Saturday, July 11th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

The Biotech Challenge

With so many cities and states pinning their hopes on dreams of biotech, it’s worth highlighting yet again the challenge that comes with this. Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News had a great article on this very topic called “Building a Successful Biotech Incubator“. The very first paragraph sums it up:

Regions are looking to biotech to make the difference between boom and bust for their economies, but it takes more than tax incentives, buildings, and land to construct a winning biotech incubator. Unfortunately, the regions doing the planning often ignore that basic fact and proceed blithely onward despite a scarcity of the type of human capital and infrastructure that makes the difference between success and failure.

This is an absolute must-read article for anyone thinking about biotech as an economic growth engine. Life Sciences consultant Jon Speer distills it down a bit over at his Creo Quality blog. It takes:

  • Access to capital
  • Innovation
  • A critical mass of expertise
  • Leaders experienced in all stages of development
  • A diverse service provider community
  • Experienced workforce
  • Risk taking culture
  • Low cost of failure

2009 Urban Mobility Report

The Texas Transportation Institute just released its 2009 Urban Mobility Report. There is a lot of data in there, but one commonly cited metric is their “Travel Time Index”. Here is how my Midwest cities stacked up. The higher, the worse:

  1. Chicago – 1.43
  2. Detroit – 1.29
  3. Minneapolis-St. Paul – 1.24
  4. Indianapolis – 1.21
  5. Louisville 1.20
  6. Columbus – 1.18
  7. Cincinnati – 1.18
  8. St. Louis – 1.13
  9. Milwaukee – 1.13
  10. Cleveland – 1.08
  11. Kansas City – 1.07

For reference purposes, Portland, Oregon is 1.29.

Shrinking Cities Redux

For every action there’s a reaction. This past week or so saw the backlash against those (which I guess includes me) who are advocating a managed shrinkage approach for selected metro areas.

Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote a lengthy and thoughtful take on the issue from the other side of the table. It’s well worth reading. Gregory Rodriguez bemoans the cultural loss that would result.

My reply would be that no one is pushing shrinking cities with glee. Many of these cities are in a terrible mess. They are facing extraordinary times and every option has to be on the table. Additionally:

  • It may be true that disinvestment and suburbanization did in these cities. But the chicken done flown the coop on that one. Even if sprawl halted tomorrow in these places, the clock is not going to be rolled back anytime soon.
  • I do think it is crazy to be subsidizing the construction of new infrastructure on the urban fringes in cities that aren’t growing. If people want to continuously abandon the old in favor of the new, that’s their choice. But I don’t see why the rest of us should have to pay for it. That’s why in my shinkage program a key plank is the creation of restrictions on development subsidies in these cities so that we aren’t using federal funds to build more infrastructure to serve sprawling areas when these cities can’t even support what they’ve got. I won’t pretend I’ve got the exact answer on how this should work, but something has to be done.
  • Unlike east coast cities, the bulk of Midwest cities are made up of relatively low density districts of single family homes that are classic examples of what Jane Jacobs called “gray belts”. With the far smaller household sizes we have today versus when those neighborhoods were built, there is little change of creating the densities needed for real urban life without significant redevelopment anyway. Plus, while there are great old homes in all of these cities, a lot of the post-1920’s housing stock consists of small, cheaply structed homes that are often in an advanced state of deterioration. 99.9% of the Midwest is not Over the Rhine.
  • We should proceed with caution, trying a variety of strategies, looking aggressively for feedback on how it is going, and not be afraid to change course. Urban renewal should have taught us that lesson. I too am troubled by wholesale demolition. I think shrinkage is a policy worth trying in some places, but we certainly shouldn’t go hog wild, especially not at first.

Ultimately, for those who want to say let’s not do shrinking cities, they need to step up to the plate with a credible, realistic alternative plan. Simply saying No means the status quo. And that’s plainly not working. And truthfully, doing nothing is simply unmanaged shrinkage. The Detroit metro area saw more demolitions than new homes this year.

