Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Want Talent? Drink at Lunch!

Cities obsess over attracting talent these days. I happen to think almost none of them are actually serious about it. But if they were, how should they go about doing it?

Most cities are in a fiscal bind right now, so for some time I’ve been asking myself what cities could do that would cost little to no money that could create a material uptick in their attractiveness to younger, college degreed people. I plan to start occasionally posting some of these.

My idea for today is a very simple one: change the local business culture so that it is not just tacitly tolerated but actively accepted to drink alcohol at lunch again.

I’ve never watched Mad Men, but assume it is a semi-romantic but ultimately disapproving portrayal of old school business where men go out for three martini lunches and sexually harass their secretaries and such. That’s not what I’m talking about.

Rather, I’m thinking the more European approach. Admit it, anyone who has ever worked in Europe and enjoyed a glass of wine or a beer with lunch has said to themselves, “Why don’t we do this?” Well, why don’t we?

I certainly never came of age in the “glory days” of bad boy behavior in business. The importance of professionalism, even when off duty, was stressed to me from day one, albeit in a less rulebound manner than today. But even I’ve noticed the increasingly “no fun” and “no risk too small to tolerate” mindset that’s more common in the business world today. The city that changed some of that in its business culture, that went back to a definition of professionalism based more around an expectation of the use of good judgment, not just CYA rules, might be able to differentiate itself.

A tactical and straightforward way to do this is simply to start drinking at lunch again. It’s tangible, it’s visible to anyone coming in for a job interview, and it lends itself to great marketing and visuals.

I realize this is probably easier said that done. Corporations, as I noted, are increasingly about risk mitigation today, and properly so in many respects. Many downtown employees work for government agencies, where there is a different public expectation. And many companies are headquartered elsewhere, so personnel policies are set far away.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And this one very simply is just a matter of will. It should be especially easier to pull off in smaller cities, where convening a business leader summit and gaining broad based buy-in should be easier. The cost is minimal, the potential marketing splash huge, the value in recruitment tangible.

If you’re a Midwest or other city looking to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, here’s a way to do it.

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

High Tech Won’t Save California’s Economy – Or Ours

I have another one up at New Geography this week, called “High Tech Won’t Save California’s Economy.”

The issue is not that California isn’t or won’t be a high tech powerhouse. It is, and it will be. The question is whether that will generate enough jobs to power California’s economy. I looked at job growth over the last two decades in Silicon Valley and San Diego (home to a major biotech cluster) and neither place generated particularly large numbers of jobs, though San Diego did ok.

This challenge has been well noted. For example, Richard Longworth in Caught in the Middle talked about how Chicago’s urban core boom hadn’t animated the entire region. These new economy companies are great, they just don’t generate as many good paying jobs as old line businesses once did. That’s ok if you are a small place like Singapore or Hong Kong, but not so great if you are state of 37 million people, or a metro region the size of Chicago.

While pulling stats for this piece, I quickly scanned Cook County, IL employment data. Cook County had almost 200,000 fewer jobs in 2008 than it did in 2000. But what really struck me was that it had about 70,000 fewer jobs in 2008 than it did in 1990. The contrast of this job decline over a span of time that saw Chicago experience arguably the greatest urban core renaissance in America puts the challenge facing all of us in stark relief, especially for those cities without even Chicago’s core boom. High tech and other normally targeted 21st century industries are vitally necessary, but are they enough?

As numbers from around the Midwest show, it’s not just California’s problem or Chicago’s, it’s pretty much everybody’s problem. And it’s a really hard one. This economy should crystalize for us all the paramount importance of not just finding future industries with high economic output, but ones that create plenty of jobs as well.

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

No Promise of Safety

He’s Baaaaack. Everyone’s favorite urban explorer and photographer seems to have successfully resolved his most recent round of legal problems, with the result that his No Promise of Safety Site is back up. At least for now.

Whoever this guy is, he’s part of a subculture of people who gain unauthorized access to buildings, factories, tunnels, and other parts of urban infrastructure. They appear to be driven a sense of adventure, thrill seeking, curiosity, and a desire to go where few folks ever visit.

I won’t necessarily condone this – especially not the vandalism and grafftti in which they engage – but this sort of thing is one of the many edgy sub-cultures that go into making urban life what it is. I might even suggest without these subcultures, urban life would be a lot more boring.

Also, this guy takes some of the most amazing photography of the places he visits I’ve ever seen. He deserves the title of artist based on these phenomenal photos alone. I strongly suggest checking them out – while you can. Since this guy seems to get in periodic trouble with the law, I might suggest saving a copy of any you can’t bear to live without in case the site disappears again.

Again, the pictures are amazing. Here are a few samples to whet your appetite.


31 stories the hard way:


Sitting on the balcony at Aqua, I believe:



Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Will Anyone Stand Up For American Industry?

Esau for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.” – Hebrews 12:16-17

The Bay Bridge

SF Public Press ran a lengthy article on the Bay Bridge replacement span. It’s an interesting piece, but I was struck by a couple of passages that really drove home to me the erosion of America’s technical and industrial capacity:

Some of the most expensive overhead involves keeping qualified Caltrans engineers and contractors on the ground overseas to ensure bridge components can stand the test of time and the next big earthquake. Much of the steel fabrication and know-how for the self-anchored suspension span—the project’s crown jewel—has been outsourced to at least seven countries: Canada, China, England, Japan, Norway, South Korea and Taiwan. In previous eras it would seem inconceivable that the major steel components for such a project would be built in China, but that is exactly what is happening.

Randy Rentschler, director of legislation and public affairs for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s lead transit planning agency, said the extensive foreign involvement is simply because “we’re just not doing anything anymore as a country.”

Factories big enough to construct the Bay Bridge components were hard to come by in the United States. Were an American fabricator bundled in the winning bid package, it is likely that an entirely new facility would have needed to be built before work could begin.

“No one would have been happier than we if we had had this bridge fabricated in the United States,” Heminger said. “But we also have an obligation to the taxpayer that we spend their money wisely. And I think it says more about the state of the American steel industry than it says about China or Japan.”

A key element of ABF’s winning bid was its steel fabricator, the Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Company (ZPMC), a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company….While foreign fabrication may be less expensive, it creates problems of its own. For two years, Caltrans and ABF have been sending quality-control inspectors to ZPMC’s plant in Shanghai to oversee construction….Auditors anticipated construction of a new facility—devoted entirely to fabricating the tower—by the following spring and that ZPMC would purchase equipment necessary to comply with manufacturing requirements….Materials auditors expressed concern that “ZPMC does not have the required experience” or knowledge to fabricate this complicated type of bridge….To insure that fabrication meets standards, Caltrans and ABF collectively have 250 inspectors at ZPMC’s facility in Shanghai.

