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Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

“They’re Not Current”

As part of keeping up with this blog, I read a lot of what other people write about various Midwestern cities. A recurring theme from Midwest urbanists is a frustration with local civic leaders’ unwillingness to implement what they see as new and better policies and approaches, especially in light of the struggles the region has encountered and the resulting imperative for change. This is often phrased in less than charitable terms and there seems to be a low opinion of community leadership in many places.

A better way of looking at it was put forth by a friend of mine when he said of the people who he was working with on a civic project, “They’re not current.” By that he meant that while they were well-intentioned, smart, good at business, good at their technical specialty, and excellent at things like fund raising and building community support for initiatives, they simply weren’t up on the latest and greatest thinking in the urbanism space. They weren’t bad leaders or bad people at all – they just had gaps in their knowledge and thinking about cities.

I think this makes a lot of sense. Something to consider is that most Midwestern cities really haven’t experienced anything but decline in the last 40-50 years. Even in the best performing places, large tracts of the city look like bombed out shells of what used to be there in decades past. For people who’ve spent a good chunk of their lives fighting to turn this around, experience does not offer a template of what success looks like. Also, against a backdrop of secular decline, it is easy to delude yourself as to what progress means. A shiny new building downtown might seem like a coup, and indeed it might be in a certain qualified sense, but if every similarly situated city has a similar new building, is the relative status improved? I see little evidence that civic leaders in many places do what Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard advocated and “get out into the world” to see what is going on first hand.

Also, we find ourselves in a rapidly changing world. This means that there is a lot of innovation going on all over the place in all sorts of fields. It is easy to quickly fall behind the curve. I’ll use myself as an example. A couple years ago I asked one of the youngest people on my staff, a very tech savvy guy, whether he thought Blu-Ray or HD-DVD would win in the market. He looked at my like I was crazy and said that no matter which one won, it wouldn’t matter for long, since everything was going to go digital download anyway. He was already downloading high def movies legally on his XBox360 and thought the experience would only get better. Not a bad point of view, and one I didn’t even consider. Why did I join Twitter or Smaller Indiana? Certainly not because I thought I needed another time sink. I just feel I have to be out trying new things, or else I’ll end up cut off from what’s happening out in the world.

I said previously that I loved talking to students because they are my pipeline to the now. I think it is incumbent on all of us, but especially community leaders, to be aware of the limits of their own knowledge in the context of a rapidly changing world. In today’s age, the traditional skills and ways of making things happen continue to be relevant, but there needs to be additional expertise and insight informing us as to what we need to be doing. People talk about underfunded infrastructure and such, but the reality is that money is often the least of our problems. Every day I open the paper and find lots of money being spent on some project of dubious merit. The challenge is as much about doing the right thing as it is about getting things done. So it’s more important than ever for cities to have a high receptivity to new ideas, a willingness to change and embrace calculated risk taking, and broader networks – including geographically dispersed networks – than ever before. People have to realize that there’s no way to keep up with both today and the way things are going in the future as easily as happened in the past.

The first step is awareness. Today’s urban leaders have to realize that they often, like all of us, aren’t current. Then they can proceed to make sure they seek out and incorporate more leading edge thinking into their approaches.

14 Comments
Topics: Public Policy

14 Responses to ““They’re Not Current””

  1. SpeedBlue47 says:

    Great post as usual, but I do have a bit of a quibble. It is my opinion, as you may guess, that the incentive structure in place for elected officials is too weak for them to take this kind of initiative and invest this amount of energy into policy decisions(as well as more mundane operational decisions to a lesser extent). That is why it is ideal for the people that are in the market themselves need to exert their opinions.

    Unfortunately, the populace at large in Indianapolis do not seem to understand the urban forms and policies(as well as customs, culture, and institutions) needed to foster a higher quality of life urban environment(at least as seen through the New Urbanist/neo-urbanist viewpoint). This is also not a character flaw, but has more to do with little experience with other models than they have been in contact with. And in Indy, the model is mostly suburbia and newer suburbia.