On a related note, Sweet Juniper runs a great piece about how pedestrians are carving paths across the empty spaces where demolished houses used to stand in Detroit. This is similar to how architects sometimes use so-called “desire lines” to lay out paths in a development. Some interesting images. (via @PolishDan) How will Kaid Benfield propose redeveloping these areas? The graphic below from Cartophilia shows the scale of the challenge in Detroit:

A Hoosier Legend Passes On

Amid the hysteria of the stars and adoring fans in LA and around the world mourning the death of Michael Jackson, it’s worth remembering that arguably the world’s greatest entertainer was from right here in Indiana. Raised in Gary, Indiana, Jackson was a testament to both the ability of the Midwest to produce true world class talent, and to its rich black cultural heritage that is so often overlooked. If you are my age and claim never to have owned a copy of Thriller, you are probably lying. However troubled and tragic his life may have been, there is no denying Michael Jackson’s amazing talent.

The New York Times took a look at how Jackson’s passing was seen from Gary.

Burnham 100

Here’s a great site with an overview of the Burnham Plan. Also, the Wall Street Journal had a great article on it this week.

World and National Roundup

Not surprisingly, the stimulus has given short shrift to cities. By channeling money through states which have funding formulas that favor rural over urban areas, and through the “shovel ready” requirements, urban areas largely got bypassed. Speaking of bypasses, Ohio’s largest stimulus project is a $150 million bypass of Nelsonville, a town of only 5,000 people. This was partially financed by diverting $115 million away from a project to fix a crumbling viaduct in Cleveland. In North Carolina, only $8 million out of $423 million in projects has gone to Charlotte. Congress should have listened to Mayor Daley and bypassed the states as conduits, directly routing a fair share of the stimulus money to cities.

The Observer has a nice article about the younger generation of British architects and how their approach differs from that of the starchitects.

Here’s coverage of a talk by sociologist and urban guru Saskia Sassen on urban ecologies. (via @gosner)

The New York Times writes that despite the recession, certain types of skilled labor such as expert welders are still in high demand.

Smart City Memphis writes about how this is a great time for great mayors. Among those cited are Chicago’s Mayor Daley and the mayors of Denver and Atlanta.

More Midwest

The great sell-off: Chicago auctions city assets (Christian Science Monitor)
City’s second waterfonrt: Riverwalk improved, but hurdles remain (Blair Kamin @ Chicago Tribune)
$61 million RTA budget reduction (Tribune)
CTA: To save dollars, use sense (John Hilkevitch @ Chicago Tribune)
South Side hopes Olympics bring ‘gold line’ (Tribune)
The Last Great Oak Falls – Norm Pellegrini is Dead (Lynn Becker)

Columbus, Dublin form pact (Dispatch)

Michigan cities scramble to recycle auto plants (Detroit News)
Portrait of a recession (Atlantic Monthly)
Years of Cuts do Little to Stem Michigan’s Budget Woes (NYT)
Bike Among the Ruins (NYT)
GE to build Michigan manufacturing research center (Yahoo)
Detroit gets chance to rise from the ashes (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)

Bids for Olio Rd. overpasss lower than expected (Indy Star)

Tolls ‘might be the way’ to build Ohio River bridges, Daniels says (C-J)
House, Senate leaders reach agreement on bridges funding (C-J)

Topics: Economic Development, Strategic Planning, Transportation
Cities: Detroit

27 Responses to “Midwest Miscellany”

  1. Bradley Fink says:

    I have begun to follow your writings since seeing your 'what's wrong' post and resultant discussion re: Cleveland.

    Since this time, while I most certainly enjoy commentary on our great Great Lakes cities, I have found there to be little discussed with regards to my hometown Cleveland news/issues and seldom noted in 'midwest miscellany' posts. (In fact, I find only one post tagged 'Cleveland' since the 'what's wrong posts).

    The reason I respond to this particular post, is given much activity and good discussion fodder in recent weeks with lakefront planning/public meeting, County corruption/reform, recent Census figures, RTA ridership figures, Downtown bike station development, Central Viaduct project/ODOT, etc.

    Great work. I thoroughly enjoy your observations and analyses.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Bradley, thanks for reading and sharing your note.

    I'll be the first to admit that my coverage is unbalanced. I'd like to do more on Cleveland and some of the cities I don't cover as much, but since I don't know them as well it is more difficult to write credibly on the topic.

    One reason you don't see as much on Midwest Miscellany from Cleveland is that the web site of the Plain Dealer is terrible and makes it almost impossible to find news. I scan tons of sites, but if I go to it is difficult to get a quick snapshot on local news of relevance to this blog. Hence I probably miss a lot of it.

    While they are not necessarily Cleveland specific, my next couple of blog posts do have Cleveland in them, so stay tuned!