We built the original Bay Bridge – along with other engineering masterworks like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, and the Empire State Building – in the 1930’s, during the height of the Great Depression. Today, we lack the ability to build the Bay Bridge’s replacement.

This motivated me to write a piece on our need to maintain America’s manufacturing and industrial capability, which is posted over at New Geography. It’s called, “Will Anyone Stand Up for American Industry?

Industrial World Views

There seem to be three primary schools of thought on this matter in America.

  1. Dogmatic Free Trade. This logic says “So what?” to any decline in American manufacturing. In this world view, open markets are always best, regardless of what anyone else does. If the Chinese want to subsidize our bridges, who cares? It’s also pointed out that industrial production in the US has not gone into a downtrend (true) and that most jobs losses are due to productivity gains (true) and that this is a good thing and we should be no more sad about their loss than we are about the huge losses in jobs and job share in agriculture.
  1. Post-Industrialism. This view embraces the knowledge economy and high technology as the future. Manufacturing (except, perhaps, that chimerical “advanced manufacturing”) is seen as yesterday’s news. Focusing on industry is a loser’s game for people who don’t want to adapt to the modern economy. Also included here might be various urbanists who increasingly see industrial uses in cities as a form of blight, and environmentalists who are more or less opposed to all industry on green grounds.
  1. Paleo-Industrialism. This view believes we ought to be trying to preserve the former system of American industry, with large number of high wage jobs for low value added work. This is the view of people who blame NAFTA and free trade for industrial decline and who don’t just like things the way they are, they like them the way they used to be.

It isn’t hard to see from this that there isn’t much of a constituency for industry in America, at least not a viable 21st century version of it. As for those industrial production numbers, a look at the chart show a clear flattening of the chart since 1999.

FYI: This was taken directly from a Federal Reserve publication.

Why Support Manufacturing?

I am a strong and unapologetic believer in free trade. I don’t support protectionism (i.e., import quotas or tariffs designed to protect American firms from more efficient foreign producers). I believe in a world of comparative advantage, where we shouldn’t aim for autarky, and where we need to be realistic that other countries can do certain things better or cheaper than we can, and we should let them. I don’t support traditional industrial policy in the form of picking winners and losers. And I’m not worried about trade deficits per se, nor do I think boosting domestic industry is a jobs panacea.

However, there’s a long way from that to saying we should do nothing to support our own industry when other countries aggressively promote theirs. It doesn’t mean we have to do nothing while other countries manipulate their currencies, or that we shouldn’t do anything to open up other countries’ closed markets, or that we have to allow foreign billionaire controlled firms built through dubious state connections to buy strategic US assets, etc., etc.

And given how well dependence on Middle East oil has worked out for us, it isn’t a huge leap of logic to suggest that we might not want other strategic parts of our economy – such as our ability to construct major infrastructure projects – controlled by or dependent on dubious foreign powers.

Just as one example of thinking differently, how about instead of implementing a disastrous cap and trade regime, we implement a trade neutral carbon tax on products that includes global emissions at all stages of the supply chain, with a deduction for bona fide carbon taxes paid in foreign jurisdictions?

I’m convinced that a major impetus for the offshoring of production is not just cost or traditional comparative advantage, but regulatory arbitrage. In this scenario, the fact that foreign countries are non-democratic or even corrupt isn’t necessarily a problem – and may even be an advantage for firms looking to get deals done. At a minimum we should make sure we aren’t hobbling out own firms here at home.

Manufacturing and Cities

What does this have to do with cities, you might ask. Good question. I’m getting there.

Again, in urbanists circles there appears to be an implicit or even explicit anti-industrial bias. For example, in the NG piece I note how Portland wants to remove an active barge builder from the waterfront to bring in higher class uses like condos. I think even Rust Belt urban advocates often think this way. They see industry, and the paleo-industrial mindset that is often still entrenched, as a relic of the past. They are eager to shed that dowdy image and reinvent themselves as cool knowledge cities and talent magnets.

Also, as people begin coming back into the city, residential development often encroaches on industrial areas, bringing conflict. Mixed us, it seems, only extends to neighborhood retail and office space, not industry. Indeed, there may even be legitimate conflicts between old school heavy industry and residential.

We saw this play out recently in Louisville, Kentucky where residents of a neighborhood called, I kid you not, Butchertown, asked the city to shut down a long established meat packing plant that employs over 1,000 people. The city didn’t do it, but the fact that the residents got a quite a hearing, and that the firm was left to twist in the wind for some time, sends off an unmistakable odor of “bad for business” to industry in that city.

Craft and Specialty Manufacturing

I won’t try to solve this problem entirely in this blog post, but want to focus in again on craft and specialty manufacturing. You may want to read my previous piece on the topic entitled “The New Industrial City.” In it I call for a pro-industrial policy in urban areas based around these. I’ll give a couple examples of these types of businesses and how they are potentially threatened by urban redevelopment.

You may not be familiar with Chicago’s Horween tannery, but you surely know their products. They make the leather for all NFL footballs (not actually pigskin, interestingly) and are also by far the dominant supplier in the world (and one of only a handful of producers anywhere) of shell cordovan leather, which is highly coveted for high end shoes and other products.

Horween is located in the greater Goose Island industrial district along Elston Ave. next to a redi-mix plant. However, a Best Buy anchored complex just opened a stone’s throw away, and as retail development pushes down the Elston strip, it isn’t hard to imagine this land coming under pressure. I’m told the firm has already had many complaints about the odors from their operation. It has been there for about a hundred years.

Another Chicago original is Oxxford Clothes. Oxxford is simply the finest suit maker in America, and the only one whose product commands the respect of the world. Their hand made suits are cut and sewn in house at their headquarters in an old factory building in the West Loop, where residential construction has gone crazy. While I’m not aware that their operation is in any danger, their tax bill at a minimum has to be going through the roof.

These are just two super high end products that are actually manufactured in Chicago. Horween leather and Oxxford suits rank up there with the best Italy has to offer. They are true handcrafted, specialty products. But they are both in the cross-hairs of gentrification. Again, I don’t want to start a panic or claim either of them are on the way out. But clearly they are in neighborhoods undergoing radical change.

Urban Manufacturing Ecosystems

But beyond just losing the production of products with cachet, the loss of specialty supplier companies to some extent robs the city of being able to incubate different types of new businesses. In her book The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs noted that the proximity to suppliers played a key role in where businesses located. She related an anecdote about an acquaintance who went through just that sort of process:

My acquaintance could start another company producing something different, anywhere but in California. He decided to produce the amplifiers, and to sell them nationally from the first. Thus he did not have to be concerned about a local market for his product and he could choose any location that struck his fancy as long as it provided the goods and services his new company would need to get started. During a three-month scouting trip he visited more than twenty cities with the result that he found his choices more limited than he had anticipated…Only Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, and New York offered the goods and services – many of them highly technical – that he required.

