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Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Replay: Bad Example

[ Welcome to my new readers finding me via the Daily Dish and many, many other sites. I hope you enjoy and thanks for checking me out. I was going to publish the second installment of my series on privatization today, but thought instead I would ease you into it rather than plunging into the full metal Urbanophile experience. Since I referenced this piece in my last post, I thought I'd share it with you in full today.

I wonder if Andrew Sullivan realizes that the same person wrote both "White City" and "Detroit as Urban Laboratory and New American Frontier"?

This piece originally ran on November 1, 2008 ]

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” – Matthew 25:28

“The word of the Cross is to those who are perishing foolishness” – I Corinthians 1:18

Christian apologists have sought to find various digestible moral meanings in the harsh story of the Parable of the Talents, but what if the intent was merely observational? Rather than instructing on how we should live our lives, maybe the parable just relays an unpleasant truth about the world, namely that, to put it in a modern idiom, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Columbus, Indiana was recently named the most historic destination in the United States by National Geographic magazine. Not only does it have a traditional 19th century downtown, but also a world-renowned collection of modernist masterpieces from the last 50 years – one of the best anywhere. A local businessman agreed to pay the architectural fees for any local civic structure if the town picked an architect on his list. The result is an architectural treasure trove. Today Columbus is the strongest traditional small manufacturing city in Indiana by a country mile. It’s reasonable to speculate that there might be a link between the enlightened architecture and the economic outcomes.

But have other places in Indiana or the Midwest followed this example and utilized quality of space and architecture to try to retain relevance in the modern era? With extremely limited exceptions, No. Why is this?

Often cities fail to learn from their own good examples. Monument Circle in Indianapolis is one of America’s great urban spaces, but it has not inspired that city to even attempt creating similar spaces elsewhere. Why not?

I used to believe that what we needed to transform our cities were good examples, something to show people the possibility of what could be. It’s not that our Midwestern cities are willfully doing the wrong things, it’s just that they don’t know any better. But is that true? I’m increasingly skeptical. There seem to be examples aplenty, they just aren’t emulated.

It seems that only a certain type of city is able to learn by example, and it is disproportionately those places that are already successful to begin with. Thus we see successful cities going from strength to strength while the weaker sit paralyzed. So much of the Midwest falls into that latter category, its cities “sour and crumbling”, unable to muster the will to fight against the physical, environmental, demographic, and economic ruin into which they are falling.

Cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, and Madison are successful. Yet they do not inspire emulators. Conversely, those places themselves are early adopters of good ideas from elsewhere. Every other day there is an article in the news about the success of places like Austin, Charlotte, or Dallas. About the striking urban renaissances in places like Boston or Seattle. Or the life sciences boom in San Diego. But no one learns the lessons. Even the most successful Midwest cities like Columbus, Ohio do not, and while they can take solace in out pacing their Midwestern peers, they still continue to be passed by up and comers like Charlotte and Nashville, relative non-entities twenty years ago. The dying small industrial cities of the Midwest cling to traditional approaches despite the hollowing out that has taken place.

It’s not like we haven’t figured some things out. While the disasters created by previous grand urban planning visions should certainly inspire a great deal of humility, we know much more of what works and what doesn’t. Successful examples teach us what actually worked in the real world, how they work, what it took to get them done, and a great measure of why they worked. They are actual templates for action – not just mindless copying, but really thinking about how they can be applied to the location conditions – not grand unproven theories. But they are seldom emulated by people who desperately need change.

Why do so many places seem unable to learn even from their own successes, much less others?

I think there are two principal reasons.

One reason is that good examples are often seen as extraordinary one-offs. Paradoxically, to the extent that a policy, a design, or an outcome achieves truly exceptional results, it will be increasingly likely to be seen as sui generis. Monument Circle is such a unique place that it is difficult to imagine its values informing the design of the average city street. Columbus is so amazing that its collection of modernist buildings can be viewed as a sort of artifact of nature like the Grand Canyon, as something that simply is but was not created. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan aren’t role models, they are demigods.

That is why it is so important not just to focus on examples, but the right examples. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

The mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones.

Every small town in America bricks up its Main St. And while that might help create the sense of the sacred essential to the city, it doesn’t inspire us to see ourselves or our everyday city in a different way. It often doesn’t move us to overall civic betterment. The design of the average street is so much more important than the design of the main street. The design of the local elementary school more important than that of the war memorial. It is critical to create examples that permeate the city in a way that can instruct. Crucial details like a street sign, well maintained sidewalks, a freshly painted fence around a park. These are what shape our view of what a city is and should be.

When everything about the environment we live in tells us one thing, it’s very difficult for something with a different message to break through and be seen as something that could be applied broadly to ourselves.

The second challenge is more fundamental. Like Machiavelli said, “It takes a wise prince to profit from good advice.” Research suggests that those who score poorly on a test are less likely than those who score well to be able to predict their own performance. In short, the worse we are, the less aware we are of it, and without awareness of our own deficiencies, we’re unlikely to be able to understand what it is we need to do to improve.

This is a key stumbling block. Until we are able to see the linkages between what our city is and does and our own civic performance, we’ll never be able to recognize good examples and use them to improve. That’s the tragedy of the Parable of the Talents. In the Midwest we are too often like the servant who got one talent, and unable to conceive of how we might profitably invest, fearfully cling to what we have, desperate not to lose it. We watch other places use their windfalls to build still greater success while burying what we do have in a hole in the ground.

That’s what we’ve got to overcome. The Midwestern city needs to be inspired to see itself like the cities with ten and five talents. Chicago did that. It looked at New York and London and said, “No, we can’t vie to be the world’s premier city like those two can, but we can sure as heck learn from them and figure how to be sure we’re at least playing the major leagues.” Minneapolis said, “No, we can’t be Chicago, but look at what other mid-tier cities in Europe have been able to achieve – we can certainly play in the game.” Indianapolis looked at what other much bigger cities had done to host the Super Bowl and said, “Why not us?” Columbus, Indiana said, “We can’t be all things to all people, but we can place a bet on architecture.”