  3. Alon Levy says:

    You could write about how Ohio diverted stimulus funds from Cleveland to a new highway bypass in rural Ohio.

  4. The Urbanophile says:


  5. Jefferey says:

    I agree with Rodriguez a bit. The loss of the urban fabric represents a rupture with history and loss of a cities genus locii. But what is to be done? Not much.

    The situation here in Dayton is that we are at the start of a shrinkage processs that will alter the face of the city as much as urban renewal did back in the 1960s Lower Property Values Result of Vacant Structurees

    My opinion is that so much has been lost already that the place has lost it's character. This will be the coup de grace.

    I have pretty much ceased blogging on Dayton because of this. Placeblogging on local vernacular architecture of the 19th and early 20th century in a city that puts no value on it is a waste of time.

    A lot of this is cultural in that the citzenry put no value on "the old". One doesn't see the same interest in old housing that one see's in Louisville, with the local appreciation of the shotgun house, or Chicago, with that Historic Bungalow Initative

    These are probably counterexamples to the shrinkage concept. But maybe Chicago and Louisville don't have the fatal mix of white flight, concentrated poverty and declining economy that Dayton has. An ingrained anti-urban cultural bias doesn't help, either.

  6. pete from baltimore says:

    MR Renn
    I m catching a bus in 4 hours so I do not have time to read the links on the shrinkage of cities that you have provided until i come back from vacation.

    But i would like to thank you for posting a dissenting opinion on your blog.

    So many blogs nowdays seem to feel that there is one gospel truth and that all that disagree with them are somehow evil.

    Thank you for looking at the issues in a fairminded and practicle way.

    I am defintly be think about some of your posts as i ride the greyhound bus from Baltimore to Chicago Where I' ll be staying at a hostel.

    It goes through Pittsburgh , Cleveland ,South Bend ,Gary,Akron,, Youngstown and Toledo.So i can finally at least visualise these cities from now on when you write about them.

    Thank you again for your work on this blog

  7. Stephen Gross says:

    Hey dude… Just wanted to thank you again for the good work. Btw, why is the plain dealer site so crummy anyway. They need to hire a real website design firm and overhaul it already!

  8. pete-rock says:

    Just had to make one quick comment about the Cartophilia graphic. It's a little disengenuous to compare Detroit's lack of density with the ultra-density of Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco. I've always thought those cities had a geographical disposition to density — Manhattan is an island, and SF and Boston are peninsulas. Density HAD to come to those cities.

    In fact, I think one of the biggest challenges for Midwestern urbanism has long been the abundance of land with few terrain constraints. There are no islands (like NYC), no peninsulas (like Boston, SF), no mountains (like LA)that help to enforce the notion of density. In the Midwest you can always move out a little further.

  9. thundermutt says:

    Not so, Pete. There are lakes, rivers, state and international borders here; Aaron follows several cities whose development patterns were based on one or two of those features (Cincinnati, three; Cleveland, one; Detroit, two; Louisville, two; Chicago, two; St. Louis, three).

    While none of those cities is a peninsula or an island, Cincinnati and Chicago are both in corners of their states and limited on two sides. St. Louis is hemmed in both north and east by great rivers.

    The issue of bridges always comes into play in development arguments, and bridges govern development patterns.

  10. David says:


    Good observation. It also supports a long held contention that Indy, Columbus (and others so situated) benefit because they do not have any of those constraints PLUS they are state capitals.

  11. thundermutt says:

    Columbus' and Indy's early development were limited (if not hampered) by the rivers that run right through the middle: Columbus has the Scioto River and Alum Creek; Indy has the White River and Fall Creek.

    Both have industrial west sides that grew up after the rivers were bridged. Both have 1910-1920's streetcar suburbs (east of Alum Creek are Bexley and Whitehall in Columbus; their analog is the now-city neighborhoods north of Fall Creek in Indianapolis) that grew up after the (big) "creeks" were bridged.

    Only after those municipalities grew large and powerful enough to build bridges (or to direct county and state dollars to bridges that served them, as both are also county seats) over the relatively small rivers did they really start growing in all directions relatively unchecked.

  12. thundermutt says:

    For a really good example of unchecked sprawl in a middle-American state capital, see Oklahoma City. Aaron doesn't cover it because it is "sort Southern, sorta Western, sorta Midwestern" and it has as many similarities to Texas as to Indy or Columbus.