Obviously the internet and modern logistics make virtual supply chains much more feasible today. But there are still benefits to having expertise and suppliers close at hand. It should be no surprise that Los Angeles is where the stylish and inexpensive clothing line American Apparel is based. LA already had a significant garment manufacturing industry. LA is also home to the production of many high end denim lines, among other fashion products. New York as well famously has its garment district, and often close working relationships between fashion designers and fabricators. Brands like Engineered Garments carry the “Made in New York” label.

A recent article that I unfortunately did not save talked about the challenges Chicago had in trying to build an indigenous fashion design industry. In addition to the difficulty of trying to break into a field with already dominant players, the lack of fabricators in Chicago was cited as a problem. Chicago simply lacks a complete ecosystem for fashion. (Unsurprisingly, Oxxford does all their work in house)

The Agricultural Analogy

Agriculture seems to be further ahead than manufacturing. There is already significant mindshare around organic and regional foods. Books like Home Grown Indiana document the burgeoning scene. Farmers markets are going crazy in America, as are specialty groceries like Goose the Market. Microbreweries, now nearly ubiquitous in America, are in the same line. There are more and more local processed food producers, in house charcuterie operations, etc. There is significant awareness of the distance food has traveled from farm to market. There is a developing ecosystem that is actually starting to relink cities to their rural hinterlands. It’s not a huge employment or economic base yet, but it is getting there.

I would like to see something analogous happen on the product side.

Why High End Products?

The products I am discussing in this post tend to higher end specialty or luxury products. Of what relevance is this to the broader economy, one might ask.

For things like organic and locally sourced foods or other artisanal and craft products, they are often targeted and marketed as luxury products today. However, there’s room to believe they could be more mass market tomorrow. Many product categories started out as luxury products for the rich such as automobiles and flat screen TV’s. But eventually scale economics won out.

Products that are truly hand crafted will likely always be somewhat pricey due to the increasing scarcity value of human labor. But it is easy to see how the values embodied in them could be applied to more mass market products. Especially for food, many people associated with that movement are interested in promoting broader changes in the American diet and lifestyle. That can only be done by getting to the right price points and volume.

Of course, that might again lead to offshoring, but there is a lifecycle to these things. Nevertheless, I feel we ought to take a balanced view of urban economies, one that embraces, protects, and champions a 21st century manufacturing industry.

What Others Are Saying

There has been quite a bit written on this topic elsewhere.

Paul Krugman devoted a column to Chinese mercantilist policies. Regardless of whether you like or dislike his politics, Krugman is a first rate economist.

The January 2010 edition of the politically left American Prospect has a special section on manufacturing:

Ryan Avent, writing in the Economist, takes a dim view of all this hand wringing.

He also pointed me at some articles on this topic by Noam Scheiber in the New Republic:

As always, I don’t endorse what all these people say, but am trying to present interesting points of view.


As a post-script, I snapped this photo while at an open house at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis, traditionally the most important Republican city club in town. It was founded around helping to elect local Benjamin Harrison president. It is apparently a piece of campaign paraphernalia for his candidacy.

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Replay: The Giant Sucking Sound

Nearly all rich and powerful people are not notably talented, educated, charming, or good-looking. They became rich and powerful by wanting to be rich and powerful.” – Paul Arden

But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” -I Corinthians 1:27

This is the latest installment in what has become a trilogy of sorts on talent and migration. (See also “Out-Migration Devastates Michigan” and “The Outsiders“).

When I posited that a critical mass of non-natives is a near prerequisite for civic change, someone noted that the Midwest needed to import more talented people because it was no secret what was really need to change things. In his words, “It takes brains.”

I’m sympathetic to this in a sense. In the 21st century economy, attracting top, educated talent is of paramount importance. But I wanted to post a rebuttal as well, because this is not the whole story. In fact, in the long run, it might be of lesser importance than other, more important things that often fail to attract notice. This idea of “attracting the best and brightest” is such a well-established meme that it is seldom subjected to any critique. It’s time to change that. Especially as it is the basis of so much urban policy.

I have a colleague in Hamburg, Germany who attributed his country’s relative economic stagnation over the last couple of decades to the fact that “we’re the children of the people who stayed.” That is, faced with a choice about what to do in the face of dire poverty and endless wars in the 19th century, Germans had two choices: stay or leave, usually by emigrating to the United States.

Today’s Germany is the inheritance of those who stayed. My friend argues, very persuasively, that this robbed Germany of its entrepreneurial energy. Those who were risk takers, those who were motivated to better themselves, those who weren’t afraid to take a chance to get the opportunity for a better future for themselves and their family, left Germany. Those who wanted to play it safe, who preferred the devil they knew, who were in fear of the great unknown, they stayed behind.

Today Germany remains, despite its robust Mittelstand, a place curiously lacking in entrepreneurial energy. I was told that in Germany, to go bankrupt is a moral stigma that ruins you for life in that society. That there are coal mines kept open by subsidies that are higher than the average wage of the workers who are employed there. It would be cheaper simply to pay them their salary for the rest of their life to do nothing than to keep the mine open. Yet these workers insist that they have a right to “earn” a living by mining – and that their children be allowed to become miners too as a sort of hereditary avocation.

The contrast with America could not be more stark. How many coal miners in Kentucky hope that their sons end up in that mine? Maybe, as a last resort. As I noted about visiting foreign countries, you are sometimes made aware of values and beliefs you were never even conscious of holding. The idea that one generation should have it better than the next, that children should surpass their parents in income and social status, I guess I always just thought of as being as natural as the air we breathe. But it seems far from the case.

My paternal great-great-etc grandfather came to the United States from Bavaria early in the 19th century. (I still occasionally get emails from people in Munich with the same last name as me, “Renn”). He was fleeing conscription. My maternal grandfather was the only member of his immediately family born in United States. The rest of them were from Sicily. He was 6’2″ but his brothers were very short because they had been so malnourished as children and didn’t get enough protein. I’m sure most American families can tell similar stories.

If talent matters so much, how is it that a nation made up largely of Europe’s rejects ended up becoming the most powerful economy on earth? While we were able to pick up some great talent in the mid-20th century because of Hitler and WWII, we were not notably the place to be for the European upper crust, whether that be aristocrats or intellectuals.

Maybe education and talent aren’t the most important thing in the long run. Maybe the “talent” that matters is a willingness to take risk, to change, and the desire to better one’s condition. I won’t suggest this is the only thing that matters, but it strikes me as important. To be sure, Europe’s more rigid class structure did not give full scope to intellectual capacities for people from the lower classes, so we no doubt got some geniuses we could put to good use that they were underutilizing. But interestingly, that still seems to be the case today in much of the world.

