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Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Replay: Impossibility City

Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17

The Louisville Cardinals were in the NCAA regionals last weekend in Indianapolis. In conjunction, a group of people from Louisville planned to bring up a laser projector and put images on the sides of buildings in Indianapolis ranging from the Cardinal logo to Louisville’s “Possibility City” marketing slogan. I thought this would be great fun in the grand tradition of college game day pranks (here’s a famous one to show you what I’m talking about).

The city of Indianapolis, however, felt otherwise. Prosecutor Carl Brizzi said it would be illegal since these projections would require a permit and a variance. I thought this was a terrible shame. A permit? Print them one. Or fine them afterward. You can bet that if the Colts wanted to do this, no permit problem would have been allowed to stand in the way. It shows fear, as if Indy is a city so insecure that it would have felt itself “disrespected” by a mere light show. They could have taken the high road. The right response is would have been a bit of bemused, “Whatever”. (For Louisville’s part, they screwed up by announcing they were going to do it. You can’t do guerrilla marketing if everyone knows about it in advance).

While this incident is a nit in the grand scheme of things, it makes me think generally about the ways cities more and more are trying to regulate fun out of existence. An ever more complex regime of permits, licenses, inspections, and a general attitude that “whatever is not explicitly permitted is forbidden” seems to have taken hold in American cities. Every urban activity now seems to be subjected to some form of scrutiny and sanitization.

I think this is a mistake. There’s a name for a places with an over-regimented, over-scripted, over-manicured, “approved fun only” mindset: the suburbs. But cities aren’t suburbs and they shouldn’t imitate them. Many urban advocates correctly abhor bringing strip malls and other manifestations of the suburban built form into the city. But we shouldn’t import suburban values or functioning either. It’s not that those values are bad. They are wonderful in the right context. But they hurt cities.

The richness of life in the city comes from its capability to contain diversity, generate the unexpected, and produce the innovation, color, and energy that comes from a vital “informal” sector. I think about the busker, the Latino men you see pushing around ice cream carts, elotes sold from a ramshackle corner stand, gypsy cabs, grafiti artists, etc. Even in a less edgy sense, I think of an enterprising guy who turned an old bowling alley into Chicago’s premier punk rock venue or the internet entrepreneurs taking advantage of a new area without regulation to create one of the most dynamic and thriving sectors of our economy.

The focus of much research on third world cities is often on how to “regularize” things and bring marginalized activities into the mainstream. But first world cities now seem to have the opposite problem. They are squeezing out anything with a hint of the unusual or the unscripted. They suffer from over-formalization. I think this is an area that needs serious academic study.

This has been ongoing for a while, but I attribute a lot of the current penchant for it to the Rudy Giuliani administration in New York. He tamed a city once thought ungovernanable by employing a variety of techniques and programs, ranging from aggressive policing informed by the “broken windows” theory to an aggressive campaign to “clean up” Times Square by running out the sex businesses and bringing in Disney. Other cities are keen to see the same results.

There are a few problems with this. The first is that it co-mingles multiple items into a single program when they should really be evaluated separately. Broken windows policing seems to be backed by solid social science research, including some very interesting recent studies in the Netherlands, hardly the poster child for the police state. On the other hand, cracking down on criminal activity is very different from using zoning, and civil and administrative processes to get rid of legal activities you don’t like.

Also, this took place in New York City. New York is sui generis in America. Its scale and density are beyond any other place. And its unique ability to draw the not just America’s, but the world’s elite, as well as massive quantities of tourists, all into a rather confined geographic space, means that killing off the traditional generators of urban energy doesn’t destroy the power of the urban fabric as a whole because so many other forces sustain it. This isn’t true in the vast bulk of other cities.

Unfortunately, the same story of clamping down on anything that isn’t Disney compliant has spread throughout America. When I was in school, my college buddies and I could hang out in Grant Park during the Taste of Chicago proudly drinking our own beer out of cans right in front of the cops. Try that today and you are going to jail. The city’s “public place of amusement” license requirement has all but rendered starting a live music club – the central meeting place of Chicago’s fabulous indie rock scene – impossible. A new ordinance would require any music show promoter to get fingerprinted. The City Council banned foie gras, since thankfully repealed.