    I believe alot of this has to do with the small sample of truly urban communities in the city, and the fact that many of those areas that are truly urban have some sort of image assorted with them that may not appeal to the average middle-class family. And this is a serious issue, as without this particular demographic showing at least a strong interest in an urban environment, there will be little interest amongst developers to build that sort of development.

    The problem is that those who are “urban leaders” fall into a few broad categories: 1) Elected Officials who have more incentives to “not rock the boat” or build a shiny monument to their term in office than to truly create a lasting change that may not seen in a completely positive light at first; 2) Business leaders and developers who follow their market and offer the latest of what the market asks for. Sadly, in Indy, this is still by and large suburban style development(which is what most market participants are used to); and 3) The most rare, the truly visionary leaders who have the knowledge, the capital, and the will to see a project that one might not see a demand for in the market, but knows that it can succeed because he sees that it will benefit its particular users/tenants and the community at large.

    This last group, when they have to have their own capital at stake, have the incentives to attain the knowledge and retain the talent to make such a project a reality. It is my hope that the various projects that I am trying to coordinate through the INDYpendent will help enable such a person or group of such people to be inspired to move forward with their plans.

    I believe that the framework could be laid in short order for Indy to take a strong turn towards having a culture that interacts with true urban form again on a daily basis and therefore gains an appreciation for it. And that is when you’ll see many more “current” leaders in our community.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Aaron, you’re absolutely right about the lack of knowledge. But don’t hold your breath waiting for many local officials to take that leap forward. I’m an elected official in a well-to-do suburb that shows up in all of the top rankings. But that ranking isn’t reflective of the quality of my fellow elected officials. As a group, they have very little interest in current thinking in any of the fields related to municipal government and governance. Get them outside of their area of “expertise” (whatever most closely relates to their current or past employment) and they are clueless. They aren’t interested in putting in the time or effort in bringing themselves up-to-speed on what leaders in communities like ours are doing, unless it can be turned into an opportunity for a junket to get away for a few days on the taxpayer’s dollar. When the administration does expose them to a new idea, they either dismiss it out-of-hand or embrace it for all the wrong reasons. I think our administration has thrown in the towel on this group and is hoping that the next election will bring some brighter bulbs. Lest you think this is sour grapes, I’ve observed enough elected officials in other local communities to know that the lack of interest and effort in our communities is endemic to local officials in our area.

    In past posts, you’ve identified the importance of leadership and the role it plays in separating the successful communities from those that are failing. I couldn’t agree more with you. But from what I’ve seen, it requires that the leadership be spread equally between the Mayor’s office and/or city administrator and the elected board/council that adopts the budget, set policies, etc. A Mayor with a vision and abilities to execute it can go a long way. But a community will only reach its full potential when the Mayor and the elected board/council include people who are willing to do the work to become educated on best practices in the world of government and to challenge their community to risk change for future success. When you have that combination, anything is possible. Absent that combination, the best you’re likely to get is muddling mediocrity.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    Speed, thanks as always.

    anon 9:40 – appreciate the contribution from someone engaged in the field of battle. I hope you hang in there and keep fighting the good fight. And hopefully the recalcitrant, self interested officials get the boot in the next election.

    You bring up a great point about the fact that it takes more than just a great mayor. It takes the right combination of people in the right positions. I’d probably also add that it takes citizens with the right mindset too. More on that in a future post.

  4. Citizen Kane says:

    The people in power in government, including department directors and other high-level administrators just want to retain power, which typically means not rocking the boat and going along to get along. So, nothing truly innovative ever happens. They just do the same thing that every else has been doing, create supposedly new initiatives (usually just different names for the same thing that they have already been working on) while neglecting old initiatives and continuously point at all the shiny new objects that they have built with borrowed money.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “You bring up a great point about the fact that it takes more than just a great mayor. It takes the right combination of people in the right positions. I’d probably also add that it takes citizens with the right mindset too. More on that in a future post.”