    OKC has about half as many people in twice the space of Indy and has followed the Columbus pattern of annexing far into the outlying counties. (If memory serves, it's about 900 square miles, almost twice the size of Marion County.)

  13. Stephen Gross says:

    Although there are certainly some geographic barriers to sprawling development in Midwest cities, thy are not equivalent to those that new York and San Francisco face. Actually Pittsburgh has similar challenges, though it did not grow into a first tier city interestingly enough. Anyhow the density vs area map comparison was interesting, but you have to be csreful drawing conclusions.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Thundermutt, river width is important. Even 200 years ago, urban planners in New York understood that the city had to grow very densely because the Hudson and the East River are both very wide; they compared the city to Paris and London, both situated on narrow rivers that are easy to bridge.

  15. pete-rock says:

    I maintain my position on the lack of density in the Midwest. Sure, there are lakes, rivers, state and international borders in the Midwest to contend with. But Midwest cities arose and grew a little later than NYC and Boston (and even SF), and late 19th and early 20th Century technology made the geographical barriers that Midwestern cities did face much easier to overcome.

    Look at Manhattan, for example. Bridges over the Hudson and East rivers did not appear until the 1880s; by that time, Manhattan had already experienced nearly 200 years of concentrated development on the island. The same could be said about Boston and the Charles River, and SF and the Bay/Golden Gate. Most major Midwestern cities (with Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Cleveland being notable exceptions) had growth phases that began either right before the Civil War or shortly afterward, and were positioned to take advantage of new engineering technology that would facilitate sprawl.

    I was born in Detroit, lived for a period in Indy, and now live in the Chicago area. I fail to see how the geography of any of these cities has created any kind of constraint that would enforce density. State borders can be crossed; Gary, Hammond and East Chicago, Indiana are virtually indistinguishable from the development patterns you see on the Illinois side of the state line.

  16. JG says:

    Interesting discussion ALON, TM, and PETE. An interesting study off of your ideas would be to look at velocity and acceleration of population growth, density, and geographic spread of cities in relation to time period. Superimpose over that the emergence of engineering methods for bridges, tunnels, roads, rail in those cities – as well as certain geographic barriers. I suspect the trends discussed would emerge. Would be quite complicated, not the least time consuming.

  17. Alon Levy says:

    SF isn't older than Chicago – both had explosive growth in the second half of the 19th century. The problem with SF was that not only is it surrounded by a wide bay that was only bridged in 1936, but also the bay has strong currents, endangering ferries; both features made it a poor railroad hub. This, and later on the earthquake, caused development to shift to Oakland. Chicago, which could spread in three directions, had no such problem, and kept growing fast until the 1930s.

  18. The Urbanophile says:

    thunder, what I'd suggest is that the examples you mentioned did not constrain the city in any meaningful sense. Typically, as with St. Louis, Cincy, and Louisville, it just led to unbalanced development, with one side of the river or the other dominating in development.

    This is very different from a truly constrained environment like New York or San Francisco.

  19. Anonymous says:

    San Francisco's population density is about 17,000 sq mile. Chicago's area is more than four times larger, and it has a population density of about 12,000 for the entire city.

    Surely the densest 50 square miles of Chicago are comparable to the ~50 sq miles that are SF.

    Philly is in the same league too, 11,000 for an area more than twice as large (127 miles of land says wiki) and again doesn't have salt water on three sides like SF does.

    So really, geographic constraints a la SF are not the sole factor here. Maybe not the prime one, who knows.

  20. Alon Levy says:

    Anon, I looked up data for the average density of the densest 20 census tracts (~100,000 people) in a few large, non-Sunbelt American cities, excluding New York. The highest average 20-tract density is in LA, followed by SF, Chicago, and Boston. Philadelphia isn't even close – its densest census tract is less dense than the 20-tract average of LA, SF, and Chicago.

    You can do this more rigorously by creating a metric called weighted density, or perceived density, which weights census tracts by population (standard density weights them by area). The SF urban area turns out to have the second highest weighted density in the country, after New York.

  21. Anonymous says:

    What are the numbers for the densest 100,000 Alon and why did you use this as the cut off? Where did you get this somewhere on the census website? (really am genuinely curious)

    I've looked at the "community areas" of Chicago, and was able to get well over 800,000, the population of SF, easily in about 47 contiguous sq miles of Chicago. Didn't even have to cherry pick and use all dense residential neighborhoods on the north side lakefront.

