Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great, Part 1 – Building the Vision

Earlier this year, I won first prize in a global transit competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. So perhaps it is past time that looked at transit in Chicago. While this article is about that city, the techniques are applicable to most places.

Both the current and former CTA presidents, Richard Rodriguez and Ron Huberman, said that Chicago has a good transit system (I agree) but deserves a great one (I also agree). So with apologies to Jim Collins, this article kicks off a multi-part series on taking Chicago area transit from good to great.

The Problem: No Public Demand

Why doesn’t Chicago have a great transit system? I’m going to make a rather contrarian and controversial indictment. Namely, I think Chicago doesn’t have a great system because its citizens don’t want one. If there were greater citizen demand for a better system, that’s what we would have. Absent that demand, we get at best a good system. That’s because it is impossible to create a great, world class regional transit system without more money – a lot more. This might sound a lot like blaming the victim, but please bear with me.

The numbers are stark. According to a joint promotional site run by the region’s transit agencies, Moving Beyond Congestion, Chicagoland needs $10 billion in funds just to bring the current system up to a good state of repair. Even if the city wanted to simply keep the system at current levels, spending at $1 billion per year would be required. The 2007 strategic plan says that $57 billion is needed over the 30 years to give the city the system it wants and needs. The stimulus funds and monies provided under the state’s recently passed capital program are only a minimal start. Even if you think these numbers are inflated – and I don’t – they are certainly not orders of magnitude too high.

Without significant new dollars being made available, it simply isn’t possible for regional transit agencies to create a transit system worthy of Chicago. It’s just not going to happen. I actually think regional agencies do a pretty good job considering the financial and regulatory constraints they operate under. As they say, “You can set your watch to Metra”. The CTA too has improved service markedly in recent years, and has proven that you can accomplish a lot when you take a “can do” attitude despite not getting more money. The CTA has done a lot to reduce the number of slow zones, roll out passenger friendly services like bus tracker, and experimented with things like iGo car integration.

So why do I say that the people of Chicago don’t want a great system? Because it’s true. People in Chicago like to grouse about the CTA the way they complain about the weather. But that doesn’t translate into anything more than amusing newspaper columns and blog postings. Like the weather, the problems of transit underinvestment are viewed as simply the “background noise” you have to put up with to live in Chicago.

Contrast public reactions to the state of transit investment with that on other controversial affairs of the day – parking meters, the Olympics, crime, or whatever. Heck, there are more people out there pounding the table about how upset they are about the pending demolition of Michael Reese Hospital than there are people demanding more money for transit. If tens of thousands of angry citizens were marching, publishing blogs, and writing letters to Springfield and Washington to express their unhappiness about this state of affairs, we’d see action. If politicians thought they would lose their jobs in the next election if they didn’t do something about transit, well, they’d do something about it.

So much of the writing on transit futures focuses on what we ought to do functionally and technically. But that’s irrelevant if we don’t have the money to pay for it. So this series will focus on how we build public demand for transit investment, elevating its status in our civic priority list. And give an idea of how to actually get the money. This will be a five part series:

Part 1: Building the Vision (this article).
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

This installment focuses on building a shared civic vision of the future of the city and its transit system.

Why a New Vision Is Necessary

Frankly, it is pretty easy to understand why the public views investing in transit with all the enthusiasm of a dose of castor oil. It’s what I call the “Rusty Furnace Effect”. Imagine you’ve got a gas furnace in your house that is pushing 20 years old. It’s been poorly maintained, is badly rusted, and has an alarming tendency to break down. You open the door to your utility closet and stare at that thing for a while and contemplate a choice: spend $6000 on a new furnace, or pay $250 every time it breaks down. I think most people are going to defer shelling out $6K as long as they can. It’s the same reason I put off getting my wisdom teeth removed until I was in college and had a particularly bad infection. Until the pain of the disease outweighs the perceived pain of the cure, we aren’t going to act.

Transit is in the same boat. We are told that we need to spend $10 billion to “bring the system in a good state of repair”. This will no doubt involve much inconvenience as well, including station closings, three track operation, etc. Why would anyone want to pay $10 billion to get a system that is basically the same as the one we’ve got today, only a bit spiffier? Until, for example, trains start derailing, people don’t perceive the need.

