, I estimate this would probably take about three years and cost a few million bucks. Not cheap or easy to pull off. I don’t know how much time I’ll devote to this or not, but perhaps over the comings months I’ll add some additional postings about what such a plan might look like. In the meantime, you might want to read my piece, “What is a Strategy?

Since I spent a lot of ink discussing the shortcomings of this plan, I should wrap up by once again highlighting what they got right. The first is recognizing Inclusion and Government Collaboration as community imperatives. There is nothing more important for Cincinnati. The second was the extremely wide net they cast to try to involve the community at large in this plan. I have never seen anything so extensive done. Listen to some of it.

“Achieving demographic representation was an important goal of the community engagement meetings, and the effort resulted in a tour of the region’s rich diversity. Meetings were held with Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities, Hamilton County Health and Human Services executives, people of Appalachian origin, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce members, Jewish Federation board members, Service Workers International Union members and Urban League job training participants. More than 80 people who are homeless participated in a meeting at Christ Church Cathedral’s 5000 club weekly dinner. Meetings were hosted with high school students, college students and young professionals.”

Wow. That’s very broad. In fact, it is broader than I have ever seen before. That is extremely commendable. Again, it’s not just talking the talk, it’s walking the walk. You can’t say you need an inclusive community if the process that develops that recommendation is not inclusive. This process, dialog, and bridge building are more important for a place like Cincinnati than any plan that comes from it.

Perhaps that also explains the motherhood and apple pie nature of the plan. To develop a common vision across that many groups requires a certain amount of least common denominator thinking, at least to start. In light of the importance of inclusion – which is again, public issue #1 for Cincinnati – perhaps showing people that they can collaborate on something, agree on something, is more important than what they agree on. If this proceeds and leads to the place it needs to for Cincinnati, then anything else that comes out of the plan is icing on the cake.

If you are in Cincinnati and are not a regular reader of this blog, I suggest the following articles will provide more insight. I have written multiple times on the unique character and brand promise of Indianapolis. That should illustrate some ideas on how to put more Cincinnati in the plan:

The Brand Promise of Indianapolis
Our Product is Better than Our Brand

I also gave similar suggestions to Chicago in a posting call “A Declaration of Independence

And my previous take on Cincinnati after a visit last year is in my posting, “A Midwest Conundrum“.

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

An INDOT highway worker was struck and killed by a dump truck this week. As we head into construction season, everyone please take extra care to watch out for road crews and to drive cautiously in construction zones. This is a sad example of what can happen when you don’t. Condolences to INDOT employee Mark T. Shepardson’s family

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser notes the relationship between educational attainment and unemployment rates in the recession. He also notes that manufacturing dependency ain’t good (duh) and that areas with concentrated employment are doing better. Interestingly, he notes that almost to as great an extent as current educational attainment, educational attainment rates in 1940 explain unemployment:

“Given the enormous gap in unemployment between skilled and unskilled workers, it isn’t surprising that skills best explain today’s metropolitan unemployment rates. The share of adults with college degrees in 2000 can, on its own, explain about one-half of the variation in the unemployment rate.

Somewhat remarkably, the educational level of the metropolitan area before World War II can do almost as well. The attached figure shows that as the share of the population with college degrees in 1940 increases by 10 percent, current unemployment levels decrease by 6.7 percent.”

Interesting. More quotes from Glaeser:

“The enormously tight connection between skills and unemployment should remind us of the importance of investing in human capital. Skills drive the success of individuals, cities and nations. America’s future rests on the human capital of its population….Beware industrial policies aimed at keeping America tied to heavy industry. The track record of manufacturing cities over the past 50 years is dismal; artificially boosting the automobile industry seems unlikely to do any long-term good…While the regional diversity within the United States might prompt politicians to pursue policies that target aid to distressed regions, that seems likely to be counterproductive. America has always dealt with regional economic disparities through migration. During the recessions, thousands fled the Dust Bowl. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a massive exodus from the Rust Belt. Today’s recession will also prompt mobility, probably toward more skilled, more centralized cities with less historical commitment to manufacturing. Government policies that try to bolster declining regions would artificially reduce that productivity-enhancing mobility. It would be far wiser to focus on aid that helps poor people rather than to throw money at poor places. “

Following on from that, Ball State economist Michael Hicks writes in his column about the need to provide amenities. Quoting: “A far less visible, but far more important part of economic development in is in the creation of places where people want to live. This is harder, more time consuming, but far more fruitful and lasting than relying solely on business attraction. The folks in business attraction know this and work hard to get communities involved in self improvement…..There is an interesting irony to the issue of job attraction versus amenities. The higher the costs of labor the more likely firms are to be solicitous of worker interests. Human capital intensive industries must locate in places where amenities are best. It is simply a matter of minimizing costs. Interestingly those jobs, in industries that are human capital intensive, are the highest paying jobs, in the industries that are fastest growing.”

Remember how I said onshore outsourcing is a good growth prospect for the Midwest? Well, here’s an article from the FT on the near shoring phenomenon occurring in the UK

Speaking of the UK, an interesting research study there shows that, if you factor in the user costs from years of construction, it can actually be cheaper to build brand new rail lines than to upgrade old ones. I think the key here, for both transit and highway projects, is to do it fast. Not only do you save on construction costs from avoiding inflation, you also get the benefits quicker and avoid a ton of user costs. Hat tip The Overhead Wire.

France’s national railway would love the opportunity to run US high speed rail systems.

Andres Duany of DPZ architects had a very interesting column about New Orleans. His point is that rather than viewing New Orleans as the worst governed American city, we should see it as the best governed Carribean city, drawing comparisons to Havana in his native Cuba. It’s worth a read, particulary for its discussion of a unique civic culture there.

Robert Land and Lawrence Levy ask President Obama not to forget about the suburbs.

The Congress for New Urbanism unveils their 2009 Charter Award recipients.

An article in The Guardian about funding problems causing a crisis for American orchestras.

Research disagrees with me on learning to love opera, saying it is like love at first sight.

The Toronto Globe and Mail takes a look at the province’s economic crisis and debates Richard Florida.

Boom turns to bust for adventurous architecture in Spain.

The New York Observer sees how upscale lifestyle magazine Monocle is faring in tough times. (There is also a sidebar).

How about some schadenfreude for our Midwestern contingent regarding Charlotte? “A besieged bank, and its hometown, look inward” and “Charlotte’s identity crisis“.

Here’s a posting talking about the “Beyond Burnham” series ongoing in Chicago media.

In the grand tradition of collegiate pranks, Louisville officials will be mounting an operaton to project its “Possibility City” logo on the sides of Indianapolis buildings using laser projectors. Sounds like a lot of fun. [UPDATE: The city of Indianapolis says No. What a bunch of killjoys. I mean, this is Indianapolis. How seriously can you take yourself? This is a rather small town attitude if you ask me. It says way more about Indianapolis than it does about Louisville ]

And once more in Louisville, an interesting piece on how the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is outsourcing some road maintenance and operations to Louisville.