Now a lot of this regulation is in place for good reason. Chicago had an incident where an unsafe, overloaded deck collapsed, killing several people. The fire at the E2 nightclub killed 21 people in an environment that was overloaded and not compliant with fire codes. INDOT just built a fantastic looking new overpass at 46th St. in Indianapolis, and some jerk already tagged it. I’m not saying there’s not a legitimate role for public regulation, but you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

There are two things we need to do to put this into perspective.

1. We should understand what we are giving up as well as what we are gaining through this hyper-regulation approach, and make a balanced choice.

2. We need to understand that novel, unplanned, and even uncomfortable activity in the city is the key to urban function and success – not just street energy and attractiveness, but also economic success.

On the first part, I want laws to protect public safety. I don’t want to eat unsafe food, nor do I want somebody spray painting my house. On the other hand, we need to understand that everything comes with a cost.

Consider the example of America’s love affair with huge SUV’s and vans. I frequently see this ascribed to our national character, cheap gas, subsidies, etc. But while Americans have long loved big cars, I think the rise of SUV’s and mini-vans is more easily explained by child seat laws.

I’m 39 years old, not young, but hardly ancient. My parents were divorced and my father got re-married to a woman with two children of her own. When my brother and I were with them, we’d often drive around in a Toyota Corolla with the two adults in the front and us four kids piled into the back. Nice and eco-friendly – and wallet-friendly too. Today, that would get my dad arrested. How can you possibly ferry around four kids who all require child seats except in a huge SUV or van? And even if you only have two kids, they might have, you know, friends. And think about it, parents who might want to live in a city with their young kids in a car free lifestyle are handicapped because they can’t use taxis easily on account of the car seat issue. Not good.

I think a lot of the anti-SUV crowd are urban dwellers without kids or with few kids, where they simply don’t run into this issue. It is virtually impossible to have a decent sized family today without a large vehicle whereas in the past a small vehicle would do. Remarkably, most of us did not die. Improved safety? No doubt, but at a cost.

Another classic example is, of course, zoning, which accomplished many good things, but also had a lot of unintended side effects that hurt our cities.

On the second front, I don’t think people truly get the link between a broad vision of what a city is, a large sphere in which individuals can pursue divergent activities and goals, and economic success. As Sam Jacob of FAT put it, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.” The life of the small town or the suburb are rigidly circumscribed. They might not be about a single vision, but they are about a more narrow and defined view of what life should be. They demand conformity. A place like that, no matter how large or even how successful, is not a true city.

A collision of incompatible demands. What a great way to put it. It is in containing that collision within a geographical, political, social, and culture context that a city creates its meaning. Cities can resolve the paradox, reconcile the incompatible into something new and powerful. It isn’t always pretty. The results are sometimes messy or unpleasant. But its in that resolution process that we create the energy and innovation that moves the city forward and allows its residents, business, and institutions to reinvent themselves and their lives if they so choose.

Let’s put it in terms that are broadly understood, by considering this in the framework of Richard Florida’s “Creative Class”. I don’t think this is the end all, be all by any means. But clearly, in a nation pinning its hopes on an innovation economy to replace the jobs lost by productivity gains and offshoring in traditional sectors, and to power the economic growth of the future, you need to both have the talent and the catalyst to make innovation happen.

Florida’s simplified thesis is that successful cities are about talent, technology, and tolerance. The last point is usually taken to mean a tolerance for gays and various “bohemian” types. But tolerance isn’t about non-discrimination ordinances and it isn’t about gays. Tolerance is a mindset.

The dictionary definition of tolerance is “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own”. From this is clear that most advocates for “progressive” policies of the type advocated by Florida really aren’t tolerating anything. They might be about allowing differences, but it is seldom about allowing views or actions that are in actual conflict with their own values. Indeed, progressives can be as intolerant as anyone for beliefs or actions that differ from their orthodoxy.

We need tolerance properly so-called. We need an environment where we are willing to put up with things we don’t like in return for the same freedom for ourselves. We need cities where “live and let live” is the motto. Rules that stifle this in order to produce a perpetual suburban style family friendly or least common denominator view of what a city should be are ultimately counter-productive. They sap the city of its animating power.

