Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Thanksgiving Open Thread: Your Civic Ambition

I’ve long said that people with big dream and ambitions for themselves want to live in a city where the civic aspiration matches their personal aspiration. Of course, this isn’t always true. Many of us have a reservoir of affection for our home towns, our alma mater, etc. that transcends this. And it generally takes something to dislodge someone from where they are.

So as we in America celebrate Thanksgiving, I thought I’d throw it out there to everyone to chip in with what you would like the civic ambition of your city to be.

I will lead off with three cities I have a personal connection to.

For Louisville, I’ll share something tactical. It’s my hope that it will make 8664 happen. This plan to tear down an elevated waterfront freeway would save a huge amount of money and turn Louisville into a true river city once again.

For Indianapolis, it is to find a high aspiration consistent with its character. The city is outperforming most of the rest of the Midwest and is well positioned to be an even greater success story. Yet it seems content to think of itself as the “Diamond of the Rust Belt”, notwithstanding that that’s like being happy to win the loser’s bracket in the JV playoffs again this year.

For Chicago, perhaps again a tactical example, but it is to create a transit system worthy of a great city.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone and I’ll see you next week.

Topics: Civic Branding, Strategic Planning
Cities: Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville

23 Responses to “Thanksgiving Open Thread: Your Civic Ambition”

  1. David says:

    8664 happening would be great for Louisville!

    It would compliment Museum Palza and perhaps add momentum to Shiipingport plans:

  2. AmericanDirt says:

    I believe you or someone else said many wicked problems must be solved through smaller, seemingly inconsequential iterations; i.e., we “accrete” our way to the real ambitions. In such a case, should last night’s variance in favor of Cafe Patachou in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood–and the groundswell of support behind it–be seen as a watershed event?

  3. Dirt, I take the opposite view from you. The very public ordeal that the developer had to go through in order to open a simple outdoor cafe, instigated by what I’m told is fewer than five exceptionally vocal opponents, is sure to deliver a very strong message to anyone considering a proposed investment in central Indianapolis.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    My only wish in terms of building things is the same for New York and Chicago: get your subway construction costs down to the levels of LA, SF, or Tokyo before you start wasting everyone’s money.

    But the real civic ambition I’d like New York to engage in isn’t even about building subways at only $400 million per route-km. It’s about making sure that health care and rent are affordable to people making 5-figure salaries, and that the air is breathable without getting black spots on your lungs.

  5. Evan Summers says:

    My goal, and Aaron you may not like this, is to increase the density and opportunities of the suburbs to support the urban areas. Increased assessed values (and more importantly aggregate incomes) in the suburbs will compliment the AVs of the downtown urban areas to spread economic stability by way of jobs to all areas in a halo effect. It all begins with “blue collar” and service sector jobs.

  6. I would wish for journalism that explains actual difficult choices to the public so that people are educated about why they’re hard, instead of simply describing the conflict over them or describing the decision as an act of “government” and “planners”. For example:

    This of course is ultimately up to the consumers of journalism.

  7. Pete from Baltimore says:

    I may be misunderstanding the question.But if the question is what i would like my city to do then i have a few answers.

    1-.Focus more on bringing blue collar jobs into the city instead of focusing on restraunts and condos.

    2 -Focus more on improving public transportation for those that actually use it . Instead of spending money on “white elephant” projects that are designed for surburban commutters who end up not using it[Baltimore Metro is a perfect example of this].

    3-But mostly i would like the actual citizens of my city[and other cities] to realise that our governments, be they local ,state or federal, cant solve all of our problems.

    In Baltimore we have a tremendous problem with trash on the street.I wish i could blame it on the city government.But sadly it is because many people simply walk by trash cans and throw their trash on the streets.Many of us spend a lot of time picking up trash on the streets.But sadly , not enough people keep their block clean.

    I hate to say this but many of our problems could be solved by simple acts. Some people do come to volunteer projects like neighborhood clean ups and tree plantings.But sadly they are a minority .

    Even our transportation system would be better if people were more respectful.Buses can not pick up passengers because the buses are too full.So they drive past people waiting at bus stops.But often there is plenty of standing room at the back.

    This is because no matter how much the bus driver begs people, there is always a couple of people who will block people from moving to the back.They will do this out of spite and pettiness and will glare at you if you try to get around them.Simply following the drivers request and moving to the back would allow hundreds of people to get home earlier or get to work on time.

    This may seem a minor problem.But not if you are trying to go to work in the morning and not one, but two buses , dont pick you up because someone is blocking the aisle.I actually used to walk 2 hours to work to advoid this problem.

    I really wish that people would realise that Baltimore is OUR city and doesnt just belong to the government.A city s architecture can be beautiful . But it is how the citizens treat their city that decides whether a city is a beautiful place to live or not.