Here is a piece of very disappointing news. INDOT is announcing it will restrict I-65 to one lane until November for a resurfacing project. A few years back INDOT made a policy change that it would no longer reduce I-65 and I-70 below two lanes each direction for extended periods. The agency appears to have reverted. It should reconsider. I still have nighmares of that time I-65 was down to one lane in Layfayette on the day before Thanksgiving and I got to spend two hours passing around a basketball on the highway with some kids from the next car while we waited for traffic to start moving again. This is a very short project, covering only the distance between two interchanges. And it is only a resurfacing. This summer will see major congestion, particularly on weekends, if INDOT stays with the current plan for a continuous closing.

More Midwest

CTA has plan to avoid service cuts, fare hikes (Greg Hinz @ Crain’s Chicago Business)
CTA slow zones (Tribune)
Transit Alert: CTA says it is on slow train for terrorist alerts (Tribune)
Why Metra is riding slow train to future (Tribune)
Urban Infrastructures as issue with high speed rail (Times of NWI)
Parking meter revolt (CBS2)
What Quinn’s budget may cost you (Tribune)

Tower Place thinking outside the mall (Enquirer) – This mall in downtown Cincinnati is 62% vacant.

Cleveland Orchestra plans deep cuts (Plain Dealer)

Oakland says Cobo deal sour (Detroit News)
Dream of regional transit nears reality (Detroit News)

Kokomo corridor plans becoming reality (Indy Star)
Deal leaves state with one less worry (Indy Star)
146th St. interchange will be the most difficult (Indy Star)
Indy ranks low in walkability (WTHR)

Kansas City
Cutting edge cuisine finds a home in Kansas City (KC Star)

Fate of bridges funding bill is uncertain (C-J)

Doyle seeks full cost for fast rail link (JS) – $519M for Madison-Milwaukee rail
Map of Milwaukee proposed streetcar line (Urban Milwaukee)
Milwaukee skywalk map (Urban Milwaukee)
Wisconsin’s new slogan faces some push back (JS)

Twin Cities
A season of hiring (Star-Tribune)
Gutherie Theater to trim budget by $4 million (Star Tribune)

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Strategies Done Right – Indianapolis Museum of Art

This is one of my periodic postings on governments and civic organizations that have adopted the strategic principles I advocate, and the good results they’ve had with them. Today’s example is the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The IMA is a regional art museum. While it has many very good collections and a number of very unique features – including ownership of two National Historic Landmark homes – it’s not the first museum that comes to mind when you think of major world art museums. It doesn’t have a Mona Lisa or uber-famous paints like that. Nor is it located in a city that receives huge hordes of tourists such that the reputation of its collections benefit from the rubbing off effect of the general reputation of the city where it is located. And the Indianapolis community is not so loaded with billionaires that vast sums can be raised with comparative ease like they can elsewhere. So how does an institution like the IMA manage to both showcase what it is, and carve out a niche for itself on the world stage?

I had lunch with Director Max Anderson last fall and asked him the question that I always think is so telling, “What is your ambition for the IMA?” In response, he said, “To be indispensable to the life of the city.” I thought this was a pretty good answer. It recognizes the IMA’s role as primarily a local and regional institution, and sets an aggressive agenda for how it wants to engage with the community. And how is it doing that? There are a number of ways, but I’ll highlight a couple. The first is the The Toby theater. This 600 person or so auditorium is now the premier venue in the city for serious film. A recent screening featured Buster Keaton’s The General with a live orchestra, for example. The Toby also features other types of events, such as lectures and performance. The second example is related to the Toby. That is, in a very conservative city and state, what has historically been a traditional and conservative institution is now trying to bring in more edgy programming that expands the horizons of what is on offer locally. Some of this might potentially be controversial. But as Anderson puts it, he wants the IMA to be the “unflinching home of the first amendment in Indiana”. The IMA is actually taking institutional risks to try to advance its view of the direction the community as a whole should be going. (Some of this is more planned than actual at this point, so stay tuned).

But beyond that local role, Anderson also highlighted three areas where he thought the IMA could carve out a niche for itself on the world stage. These were the interaction of art and nature, conservation, and museum ethics. To that I would add the use of digital media as a communications channel.

On the first point, the IMA’s Art and Nature Park is attempting to redefine what a contemporary scupture park can be – and is attracting significant attention for it. This is a very unique project. On the conservation front, the IMA has recently acquired some rare digital imaging equipment, and started building endowed funding dedicated to conservation thanks to a recent Lilly Foundation grant. And on the museum ethics front, the IMA’s recent moves in the de-accessioning space have been landing kudos from around the country. The IMA not only has its de-accessioning policy posted online, it also has a database of objects that are proposed for de-accessioning, where the public can comment before works are disposed of. And it even tracks what the money from any sale was used for. (You can read coverage here and here). On the digital media front, the IMA has gotten national media coverage for its blog, many of its employees are active on Twitter, and it has rolled out a super-cool new high definition art video site called ArtBabble.

All of these inititiaves are far from complete, but they are all underway, and all showing results. I think this goes to show that a regional museum can not only be a major force in its own community, but also can create a national and international role and reputation for itself in multiple areas even without a stock of Russian billionaires on tap.

I think this also goes to show the importance of leadership. Most of this goodness came about after Max Anderson came on board as director. He’s brought a lot of new energy and new direction to the organization. I think it is fair to say that if Anderson had been at the IMA when the recent expansion was planned, it wouldn’t be possibly the worst major museum expansion architecturally in recent times. You also have to give credit to the IMA board for realizing that they needed a guy like Anderson.

I’m a grass roots guy and think bottoms-up change and activity is absolutely critical to a community. But it isn’t a substitute for top-down leadership. Communities that are successful have a winning combination of great leadership from the top and a powerful grass roots movement from the bottom. There is a natural tension and distrust between the top-down and bottom’s up folks in many if not most communities. Some of this is healthy tension, but often it is poisonous. I think again successful communities figure out how to bridge the gap between the establishment leadership and the grass roots, to find ways to harness the best of both to move the city forward.

Lest you think the IMA paid me to write this, I have to say that the jury is still out on the Art and Nature Park. I liked the previous iteration of the design better. (I want my Cor-Ten steel bridge back!) And despite their leading use of digital media, the IMA needs a completely new web site in the worst way, with a vastly improved interaction model. So everything isn’t perfect. But I think this is clearly an organization that’s seen a major uptick in its trendlines and where a lot of positives are happening on many fronts. The economy has hammered their endowment, like most other museums, and funding my limit what they can achieve. So stay tuned. But in my view this is an organization that put together a very strong strategy and is following it up with good execution, and deserves community support, financial and otherwise.

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Chicago: Pecha Kucha – Urban Design Disasters

I participated in Pecha Kucha Indy Vol. 5 in February. Taking advantage of my time split between Chicago and Indy, I decided to let the crowd of napteños have some fun at the Windy City’s expense. So please keep in mind this presentation was created in the spirit of good-natured mockery, so shouldn’t be taken too literally. Having said that, there are some pretty good points in here. And I decided not to just kick Chicago when it was down, but to punch it in the face in some areas of which is it most proud. For those of you who don’t know, Pecha Kucha is a presentation format with 20 slides shown for 20 second each, with open bar going in the background while you present.

  • How many of you are old enough to remember that cheesy 80’s sci-fi mini-series “V”? You know, the one where these reptilian aliens came down to earth in gigantic flying saucers and were going to haul humanity back to their home world for food?
  • Well, I think they’re back – and they landed on Soldier Field. Either that, or it’s the set of the remake.
  • Known locally as the “UFO that ate Soldier Field”, a recent project plopped a huge, modernistic steel and glass bowl down on top of the classical colonnades.
  • This makes our Central Library expansion look positively tasteful by comparison [See Central Library review part one, part two, part three].
  • Soldier Field was a National Historic Landmark. That’s the highest designation of historic site given by the federal government.
  • After this renovation, it was stripped of that designation. Sad.