    Very true. Communities where residents are willing to embrace change or at least not punish leaders who pursue it are those that also elect officials who are willing to implement it. The average resident of most cities isn’t really interested in the day-to-day nitty-gritty of how city government operates. But as long as they are willing to elect politicians who are willing to try new things and boot the ones who don’t, those communities, in the long run, will rise to the top. That ties back to your past commentary that innovative people go to places where they see innovation taking place. It’s the getting the process started that’s the biggest step to take. I would love to hear strategies about how the make that happen. I think we have a lot of residents who are willing to embrace change and take our community to the next level. But until those people are engaged in the process (and the current leadership has alienated many of those people), I can’t see our community moving forward.

  6. Generalissimo says:

    Nice post but I disagree with the thesis. Incompetence, corruption and a single-party monopoly are the primary reasons for the chronic failure of Midwestern cities. Case in point: Cleveland, Ohio. The city is stuck in a cycle of failure and its leaders are ineffective. In Cleveland, several council members lack college degrees. Cronyism in the administrative branch is rampant. Throughout Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, the Feds have been investigating leaders for corruption. This wide-reaching scandal has rocked the offices of the County Commissioners, the Sheriff, the Engineer, etc. Even the County Recorder has pled guilty to downloading pornographic materials. How do these jokers keep getting elected? Well, there isn’t much to choose from on the ballot. In Cleveland, like other Midwestern cities, the Democratic Party has had a long-running monopoly over local politics. Absent healthy competition, staid points of view tend to go unchallenged and the city languishes.

  7. thundermutt says:

    Bulldozer urban renewal and the creation of superblocks (total destruction of the historical urban built environment) was seen as a new, current, enlightened modern policy in the 60′s and 70′s.

    Jane Jacobs wasn’t “current” on the urban planning of her day. Turns out she was right and the enlightened urban planners were wrong.

    I’ve got a copy of a ’70′s plan for angled poured concrete structures with round windows and globe lights set diagonally to street grids, bridging streets, turning their backs on the same streets. You’d wince.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “In Cleveland, like other Midwestern cities, the Democratic Party has had a long-running monopoly over local politics. Absent healthy competition, staid points of view tend to go unchallenged and the city languishes.”

    One-party rule has nothing to do with electing idiots to office. There’s plenty of places where two parties results in two equally clueless sets of candidates. Likewise, some cities with one party rule still have excellent candidates emerge from the party primary system (Ann Arbor, MI is a good example).

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Anon at 9:12: usually, new exurbs tend to have a pro-development mentality, especially if they’re not very rich. Palmdale, California is a good example – it’s perhaps the only city in the state that lobbied aggressively for a high-speed rail stop, whereas other cities either didn’t care or were dominated by anti-rail NIMBYs.

    However, to suggest such an attitude as a way to promote growth is to confuse cause and effect. It’s not that being pro-developer increases growth; it’s that growth increases pro-developer attitudes. When a city is growing very quickly, people tend to be satisfied where things are going, rather than to believe the establishment is corrupt. Nor will there have been time for strong community opposition to form; NIMBYs tend to be people who’ve lived in the area for a very long time. To use Cultural Theory terminology, such communities have low group because they’re so recent, so their operating cultural attitude is individualist rather than egalitarian.

    One way to test this theory would be to look at cities that have a pro-growth mentality for other reasons than recentness, and low growth. New York is a good example: although its immigrants are as organized as the longstanding residents of any rich suburb, Bloomberg and the city council have successfully overridden any community opposition to their plans. This decade has seen plenty of upzoning, approval of controversial urban renewal projects, and some changes to the urban form (chiefly pedestrianization in Midtown). And yet, growth is slow – in fact, slower than in the 1990s, when new building permits were almost as rare as instances when Giuliani admitted the police was wrong. Moreover, the fastest-growing borough, Staten Island, is the one that’s resisted development the most successfully.

  10. The Urbanophile says:

    Generalissimo, I take it you are in Cleveland. I can’t comment too much on corruption there. However, some level of corruption or cronyism appears to be endemic to government (and to most large organizations). So I don’t think this is an explanatory variable by itself, though obviously is a drag on cities.