Also, consider: people who are successful in the now are those who are best adapted to today’s world. But the world isn’t ending in a few weeks, it stretches out into the future. Who will be best adapted to tomorrow? In a world of rapid and increasing change, over-optimization for today’s conditions is an economic death sentence. Rather, we’ve got to be able to change ourselves and adapt to the future. Thus, the willingness to change and to take risk will take on ever greater importance to keep up.

In two absolutely must-read essays called “The Unnaturalness of Human Nature” and “The Role of Undesirables” (available in his masterpiece “The Ordeal of Change“), Eric Hoffer discusses this in his normal penetrating style as he talks about the particular importance of the “unfit” in paving the way to tomorow.

“The inept and unfit also display a high degree of venturesomeness in welcoming and promoting innovations in all fields. It is not usually the successful who advocate drastic social reforms, plunge into new undertakings in business and industry, go out to tame the wilderness, etc. People who make good usually stay where they are and go on doing more and better what they know how to do well. The plunge into the new is often an escape from an untenable situation and a maneuver to mask one’s ineptness. To adopt the role of the pioneer and avant-garde is to place oneself in a situation where ineptness and awkwardness are acceptable and even unavoidable, for experience and know-how count for little in tackling the new, and we expect the wholly new to be ill-shapen and ugly.”

It isn’t just about attracting the talented – usually meaning the educated and already successful – of today. It’s about attracting the talented of tomorrow – and those are people we often don’t even know are talented yet. Innovation depends on the outcast.

So many places seem to be missing the boat. Canada would be a great example. They are trying to make it easy to immigrate there if you are an educated person with money. They want to exclude others who might prove a “burden” on society. But this fails to take a life-cycle view of talent. It’s like have children. Children in the modern economy are a deadweight loss economically for about the first 18-22 years since they produce almost nothing. But without children, where will we be when today’s workers retire? (Again, look at Germany to find out). It’s similar for other aspects of talent. We need to be replenishing the soil with new risk takers and entpreneurs, not actually self-selecting for the risk averse and depleting the nutrients needed for tomorrow.

In an era of rapid change, playing it safe is actually the riskier course. Putting all your chips on the now, and not spreading some money around the table on speculative bets that may never pay off is a recipe for ruin.

Which would you rather have, a handful of Ph.D.’s with big reputations or a few thousand Mexican peasants who literally risked their lives sneaking across the desert to get into this country? Maybe it depends on the time frame you are looking at.

Ross Perot famously talked about a “giant sucking sound” from jobs headed south of the border. He was completely backwards. The real giant sucking sound is America hoovering up all of the risk takers, entrepreneurs and most motivated citizens of Mexico. We’re sending them a few jobs. They’re sending us their true “best and brightest”. We’re sending them some factories, they’re sending us their future.

So I say it takes more than brains – a lot more. As I’ve said before, what really matters is that a city is a place where people of all stripes decide they will plant their flag and seek their fortune – not come to spend it after they already earned it someplace else. If your city isn’t attractive to hustlers, poor immigrants, ne’er-do-wells of various kinds, entrepreneurs, avant-garde creatives, etc., if people aren’t voting with their feet to move there to better their lives, this is telling you something very powerful about the future. In a very real way, the long term future of a city depends as much on attracting the supposedly least talented as it does the most.

This post originally ran on April 19, 2009.

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Migration Matters

Wendell Cox provoked a bit of a predictable tempest with his recent piece on migration, “The Decade of the South“. I suspect Cox relishes his role as provocateur-in-chief. So I’ll let him provoke me into summarizing some of the thoughts I’ve had on migration.

There’s a school of thought at that net domestic migration is the primary statistic of urban health. I believe I’ve even said something of the sort myself. In this logic, people are “voting with their feet” about which cities and states are implementing the best policies.

Of course, this creates a challenge for urbanists because the migration data is all away from major dense urban cores towards the South and various Sprawlville, USA’s. Hence when these numbers are thrown in their faces, they dismiss or discount them.

But people who don’t believe this tells the whole story are quick to understand the power of migration logic in other situations. Cities that are attractive to international immigrants are feted, as are those that hoovering up the “creative class”. Becoming a preferred migration destination for “talent” is a standard paradigm in urbanist development circles. And of course the slowing of migration to the Sun Belt and a nascent back to the city movement have been heralded by some as the end or reversal of previous trends.

So I think at some level, we all realize that migration matters. The question is, what is it telling us? I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but wanted to share a few thoughts around various aspects of this.

Vote With Your Feet

This seems to be the dominant paradigm, and there is clearly something to it. In this view, people decide to relocate based on various factors like taxes and regulation, cost of living, amenities, type of environment, economic opportunity, and more.

If you look at the Midwest, the cities that are doing well on most measures – Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis – also have net in-migration or are nearly neutral, while places like Detroit and Cleveland are losing people. Chicago is an interesting counter-example of a place that is conventionally viewed to be successful but has net out-migration. I’ll return to that in a bit.

We also see that talent hubs like Seattle, Austin, Portland, and Raleigh are seeing people move in. They are certainly out performing many other less sexy locales.

And Austin of course is in Texas, where huge numbers of people have moved. As much as we urbanists might not like it, the Texas story is real. The state has generated enormous numbers of new jobs, a total unmatched by other states. The same is true of many other southern places.

So clearly there is something to this notion of voting with your feet.

The Limits of Net Migration

But when we look behind the numbers, we start to see interesting patterns emerge. First off, migration isn’t uniform within states. Cox notes that Ohio had huge out-migration and categorized it as an “economic basket case”, yet Columbus has in-migration. Indiana is losing people, but Indianapolis is not. Nor are suburban areas near Louisville and Cincinnati. Given that different regions within the same states, state level policies like tax rates and right to work laws can’t be the only answer.

So although “vote with your feet” has validity, perhaps there are other dynamics at work.

Greenfields vs. Brownfields

The South is frequently touted as a place whose favorable tax and labor climate is attracting business. But that is far from uniform. Places like Atlanta exploded into major business centers, other cities did not. In Tennessee, Nashville is thriving while Memphis is not. The south even has outright Rust Belt cities like Birmingham. Why are there so many struggling places in this nominally favorable environment?

Jim Russell suggests another key driver of the move to the south is the enormous advantages of greenfield development:

Bankrupt Birmingham is located in Alabama, a right-to-work state. Tennessee also has this distinction and is home to recovering industrial-dependent Chattanooga. Both the South and the North experienced an implosion of the manufacturing sector. Supposedly better state policies in the Sun Belt didn’t save any of those places from this fate. Why would it work magic in Pennsylvania for Erie?