  • This is one of about a dozen new L stops done in an “homage to prison yard” theme.
  • No canopies, no paint, no passenger amenities of any kind except a homeless-proof bench.
  • Hey, what do you expect for $550 million?

  • Here’s another building that is reminiscent of a jail.
  • Does anyone know what this is? It’s a branch of the Chicago Public Library – not that you can tell – one of several using this design.
  • I should tell Sheriff Anderson about this place – he might want sublease some space.

  • Did any of you see the renderings of that Santiago Calatrava Chicago Spire? You know, the 2000-foot twisting building on the lake front that would be the tallest in the United States?
  • Well, they ran out of money, and this is all that’s left of it.
  • It’s literally a smoking hole in the ground.

  • Anybody recognize this dapper gent? He’s Mies van der Rohe, a very famous architect to be sure, spent many years in Chicago, designed a lot of buildings there.
  • But you know, I’ve got to confess something. I hope I don’t sound prejudiced or anything, but – I can’t tell any of his buildings apart. They all look alike to me.
  • Can you tell the difference between any of these buildings? Because I can’t.
  • One of them isn’t even in Chicago – not that you can tell.
  • I think Mies ran out of ideas circa 1950.
  • [The building on the bottom left is the Seagram Building in New York. In fairness, 860-880 Lake Shore Dr. is pretty distinctive.]

  • What do you think they would have said about us in Chicago if we had put a $23 million shiny metal bean in White River State Park?
  • Did Chicago go get it because it was cool, or do we think it is cool because it is in Chicago? Think about it.
  • [In fairness, as this picture illustrates, Cloud Gate plays well with the skyline. However, like with many attractions, the perception of its coolness is driven as much the presence of large numbers of people as anything. Without the people, this would not be viewed nearly as positively. While there is no doubt there is some draw from the park itself, Chicago benefits enormously from its huge local population base, the massive employment and student base in the Loop, and gigantic numbers of tourists.]

  • On the left, a streetlight in Chicago
  • On the right, a streetlight in Carmel
  • I rest my case
  • You can have 10 seconds back.
  • [Carmel is the Naperville of Indianapolis. For more, see my posting on “The Streetlights of Chicago“]

  • This is the lobby of the brand new Harris Theater in Millennium Park.
  • It’s done in a style I like to call “That 70’s High School” – all white painted concrete blocks and pastel fluorescents.
  • And tell me, does anybody look good in that color light?

  • This one is a little difficult to see, but it shows how IDOT is lining Chicago’s freeways with hundreds of these high mast lighting towers.
  • Drive in on the Dan Ryan and it is like going through a forest of cell phone towers
  • Thank goodness INDOT is too cheap to do that here, though they tried on Super-70.

  • This is 21 floors of the 90 story Shangri-La Hotel building [Waterview Tower]
  • These guys ran out of money too.
  • The difference is, these guys ran out of money a long time ago. There hasn’t been any construction on this building in a year, and no prospect of any starting back up soon.

  • Now you might be thinking, “Aaron, you’re not going to diss the Frank Gehry band shell, are you?”
  • No – I actually think this is a great structure. You should check it out or see a show there next time you’re up north.
  • But gosh, it just seems so familiar somehow. Haven’t I seen this building somewhere before?
  • Oh, yeah – I’ve seen it lots of places before.
  • How many times is Frank Gehry going to get away with recycling the same basic concept over and over again for millions of dollars to gullible cities around the globe?
  • Hey, Chicago – You’re a fashion victim!

  • This is my “ode de façade blanche”
  • I could do an entire of presentation of nothing but blank facades in Chicago.
  • And you thought we were the only ones stupid enough to do this. No, Chicago’s pretty stupid too as it turns out.

  • Here’s my absolute favorite. This is a Marshalls, DSW Shoe Warehouse, and a Linens N Things.
  • Lest you think I went to obscure corner of the city to track this down, I should tell you this is right in the Wrigleyville/Boystown area, so a very hip and happening part of town.

  • Got strip malls?
  • Boy does Chicago got strip malls – lot of them – and they keep building more all the time.
  • But what gets me is that they don’t even build very good strip malls.
  • Craig McCormick designed way better strip malls than that in Noblesville. [Craig’s Pecha Kucha presentation on strip malls from last year is a must see – click the link above]

  • This is a prime specimen of that species known as the “Chicago Facadectomy”.
  • That’s where they whack a historic building, then tack the remains of the facade onto the outside of the new building.
  • Here you see four stories of a historic facade with a blue-green skyscraper sprouting out of the top of it like some sort of bizarre cancerous growth.
  • Crazy

  • I can’t resist wrapping up with one more huge blank wall.
  • This one kills me because it is a brand new skyscraper on the Gold Coast.
  • The most elite gallery district in the city is directly behind this building.
  • It makes you want to ask, “What were they thinking?”
  • Of course, the answer is obvious – they weren’t.
  • Thanks a lot.

More Chicago:

Chicago: A Declaration of Independence
Chicago: Corporate Headquarters and the Global City
The Streetlights of Chicago

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Census Bureau Releases 2008 Population Estimates

The Census Bureau this week released its 2008 population estimates for counties and metro areas. This data is of July 1, 2008, and thus is prior to when the recession really hit in earnest. Media coverage has focused on the declines in migration. While everyone tries to use this as evidence to support their pet theories, the likeliest explanation is that the economy is acting as a migration drag. There are fewer job relocations if companies aren’t hiring. The depressed national economy means there are few growing places to draw people in. And the housing market makes it difficult to sell and extract yourself from a community even if you want to.

Raleigh, North Carolina once again led the nation in population growth among metro areas greater than one million people, with a gain of 4.3%. Austin was #2 at 3.8%. Charlotte rounds out the top three at 3.4%

Among the metros I follow, the overall story is the same as last year. Indianapolis remains the growth and migration champion, though its growth advantage over the rest of the Midwest is eroding. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Kansas City, Columbus, and Louisville are also showing fairly healthy demographic growth, exceeding the national average and, apart from MSP, showing domestic in migration. Most of the rest of the Midwest trails the national average, and Detroit and Cleveland remain basket cases. However, Detroit appears to be falling off a cliff, which isn’t surprising given the state of the auto industry, while Cleveland is showing improved numbers. Whether the improvements in Cleveland and others at the bottom of the scale is due to people getting “stuck” in this economy or is legitimate improvement remains to be seen. Similarly for the erosion of good performance at the top of the chart.

Here is the table sorted by percentage growth. Note that in all these charts, there are 52 metro areas with over one million people vs. 51 the previous year. The rankings are only the rank within those 52, not among all metros nationally. In the chart below, if a city is shown as a “tie”, its rank is given as the highest possible among all cities at that growth level.