    I would finally just like to wish a belated happy Thanksgiving to MR Renn and all of the commenters here.

  8. Tee says:

    I want the people of Cleveland to dump its current political and business leadership and start over with innovative thinkers. They just don’t get it, and probably never will.

  9. west town ed says:

    Aron, I have just recently come across your wonderful blog and I haven’t had a chance to read all of your past postings so I don’t know what you have written about the high cost of building subways in either New York or Chicago but I will offer this: in both cities subways are required in some of the most densely populated traffic corridors and the geology presents real challenges.
    These dense corridors follow natural paths from where people live and where they want to go — think Sheridan Road/Lake Shore Drive/Michigan Avenue to the Loop. This population density has as they developed required utility infrastructure (water, sewage, gas lines and electricity) that has ended up exactly where there should be a subway line. So one big cost consideration is the relocation of all of the above.
    Once one has figured out where and how to accomplish the relocation, one runs into geology. Manhattan has granite hills that must be dug through and all approaches to the island are under water. Chicago has hundreds of feet of accumulated muck and a river or two that subway tunnels need to get through. Neither is easy nor cheap.
    The smartest plan that I can remember was the Franklin Street subway which would have gone underground around Chicago Avenue and joined what is now the Blue Line south of the Loop. All of the elevated tracks south of, say Division would have been torn down as well as the Wells Street and Jackson Street legs of the Loop El. I don’t remember why the project was killed but I’m sure money was at the root of it. I have no doubt that it would have had a major impact on the development of central city.
    Or again considering what has gone on north of the river and south of Jackson, maybe not.

  10. terranaut says:

    Good topic. Regarding my hometown of St. Louis, I wish they’d embrace so-called “smart shrinkage” policies, such as those adopted by Youngstown, OH and some of the more innovative solutions proposed for Detriot. I believe these policies if done right can be every bit as positive and optimistic, if not more so, than clinging to a vision of returning to past glories.

    St. Louis had a great heyday when it was the “Gateway to the West”, but it needs to accept that it’s a smaller city now. I can tell you from living there for many years, business and civic leaders in the region still think the city is in competition with Denver, Seattle and Atlanta when it’s true competition is Kansas City, Indianapolis and Sante Fe.

  11. Paz says:

    For Pittsburgh, that it it takes civic identity a step beyond Steeler Nation and UPMC. Sports are great, the Warhol museum is great, but this is a city that is bursting at the seams with tiny success stories. My wish is that the city, administration and residents, begins looking beyond the big developments and starts cultivating the small ones.

  12. JC says:

    I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with five exceptionally vocal opponents challenging a development in a fairly dense neighborhood. That little retail island is a small plot and the plans certainly will be maxing out, if not exceeding, its ability to sustain as large of an enterprise as is being proposed.

    How many vocal opponents would have made it acceptable for you? 10? 20? The masses aren’t always right as I believe you constantly assert in your comments about the inertia of mass opinion you find unacceptable here in Hooserville.

  13. Lynn Stevens says:

    I’d like to see Chicago move from the City of Big Shoulders to the City of the Best Education, Without Equal!

  14. Jake M. says:

    I want the City and County of Milwaukee to take the necessary steps to protect its underfunded transit system, as its voters wanted it to in a Nov. 2008 referendum. This includes being given the freedom by the state of Wisconsin to have more sources to fund transit and parks from, instead of being locked into the property tax, and have to compete with public safety and streets for dollars.

    I want the part of Milwaukee that is west of the Milwaukee River to act like a 21st Century city with new economy goals and an appreciation for quality of life. Unfortunately, much of this area acts like an old town with established political families and connections, with 20th century issues and fears. And I would like suburban Milwaukee to understand that they only thrive when the big city thrives, and that they can’t run away from problems in their little bubble.

    As for Madison, you’re a big city now, not just a college town with a state capital. You need to understand that growth and new building is not always your enemy, and that crime is a legitimate issue. The ’60s and ’70s are over, and you need to stop listening to people who don’t understand that.

  15. Jon says:

    I would second Aaron’s notion of a “transit system worthy of a great city”. I think the long-debated “Circle Line” is a big step in the right direction. Allowing transit from one part of the city to another without requiring a transfer through the Loop would not only cut down commute times, but also spur continued business development in often-overlooked communities.

    Question of the day – do Chicagoans care enough for such a thing, or are we content with a bus system that provides service E-W and N-S on nearly every major street? (Assuming stable CTA funding does not cut arrival frequencies, or eliminate routes entirely?)

  16. Alon Levy says:

    Aron, I have just recently come across your wonderful blog and I haven’t had a chance to read all of your past postings so I don’t know what you have written about the high cost of building subways in either New York or Chicago but I will offer this: in both cities subways are required in some of the most densely populated traffic corridors and the geology presents real challenges.