This is basically the problem with all “plumbing replacement” type operations. I don’t think it is any accident that the people selling furnaces tout their potential to reduce heating bills through energy efficient operation. You’ve got to have a hook to convince people that they are getting something.

That’s what we need for public transit in Chicago. We’ve got to have a hook to show people how they are going to get something for all this money. We have to create a vision not just of how transit will be better – though we should do that – but how life in Chicago is going to be different and better when we execute the capital plan. We have to make it real to people and inspire an emotional connection so that they say, “Yes – we’ve got to have some of that!” to the point they support the fund raising necessary to see it happen. That’s the piece we are missing today.

Why Transit Advocates Are Often Poor Marketers for Transit Spending

One thing I’ve noticed is that pro-transit advocates are ofter poor at selling the need for public transit to the public at large. Indeed, except where the public is already primed to support it – places like Portland and Seattle – opponents of transit are generally more effective at making their case. I recently noted this, for example, in the case of Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar system.

I think part of the problem is that the case is obvious to us, thus we are unable to conceive of others who don’t think or feel the same way, which creates a blind spot on selling. Pro-transit activists tend to view people who oppose it as Philistines or representatives of nefarious forces. The idea that people have to be convinced seems foreign.

We see this problem in the Moving Beyond Congestion site. It relies heavily on facts and figures to make its case, as if the mere fact that we need $10 billion to repair regional transit stands on its own. Well, people like me read that and think, “Seems pretty straightforward to me. How much can we afford to spend now and where can we go start raising the money?” But to others those are just numbers. The facts are not in dispute. The numbers on the MBC site are what they are. But facts don’t inspire. Because many of us live and breathe in this space every day, we don’t need the sales job and thus don’t appreciate the need for it.

Also, as we well know, political decisions aren’t always made on the basis of facts and rational analysis. The numbers elected officials really care about are the vote totals, the number of constituent letters and phone calls, etc. So we’ve got to make sure we create that public demand so that politicians see the numbers that matter.

I’m not going to be prescriptive as to what that contents of the vision should be here, but rather talk about some of the elements and techniques that should be brought to bear, including some that were used to great success in Burnham’s Plan of Chicago.

Learning from High Speed Rail

A commenter in one of my blog posts described a lecture at one of the Burnham Plan celebration events, and how the section on high speed rail seemed to really get people excited. This person was wondering why that was. Why has high speed rail captured so much of the public imagination and gotten so much federal funding when we can’t mobilize similar results for metro transit?

It is actually pretty easy to understand why. High speed rail would be a major new transportation system that doesn’t exist at all today, unlike fixing up the CTA to “bring the system up to a good state of repair” which merely lets us keep what we already have. Again, do you want to replace your rusty old furnace or get a shiny new kitchen?

Also, high speed trains tap into a deep romantic streak in the human psyche. The best description of this is Jonathan E. D. Richmond’s paper, “The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. This is actually written as an anti-rail tract (metro rail, not high speed), but also provides the playbook in favor of it. I can’t do it justice here, but this is an absolute must-read paper. Among other things, he clearly explores the idea of the fast train as sex symbol. Per Richmond:

Arnold Pacey (1983) writes about the “virtuosity values” of technology, the enjoyment of:

having mechanical power under one’s control, and of being master of an elemental force. The teenage enthusiasm for motorcycles reflects this. Many farmers, it is said, buy larger tractors than they really need, to the detriment of soil structures, because of the pleasure they get from using such powerful machines… Dennis Gabor talks about “archetypal human desires” which include the wish to communicate at a distance, to travel fast, to fly [p.84-85]

It is the meanings related to power, virtuosity and sex which the train appears to symbolize which most convincingly seem to focus attention on the technology. The technological power of the train was often equated to sexual potency by those interviewed. A train as both genders: it is referred to as “she” and as a penis. According to LACTC Commissioner and Mayor of Santa Monica, Christine Red:

There was an intense amount of ego over the fact that San Diego had whipped a trolley system out, kabloom, like that. They just did it. And I mean everybody else was like, oh my God, you know, what an affront that this little city could do that, and here we are – a big county – powerful, two-thirds of the population of the state, blah, blah, blah, and we can’t do this [my emphasis]

The fact that San Diego got their bright red cars in working order before Los Angeles even got off the market left LA feeling impotent or even castrated. The metaphorical sexual imagery – of penis envy – in this account is unmistakable. When the LACTC (1991) publication Metro Moves announced the opening of the Blue Line tunnel into downtown Los Angeles, furthermore, it headlined: “A tunnel just waiting for a train.” A picture of the tunnel was contained within the outline of a heart (Fig 4)

Clearly, as the ultimate fast train, high speed rail is also high on the sexiness factor. Also, the idea that the United States is falling behind, and that the world’s super-power is being humiliated by much smaller countries (and major competitors like China) with rail investments plays a role.

There’s a lot more in there, and clearly tapping into the lessons Richmond teaches is important. Chicago is a city with a long history of massive civic pride and boosterism. A city that refused to be anything other than #1. This is something that can be leveraged to good effect in selling transit investment. Likewise Richmond’s “social connections” metaphor (investing in disadvantaged communities to connect them to opportunities) would appear to be a good one to leverage.

Learning from the Plan of Chicago

The most viewed article ever in this blog was called “What Made the Burnham Plan Successful”, which outlined nine items that contributed to the plan’s success. A few of these are highly relevant to this effort as well.

  1. A mix of the practical and conceptual. Burnham’s plan both included things like a Michigan Ave. bridge – a practical and concrete item – with items like the harbors and ring road diagrams that were more just ideas. We need something similar here. A mix of practical items like “build this rail station here” with more forward looking items like high speed rail integration or airport express service.
  2. A mix of both work in progress and new items. Burnham wisely glommed onto things that were already in the pipe or partially completed. The Michigan Ave. bridge and the lakefront park came to mind. By mixing these with the new, the forward looking items were associated with recent successes. Plus, by having near term items included, they could demonstrate rapid progress on the plan. The CTA could do the same. Today, projects like the Brown Line expansion or the Douglas L rehab are presented as standalone projects, not part of a larger program of renewing Chicago’s transit system. Similarly, the three new L extensions that were approved are likely to be viewed as ho-hum. Unless it affects you directly, why would you care? I’ll likely never take the Red Line to 130th. Having discrete projects instead of a program means each individual one is of mostly parochial interest. What Burnham did was draw the big picture and showed how the pieces fit in. That’s what we need to do. Actually, a lot has already been done. Combine the past projects with near term items and longer terms with an overarching vision to show the public that we are marching towards a better future. Then you also build a coalition in support of an overall program, instead of just having different groups and neighborhoods who care mostly about their own local project.
  3. High quality renderings and design in the plan document. This is examined below. But the quality of design in the plan itself excited the public, made the vision real to them, and gave it an authoritative feel.
  4. Sustained follow-through on sales and marketing. The plan didn’t sell itself. There was a big, consistent push behind it. This famously included the Wacker Manual, a condensed version of the plan taught to children in the public schools.

Planners today could learn a lot from the techniques of success used by Burnham and his team.

I’ll conclude this post with a look at three examples of efforts that have done this right, focusing on visualizations, to show the type of effect we need to be aiming for: Burnham’s original Plan of Chicago, the “Imagine KC” project from Kansas City, and Louisville’s 8664 initiative.

Burnham’s Artwork

One of great things about the Plan of Chicago is that its backers spared no expense in creating a high quality output. They commissioned an artist to do bespoke artwork to literally show a conceptual picture of what the Chicago of tomorrow would look like, drawing on the legacy of the World’s Columbian Exhibition. These were gorgeous, full color plates in the output. Even children could appreciate them. Here are a couple of samples:

It’s easy for us to take Chicago for granted today. But in 1909 it was a crowded, filthy, dangerous, and rather ugly place. For people to see these gorgeous renderings of a clean, beautiful, well-ordered, spacious city, with gorgeous parks and boulevards must have prompted amazement, perhaps even disbelief. This is Chicago? The city could really be like this? Ultimately, it whetted people’s appetites to actually get it.