City 2008 Rank 2008 Pct Change 2007 Rank 2007 Pct Change
Indianapolis 21 (tie) 1.3% 19 (tie) 1.5%
Columbus 27 (tie) 1.1% 25 (tie) 1.1%
Kansas City 29 (tie) 1.0% 24 1.2%
Minneapolis-St. Paul 29 (tie) 1.0% 25 (tie) 1.1%
Louisville 29 (tie) 1.0% 25 (tie) 1.1%
Chicago 32 (tie) 0.8% 32 (tie) 0.7%
Cincinnati 37 (tie) 0.5% 35 (tie) 0.6%
St. Louis 39 (tie) 0.4% 36 (tie) 0.4%
Milwaukee 39 (tie) 0.4% 38 (tie) 0.3%
Cleveland 51 (0.3%) 49 (tie) (0.4%)
Detroit 52 (0.7%) 51 (0.5%)

Not a lot of surprises here. As the intro would suggest, the top growth metros have slowed their growth, while the bottom metros held in there or improved. A couple of notable exceptions. Columbus, Ohio held steady in growth and improved its ranking nationally. Detroit’s decline accelerated. As noted, Indianapolis continues to see its demographic advantage versus the rest of the Midwest eroded.

The national population grew by 0.9% last year, down from 1.0% the year before. So there are five regional cities that actually grew at above the national average rate in population. Not bad at all.

Here is another view, by absolute population change.

City 2008 Rank 2008 Change 2007 Rank 2007 Change
Chicago 7 72,771 7 66,231
Minneapolis-St. Paul 21 32,258 18 36,200
Indianapolis 27 22,722 26 24,705
Kansas City 29 20,567 27 23,745
Columbus 31 20,110 30 19,774
Louisville 38 12,392 35 13,311
Cincinnati 39 11,313 36 12,550
St. Louis 40 11,245 37 9,987
Milwaukee 43 5,930 42 3,873
Cleveland 51 (6,594) 50 (8,848)
Detroit 52 (32,413) 51 (27,314)

This is very consistent with the percentage data, so nothing additional to say on this.

Here are the metros ranked by total population.

City 2008 Rank 2008 Population
Chicago 3 9,569,624
Detroit 11 4,425,110
Minneapolis-St. Paul 16 3,229,878
St. Louis 18 2,816,710
Cincinnati 24 2,155,137
Cleveland 26 2,088,291
Kansas City 29 2,002,047
Columbus 32 1,773,120
Indianapolis 33 1,715,459
Milwaukee 39 1,549,308
Louisville 42 1,244,696

I have recently commented on core county population, so I will list the core counties that increased and decreased in population this year. First, those that increased:

  • Cook County, Illinois (Chicago)
  • Franklin County, Ohio (Columbus)
  • Hennepin County and Ramsey County, Minnesota (Minneapolis-St. Paul)
  • Jackson County, Missouri (Kansas City)
  • Jefferson County, Kentucky (Louisville)
  • Marion County, Indiana (Indianapolis)
  • Milwaukee County, Wisconsin (Milwaukee)

And those that decreased:

  • Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland)
  • Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati)
  • St. Louis City and St. Louis County, Missouri (St. Louis)
  • Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit)

Changes in population are made up of two components: natural increase and net migration. Natural increase is births minus deaths, which of course course can be negative though usually isn’t. Migration is people who moved in minus people who moved out, which again can be positive or negative. The Census Bureau reports both international and domestic migration.

I happen to think that net domestic migration is one of the absolute most telling stats about any city or region. That is, are people voting with their feet to come or to leave? That is the ultimate judgement on a city. Positive overall growth can mask the fact that people are actually choosing to leave a place.

Here is how the Midwest stacks up on that front.

City 2008 Migration 2007 Migration 2008 Domestic 2008 International
Indianapolis 9,008 11,350 6,707 2,301
Louisville 6,406 8,052 5,099 1,307
Columbus 5,846 6,458 2,499 3,347
Kansas City 4,673 8,808 1,413 3,260
Minneapolis-St. Paul 4,544 7,493 (3,440) 7,984
Chicago 937 (6,028) (42,110) 43,047
Cincinnati (1,672) 511 (3,569) 1,897
St. Louis (2,475) (2,998) (5,567) 3,092
Milwaukee (3,739) (5,094) (6,443) 2,704
Cleveland (11,949) (13,597) (14,896) 2,947
Detroit (52,089) (45,848) (62,160) 10,071

Again, this data is consistent with the general story of declining national migration. Indianapolis remains the Midwest migration champion, outdistancing its nearest competitor by 40%, though showing declining performance. Louisville puts up a very strong showing this year, particularly on the domestic migration side, and moved up in the league tables. Chicago had major drops in both domestic out migration and international in migration, leaving it similar to the previous year on a net basis.

Keep in mind, these are just estimates. We’ve come a long way since the last Census, and accuracy is probably degrading. I think we are due for one more set of estimates next year (for the July 2009 data), then we’ll be able to re-anchor in the 2010 Census with actual counts.

One note on the data. My 2007 year comparisons are based on my blog posting from last year. The Census Bureau updates older figures each year too, but I did not have the leisure to recalculate everything. If 2007 data is important to you, please verify versus the latest Census information.

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Building Suburbs That Last #2 – New Urbanism and Parcelization

This is the latest installment in my series on “Building Suburbs That Last”. Essential background reading is in my review of Retrofitting Suburbia.

To reprise, the trouble facing America’s aging suburbs is likely to be one America’s top urban challenges of coming years. As suburbs age and fall into decay, they are abandoned for rejuvenated center cities or newer edge suburbs. As I previously asked, who is going to buy a beat up used car when you can get new car with a warranty for cheaper on the fringe? Nobody, which is why we see older suburbs falling into decay. If most newer, booming suburbs think their fate is any different when they get old, they are in for a rude shock down the road. The key is to figure out how to build suburbs that last, ones that maintain their appeal over time, and which are demographically, economically, and fiscally healthy for the long term.

I identified five key challenges that needed to be addressed to solve this:

  • The strategic dilemma that, once full, there will always be a newer, more modern suburb to compete against on the edge.
  • The problem of overdetermined form
  • The 20 year depreciation cycle
  • The accumulation of unfunded liabilities
  • The fact that most suburbs are shadow cities

Today I discuss two strategies to deal with these: New Urbanism and parcelization.

I won’t speak much about New Urbanism since it is a well covered topic. If you want to know about it, the best place to start is the Congress for New Urbanism, which is run by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. There is a ton of information on their site. One page you might particularly find interesting is the Charter of the New Urbanism, a sort of statement of principles. CNU is an advocacy organization, with all that implies, and certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the concept, but I think they are a great first starting point. Another great way to learn about new urbanism is to buy Retrofitting Suburbia.

I would probably sum up new urbanism as about re-creating the urban form in the suburbs. That is, creating mixed use, walkable developments, with a well-defined sense of place, and usually with increased density. One nice thing I’d like to note about the new urbanism charter is that it explicitly says we also need to consider the needs of the car. The idea isn’t to create a car-free utopia, but rather to make sure developments provide equal footing to pedestrians and transit users.

New Urbanism is important because it helps solve the problem of over-determined form. If you think about a strip mall, for example, it is sort of hard to imagine it functioning as anything other than that. Most suburban development follow such a rigid “form follows function” model that it is difficult to have adaptive reuse of the space. Also, this overdetermined use is usually a single use throughout the development, which limits things further. This makes it very difficult to redevelop and reuse a building over time as older uses become obsolete.