In the face of globalization, states seem increasingly impotent. I suspect that most people, including the politicians, don’t understand the forces at work. I see a number of parallels with the brain drain issue. There is a poor accounting of the current situation. Ideological thinking dominates political discourse and policy suffers as a result.

During the 1980s, deregulation was the economic dogma of choice. The states with the least rules and lowest taxes should win. That’s not how it played out. If your city was saddled with high legacy costs, then state policy didn’t matter. Just so happens that the Rust Belt had (still has) a lot more of those cities than the Sun Belt did.

You can find the same economic geography within regions concerning the urban core and suburban periphery. Essentially, Americans have moved from brownfields to greenfields. When the unit of analysis is state, that trend gets lost in the data noise.

This is not to absolve bad decision making. High legacy costs in part derive from bad policy choices. But there is an independent logic to greenfield development. Because the world constantly changes but things like your physical location don’t, and your built environment and institutions are difficult to change, this means any city will eventually find itself facing the call of reinvention. Things like infrastructure and buildings constructed to outdated standards, institutional cruft, and deferred liabilities are almost inevitable, no matter how well run your city or state.

For more on this topic, I’d suggest reading my “What’s Killing California?” or Ryan Avent’s “Disruptive Technologies“.

Network Migration

There’s also the fact that migration, particularly international migration, involves networks. Why do people move? What factors into their decisions? A lot of times, factors other than purely economic considerations come into play, such as a personal connection to a place, proximity to family, or proximity of ethnic kinfolk.

One Louisvillian told me that “Our most important export is our women.” By that, he meant that college educated women who moved away from Louisville often returned with husband and family in tow when they had children. In effect, a significant source of new blood in Louisville is people who marry Louisville women and move back to be close to family. This illustrates both “boomerang migration” (return to a place you left) and family networks.

It also shows importantly that where you live is also a function of where you are in your life. I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to expect or desire people to live in the same place from cradle to grave. What makes sense for a young single might not make sense for a family with kids or for a retired couple.

International migration works on family and ethnic networks as well and is often startlingly specific. For example, many Mexican towns have developed almost sibling relationships with US cities because migrants from that town clustered in a particular place. One example is the centralization of immigrants from the town of Tala, Mexico in Indianapolis. This was the subject of a Nuvo cover story “Bienvendios a Talapolis“:

[Tala] Mayor Cipriano Aguayo, one of the immigrant pioneers to Indianapolis in the 1970s, returned to Mexico when he was able to save enough money to support his family. Aguayo still has two brothers in Indianapolis. According to residents of Tala, including the mayor, nearly every home in the small town has a family member in the United States and the great majority of those are in Indianapolis. The money they send back is extremely important for Tala’s economic sustainability.

“More money circulates in this region due to remittances than anything else,” Aguayo says, “so we depend a good deal on the cash that comes from Indianapolis.”

Some of it supports civic projects, an increasingly common trend in Mexico. Lucila Madrigal, a Tala municipal official whose sons live in Indianapolis, reports that emigrant savings helped finance a bridge, renovate the cemetery and pave streets in the county. Local families depend even more on money sent home by their “absent sons.”

While Tala’s immigrants to Indianapolis maintain strong familial, cultural and financial ties to Mexico, they have also helped build the sort of cultural foundations here in Indianapolis that both facilitate assimilation and maintain the ties that bind this transnational community together.

“We Mexicans aren’t used to being without some family nearby,” says Fabian Alonso, who divides his time between Tala and Indianapolis. “So we all try to get someone from here to move up there and that’s how we created our neighborhoods that replicate those in Tala.”

Maybe economic opportunity brought original pioneers to Indianapolis, but much of the rest of the migration was driven as much by network effects as economic logic. Otherwise why not just stay in Texas rather than keep going north? And from what I’ve read, many of Indy’s original international immigrants arrived more or less by accident or mistake. The roots of the Tala diaspora lay in the 1970’s, when Indianapolis was a backwater town trying to shed it’s “India-no-place” label.

There are plenty of other examples around. Fort Wayne has 3,000 Burmese, not because it is an economic hotbed, but because of an active local policy to bring in refugees.

The large, traditional American port of entry cities have both the most and easiest physical connections to other countries, as well as long established and robust migration networks. So it is no surprise they remain dominant in international immigration. This may not say much about whether that is “logically” the places immigrants should go.


Another source of migration is people retiring and moving someplace to enjoy it. As this often involves leaving places with lousy climates for more sunny locales, it is a built in source out migration from the Frost Belt. These people may be leaving for reasons that have nothing to do with the amenities, tax structures, or regulatory schemes that are favorable to business and labor. Rather, they want places that are good to enjoy their life and don’t place a financial burden on their particular financial profile.

Huge numbers of people moved to Phoenix, but does that mean Phoenix is a great business center, or just a great place to golf?

Network effects are also in play here. A retired couple I know from Pittsburgh just moved to North Carolina to be closer to their children who left years ago. This might have said something about what Pittsburgh’s economy used to look like, but it doesn’t have much bearing on what it is today. Economics might explain the children, but doesn’t explain the parents. Places that previously experienced an out-migration wave driven by a bad economy or policy might, for this reason, suffer a hangover for many years even if the local economy hits an inflection point.

Again, this is a result of stage of life, not per se local policy. Many people may choose to retire in place, but the reality is, many others won’t.

Moving Out, Or Not Moving In?

There’s also the question as to whether or not net out migration is more a reflection of people leaving or not coming. People are constantly migrating away from everywhere. The question is, are they being replenished? A place could have a below normal out migration rate, but if no one is moving there, it still shows net out migration.

This could particularly be the case in places that are near an inflection point. Bad conditions have stopped driving people out, but nothing has changed to create an inbound dynamic. Perhaps because there have been so few people moving in, there are few established inbound migration networks. Also, the reputation of the place (or lack thereof) may cause many to not even put it on the list. Portland gets touted as a great place in the media every day, so people who might be interested in what it has to offer will naturally have that city come to mind. That’s less likely to happen for Pittsburgh.

Jim Russell again argues that we should look mostly at in-migration, not net migration as the figure. I’m not sure to what extent I totally agree with this, but there seems to be something to it, particularly for cities at an inflection point.

New York City

Then there’s the case of America’s largest tier one cities, and especially New York. These cities have very high net domestic out-migration. Cox notes that the majority of New York state’s 1.65 million out migrants left from New York City.

But it isn’t hard to see that a place like New York is a structural exporter of people. First, it is a huge magnet for international immigrants. After a time in NYC, if some of them move on then, bang, they are domestic out migrants. On the domestic ledger that’s 0 in, 1 out, a clear net loss, but not the whole story.