This isn’t just an obscure philosophical point. It’s real and tangibly important. George Bernard Shaw famously said that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. Innovation requires non-conformity with existing ways of doing things. This requires not just the idea, but the mental fortitude to break away not just from our own patterns of doing things, but from the social pressure to conform. In a sense, all innovation depends on the outcast.

A civic culture that over-values social conformity will ultimately stifle innovation, creativity and the conditions that bring it forth. Firstly, such locales are not attractive to innovative people in the first place, hence you won’t have the talent. Secondly, it raises the degree of difficulty for bringing innovative ideas to be because there are so many social obstacles to overcome. And thirdly, it deprives the city of the conflict of incompatible demands that catalyzes and sparks creativity. “Iron sharpen iron, so one man sharpens another”. Perhaps another great description of the essential function of the city.

We’ve got to stop making our urban areas “impossibility cities”. We’ve got to adopt a mind set of, to use another basketball analogy, “No harm, no foul”. We’ve got to let people play. Let the people themselves decide the outcome of the game. By all means we need to take an appropriate stance on health and safety, bona fide criminal activity, and the environment. But we also need to create an enlarged public sphere in which individual expression and action is permitted to flourish. Our cities will never be truly successful over the long term until they do.

It might seem a leap from tolerance of some projections on the sides of buildings to the innovation economy. But you can’t expect a civic culture to stop at the boardroom doors. It’s hard to have good table manners at a fancy business dinner if you eat like a slob at home. Similarly, building the culture that supports success in the 21st century knowledge economy starts with letting innovation and creativity flourish on the streets and in the general life of the city.

I’ll wrap this up with one other personal observation. I grew up in the country. The mindset I just described is not that far off from rural values. In the country, you meet a lot of strange people. But interestingly, people tend to stick to a “I’ll stay out of your business if you stay out of mine” mindset and quirkiness is often surprisingly tolerated. In a sense, city and rural dwellers have more in common in this way than small towner or suburbanites. Is this a way to bridge the city-rural divide in some way? It’s something to think about.

This post originally ran on April 6, 2009.

17 Comments
Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Urban Culture

17 Responses to “Replay: Impossibility City”

  1. rs says:

    I really could not agree with you more on this issue and you did say it well. We really have become a nation of squelchers. A nation of… I don’t like what that person is doing so I must stop it rather than look away.

    However, I don’t mind taking it a bit further and saying this is reflected in all aspects of our society, not just in our cities. We have become so legalistic, so hypocritical, so… “squelcherific”. We need a rule for everything… don’t do this, you can’t do that… it’s bad for you.

    A wise man one said… “do onto others as you would have them do onto you”… and you know, this shouldn’t be interpreted always in the negative. Let me have my fun so long as it doesn’t hurt you and I will let you have yours.

  2. Your point about SUV’s is spot on and one I never thought of prior. The other point to the SUV issue is we have probably harmed kids and the general public overall because kids riding in smaller cars hit by big SUV’s dont stand a chance. Great points made all around but that one really stuck with me.

  3. “In a sense, city and rural dwellers have more in common in this way than small towner or suburbanites. Is this a way to bridge the city-rural divide in some way? It’s something to think about.”

    I’ve never lived in the country but I always thought this might be true. In the country you’re lonely because people are too far away, and in the city you’re lonely because too many people are too close. Although loneliness seems too harsh – more like solitude.

  4. Sid Burgess says:

    Fantastic. I am so glad you wrote this. A real game changer in the discussion I think.

  5. Yes, superb. Politically important, too, that link with the country, since the bizarre structure of the Senate will keep putting the good (but few) people of Wyoming in the driver’s seat on policy.

  6. Kathy says:

    About the car seats in taxis issue: at least in Illinois, car seats are NOT required in taxis. But most people probably don’t know this.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    First, child seat laws can be blamed for minivans, not SUVs. And second, is there any country in the developed world where it’s still legal to put up four kids in the back of a sedan?