Contrast this with, say, a traditional three story urban storefront building. You could have a variety of ground floor uses (retail, restaurant, entertainment, residential, office) as well as a multitude of upper floor uses (probably residential, but also second floor office space or an upstairs bar). It could be a live/work space. It could be totally residential. It could be many different things. It also generally features floor plates that are small enough that they don’t exclude lots of uses. Contrast that with a shuttered big box store. In short, this type of building is very flexible and adaptable to new uses over time. Indeed, these buildings are common in the inner city, and as they age, they turn over many times to new and different uses. The have staying power.

New Urbanism does something similar with modern structures. It creates an environment that is conducive to multiple uses, is accessible by multiple forms of transport, and is generally more adaptable over time.

I am not religious about new urbanism. I don’t think it is the one true way to build. I don’t think it is a moral imperative that we redevelop in this manner. But I do think this is a very useful development style and we probably ought to encourage more product like it, particularly for commercial nodes and neighborhood center or town center development.

However, I think New Urbanism as usually implemented today is incomplete. I think we need to extend the model of new urbanism using a technique I call “parcelization”. This is for two reasons: 1) to reduce the spikeyness of redevelopment and 2) to restore urban function, not just urban form, to the suburbs.

The authors of Retrofitting Suburbia devote a lot of ink to defending new urbanist redevelopment against the charge of being “instant architecture”. The criticism seems to be that you can’t just artificially create a city or thriving neighborhood zone all at once from scratch. Rather, it requires organic growth over time. These all-at-once town center developments can be seen as lacking in character, or Disneyesque. In defense, the authors go so far as to contrast these developments against the similarly rapid development of Morningside Heights in New York.

I actually think the defense of new urbanist instant architecture is pretty simple. The original suburbs that are being redeveloped basically came into being at all once in a pretty narrow time window originally. This means all that development gets old at the same time, requiring redevelopment more or less at the same time. Also, unlike those old urban storefront buildings, most suburban commercial space, especially the closer we get to the present, is made up of large, monolithic developments under a single owner. This makes it hard to redevelop piecemeal.

The challenge though, is how to break out of that vicious cycle. Because guess what? Today’s shiny new, very exciting new urbanist town center and neighborhood is all going to get old at the exact same time. Even where there are adjoining developments, it is likely they will be done in a pretty narrow window.

This fact of aging creates spikey redevelopment costs. Because many of these developments are also large and under single ownership, it also makes redevelopment very costly. It seems to me that most such redevelopments today are somehow subsidized with tax dollars. Even an extremely upscale suburb like Carmel, Indiana required TIF funding to redevelop its older core. This also limits the types of developers who can be involved. And of course, large developments are always more complex.

My idea for breaking out of this cycle is what I call parcelization. That is, we need to try to explicitly break up these large, monolithic, single owner complexes into smaller lots, possibly under separate ownership, and attempt to break the lockstep synchronization of development.

If you think back to our storefront example, you’ll notice that in most urban storefront districts there are lots of buildings on narrow street frontage, mostly with separate owners. They don’t all need to get redeveloped at the same time, and the size of the structures means that both many people can get in the game, and your are less likely to need subsidies. While even real, older urban neighborhoods tend to rise and fall as a unit, having fragmented ownership and many individual structures does flatten out the growth curve, and also provides for a diversity of business and development strategies, which is good for your overall hit rate for success.

In the current approach to suburban development, every 25 years or so you end up with a huge problem and a massive redevelopment liability. Through parcelization and desynchronizing development, you reduce this spikeyness, making your redevelopment challenge much more manageable. In a theoretically ideal world, your redevelopment cycle would be fairly flat, or with gentle waves, showing a constant, steady stream of development and redevelopment over time instead of massive “let’s start over” redevelopments every X years. (I should really graph this, but don’t have the time).

This also let’s us ride the technology curve over time, for example, to constantly be incrementally improving energy efficiency. And it always keeps some property being redeveloped to the current style (which, like fashion, is always changing), preserving appeal where a neighborhood of nothing but 20 year old structures wouldn’t. In short, we’re trying to make this not just look like a city, but start functioning like one in some respects.

Taking this further, the second reason to try to do this is to address the problem of suburbs being shadow cities. For more details on what I mean by this, see my article “The True City“. But in brief, most suburbs are like those small, branch-plant manufacturing cities. Their economic life force comes from outside. The commercial base is often made up, for example, of national chain retailers. This is good when you are in favor with them, but if your demographics slip, watch out. They will abandon you like yesterday’s news. I talked about the 20 year depreciation cycle. These developers create a cheap strip mall, lure in the national chains, all predicated on a 20 year or so business case. At the end of that time they can dump the properties and move on to greener pa$ture$, and any salvage value they get out of it is gravy. The town is left holding the bag.

If you are dependent on outside forces to animate your economy, if you have no internally generated economic life, then you are living on borrowed time even if you are nominally successful for a period of time. The way to combat this is to make sure you have indigenous industry. Most of these are small and medium sized enterprises. These are the types of businesses that, especially when they start, don’t have the financial heft to compete with national chains for space. And indeed, their business many not even fit with the format the mall developer wants.

Beyond just having greater access to capital, national chains have huge advantages over a locally owned business. I was talking about this the other day with someone who listed a few. Chain retailers can hold their trademarks in foreign low tax jurisdictions and shelter income by having each store pay royalties to an offshore entity. They get favorable merchandise return terms with manufacturers. Banks will extend credit against a signed lease from a big national chain, but often not against a lease from a new small business. The list goes on and on. Add it up and locals can’t afford to be in the type of “Class A” space national chains target. And if you redevelop your old decayed strip mall into nothing but new Class A space, you can basically only attract national retail unless the developer (perhaps at the behest of the municipality putting in funds) specially reserves space for them with rent concessions.

On the back end, as the space ages all together, the national chains and their drawing power abandon the area, and all the uses eventually become economically marginal, which isn’t healthy. You ultimately want a mixture of these types of uses. This actually can occur naturally if you have a mixture of building ages. The Class A space can support the latest and greatest chains. The Class B space can support newer, local, or more speculative businesses.

This should sound familiar to you since it is exactly how Jane Jacobs described a healthy city neighborhood. She says it better than I ever could: “Flourishing diversity anywhere in a city means the mingling of high-yield, middling-yield, low-yield and no yield enterprises.” And, “Time makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation. Time pays off original capital costs, and this depreciation can be reflected in the yields required from a building. Time makes certain structures obsolete for some enterprises, and they become available to others.”

If you having nothing but high value buildings, no one but national chains can afford to invest. If you have nothing but low value buildings, no one wants to. It is important to have a mixture of buildings, supporting a mixture of uses, mixture of high, medium and lower values uses, and both national chains (which bring much good with them) and indigenous business. It is this diversity that again helps to mitigate against the failure of any one element. And also provides room for the local business that is both committed to the town and a source of at least some independent economic life.

Again, this is about making redevelopment not just look like a city, but also to some extent function like one. A new urbanist development that is nevertheless totally suburban in its economic functioning will not sustain itself over the long term and probably merits, to use a term someone else coined but I think is great, the opprobrium of being called a “Potemkin downtown”.

To restate, we should look to extend new urbanist development to include the concept of parcelization, which is about breaking up large, monolithic, single owner developments into smaller chunks that can eventually de-synchronize and be redeveloped independently over time.

