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
- 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:
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“.