Also, it’s noted that NYC takes in lots of young people, but many leave when they get marrie and have kids. Again, let’s play this scenario out. Two young singles move to NYC, marry, have two kids. When those kids reach school age, they move to the suburbs or back to the wife’s hometown in Kansas City. That’s 2 in, 4 out, a net loss of 2 people.

Is this a bad thing? I won’t suggest that we shouldn’t try to improve our urban schools or make our central cities more family friendly. Of course we should. But it strikes me that places like NYC are never going to be the destination of choice for families with school age children. Even if it captured more market share, it seems that it will always be exporting families.

Again, is it reasonable to expect that every place will be equally as attractive to people at all stages of their life? I don’t think so. Some places are better for young singles, some for families, others for retirees. So anyplace that is attractive to young singles is likely to be a structural source of out migration.

If you think again about New York, it takes in immigrants – raw recruits if you will – and spits out Americans. It takes in young singles – more raw recruits – and spits out up skilled people with families. There is huge value added in this. In a sense, New York City is a gigantic refinery for human capital. It’s a smelter for people. Perhaps we shouldn’t be any more sad about New York exporting people than we are about it exporting financial services. Taking in people, adding value, then exporting them is one of New York’s core competencies. Maybe we should be thanking it for providing this valuable service.

Whatever the case, any place that is a magnet for immigrants and young people, as most tier one cities are, are likely to be structural sources of out migration no matter what they do.

Jim Russell on Migration

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Jim’s thinking on talent and migration matters. His blog Burgh Diaspora is required reading, IMO. As I hoped he might, he chimed in with a comment here, which I’m including below so everyone will see it:

Interesting to see all the aspects of migration packed into one post. Still, some additional data categories should be considered. It’s not so much that migration matters, but demography matters. We tend to play fast and loose with net migration and population numbers. Declining population has become synonymous with net out-migration. That’s a gross distortion.

Each shrinking city has a unique demographic profile. Break it all down by age cohorts and the analysis gets very complicated. In my opinion, it also gets more useful. What’s the urban dependency ratio? A huge issue in cities with substantial legacy costs.

Concerning natural replacement rates, there is a striking variance among Rust Belt cities. Lower rates make the net out-migration problem more acute.

Overall, I think the net migration numbers tend to limit our thinking about how to make better cities. The population shift from Rust Belt to Sun Belt is dramatic, but the dominant narrative that folks such as Cox peddle won’t inform better policy. This is especially true if we insist on using state level data.

A good example is Texas, a big “vote with your feet” winner. A lot of good that’s done El Paso and other lesser-tier cities in the state. Houston, Dallas and Austin will Hoover up graduates from those places as well as the Rust Belt. They also suck up talent from the entire Sun Belt.

I think state policy is a red herring.

Migration, Properly Considered

In short, migration does matter. Any city that thinks it can be blasé about this is fooling themselves. On the other hand, surface numbers only tell us so much. We need to understand the dynamics going on underneath the hood.

Still the American Dream

I thought I’d wrap this up with something I think almost all of us agree on, namely that immigrants have been a huge source of strength for America. Even those who are very down on aspects of immigration – illegal immigration, too much immigration, H1B visas, etc – tend to endorse the concept of America as the land of opportunity. This is one of the huge strengths of our country, and something that gives us an edge on the rest of the world.

The New Year’s resolution for the Christian Science Monitor was, “Don’t Accept US Decline.” Joel Kotkin’s recent piece, “Don’t Give Up on the US” takes up this theme as well, arguing that people from around the world still want to move here, and that’s a big source of strength.

Conveniently, Robert Guest had a long piece in the Economist recently dealing with immigration that called America “a Ponzi scheme that works.” Here are some excerpts from this great piece I strongly recommend reading:

When he arrived, Mr Lee was astonished by how rich nearly everyone was. He recalls his first dinner with Americans: the huge bowls and immense portions. He was startled to see lights left on in empty rooms. He is still impressed: “The roads are so wide, the cars so big, the houses so large—everything is abundant,” he says.

Yet this is not why he came, and it is not why he stayed and became a citizen. For Mr Lee, America is a land that offers “the chance to be whatever you want to be”.
Because America is so big and diverse, immigrants have an incredible array of choices. The proportion of Americans who are foreign-born, at 13%, is higher than the rich-country average of 8.4%. In absolute terms, the gulf is much wider. America’s foreign-born population of 38m is nearly four times larger than those of Russia or Germany, the nearest contenders. It dwarfs the number of migrants in Japan (below 2m) or China (under 1m).
You can find welcoming clusters of ethnic minorities in other rich countries, but not nearly as many. In a European country, if you want Korean food and a particular denomination of Korean church, you might find it in the capital but you will struggle in the suburbs. In America, it is easier to find just the niche you want: Polish or Vietnamese, metropolitan or exurban, gay or straight, Episcopalian or Muslim, or any combination of the above.
If you like low taxes and the death penalty, try Texas. For good public schools and subsidised cycle paths, try Portland, Oregon. Even within states, the rules vary widely. Bath County, Kentucky is dry. Next-door Bourbon County, as the name implies, is not. Nearby Montgomery County is in between: a “moist” county where the sale of alcohol is banned except in one city. Liberal foreign students let it all hang out at Berkeley; those from traditional backgrounds may prefer a campus where there is no peer pressure to drink or fornicate, such as Brigham Young in Utah.
Besides Somalia and the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has lived in Ethiopia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. Of all these places, she considers America to be the easiest place to assimilate. She has her niche, hanging out with “nerdy academics” and eating Japanese food. Unlike Mr Lee, she is more or less divorced from her native culture. But that works just fine in America. “I’m surprised how fast complete strangers will invite you into their houses,” she says. Asked what she dislikes about her new home, she mentions that the air-conditioning is too cold.

She admits that before visiting America she had a negative view of the country. Listening to her Dutch friends, she assumed that Americans were fat, loutish, naive and sexually repressed. “But then I came here and found it was all false,” she smiles.

Outsiders sometimes assume that it is hard to be an outspoken atheist in a devout country such as America. Ms Hirsi Ali thinks it is easy. Many Christians ask if she is a believer. When she replies no, she says “they don’t try to kill me. They say they’ll pray for me”.
Migration matters. Economic growth depends on productivity, and the most productive people are often the most mobile. A quarter of America’s engineering and technology firms founded between 1995 and 2005 had an immigrant founder, according to Vivek Wadhwa of Harvard Law School. A quarter of international patent applications filed from America were the work of foreign nationals. And such measures ignore the children of immigrants. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the stepson of a man who fled Cuba at the age of 15 and arrived without even a high-school diploma.