Now, you no doubt see the problem here. What I’ve described is what every suburb out there wants to avoid. They don’t want to allow old buildings next to new. Many of the national chains would never stand for it. The idea of looking urban is bad enough for some, but the thought of urban functioning? Remember, people left downtown for a reason.

Also, a developer buys a failed mall and invests millions to redevelop it. Why would he want to sell parts of it to someone else out of his control, who might do things that are either competitive or harmful to his investment? Not an easy sell to be sure.

I won’t pretend this is an easy sell, or that there is a straightforward way to actualize it. But I think it is a potential add on to the way new urbanist redevelopments are often implemented today that I think merits serious study. New urbanism, in its traditional form, solves only the problem of overdetermined form. New urbanism, with parcelization, starts to chip away at the problems of the 20 year depreciation cycle cliffs and the shadow city phenomenon.

We certainly won’t get there overnight nor get it right the first time. I call this an extension of new urbanism because I don’t want to give the impression I think the current new urbanist approach is a failure. Quite the opposite, actually. If you think about the problem, you’ve got people who in many cases have spent all or the majority of their lives in an environment built in a purely suburban form and who may regard cities negatively. You’ve got a town government that has experience with nothing but the suburban form. You are not going to turn the dial all the way to urban overnight. Nor, frankly, is that likely the right thing to do. A more urban suburb is going to be a very different animal, ultimately, than the city properly so-called.

What today’s new urbanist developments are doing is starting on the journey. They are getting people accustomed to the idea of a more urban experience in the suburbs, and demonstrating that it won’t be the end of the world. As suburbs – including residents, businesses, developers, and governments – start to get more comfortable with this type of development, then additional steps can be taken. Parcelization might be one. More adventurous architecture might be another. More density might be another. It is going to take a while and a lot of experimentation to find the right balance and the right answers – and those answers will be different for different places. Unfortunately, what this means is that we might not get it right even this redevelopment go around. It might take another cycle to get there.

To wrap up, a couple of thoughts come to mind as I think about this. One is that older suburbs might actually find themselves advantaged over newer ones in redevelopment. They already feature lots of smaller office and commercial development, with lots of fragmented land ownership. At least one neighborhood group I’ve talked to thinks this fragmented land ownership is a barrier to redevelopment. And it might be in the short term. But in the long term it might be a very good thing. The newer suburbs, and regional malls in older suburbs, are where you are likely to see the monolithic developments. These are likely to be bigger redevelopment challenges as they come up for renewal. Thinking about, for example, the Lafayette Square area in Indianapolis, it is not surprising to me that many of the old, small strip centers along Lafayette Rd. are now full of ethnic businesses that liked the small storefronts, while Lafayette Square Mall itself remains an albatross for the neighborhood. In other words, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Just wait till our more modern suburbs start aging.

The second relates to the “spikey world” view as expounded by folks like Richard Florida, compared to that of his hero Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs said new enterprises usually require old buildings. That is, where rents are low and it is cheap to set up shop. The spikey world model tells us economic growth occurs where land values are highest. Interestingly, I think this is resolved by looking at what Jacobs described as the self-destruction of diversity. That is, over time, successful diverse district tend to increasingly concentrate in their most successful use, crowding out other uses. Then ultimately, lacking the vitality that diversity brought, those ares eventually declined.

I think about, for example, downtown Chicago. Could eventually the risky startup enterprise that isn’t backed by tons of VC money get run out of the Loop? It strikes me that the older buildings that would have provided cheaper rents are increasingly getting taken off the market by conversion to residential use. This is reducing the supply of low rent office space, though fortunately there are still several older office buildings around. I wonder if at some point, the entertainment and producer services businesses boosted by globalization, which can afford to pay premium rents, will ultimately crowd out other functions from the Loop, choking off its success and leaving it vulnerable when those functions are no longer as valued as they are currently.

As our urban cores become ever more pricey, artists, shoe string entrepreneurs, and others who are part of creating and essential part of real urban energy get squeezed out. Perhaps some of these inner ring suburbs could snarf up that talent? An empty big box could make some killer studio space. We already saw an abandoned mall in Indianapolis converted into a data center. If suburbs are willing to open themselves to a demographic and type of use they’ve previously shunned, maybe one day they could end up with the last laugh. At least, that’s something to speculate about.

Background Reading:

Review: Retrofitting Suburbia
The Future of the American Suburb

Building Suburbs That Last Series:

#1 – Strategy
#3 – The Mother of All Impact Fees

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

Louisville: Vice City

UPDATE: A commenter on Broken Sidewalk posted a link to this great video that sums it up beautifully!

I am a believer that in a modern era that has witnessed the fragmentation of the great American common culture, and the relatively small in number but broad in reach institutions that served it, it is important for cities that are not blessed with natural amenities or killer low costs to increase their strategic differentiation. They should try to find market segments they can target more effectively than others. And they should try to build a unique local environment rooted in their history and character, but which is also forward looking, that creates a distinct, unique flavor of urbanity.

I’ve also suggested that Louisville should focus on quality over quantity. It already has fantastic neighborhoods many cities would kill for. Strengthening those, making targeted investments in its downtown, riverfront, and other well-chosen areas, and focusing on strengthening its unique assets are the actions I would take.

I’d like to throw out today a further concept positioning strategy for Louisville that I call “Vice City”. It’s not exactly that, but I couldn’t think of a better name for it. I strongly doubt there would be any local interest in it, but I do think that by studying the idea, it can hopefully generate some interesting thoughts about the city and what it could be. Please view this as a speculative proposal or thought experiment.

In a nutshell, this idea positions Louisville as “New Orleans North”. I can’t help but noticing a few parallels between the two cities.

  • New Orleans is a river city – Louisville is a river city
  • New Orleans has a French heritage – Louisville is named after a French king at least, and has adopted a lot of French symbology
  • New Orleans has great restaurants – Louisville has great restaurants
  • New Orleans has Southern, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions – Louisville also has Southern influenced, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions.
  • New Orleans has a huge reputation as a haven of vice and partying – Louisville used to have that reputation.

That last bit is interesting. River towns were always rough places. Louisville’s riverside docks were, like waterfronts the world over, rough and rowdy havens of drunkenness and debauchery. “Lively Shively” was historically home to distilleries and strip clubs. Until quite recently Louisville had any number of blue establishments downtown. Reputedly the reason Green St. was renamed Liberty St. long ago was to help eradicate the reputation Green St. had acquired far and wide a home to burlesque establishments. Think about Louisville and Kentucky and what comes to mind? Horse racing (gambling), bourbon (drinking), tobacco (smoking), and coal. We’re talking about a place whose history and brand are already heavily associated with vice.

New Orleans had a similar heritage. The big difference is that New Orleans, probably for cultural reasons, was always proud of its seamy side. Like Las Vegas, it recognized that in a country which is dominated by a strong moral sensitivity, there was an opportunity to carve out a niche – and a highly successful one – catering to, shall we say, a more lax standard. And the party pit in the French Quarter and downtown casinos largely have no ill effect on New Orleans’ neighborhoods, many of which still look like they are fresh from the pages of an Anne Rice novel. Now New Orleans may not be a truly successful metro area for many reasons, but try to imagine it without the tourist industry.