  8. appleseed says:

    You started out with a good anecdote and observation then veered off into murky waters. I’m inspired to respond given my experiences in Broad Ripple Village in Naptown. It’s a hip, happening place everyone wants to be but any modest attempts at creating “complete” streets or enhancing the Village “look and feel” are thwarted by visitors who feel entitled to pee & puke in the streets & sidewalks, toss trash anywhere they feel like, park anywhere they please (including in side yards and grassy areas), rip up landscaping/decorative lighting, etc.

    We’re not trying to create a gated community in the Village, rather endeavoring to maintain one of Indy’s most lively areas that has emerged organically rather than w/ massive government subsidies.

    We’ve got a funky feel and many people who neither live nor work here nevertheless feel a sense of “ownership” which thereby entitles them to act freely w/o having to deal with the consequences (trash, assaults, vandalism, etc.)

    Surely, it’s reasonable to have expectations of respect.

    And the bucolic pastoralism of rural “live and let live” mindset is perhaps an accurate expression of your memory but I have plenty of interaction with rural Hoosiers who are dealing with neighbors who operate factory farms. They have no reluctance about placing open manure pits close to neighbors homes and spraying antibiotic-laden nitrogen loads on the frozen ground. This material works its way into the watershed and, in the case of White River, winds up in Broad Ripple and in the city’s drinking water.

    Tolerance only works if all parties are tolerant. Or, said another way, one is not being intolerant by observing that one is being shat upon by one’s neighbor.

  9. Jose R Mejia says:

    Excellent article; touching upon a lot of important issues in the grand discussion of American urban culture.

    I have a deep, deep problem with the tangible sense of striving for utopianism that is present in many American cities, and colors a lot of the current urbanism movement… great ideas, for sure, but implementing them necessitates a sort of brutalism, and a dismissal of anything that doesn’t fit the accepted rubric. And that brutalism, as you’ve pointed out, erodes some of the facets of city life that make it so wonderful and dynamic.

  10. Philip Bast says:

    Excellent article, but I quibble with your analysis of the rise in popularity of SUVs being related to child safety seats.

    The real rise in popularity of the SUV is directly proportional to the American public’s ability to getting sucked in by mass marketing, victims of media ad campaigns.

    Go back 20 years, circa 1990, if your memory can dig that deep, back to when there were very few SUVs on the roads. And pickup trucks were relegated to the service industry and farm country. Unhip & uncool.

    Then in the early ’90s Congress enacted stricter emission laws … for automobiles. For Detroit’s big three, complying with stricter emission standards meant passing on higher costs to the average new car buyer. Washington knew that would happen, but didn’t figure that would hurt the economic engine. Hurting small business is different. So the law didn’t apply to service vehicles or farm trucks, in order to spare the farmer and the poor self-employed working stiff or small business owner the burden of increased cost in the purchase of that next pickup truck or Suburban.

    So while Detroit grudgingly coped with the obstacle to maximum profits presented by the requirement to improve emission standards in cars and minivans, the big three quickly seized the opportunity to go after obscene profits on those plain, ugly, unhip SUVs and pickup trucks.

    Seriously, try to recollect a 1985 Suburban, Jeep Cherokee, Chevy Blazer … real plainJane compared to today’s Tahoe, Hummer and Navigator. And who would have dreamed back then of a luxury SUV from Lincoln or Cadillac?

    Detroit’s solution? Gussy them up, and market the hell out of them!

    Which is exactly what happened.

    No investment in better technology, improved fuel economy, atmosphere-saving engines. Just the same gas guzzlers with heated leather seats, power mirrors, CD players … and non-stop TV commercials, magazine ads, and guest appearances in movies and TV shows. When you’re watching 24, if Jack’s in a hurry and barks at a sidekick for his ride, it’s “Get my F-150″ not “grab my truck.”

    Basically, as a society, we were suckered into thinking that SUVs are good. They’re luxurious, they’re more reliable (because they’ve got four-wheel drive), and they’re safer because, well, because they’re bigger.

    And ultimately, that becomes the real argument.

    If you’re going to have a head-on collision with four kids as passengers, do you want to be driving the Honda Civic or the Lincoln Navigator?

    SUVs have the road-bully “I Win” factor, and therein lies their sex appeal.

    Thanks to devious dodging of emission laws, the power of marketing, and the gullibility of the public.