But the further one gets from success, the harder it is to will ourselves to change and copy success, much less to innovate. That’s the fundamental challenge facing the Midwest. The challenge is vast and it will take enlightened and courageous leadership to face up to it. But I’ve seen the successful examples like Columbus. That shows me that there is a path forward and a potential bright future for the Midwest if we can figure out how to break through the torpor and get people to start seeing the examples that are right before our eyes for what they really are.

9 Comments
Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture

9 Responses to “Replay: Bad Example”

  1. Mainstreet says:

    Carmel Indiana is not Columbus Indiana but has become a small city that everyone loves to hate as it builds its’ vision. It is that ability to “be inspired “that is also beginning to having a ripple effect through Central Indy. I attribute that not only to having a focused vision but strong leadership that is able to navigate and withstand the political fallout that it takes to make change happen. To often leadership only takes the road of lest resistance,

  2. Anonymous says:

    Aaron,
    Coming off the discussion of white cities and black cities, there is something else that needs to be articulated. Of course it will be much less discussed if its not in racial terms.

    Why should we even try to work with the old, worn down, blighted, legacy cost burdened urban areas? Why don’t we just rally everyone with education, money and ambition to the nearest white city? Everyone “progressive” left near Detroit, move to Ann Arbor. Everyone educated in Milwaukee, move to Madison. Everyone employable in Cleveland and Cincinnati, move to Columbus.

    For that matter, why are we even staying in the Midwest?

  3. Kent R says:

    “the full metal Urbanophile experience…”

    ?

  4. Kent, just wait till Thursday!

    anon 11:33, that’s an interesting question without a simple answer. Why stay anywhere I guess.

    Cities do have natural life cycles. Most places rise and fall over the ages. But I am troubled by this idea that we simply discard the old and move to the new. Is America destined to be a place with 7 or so sustainable major urban cores and a remainder populated with the remains of cities that flowered for a season, then died? Perhaps if we simply keep chasing the lure of greenfield economics that will happen. But I think it is important that we don’t.

    From an individual perspective, I think there an be reason to want to live lot of places. And it is up to us to supply that narrative. I suggest picking up a copy of Monocle magazine for this month. They do a great job generally of finding all these quirky out of the way borderland places and actually making them sound almost cool enough to want to move to – or at least visit. Read up on far eastern Russia and Gothenberg, Sweden, for example.

    People aren’t afraid to struggling to build a future they may never live to see and which might never be – if you give them a vision and a reason to believe you are heading in the right direction.

  5. Dave in KY says:

    But our cities do seem to “learn” from each other, its just that we seem to learn questionable behaviors.

    Louisville is in the middle of constructing a heavily-subsidized basketball arena smack dab in the center of the city. For the same cost we could have built something that actually increased productivity, like schools or transportation infrastructure, which I’m guessing is going to go very much farther in ROI.

    Instead, the city seems to limp from bad idea to bad idea – loaning developers a million dollars for nothing in return, building a bike trail beltway as sprawl inducement far, far from the urban core, razing the urban core to build yet more interetate expressway lane miles.

    In 2009, we have ~6 candidates for Mayor, and only one of them is willing to admit that this expressway is a bad idea. He’s strongly opposed by the local paper, and probably will get laughed out of the race as a result.

    And all the Mayoral candidates are falling over themselves to endorse a plan to build a bridge along the outer beltway, which is itself just a big sprawl-inducement project.

    Its like we’re in a monocuture of morons.

  6. Dave in KY says:

    see what I mean! s/monocuture/monoculture/ :)

  7. Alon Levy says:

    There’s a difference between a place that’s quaint to visit once and a place that’s cool to live in. For example, in Kafka on the Shore, Murakami makes Shikoku seem like an interesting place to go to, as a tourist; but even there, the main character ends up going back to Tokyo after a few weeks. This reflects real life, where Tokyo is almost the only part of Japan that isn’t depopulating. Russia is similar to Japan there, with depopulation everywhere except in Moscow.

    Whether this happens to the US remains to be seen. The US has high background population growth due to its high immigration rate and piss-poor birth control, which helps more cities grow. But if you look at cities that have decent income growth and aren’t another city’s satellite, and that aren’t fueled by natural resources that are about to run out, it’s basically just the coastal cities plus Chicago. Even Atlanta doesn’t make the cut – its income growth is disappointing.

  8. Curt says:

    Recently, I was part of a new product development at my workplace. I was the lead designer of the new product, and had to communicate with product and manufacturing engineers.

    When faced with a difficult task where we had to put a lot of material in a small space, we looked at what our competitors did to overcome this challenge. What they had was so blatant, that we couldnt figure out why NOT to try it. They had a video on their website demonstrating how they overcame it.

    We tried many times to get our manufacturing engineer to try this method. After many failures of his old, “tried and true” methods, he did give the new method a try, only “half assing” it. In the end, we are still strugling to get over said challenge with a lower than desireable success rate.

    Our company, is in the Indianapolis area. Not that this single person tells the complete story, but anyone who has worked with people who have been doing something for a long time know how difficult it is to break that mold and change the idealogy behind what they are trying to overcome.

    Just a small example demonstrating your article Aaron

  9. Babbage says:

    “And all the Mayoral candidates are falling over themselves to endorse a plan to build a bridge along the outer beltway, which is itself just a big sprawl-inducement project.” <— Dave in KY

    Dave, what bridge are you talking about? I seriously hope you are not criticizing the East End Bridge.

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