Louisville, by contrast, has long tried to stamp out vice in that city. And today it has largely succeeded. Where long ago you could once have a good time in a burlesque joint on Green St., today your choices in downtown entertainment tend to the extremely generic, such as the heavily subsidized 4th St. Live complex. By stamping out vice, Louisville to a great extent stamped out fun and character from much of its downtown.

One way to envision a successful, unique strategy for Louisville is to do something similar to what New Orleans did, namely creating a great combination out of the best of Mobile and Las Vegas. From Mobile you take the laid back southern charm, aristocratic traditions, gentility, and high culture. From Vegas you take vice, fun, and a certain joie de vivre.

By the way, does this sound familiar? It should, because it is an almost perfect description of the Kentucky Derby. You’ve got the tradition at the pinnacle of horse racing as a sport combined with gambling. You’ve got the fancy dress, fancy hats, and mint juleps of Millionaire’s Row combined with the raucous debauchery of the infield and people sneaking in booze by stuffing double bagged vodka down their trousers in ziplocks (not that I’ve ever done such a thing…..). A great and winning combination.

Extending this to the city as a whole, we start with the fundamental aristocratic character of the civic culture. I’m not going to say this is unique to Louisville. For some reason, it seems to permeate many of the river cities I’ve studied. Talking to someone about Louisville, he offered this insight, “Louisville is provincial, in all the best and worst ways. Louisville likes itself, is proud of itself, hangs on to its institutions, loves its (private, Catholic) high schools in ways I’ve never seen elsewhere”. This is clearly an example of aristocratic thinking, which is about self-regard, rooted in history and the land. This attitude also shows through in the particular contempt Louisville shows for newer cities, as well as the extreme prickliness of Louisvillians when it comes to outside criticism. In a democratic social state like America, aristocracy has a bit of a bad reputation, and it certainly has its downsides. But it also has its good points. Firstly, it generates a bit of unique local character all its own. Secondly, it gives people the cultural fortitude to say no to trends and hold onto local ways and to embrace an agenda that is different from what other people are doing. (I’m also describing Cincinnati here, you might notice).

From that, we take away the fierce pride in unique neighborhoods and historic traditions. We can also take the embrace of certain aspects of high culture, including fine dining (of which Louisville has a great tradition), mint juleps and the bourbon culture, the arts, etc. I definitely think this should be looked at as rooted in a very Southern approach. Again, this distinguishes Louisville. Most Southern cities seem to want to ape Atlanta as the next mega-growth story. This leaves the field clear to a major city that wants to adopt a Charleston/Savannah/Mobile type point of view.

One piece of this that must be rejected, however, is the racial baggage that comes with it. Also in common with New Orleans, Louiville has a marginalized African American community. Southern aristocratic culture is rooted in plantation culture, which has its Not Good points to say the least. As with other cities, it is a clear imperative for Louisville to improve race relations and to make sure that its minority communities share in its success.

On the other side, how can Louisville recapture the fun outside of Derby? There are some ways we might imagine. Again, instead of creating a “climate action plan” just like every other city, or banning smoking just like every other city, why not roll with the fact that Kentucky is a major tobacco producer and has the highest percentage of people who smoke to be the most smoking friendly city in America? You’ve got gambling at Churchill Downs, and already across the river at Caesars/Horseshoe, so why not put a couple of casinos downtown? I normally think this is a disaster of a downtown development approach, but if you are organizing around forbidden fun, why not? Loosen up on liquor licenses to create party zones, and also do something to make sure that the best transportation options for people who have been drinking are available so people can get home safely. Bring back burlesque, baby! Rather than trying to regulate strip clubs out of existence, keep them. Figure out how to become the micro-distillery capital of the United States. There are already great local breweries like New Albanian and BBC, try to make sure there are many, many more. Do whatever you can to make Louisville party central, and create a fun, unique environment you can’t get elsewhere. By the way, much like Vegas and New Orleans, this is also good for conventions if that is a business you really want to be a player in.

Louisville is surrounded by hundreds of miles of mostly not very exciting places in the lower Midwest and upper South, places that are firmly Bible Belt territory in many respects. Why should someone have to fly to New Orleans or Vegas or where ever to have a good time partying when they can just drive or take a short hop to Louisville?

Of course, there is a problem with this. No one in Louisville is likely to want to do it. And the negative consequences might outweigh the positives. Fortunately, as a blogger, I can put crazy ideas on the table to make people think though. And I think Louisville needs to be thinking indeed about what niche it should carve out for itself. Downtown condos, generic bars, a smallish convention center, sports facilities, etc. are not going to distinguish Louisville from peer competitive cities. Particularly when it is facing the headwinds of being regionally smaller and having low educational attainment.

At a minimum, I do think Louisville ought to be thinking about this notion of Southern aristocratic culture and how it can leverage it to best effect locally. That seems to be a no brainer since there are already extensive elements of it present.

Flame away…..

More Louisville

Louisville: An Identity Crisis
Louisville’s Big Plans
Kris Kimel Gets It
Louisville’s Electric Rail System
More Mind Blowing Louisville Historic Transit Pictures
More Louisville Transit Goodness
Modern Architecture, Hoosier Style

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

Detroit: Not the Future of the American City

There’s a meme out there that seems to be picking up steam that Detroit represents not so much a unique dysfunction, but rather a harbinger of what is to come for America’s cities. Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes said, “Back when Michigan’s economy was merely troubled — before $4-a-gallon gas and frozen credit markets pushed the auto industry into free-fall — Gov. Jennifer Granholm warned the Big Mitten’s deepening economic problems could presage what lay ahead for the nation. I and other skeptics chortled, figuring the collective denial of economic reality, anti-business rhetoric in Lansing, rote acceptance of labor’s influence in policy-making, and higher tax loads on individuals and companies here couldn’t possibly go national. The combination was too toxic, too self-defeating, too steeped in a last-century worldview that had been discredited by events and chronic failure. But I was wrong.”

John Reed gets in on the theme in a long piece over at the FT titled “Rust Sleeps: Can We Glimpse an American Future in the Travails of Detroit?” Per Reed, “Instead, Michiganders, despite being self-deprecating to a fault, make a point their countrymen won’t want to hear: Detroit is no longer the nation’s worst-case scenario, but on its leading edge, the proverbial canary in the coal mine. ‘It’s like the rest of the country is getting to where Detroit has been,’ said Peter De Lorenzo, who writes the acerbic and very funny blog. That means that smug mock-horror is no longer the appropriate reaction to the frozen corpse. Instead, get ready for a shock of recognition.”

Speaking of the Autoextremist, who is required reading btw, he said last week, “Several years ago, I called Detroit and the declining U.S. auto industry ‘the canary in the coal mine’ for the rest of the nation. The lack of a national health care program, the nation’s growing uncompetitiveness in the face of a burgeoning global economy, the steady erosion of this country’s manufacturing base and so on were issues that were going to catch up to the rest of the country eventually.”

With a deep recession ravaging much of the country and doing severe damage especially in the industrial heartland, this has a surface appeal. And no doubt this recession has accelerated the train wreck of any number of places like Detroit that already faced a strategically untenable position.