Because immigrants have to work, America does not have ghettos full of permanently jobless and alienated young immigrants, as in France, for example. This is perhaps why, although America has a high murder rate—three times that of Britain—its immigrants rarely riot. They are too busy earning a living…..Some of America’s talk-show hosts are quite vicious, but no openly xenophobic politician can attract the kind of support that France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002, or that Austria’s Jörg Haider did.

Robert Guest also covered the same ground in a video presentation. If the embedded video doesn’t display, you can directly visit the PopTech podcast page to view it.

Last, but certainly not least, Richard T. Herman and Robert L. Smith just released their book, “Immigrant, Inc: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (And How They Will Save the American Worker).” I guarantee you will find the stories in this book both inspiring and humbling. It will make you proud of America.

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Jarrett Walker: Learning, Again, From Las Vegas

[ I’ve touted Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog before. It is an incredible resource for non-dogmatic analysis of transit issues from a professional in the field of transit design. He also does more general writing about cities from time to time, including this piece, which is reproduced with permission. If you like this piece, you might also want to check out Creature of the Shade, his personal urban travel blog. – Aaron ]


Tired of arguing about streetcars?  Let's take a break and talk about something we're more likely to agree on — Las Vegas! 

While the city plays a crucial role in American culture as a test-site for exotic street names, I suspect we'd mostly agree that it's not going to be a leader in sustainable urban form anytime soon. While the grid pattern of the city has some advantages (more on grids soon), Las Vegas has a particularly bad habit of building blocks of apartments in places where efficient transit will never be able to serve them, and where basic commercial needs are still too far to walk, thus achieving all of density's disadvantages and none of its benefits.

But there are surprises.  I just completed my annual trip to Las Vegas, to see family there, and thought I'd update this 2007 item from my personal blog about this capital of churn:

All urbanists are supposed to hate Las Vegas.  Sprawling, car-dependent, water-wasting, Las Vegas is almost gleefully unsustainable.  Yet walking the Strip last month, and driving it again late at night, I was forced to refine my disapproval.  In its energy the Strip reminded me of giant tropical annual plants, like the banana tree, which are designed to burn themselves out and collapse in short order.

The metaphor is wrong as ecology — plenty of unsustainable destruction is bound up in Las Vegas’s cycles of revision — but the admiration I have for banana trees, their ability to hurl themselves to tree-size without any of the trappings of permanence, resembles the feeling of walking a Las Vegas Strip where virtually nothing is 10 years old, where everything is an endless novelty, and where today’s new towers are dwarfed only by construction cranes promising an even bigger tomorrow.


A generation ago, every student of urbanism or architecture read Robert Venturi’s 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas.  In a now-familiar attention-grabbing move, Venturi sought meaning in a place that the intelligentsia had scorned, in this case the hotel-casinos, parking lots, and enormous flashing signs of the Las Vegas Strip. Las Vegas, he argued, heralded a new but perfectly legitimate aesthetic, one that we had all better study to be ready for the future.

The book made me notice that I give my own environmental values a veto over my sense of beauty and ugliness, at least as applied to cities. To me, a hot-desert city designed to waste water and oil was simply delusional, and there was no point in arguing about the aesthetic merits of a delusion. I resented Venturi lumping me in with a paper-tiger intelligentsia that condemned Las Vegas as ugly, but if asked I’d have said yes, any human landscape that conditions its citizens to think of scarce resources as free would never appear beautiful to me in aggregate, no matter how beautiful parts of it might be. 

I don’t always conflate the true with the beautiful, and the delusional with the ugly; I’m receptive to fantasy in literature and film, and I did a degree in theatre after all. But a city is an act of collective imagining, one that conditions its citizens to unconscious habits even more than mass-media do. An efficient city with no imagination is dull, but one founded on delusions about the capacity of its land is suicidal, and I don’t entertain aesthetic comparisons between different kinds of suicide.

Although Venturi intended Learning from Las Vegas as an aesthetic study, the book is typical of much anti-environmental writing on urban issues. The standard move in these works is to treat environmental concerns as though they were aesthetic ones, and then take a long view in which these aesthetic arguments look narrow and culturally contingent, as aeshetic arguments always do.  This move — ridiculing environmental judgments as though they were aesthetic ones — is sadly common these days; Robert Bruegmann's book Sprawl: A Concise History is an especially painful recent example.

But back to Las Vegas. Seen from the air, its sprawl clearly signifies permanent car dependence on a massive scale. But in its heart(s), and its face to the world, Las Vegas has rediscovered pedestrian scale, and swept Venturi into the ashheap.

Las_vegas_3Of the major Strip hotels that Venturi studied in 1972, every single one has now been demolished and rebuilt on a larger scale, and even today the working hotels are haunted by cranes promising still larger towers in the future.  (I wrote those words in 2007, but they're still true in 2009.  The lead-time for development is so long that it will take another year to see the full stop to construction that you'd expect the crash of '08 to induce.) 

The old Strip was a standard car-based fantasy: each hotel/casino complex was its own unrelated composition, situated up to 1/4 mile from the street behind a vast parking lot.  Today, the parking has been moved to structures in back, so that the hotels can reach toward each other with walkways and courtyards to create a vast continuous pedestrian realm. Competing hotels find that they both come out ahead if people can walk from one to the other, and even further ahead if they plug into public transportation, including both the sexy casino-funded monorail and the unremarkable but jam-packed double-decker buses, called "The Deuce," that ply the street. The effect is an extraordinary massing of pedestrians typical of San Francisco, New York, and other similar bastions of the urbanist left.

Las_vegas_2 (The 24-hour nature of the economy also ensures 24-hour transit service, an unusual feature in a city of this size.)

There’s plenty to dislike about Las Vegas, but as I walked the Strip, I had to acknowledge that it was reaching out to me, welcoming me as a pedestrian. This new principle of design, more than the ostensible new preoccupation with “family” entertainment, is what makes the Strip seem so much less sleazy than the place Robert Venturi and I both knew in the 1970s.  Even I contributed to the new economy, buying a latte and a margarita in the course of the afternoon.  I’d never have done that if I’d had to drive there.  

This post originally appeared in Human Transit.

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

The Urbanophile 2009 Year in Review

As we welcome 2010, let’s pause for a moment to take the obligatory look back at the year that was.

2009 was a breakout year here at Urbanophile HQ. What was once effectively an Indianapolis city blog in its traffic profile grew into a national and even international platform. My readership was up almost 1000% last year – and it’s still climbing.

I still feel there’s a lot to do. My goal is nothing less than to become America’s premier platform for serious, in depth, non-dogmatic, and non-partisan discussion of urban issues. To that end, I’ll be continuing to evolve the Urbanophile. While I plan to keep the site as a primarily personal vehicle, I’m also going to be incorporating more third party content, both specially commissioned originals and carefully curated pieces from elsewhere. And I’ll be adhering to a tighter publishing cadence, which should hopefully tame some of those monster Midwest Miscellanies going forward.