Imagine KC

Here’s another example, this one transit specific. It comes from Kansas City. Kansas City does not have rail transit today. A proposal to fund the construction of a light rail system was voted down last November. Frustrated that people did not really understand what light rail would do for the city, a local design agency created this video for Kansas City Public Television to try to make it very clear visually. Some of you may have seen it since I’ve linked it before, but if not this three and a half minute video is well worth watching.

The video shows the time wasted in cars, followed by a demonstration of benefits of dense, mixed use development, then an example of transit creating this very type of environment in Kansas City.

One cautionary note here. This video would makes Kansas City look like a nearly 100% white city. Plus the development featured – fitness clubs, sushi bars, etc – are oriented towards yuppies. This feeds into criticisms of transit in small cities as being gentrification tools and subsidies to the already well-off. This is a common failing in small city transit advocacy. Of course, Chicago is nothing like Kansas City. The value of transit is clear to the whole community.

The techniques of this video are very applicable to Chicago.


Lastly, I’ll mention again a movement out of Louisville, Kentucky called “8664”. This is a grass roots movement that wants to stop a major new downtown bridge and expressway widening in favor of tearing down an elevated waterfront freeway, replacing it with a park.

8664 tapped into a powerful idea of recapturing the rivertown heritage of Louisville. They’ve relentlessly touted the benefits – financial, recreational, environmental, etc – and have really captured the public imagination. Without any official backing, they have totally changed public opinion. While many many not be sold on the idea of tearing down I-64, they clearly have soured on the idea of the huge Spaghetti Junction reconstruction and new bridge.

Part of 8664 has been a series of wonderful drawings and videos, some of which I’ve shown before. Here’s their compare and contrast of the state’s plan:

with their plan:

Extremely effective. Their marketing is running rings around the state DOT’s. They are rigorously on message, repeatedly touting a more livable future for Louisville, and enumerating the benefits of the project, while continuing to generate quality collateral like this.


To really capture the public imagination and build demand for public transit is going to require the creation of a compelling vision, an emotionally resonant picture of what life will be like in our new and better future, and a strong and sustained marketing plan to sell it. As the examples above show, the vision can be conceptual at some level, as long as it is generally honest and there is a real, credible plan behind it.

More Chicago

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great
Part 1: Building the Vision (this article)
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Chicago

18 Responses to “Chicago Transit: From Good to Great, Part 1 – Building the Vision”

  1. Ironwood says:


    You're off to a great start here, and will be looking forward to your next entries. This promises to be a great series.


  2. Anonymous says:

    I second Ironwood's comments…

  3. PointSpecial says:

    I agree, this is a great start.

    I hadn't read your Chamber of Commerce piece before and I liked that too!

    My question actually is addressed to that… in the development of the BRT and the subsequent elimination of left-hand turns for cars, is there any provision or possibility for roundabouts instead of light-controlled intersections? Stop lights are very inexact and can be quite messy… and this would be one way to eliminate the left-hand turn and allow for the through-ways for the buses (I think… can buses handle roundabouts?). This especially would be useful on the few diagonal streets where BRT would seem to make sense the most and where 6-point intersections can cause traffic to back up while they wait for their turn.

    This may be opposite of what is intended… it may (… probably will) make things easier for cars instead of harder. And that wouldn't drive people to transit, unless they just dislike going around in circles. One other thing the roundabouts would eliminate are the red light cameras… which might not happen any time soon either… too much of a cash cow.

    Just a couple of random thoughts!

  4. Alon Levy says:

    The CTA is planning on three extensions of the L, two north into the suburbs and one further into the South Side. How does this interact with your vision for improving Chicago transit?

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Alon, the three L expansions I'm aware of that have been voted for approval by the board are:

    Red Line: From 95th to 130th (South Side)

    Orange Line: From Midway to Ford City (Southwest Side)

    Yellow Line: From Dempster to Niles North High School/Old Orchard (North Suburbs)

    I support all of them in concept but have not read the draft EIS reports yet. The Red Line project in particular is projected to have significant ridership. 95th St. is the busiest station on the line today, I believe. I am very concerned about the cost. The ~5 mile Red Line extension is $1.2 billion on a pre-existing ROW. I will be blogging more on this next. The Yellow Line has a few quirks like overpasses on some streets (the existing line runs at grade in Skokie) that will really drive up the cost. And the terminal is in odd location. That raised some eyebrows but I haven't studied in depth.