But I do not believe the rest of America is heading the direction of Detroit. Detroit’s problems are unique, deep, and longstanding. It is tempting to say that Detroit’s problems are of recent origin, or maybe date them back to the 70’s oil shocks or the riots of 1968. But the reality is, Detroit’s problem far pre-date those events. Consider this view of Detroit:

Virtually all of Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx. It is ring superimposed upon ring of gray belts. Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening

That was written by Jane Jacobs – in 1961. And she wasn’t the only one who noticed something wrong that year. Time Magazine ran an article, “Decline in Detroit” discussing the matter.

Detroit’s decline has been going on for a long while. Auto production soared to an all time peak in 1955—but there were already worrisome signs. In the face of growing foreign and domestic competition, auto companies merged, or quit, or moved out of town to get closer to markets.

This article is a must-read – it was published October 27, 1961

In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs cites the collapse of Detroit to a one industry town and the cessation of the development of new businesses resulting from a focus on large scale efficiency in manufacturing as a fatal flaw that doomed this once thriving city. She dates this to the 1920’s. Again quoting, “Detroit had a high rate of development through most of its history and a very high rate indeed at the time the automobile industry was being developed there. But since 1920, Detroit has had an exceedingly low rate.”

Ironically, in the same book Jacobs uses Detroit as an example of good urban development, showing its progression from flour mills, to copper processing, to steam ship engine manufacture. There was a plethora of industries that developed and flourished in Detroit. But when the auto industry started to consolidate, something when wrong and the system that had sustained Detroit’s development stagnated.

Beyond that, Detroit seems to suffer, and to have long suffered, from dysfunctional leadership – not just governmental leadership, but leadership across the board. Reading about the financial travails of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, I was shocked to discover they had an endowment only 1/3 the size of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Detroit is one of America’s largest cities – it was in the top 5 in America for a long time I believe – and for long one of its most prosperous. The auto industry generated fantastic wealth in Detroit. Why did so little of it make it back into the cultural infrastructure of the city? This is but one example.

This has been going on so long that it is hard, honestly, to blame the leaders there today. They were born into a system that is so bad, it would take truly heroic leadership and change to move the ball. How does one effect racial healing, or a rapprochement between city and suburb? It seems like a daunting prospect for even the most well-intentioned.

I don’t have the time to make an exhaustive study of the matter – though someone should – but it seems to me that Detroit is a fairly unique case. There are probably some other places that are suffering as much and will continue to suffer after the recession is over, but I don’t think the rest of America is headed on the Road to Motown. Most of America lacks Detroit’s long, institutionalized decline, stagnated one-industry economy, and terrible historic culture of leadership.

More Detroit

Detroit: The New American Frontier
Detroit: Do the Collapse

Friday, March 13th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

President Obama was quoted on high speed rail:

“I think there’s enormous opportunities here. Railroads were always the pride of America and stitched us together. Now, Japan, China, all of Europe, have high-speed rail systems that put ours to shame. And the potential economic benefits of a high-speed rail link between Chicago and Milwaukee, so that people are avoiding I-94, or the link between Chicago and St. Louis, Detroit, all those Midwestern cities, I think is enormous and is a very real option. Although gas prices are low right now, it becomes a very meaningful option for people who don’t want to take off their shoes (for screening), drive to an airport, pay for parking, suffer delays.”

Also in high speed rail news:

Illinois revs up for high speed trains (Indiana Economic Digest / Times of Northwest Indiana)
Let’s not miss the high speed train (Star Tribune)
Could stimulus money finally put high speed rail to Madison on track? (Capital Times)

The World Bank ,which is chartered with helping underdeveloped regions, issued a report noting that development requires concentration of economic activity and mobility of people and goods (hat tip Burgh Diaspora). This goes to show the folly of trying to forcibly peanut butter spread economic activity around. Not a pleasant truth, perhaps, but a truth nevertheless.

Here is an interesting article questioning the need for so much parking (hat tip Richard Layman). Some of you may recall that I took a similar view in “No Parking, No Problem

A USA Today article on the migration of development back to cities.

Ed Glaeser, following on to his research into greenhouse gases, suggests that the metaphor of intense urban development as destructive, as exemplified by the story of the Lorax, is wrong. Skyscrapers are the most environmentally friendly way we can build.

A pretty cool collection of 25 visualizations explaining the financial crisis.

Time Magazine has yet another photo essay on the decline of Detroit. All I can say is, Wow!

Streetsblog covers a great NYT article suggesting bicyclists show a little basic etiquette on the road. I like bicycling. I own and ride a bike. But the complete contempt all too many bicyclists show for anyone else on the streets – autos or pedestrians – plus the “we’re a morally superior form of life” rhetoric that often emanates from bicycle advocacy groups is just wrong. How about we follow these basic suggestions from the article: stop at major intersections, don’t ride the wrong way down a one way street, stay off the sidewalk, and signal? Seems pretty basic to me.

Over in western Michigan, Richard Longworth suggests the area should brand itself as part of Chicagoland.

It’s back. A group is trying to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to legalize casinos in Ohio. Unlike previous proposals, these casinos would be in the downtowns of Ohio’s biggest cities. This would be a civic development catastrophe. Turning to casinos for some short term funding juice in exchange for long term sucking discretionary spending dollars out of a community (and a downtown) is a loser. Casinos might be ok in struggling smaller areas that need help, but the downtown of a major city is the last place local leaders should want to see one.

The Sears Tower is going to be renamed the Willis Tower. I’m not making this up. All anybody can say in response to this is, “Watchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

The Boston Globe takes a look back at the ill-fated State St. pedestrian mall. I’m all in favor of pedestrian friendly streets, but eliminating auto traffic is generally a failure.

The Indianapolis Star ran a great article this week on the decline of the Center Township rental. It is a great follow-on to my post on the potential implosion of Marion County and shows the headwinds the city faces in trying to attract residents.

The New York Times Magazine does a lengthy story of foreclosure in Cleveland. I realize Cleveland has problems, but there are other cities one could write about from time to time.

San Francisco wants their high speed rail platform to handle trains every 5 minutes. That seems a bit excessive to me. I do find it interesting how much money California is apparently willing to spend on this stuff when they are issuing IOU’s as tax refunds.

Apparently one in five US homeowners are under water.

More Midwest – lot’s of NYT Midwest coverage of late.

Cook County home sellers will have to get fingerprinted (CBS2Chicago)
Chicago school leaders say tax hike is likely (Tribune)
CTA warns service cuts, fare hikes on the table (Tribune)
Further details on CTA stimulus funds (CTA Tatler)
Art Institute admission to increase 50% (Tribune)

CSO, Pops will need partner (Enquirer)
Renaming the Banks?

Pension change urged for city (Dispatch)
New hotel should help attract conventions (Dispatch)

Michigan: Blueprint to Crisis (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)
Rust Sleeps: Can we Glimpse and American Future in the Travails of Detroit? (FT)
The Ann Arbor bubble
(Michigan Daily)
A 22,000 mile view of Detroit’s despair (Nolan Finley @ Detroit News)
For Sale: The $100 house
In an old auto industry hometown, a familiar financial road (NYT)

Anderson, Indiana recovers from GM hangover (NYT)

Kansas City
Kansas City area coalition aims at innovation (KC Star)

Report maps path to a greener Louisville (CJ)

Twin Cities
Hard Times reach arts world: MIA cuts staff (Star Tribune)
Lost jobs add up to speedier commute (Star Tribune)
Troubled homeowners wait for Obama’s plan -and worry (MinnPost)

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