    Tokyo is dense, too – denser than Chicago, in fact. It has earthquakes, and so many subway tunnels that new subway lines have to be built 20-30 meters underground. Unlike New York and Chicago, it doesn’t have a regular street grid, which would enable easier construction under major streets.

    The cost of a route-km of subway in Tokyo is $400-500 million. In New York, it’s $1.3-1.7 billion. Chicago, I believe, is spending $650 million per km on the Circle Line; the cost of els in Chicago is among the problems that make it one of the few world cities where government works even worse than in New York.

  17. Jon says:

    As a followup to my earlier post – While developing world-class public transit in Chicago is a tactical “civic ambition,” I’d also like to make a strategic comment. This follows a comment I made on Aaron’s “Migration: Geographies in Conflict”. In short, my strategic civic ambition for Chicago is that the city should cement some aspect of its
    historic identity into a perpetual “calling card.” As discussed in that post, Silicon Valley is probably the first place a person considers when thinking “Where should I go to do a high-tech startup?” Paris is the first place a person considers when thinking “Where should I go to push the boundaries of style in fashion, food, or the arts?” People keep pouring into these two places year after year to “pursue the dream” associated with each, despite many practical obstacles (cost, etc.).

    What idea attracts like-minded people to Chicago from all over the world, year after year? As a lifelong Chicagoan, I wonder whether outsiders perceive anything of this sort? I always refer to Chicago as a place of great balance – the place to go in order to make it big in the world while still maintaining a high quality of life. But I also see
    the “global city” competition on the horizon, and I wonder if this is enough to sustain us in competition with a rising Mumbai, Shanghai,etc. My hunch is that Paris and Silicon Valley will continue to attract people, due to the aforementioned mythology each embodies.

    When I consider Chicago’s potential mythologies, one thing sticks out above all else – “A Great Urban Experiment.” Above all else, this seems like a reason people from anywhere might flock to Chicago. This idea has historical roots. Chicago was once a raw American frontier city where ambitious people came to perfect the ideal modern city. That spirit continues in the collective DNA. Long term, the city’s roots as a great business hub may be secondary to attracting the world’s greatest architects, urban planners, education experts, energy usage experts, transportation experts, etc. etc. In my opinion, it is most important for key people to think “Chicago” when they think “where should I go to help build the world’s highest quality 21st century city?” If that spirit continues, then Chicago will continue as a great transportation and global business hub.

  18. Thanks for the all the comments.

    Jon, I think you are making a great point re:Chicago. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago was the place you came to see what the future of the city looked like. It was the ultimate industrial colossus. It was also the source of a lot of urban innovation.

    That is certainly not the case today. Chicago doesn’t dominate any industry in the way it did the industrial age. Instead, it is very diversified. That has its advantages too, of course. Also, Chicago is not really an urban innovator. Rather, it has adopted the strategy of the “fast follower” where it takes something like bike lanes and deploys them at scale faster than a lot of other cities. It’s more execution driven.

    Whether this is enough to sustain the city in the future, time will tell. I think it is a debate that clearly needs to happen, however.

  19. Dwight Gibson in Detroit sent me this contribution by email:

    In Detroit there will be a return of imagination for creation and exploring as there was with the pioneers of old in this region in Fur, Timber and Engineering. In the work place there is dignity for the people with work that encourages and develops the craftsman. This would be a change from the 20th century where both the white and blue collar worker lost their dignity in the workplace.

  20. JC says:

    There’s a lot to like in being execution driven in that you don’t incur the invention/startup costs of the idea.

    You may rarely be the first to the part, but if you can apply an innovation elsewhere with tremendous speed and effectiveness while doing so at a lower cost, that can be a pretty sustainable niche … so long as you organize your infrastructure and leadership to do just that.

  21. JC, there is something to that. I’d argue that Carmel has more or less taken that approach. In fact, Jim Brainard likes to argue that he’s only adopting proven approaches from elsewhere. I believe the idea is that he wants people to feel confident in the new direction, and not believe it is new or a gamble. But they’ve taken things like roundabouts and deployed them at a scale far greater than where most other places have.

  22. chuck says:

    For Indy: Build a 220mph bullet train to Chicago (use the old airport terminal as central station?).

    Run a light rail line from the airport to Irvington via Washington St. and from Broad Ripple to Beech Grove (through downtown and Fountain Square). Use Pan Am Plaza for the downtown terminal.

  23. Alon Levy says:

    Chuck, if you build the bullet train, you might as well make sure the central station is the existing downtown Amtrak station. Most of the advantage of HSR over air is that it can get you closer to downtown.

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