  11. The Urbanophile says:

    thunder, I’d argue urban renewal was a good experiment to try. Our central cities were in fact failing in the that era. I think it was informed by poor strategic thinking (i.e, embrace the suburban form in the city rather than differentiating the city’s unique attributes), but on the whole, trying something was probably not a bad idea. The problem is that when these did not live up to their billing, and serious, reasoned objections were raised, they continued to be implemented as a type of cookbook orthodoxy.

    Embracing change and risk mean’s you’ll fail from time to time. The key is to fail quickly and cheaply. This is obviously a difficult thing to get right since it is politically difficult to backtrack on policies and programs.

    Would Indianapolis by better off without the memorial mall, a city beautiful era urban renewal project? I’m glad it is there. Urban renewal probably caused more harm than good, but I can’t say that categorically it was a bad thing to try. You have to make some bets.

    By the way, places like Cincinnati that have a very Jacobsian built environment and had limited urban renewal damage to the urban fabric have in fact not been much more successful than places like Indy that obliterated their downtown. There’s more to it than that. It seems that the places that have benefited from preserving their historic urban form were primarily the mega-urban regions like New York, Chicago, Boston, etc.

  12. Alon Levy says:

    You shouldn’t lump New York, Chicago, and Boston into one category. New York was an earlier adopter of Jacobs’ ideas, together with San Francisco; not coincidentally, NY and SF had the smallest population decline between 1950 and 1980 of all large non-Sunbelt cities, and are the only two whose population has since surpassed its 1950 peak. Toronto, which rejected urban renewal even more resoundingly, never even had a population decline, and is still growing fairly quickly (though its suburbs are growing much faster).

    Conversely, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago all had massive population declines. Newark, which accepted urban renewal more than any other US city, leveling entire neighborhoods to construct new superblocks, was hit especially hard. Boston turned itself around in the 1980s, but the new growth was concentrated in the edge city of Route 128 rather than the damaged city core. Chicago and Philadelphia have growing downtown cores, as does Boston, but the rest of the city bleeds people still. Newark is now turning itself around, but much of it is spillover from New York, and even so it took longer than in comparable cities like New Haven, Jersey City, or Providence.

  13. thundermutt says:

    Aaron, I guess I’d say this: it’s one thing (as you mention in your post) to be current on technology. Those wars are fought in the marketplace, and one technology beats another on a regular basis. The battle is clearly drawn.

    It’s another thing entirely to imagine that a technocrat solution will be a “one size fits all” remedy for what ails all cities.

    Cities have a significant social component and are pressure-cookers of social change. Big social issues aren’t really amenable to market-based changes (sorry SpeedBlue). They are more susceptible to polarization and ideology, where neither major ideology prevails. Hence dramatic growth among both fundamentalist Protestants AND non-churchgoing people at the same instant.

    So (to borrow your premise for an analogy), instead of Blu-ray or digital-download “winning” and the other “losing”, one just moves to the suburbs.

    So I’d wrap up with the thought that social issues resist engineering solutions, which is exactly what the failure of “urban renewal” teaches.

    In the current redevelopment world, “comprehensive community development” is all the vogue among those working to revitalize run-down inner city districts. I am quite sure something is missing from its tenets (even though its focus is “quality of life planning” based upon “community organizing and engagement”). Perhaps such plans ignore the tendency you’ve identified of city people to want to “live and let live”? The QoL plans are drawn by a self-selected sample, people with agendas who want others to live by their standards…like your other favorite target, local historic districts?

  14. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Aaron- I think your point comparing municipal governments to any large corporation is spot-on. There are so many areas that governments have to cover that it makes for many entrenched interests that will be very resistant to large-scale change. This is especially true if those changes or efficiencies in services result in any kind of possible diminishing of their power.

    It’s a natural human quality to want to protect your own interests, and it takes tough leadership to fight through the self-interest. Combine that with the fact that the average citizen is usually uninvolved in local politics other than a few small-vision items (that usually are unimportant in the big picture), and you can see where it becomes hard to make things different when “they’ve always done it this way.”

    This could be an example where this economic crisis leads to long-term positives, because the huge decline in revenues forces changes to be put in place.

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