    In an ideal world, we'd be fixing the core system before voting for expansion. But, as you know, the fed New Start program virtually mandates new lines instead of fix it first. Also, adding new is something we've got to do to attract the public demand to make the overall investments, as I indicated here.

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

  6. JG says:

    URBANO, Watching the KC video and based on your comment it was “100% white” and “yuppie” might identify a broader problem.

    Do you think progressive civic projects are marketed too heavily by progressives toward progressives? I have to think that few yuppies, cosmopolitans, liberals, hippies, and greens (forgive my use of stereotypes) frequently oppose transit projects. It seems much of the marketing should be at fiscal conservatives who care about controlling government spending and independence/self reliance.

    Mass transit might appear as attacking both of those values: projects tend to be expensive and they do not involve the “freedom” provided by the automobile. These are legitimate concerns, but they are not necessarily exclusive of good mass transit.

    Sometimes they campaigns appear as if they were made by liberal, progressives for liberal, progressives. You would think liberals weren’t sold on the idea of mass transit…

  7. Anonymous says:

    JG-good questions.

    What I'm wondering about is whether it will possible to sustain both quality commuter rail and transit services AND our Interstate highway / US Highway system.

    Competition for existing transportation resources seems to frame this as though we can have one but not the other.

    Anyone who has traveled for any distance on our Interstate Highways knows you can't drive a half-hour without running into a major repair project. The system was finally completed a decade or so ago, and now it basically has to be entirely rebuilt, one piece at a time, at tremendous cost. The days when you could fly down the Interstate for great distances between major Midwestern cities may never happen again.

    Same for the Interstates within the major metropolitan areas. They are the gift that keeps on giving for the big roadway construction companies.

    This reality seems to underscore the need for and ultimate value of high quality commuter transit.

    I think, though, the big issue is the location of employment centers. Job commutes drive intra-urban vehicular traffic.

    In Chicago, even with the Loop as a huge employment center, most people now commute suburb to suburb via automobile to widely dispersed jobs strung along the Interstates. Their numbers dwarf transit riders.

    It's not often written about, but there really needs to be a major push to concentrate employment at transit nodes. They don't all have to be in the Loop. There's plenty of space for new office buildings in commuter rail suburbs as diverse as Arlington Heights, Oak Park and Wheaton.

    To date, Smart Growth and New Urbanism has focussed on creating new residential within walking distance of retail. It's great to be able to take a stroll with the family after work to get an ice cream cone, but the real efficiencies (and enhanced quality of life for millions) will come when the majority people can walk to jobs or hop on the CTA for a relatively short and comfortable commute.

    Close the gap between residential, jobs and public transit and then you'll see the masses demanding better transit accommodations.

  8. the urban politician says:

    Interesting post Urb, and I look forward to all 3 parts.

    What you and JG touched on is worth mention, and it also concerns me.

    I have come to the opinion that most of middle America is a "lost" constituency, if you will, to the prospects of ever using transit. America will never get this large socio-economic group back onto the trains and buses in any meaningful way. I say this because 1) many of them are more likely to be in favor of the culturally engrained concept of the car representing freedom and a thing of beauty, and 2) many of them work in highly decentralized locations and do not work "downtown" any more, which coincides with decades of job decentralization and the concentration of more higher-paying service jobs in the cores of major cities like Chicago.

    Truth is, the only reason cities like New York, Chicago, DC, Boston, San Francisco have such large transit constituencies is because of their large professional populations working in a central core and the poor people that service their needs, along with the benefit of having built their system in a different era.

    Cities like Nashville, Buffalo, and Denver for example may never fully develop serious mass transit systems for this reason, while cities like Atlanta and Houston, which do not currently have very impressive systems nor do they have "legacy" systems, will probably end up building them due to the needs of a growing professional class.