    Previous commentators were mentioning SF and Manhattan, and not overall urbanized areas (else someone would've brought up LA)
    So I think we were talking about plain old density on that scale.

  22. Alon Levy says:

    The data is available on the Fact Finder. You can find data for the Bronx here, as well as a link for any other county.

    I picked the figure of 20 census tracts because I wanted it to be small enough not to be weighed down by suburban neighborhoods, but large enough not to be skewed by projects and prisons. Prisons sometimes have their own census tracts, which have a very high population density and a very low housing unit density.

    The problem with using a larger population, in your case 800,000 people, is that it's really bad for small cities. Honolulu, whose overall weighted density is 4th in the nation, barely behind LA and SF, drops like a stone when you use standard density on 800,000 people, who consist of nearly the entire island of Oahu. Honolulu needs 201 mi^2 to have the same number of people as SF does in 47 (and LA and Cook Counties do in 22). It's when you restrict to the top 20 census tracts that Honolulu's true density is revealed: those census tracts average 44,000 people per mi^2, versus 57,000 in Cook County, 66,000 in SF, 73,000 in LA County, 49,000 in Boston, 64,000 in Hudson County, and 39,000 in Philadelphia.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the interesting information.

    I used 800,000 cause I was comparing SF to other big cities.

    The problem I see with this, is that someone may say "oh SF is denser than Chicago, Obviously it's due to geographic constraints."

    Why, cause it takes 1.75 miles to house Chicago's densest 100,000 people, and 1.5 miles to house SF's densest 100,000?

    That does not seem like a huge difference attributable to SF's position on a 47 sq mile peninsula. When as you say wide open Cook County needs less than half the area to house the same population SF does in 47.

    So geography doesn't destine density. That's really my point.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Geography isn't the single factor, that's really what I meant.

  25. Alon Levy says:

    The reason I ascribe geographical factors is that as an urban area expands, it spreads out more and at the same time its core becomes larger and denser. That's why using a figure like 800,000 people, who comfortably fit into the core of Chicago or LA but not SF, can be misleading.

    Once you use weighted density, which corrects for size, or compare core density to total metro population, you can see that SF is unusually dense by American standards.

  26. Kaid Benfield says:

    Aaron, thanks for furthering the dialogue on "shrinking cities." I have run across your blog previously and find it well-reasoned and informative. In my opinion these issues can only benefit from more discussion by people who care.

    I'll also readily admit that I don't have the answer, either, and I respect those who are at least trying. I guess my main points are the following:

    1. We need to look at metro areas, not just central cities.

    2. We must consider the transportation consequences of our solutions.

    3. We must remember that some cities and neighborhoods plagued by depopulation and vacant properties (Old North St. Louis, Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine, Boston's Dudley Street) have actually begun impressive recoveries. Our solutions must not deter that in any way.

    4. We must be careful not to lock in patterns that further the fragmentation of both our cities and our rural areas.

    5. We must guard against ecotopian approaches.

    When we look at whole metro areas, we generally find populations that are increasing or decreasing only slightly (even, somewhat to my own surprise, in Detroit). Really, it is more accurate to say that most of these cities are "hollowing out" rather than "shrinking." So putting an end to sprawl on the periphery must absolutely be part of the solution. We must not perpetuate and worsen the low density that you document.

    Regional density is so important to transportation efficiency and reducing carbon emissions that, if we do have to accept low density, we must work hard to compensate somehow. That will be a very tough one to solve if we make vacant areas permanent.

    As I said in my own blog, it's taken decades to get the environmental movement to shed our wilderness orientation and agrarian idealism and finally see that cities are the solution. I hope that, whatever the solutions to these difficult challenges prove to be (and you are right to suggest that experimentation will be helpful), I really hope we don't have to go back to square one on that.

    Keep up the good work and good writing and, BTW, we're the Natural, not "National" Resources Defense Council. Even I will admit that national defense is something I'm not capable of taking on!

  27. The Urbanophile says:

    Kaid, thanks for the comments. I agree completely on the need to stop financing sprawl in those cities. It makes zero sense to return the core to nature while we're paving over cornfields on the fringe. Metro area wide is the only way to look at the problem.

    Oh, and I'll fix your name.

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

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

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