Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Re-Imagining the Good Life

What will it take to get large numbers of people to move to central cities? Much has been made of the back to the city movement, and indeed we do see core population growth in many places, such as Atlanta. But in the Midwest most of our urban cores are radically underpopulated and the trickle back to them isn’t enough to really pump life into them. For example, a few hundred people per year have been added to Indianapolis’ Center Township recently. That’s a great reversal of a decades long downtrend, one to celebrate, but also one that is far too low to make a big impact. Even in Chicago, which has seen a huge resurgence in urban living by the upper-middle class, the city’s population is basically flat while exurban Kendall County is the fastest growing county in the entire United States. How can we take this nascent urbanist change to the next level?

I linked before to a discussion on the need to create a new version of the American Dream that is urban, not suburban in nature. Unfortunately, there are many problems with the way the urban lifestyle is sold in America. First, urban advocates tend to assume that the virtues of urban living are self-evident. Then, when people fail act as they expect, blame nefarious forces. Clearly, there have been big subsidies to suburban living and such, but urban advocates often have made a weak case and seem to believe they don’t actually have to sell people who may be unfamiliar with city living on it. There’s an old saying, “telling’s not selling” – simply reciting talking points isn’t getting the job done.

Also, much of the call to return to cities is based on doom and gloom. If we don’t all radically change our lifestyles the planet will end or some such. Fear mongers vie out do each other in describing how urgent the cause is. Alas, as Alan Deutschman’s “Change or Die” article demonstrated, even when faced with the prospect of their own literal, physical death, most people don’t change their ways. And while there has always been an apocalyptic, sackcloth and ashes streak running through American history, Americans are relentlessly optimistic people. People want “It’s morning again in America” or “Yes, we can”, not an “era of limits”.

Also, so much urbanist rhetoric is heavily didactic. Here’s a common phase, “We need to shift the culture.” But what is implied by the statement? Among other things, the speaker positions himself detached from those he wants to influence, occupying a superior plane. Someone saying this obviously doesn’t think he needs his own culture shifted – that’s for someone else. Again, there’s a saying that “Until you meet someone where they are, you have no right to lead them somewhere else.”

So we’ve got to take a different path to create a new, positive aspirational narrative about the good life in America, one based around urban living, that we can convince a large number of people to buy into. I won’t claim to have it figured out yet, but I wanted to set some parameters around what I think it would include:

  1. A Truly American Dream
  2. Primal Human Aspirations
  3. The Facts on the Ground
  4. Macrotends
  5. The Natural Advantages of Cities
  6. Institutions of Cultural Transmission

A Truly American Dream

By this I mean simply that it is a vision rooted in our own essential history, culture, geography, etc. The Futurama vision of suburbia did just that. A vision that attempts to say we should live like European villagers is probably not going to play here. We don’t think it is right to impose our culture, values, and history on the world – though our marketing machine has done a good job of selling a lot of American brands – so it makes no sense to expect foreign values to be applicable here. Yes, there are some commonalities among peoples of the world, but also a lot of diversity as well. We need a vision that is recognizably, proudly, and quintessentially American.

Primal Human Aspirations

Any positive vision of the future needs to take account of the fundamental needs and common aspirations people have for themselves and their family. You can think of this in terms of adequate food, shelter, and security, that is, the basics. But there are potentially many other things, including:

  • To enable one’s children to achieve a better life for themselves than their parents
  • To advance one’s economic condition and status
  • To find meaning in life
  • To be part of something greater than oneself
  • To feel above average about one’s social position
  • To play
  • To have a place to call home
  • To have tribe to call our own
  • To find happiness, eudaimon
  • To find one’s soulmate or partner in life
  • To compete and win
  • To find adventure
  • To have the feeling of self-determination over one’s own life

Think of all the archetypal desires. Marketers figure out how to tap into these to sell all sorts of things. Part of the suburban dream was its ability to be sold as a vehicle for the achievement of these aspirations. Today, for example, the suburbs are seen as the locale in which we can provide children with the best possible upbringing and chance to succeed in life, have our own private yard, etc. Once cities played this role, and often still do for immigrants. How do we create a view of the city as the premier place in which people can fulfill life’s ambitions? This is what will ultimately sell people on it.