    What am I getting at? It's okay to focus your message on the professional class and leave the blue collar "middle-America" class out of the picture when marketing the benefits of mass transit to the community, because it's the poor and the well-paid who will benefit the most given the current layout of major cities like Chicago & New York.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    TUP, there are transit-oriented middle class neighborhoods. I grew up in one, though it's gentrified since. In Brooklyn and Queens there are many more such neighborhoods that are in no danger of gentrifying soon, as they are located far away from Manhattan. The people in those neighborhoods don't perceive the subway as the exclusive domain of the rich; they may complain that richer neighborhoods get nicer trains, but they fight that by advocating for more subway service, not less.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Do you folks really work?

    "Truth is, the only reason cities like New York, Chicago, DC, Boston, San Francisco have such large transit constituencies is because of their large professional populations working in a central core and the poor people that service their needs, along with the benefit of having built their system in a different era."

    – lots of those professionals still drive to work (or work from home) to avoid the mass of humanity on commuter systems.

    "What am I getting at? It's okay to focus your message on the professional class and leave the blue collar "middle-America" class out of the picture when marketing the benefits of mass transit to the community, because it's the poor and the well-paid who will benefit the most given the current layout of major cities like Chicago & New York."

    – who do you think uses mass transit in NYC, DC, Chicago, Boston: the Middle Class by far!

  11. Pantograph Trolleypole says:

    There's actually a whole pot of money that I believe is about the same size as the new starts fund for fixed guideway modernization. I believe it was used to refurbish the brown line.

  12. ccoletta says:

    I completely agree with your post and hope CTA is listening. There is simply no imagination to CTA's proposed improvements and the way in which they are presented. CTA is a gift, a civic legacy. We should be figuring out what it will take to build a transit system for the next century, then define near-term improvements and expenditures as a "next step" to building that system. Today, it is all about incremental improvement. Your furnace analogy is perfect.

  13. hattrick16 says:

    I'm not sure if you're aware of Congressman Quigley's (IL-5th Lincoln Park, Melrose Park) website It doesn't appear to have been updated recently, but he is a strong supporter of public transit and should make a great ally in the fight for better transit here in Chicago.

  14. Anonymous says:

    With the school, road and other utility infrastructure, Chicago can compete with the suburbs for middle-class families most effectively by creating the O'Hare to Midway subway that would be routed primarily under Cicero Avenue. That would be a genuine blockbuster for Chicago

  15. Chicago Dan says:

    Great read! I can't wait till part two, and I couldn't agree more. Recently I tried, in vain, to pitch to Metra the need to update their website, which looks like it hasn't been touch since 1996 (not kidding, it's awful). A relatively inexpensive way to start to entice people in the program. That's why part two is so intriguing to me. As a designer, I know first hand, the importance design plays in attracting people, especially when it comes to something as ubiquitous as the L. All the recent station renovations are great, but the trains are right out of the 80's and we need something new, faster and above all, SAFER. If the CTA can figure out a way to reduce crime on the L, make it faster and more reliable, and make the trains new and sexy, I think they would have a winning recipe for pubic support and more funding. Unfortunately, high design comes with a high price tag. I've always wanted to design a station and/or L car.

  16. The Urbanophile says:

    Dan, thanks for the comments. All I can say is, wait still Sunday. That's when part 2 goes up according to the current plan.

    I clicked cover to Metra's web site and they've got a box claiming a new one is coming soon, so hopefully that's one modernization in progress.

  17. Jeff says:

    Great piece, I often wonder when vacationing in chicago why the transit system is in such a state of disrepair. It's fairly connective to the rest of the city, and (as a tourist) it was the clear choice to take me where I needed/wanted to go. Looking at their goal for the olympics, they need some serious repair to get the CTA's El trains to sustain a large number of people that will come to the area.

  18. MB94128 says:

    That interchange shot from the 8664 people looks like the kind of stuff that launched the freeway revolt here in California. I wonder if the 8664 people have thought to get the EPA involved ? An interchange that huge will dump a ridiculous amount of pollutants into the air. The undergrounded segment of freeway has the advantage of possibly adding filters to the ventilation system.

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