  11. Daron says:

    If you havn’t been to the St. Louis City Museum, then I highly recommend a trip. Go with a group of a dozen friends on a friday night and you won’t regret it.

    Any look at the structure will tell you that they clearly should be shut down for safety violations that boggle the mind.

    There is the case of they guy who broke both his ankles in a fit of stupidity. I broke my cell phone, scraped every joint, cut my head many times, and got horribly sick by hanging out above a smelter, but I love the place just as it is.
    I’m told that when fire inspectors look at the place they almost always say it ought to be shutdown. Were a fire to start, everyone would die. Who cares though, there is no place that’s more fun.

    The city museum breaks every possible rule in the name of fun, and I’m very pleased with that.

  12. Wad says:

    Aaron Renn wrote:

    … [F]irst world cities now seem to have the opposite problem. They are squeezing out anything with a hint of the unusual or the unscripted. They suffer from over-formalization. I think this is an area that needs serious academic study.

    One way to look at a law is who supports it and who will be impacted by it.

    Read the work of sociologist Mike Males, who while writing about drug laws promoted the “feared drugs/feared populations” theory. He shows how drug prohibitions often were enacted by linking their use to visible out-groups (Chinese and opiates, blacks and cocaine, Mexicans and marijuana, and so on).

    Even innocuous-seeming laws can affect groups either by accident or tacitly. In Southern California, one such storm was when L.A. and Orange County health inspectors were citing restaurants in Asian communities for food preparation, presentation and storage that the examiners deemed unsanitary.

    By the letter of the law, these food establishments — mostly Chinese and Filipino in L.A. County, Vietnamese in Orange County — were in violation. However, the communities were outraged and felt bullied.

    They pointed out to health inspectors that it wasn’t a case of immigrants being unfamiliar with Western rules of food hygiene and preparation. These stores had been approved to open, after all.

    First, they said that some ethnic delicacies are prepared or served in ways that are unwholesome in Western eyes (open fermentation, foods deliberately cooked a few degrees below safe temperatures, foods cooked then allowed to cool to ambient temperatures), but are mostly consumed among the ethnic groups who are comfortable with the style of food preparation. Then they asked whether any outbreaks of food-borne illness could be traced back to the foods in question. Food inspectors admitted that in many cases, they could not.

    The counties had to step in to create a middle ground. The health inspectors had to study how safely can food be served using ethnic techniques, rather than automatically issuing citations for noncompliance. The restaurants were also given clearer guidelines on acceptable preparation and storage methods, and especially how they would affect the letter grades that are given.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    Wad, which book/article by Males are you referring to? I’ve looked and I can only find his shrill polemics on youth issues.

  14. cdc guy says:

    Philip, crank up the “wayback machine” a little more and you’ll discover that SUVs are, along with minivans, the descendants of the formerly-ubiquitous station wagon. Every baby boomer remembers station wagons; my family had two of ‘em (until the first oil embargo in the 70′s) and that was not uncommon in suburbia in those years.

    Boomers (in many ways the most-educated consumers up to their time) bought minivans in the 80′s and early 90′s and switched to SUVs en masse in the later 90′s as our kids (Gen Y) aged, and dialed back to “mid-size” and “mini” SUVs and “crossovers” (station wagons!) in the past decade as the kids left home.

    I submit that people bought those vehicles for their utility and safety, not because they were sold a bill of goods or because they wanted to avoid emissions standards.

    Bigger and heavier means safer in vehicles, and boomer suburban folks are all about safety in all its forms.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    It was the appearance of safety more than actual safety. SUVs topple at three times the rate of sedans.

  16. John Morris says:

    Wow, any slim chance I could put an extended quote of 4 paragraphs or so of this on my blog?

    I just couldn’t agree more about this. Cities really undermine they’re value and core strengths with stupid stuff.

  17. John Morris says:

    “The focus of much research on third world cities is often on how to “regularize” things and bring marginalized activities into the mainstream. But first world cities now seem to have the opposite problem.”

    I think they are marginalized by first the lack of property rights and then by the absurd socialist, corporatist or mercantilist economies they live under. Sad to say, many small businesses in America face a similar system.

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