The Facts on the Ground

Cities are great – obviously I love them. Perhaps we love them too much though. Like with our own kids, maybe the faults and warts of city of life are invisible to us. Or we’ve come to appreciate them. Maybe others don’t. We have to be clear eyed and realistic, and see the city not through our own idealized lens, but from the standpoint of a suburbanite who, though perhaps not ideologically opposed to cities – forget trying to convince those people – has little experience of it, and possibly negative or skeptical views based on a life in the suburbs. These people can be convinced, but aren’t going to overlook problems. Let’s consider a few:

  • School quality. Yes, perhaps the diligent parent can find a good school in the city, but let’s admit it, it’s harder work. Average suburban school quality is better, no question.
  • Crime. Urban crime rates are higher than suburban ones. Yes, there is crime in the burbs. Yes, the worst urban crime is often confined to select neighborhoods and the drug trade. But again, facts are facts, and anecdotes confirm what we’re inclined to believe.
  • Taxes. They are often, but not always, higher in the city.
  • Large, impersonal government that is difficult to affect, especially compared to a smaller suburb. When I shot that video with Mayor Walling, he gave me his card, but jotted something down on it first. It was his cell phone number. The mayor of Flint gave me his cell phone number, and invites the world to email him suggestions. What are the odds I’ll ever even shake hands with the mayor of Chicago? (Chicago attempts to address this problem through its ward system.)
  • Decayed infrastructure. This isn’t true everywhere, but again, while many cities have great infrastructural legacies, their streets, sidewalks, sewers, and parks often have vast backlogs of repairs needed. Suburban infrastructure is often newer and better – at least in the short term.
  • Obsolete housing stock. For every Queen Anne or Italianate gem waiting to be fixed up, there are tons of tiny plywood shacks on slabs from the mid-century period that need a good dose of the bulldozer. Older homes have charm, but often lack modern floorplans, need major upgrades, aren’t as energy efficient, etc. Especially Midwestern cities are built like this.
  • Environmental problems. Brownfields, lead paint, lead soil, combined sewer overflows, proximity to heavy industry, you name it.
  • Income redistribution or the fear thereof.
  • Housing costs. In some, but not all cities, housing is extremely expensive. In Chicago, for example, 53% of renters spend more than 1/3 of their income on rent. (In others, housing is extremely cheap – a big plus)

We need to look at every aspect of the city and ask what needs improvement, how it might fit into a vision if it were improved – what would life be like in the city if we fixed the infrastructure, for example – then what we need to do to address the problem, and how we spin it in the meantime.

There are all sorts of other facts that should be taken into consideration:

  • Only 27% of American adults have a college degree. Visions focused around, to borrow a phrase, the “creative class Christmas list” aren’t addressing the majority of the market.
  • The median household income in 2007 was $50, 233. Again, that’s for an entire household. And by definition 50% of households make less than that. Think costs don’t matter? Think again. And think of ways to create or highlight aspects of city living that are “free”.
  • Real household income has flat lined
  • Average household sizes are much smaller than they were when urban population hit its peak (so if you want to recapture peak, for example, you need more dwelling unit density)
  • Most cities are not built anything like NYC, Chicago, SF, Boston, or Philly. At least some version of the new vision must be applicable to places Columbus, Grand Rapids, and Omaha, that is, the to the majority of American cities. As someone concerned about the Midwest, this is of particular note to me.

Again, if we want a broad based dream, we need to take this into account. Some of these are bad for traditional urban visions that only cater to the upper stratums of society. Others may be good for cities such as increasing immigration.


There are all sorts of things going on out there in the world that affect this. We don’t know how long they will last or what they will ultimate result in, but many of them are quite positive for cities:

  • Greater concern for environmental matters
  • Globalization
  • Increasing immigration
  • The fragmentation of the great American common culture into niche markets
  • The advance of technology
  • An era of increasing rapidity of change
  • The rise of the knowledge economy
  • Changing household composition

In particular, I think the era of the single “great American Dream” and mass uniformity is increasingly irrelevant in light of these macrotrends. This could be very good for cities indeed, particularly if they recognize that there will never be just one definition of the good life anymore, but a multiplicity of definitions. The old mass market suburban dream of old is probably less relevant to the market than ever.

The Natural Advantages of Cities

What are the natural advantages of cities?

  • Convenience
  • Variety
  • Discovery
  • Opportunity

At least, that’s what someone told me they are, and I think it’s a good list to start with.

To that, I might add Brand, as core cities generally have very powerful brands versus the suburbs.

Institutions of Cultural Transmission

I’m sure there’s a better phrase for this. For me, it is a sort of catch-all for everything we need to think about in terms of communicating the story and creating spiritual resonance. Think about:

  • Myths – the stories we tell about this place, the people, its founding, its history. Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus – or so the story goes. It doesn’t have to be true, it just be believable and impart the lessons we care about.
  • Rites of Passage and Other Rituals. Think about the old days of women going downtown shopping in their white gloves, and the elegance and nostalgia that image creates in our mind. What are the new uniquely urban rituals we can imagine that would create an emotional pull to this place? One real example from today: newlywed couples taking a drive around Monument Circle in Indianapolis, beeping their horns.

Think about this in the suburban context. Then re-imagine it or or re-market what we already have in an urban one.

Again, I’m not trying to give the Answer, only create a framework for thinking about it, and only the start of one at that. For any city struggling to attract residents back to places still down 50% from their peak, these are the things that ought to be thought about. The good news is that I don’t think we need to convince everyone that urban living is for them. If we just convince some people we could really move the needle in a lot of these smaller cities that still suffer from weak core vitality. Even a move of just 25,000-50,000 could make a huge difference in many of these places.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture

56 Responses to “Re-Imagining the Good Life”

  1. cdc guy says:

    Aaron, the front-page news in today's Indianapolis Star is that enrollment in IPS has almost arrested a long decline. No stats accompany the article…so it's impossible to dissect whether the Superintendent's turnaround plan is working.

    It is germane to this thread: if Indy has a viable school turnaround plan, we can sell success and not failure or exceptions.

  2. cdc guy says:

    comment on Ray's post:

    I work doing "urban husbandry" in a neighborhood in the first ring out from downtown, and agree that it's vital for revitalizing neighborhoods or I wouldn't do it.

    But downtown Indianapolis is a "regional center" and viable and active precisely because it is an event core as well as home to the state government center, a university and a large med center.

    A thriving city needs both a "regional center" and strong neighborhoods. Without the regional center, it's just a big town. Without the neighborhoods, it's EPCOT.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    cdc, that IPS news is huge.

  4. cdc guy says:

    Agreed, Aaron. Except it might simply be a demographic echo of the city's Hispanic in-migration over the past 10 years or so, and not necessarily a response to the Superintendent's improvement activities. Much as IPS might want it so, the raw numbers don't tell enough of the story. The real story will be told by how many are choosing the magnet programs vs. mayor's charters.

    For those who don't live in Indy, the mayor has the right to give public-school charters that operate outside the regular school systems. There are now 19, and their growth has just about accounted for the decline in the IPS attendance base. The IPS district's response has been to create more and better magnets, a logical and appropriate approach.

  5. vortexhouse says:

    I am still digesting this post as well and have to say ditto to Iron's comments on neighborhoods. This is the soul of the city and efforts to strengthen them, especially in Indy are needed. To many of our main thoroughfares have been decimated and the current owners of the infrastructure to often are from outside the city looking to get rich off of them. If we are going to revitalize our urban core economies we need buy in from the people who own the infrastructure. We must also resist the suburbanization of the city. I have nothing against someone who wants to live a suburban life but do not force it on me in the city (ie.knocking down historic homes for parking lots, knocking down homes because they are to close together, cutting off streets to make areas insular (Fall Creek Place), creation of disposable housing (major home developments like in Fall Creek Place that are built so cheaply to maximize profits they begin to fall apart in a few years and begin the cycle of decay all over again.)

  6. cdc guy says:

    Your citation of Fall Creek Place is faulty. Yes, the first (private) redevelopment in that area, Fall Creek Proper, did suburbanize the street grid in a six-block area back in the 90's. But the city-sponsored Fall Creek Place maintained the grid and rebuilt the alleys starting in about 2000. It could hardly be more "city".

    I'd also argue that the houses are not "cheaply built". They are not "full custom" houses that cost $200 and up a square foot, but very little construction in Indianapolis meets that standard. They are mid-range affordable (not in the legal HUD sense, though some are also legally set aside as "affordable housing").

    And they are certainly far "greener" than the 2500-3500 square foot energy-hog behemoths that once stood on their lots (and which still stand "preserved" further south in the historic Herron Morton and Old Northside neighborhoods).

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