Of course, all of you remain the most important element of the site’s success. Thanks to everyone for your readership, participation, and for linking to me or otherwise helping to build awareness about the site. I really appreciate it – and please keep doing so! I encourage you to share your thoughts in comments on the posts. And remember, reasoned dissent is always welcome here. I also welcome feedback and suggestions any time, so send them my way.

Here, then, are some of the highlights from 2009. I certainly don’t expect you to read (or re-read) all of these pieces, but hopefully they give you a flavor of the last year here on the blog.

January included some of my most important posts of the year.

  • I reviewed the book Retrofitting Suburbia, and discussed the fundamental challenges facing America’s aging suburbs. This laid the ground work for a series of posts about the future of America’s suburbs that included a post on suburban strategies, also in this month.
  • I wrote another major post on the brand of Indianapolis. If I might be so bold, I’d say my writings on Indy’s brand promise in the past 18 months were influential in the ICVA’s new market positioning, which I also had good things to say about in January, calling it a “home run”.
  • Still in Indianapolis, I discussed the dangerous streets of the city after almost getting run over while walking to work.
  • And last but surely not least, I kicked off my 2009 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan with a major essay called Chicago: A Declaration of Independence that discussed that city’s triumphs and challenges, urging it to reinvigorate urban innovation, and also to rediscover its brand identity as a quintessentially masculine, rough and tumble, and commercial metropolis.

This month I was informed that I had won the global transit innovation competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. They sought ideas to increase transit ridership in Chicago to one billion per year. I won over 125 other entries from around the world.

On the blog front, my major work was another Chicago-related series called “Reconnecting the Hinterland”. Though Governing magazine recently described me as “the most incisive critic of megaregions”, this series looked at how we could exploit megaregional economics through reinvigorating the linkages between Chicago and nearby cities, particularly Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

In March I was featured on the front page of the Chicago Tribune for the transit innovation win. It is always nice to get a full color photo of yourself above the fold. I’m glad I made the front cover a major print newspaper while the medium still exists.

Among my major posts:

  • I wrote a long piece called Could Marion County Implode? looking at the strategic challenge of a declining core county of Indianapolis in a region that is growing strongly. This might be the most important thing I’ve ever written on that city. On a more positive note, I highlighted the Indianapolis Museum of Art as an example of strategy done right.
  • I published a concept brand positioning for Louisville called Vice City as a thought experiment.
  • And I examined the Cincinnati Agenda 360 regional strategy, noting the strength in the process, but weaknesses in the final deliverable.

In April the Chicagoland Chamber recognized me as an example of innovative thinking at their annual InnovateNow summit. On the blog front:

In May, Nancy Kaffer devoted an entire column (subscription required) to my ideas on talent attraction in Crain’s Detroit Business. She was upset with what appeared to be a half a million dollar study on talent she thought just stated the obvious. I subsequently turned these ideas into a June post called the Talent Equation.

June brought the totally unexpected news that a Chicago Media Workshop/Chicago Community Trust study ranked me as one of the top online news sites in Chicago, and the #3 blog, trailing only two very Chicago-specific blogs about transit and schools. Given that I was only a half time resident at the time, and my blog really isn’t per se about Chicago, that was quite a compliment.

In the blog:

July had a few interesting posts.

Indianapolis Monthly did a sidebar feature with me on upcoming downtown developments. In the blog:

  • I published a piece that proved to be hugely popular on Detroit as the new American frontier. It was linked from dozens of media outlets, including the New York Times, Time, National Review, Andrew Sullivan, Daily Kos and many more. In fact, it is still going strong, generating hundreds of hits a week.
  • I had a piece at New Geography called the New Industrial City about the need to support manufacturing in an urban context
  • I also published the first two installment of a five part series about taking Chicago public transit from good to great. The first was about building the vision and the second about raising the bar on design.

I was honored that Carol Coletta had me on a segment of her nationally syndicated radio show Smart City. And Forbes featured me in a piece on Pittsburgh in conjunction with the G-20 summit.

I was part of a session on the use of social media for transit advocacy at Rail~Volution 2009, and subsequently posted a report.

  • I took a stab at answering the question What’s Killing California? in a very popular post.
  • I gave several examples of leadership in transportation design in New York City.
  • My piece on the the lack of racial diversity in supposed urban paragons was by far the most controversial piece I ever published – but perhaps for that reason also the most popular ever. It was discussed around the world, generating discussion in places like the Economist, the London Daily Telegraph, Matt Yglesias, Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, and many, many others. It was also republished as an op-ed in the print editions of the Dallas Morning News and the Omaha World-Herald.

On a personal note, I took a week long vacation this month to Barcelona. Naturally I posted a trip report.

I had my debut bylined opinion piece in this month. It was called The Mayor as CEO. I subsequently discussed the applicability of this concept on WDET-FM’s program Detroit Today and garnered what I’m told was a “huge” audience response.

I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. A complete index of the blog archives is available in the left sidebar. You might notice that a number of historic posts are missing. I did prune the archives of posts that appeared to be dated. I used to make many small posts of various news items, such as rumors of new downtown Indianapolis skyscrapers and the like. I removed these so that the archives now consist of primarily “evergreen” content that is still relevant today. So feel free to spend some time browsing. I also hand selected some of the posts I consider the best, which are linked in the left sidebar as well.

Thanks again for your readership in 2009 and I look forward to continuing our journey together in 2010. Happy New Year everybody!

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

Casinos and convention centers don’t reverse the decline of population or attract immigrants to knowledge economy.” – Hunter Morrison on

Capacity for Pro Sports

BlogKC highlighted this study of which cities have the regional income potential for pro sports expansion. They have a great interactive map by sport. Be sure to look for the link to download all the data in the PDF format at the bottom of the graphic.

One of the interesting things about the study is their conclusion that any number of cities already have more pro sports than they can realistically support. Here are the Midwest cities that are “over-sported” by a significant amount, with the personal income deficit in billion of dollars.

  • Cleveland – ($77.20B)
  • Pittsburgh – ($60.62B)
  • Kansas City – ($57.07B)
  • Milwaukee – ($56.46B)
  • St. Louis – ($44.90B)
  • Twin Cities – ($43.13B)
  • Cincinnati – ($40.46B)
  • Detroit – ($21.57B)

These are all cities that don’t have enough regional income to support their existing teams. Not all of the cities in this situation are in the Midwest – Denver has a stunning $93.5B deficit – but a lot of them are. One thing these cities have in common: baseball, the most difficult sport to support.

Small Business Survival Index

The Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council published their 2009 Small Business Survival Index, which includes a ranking of the states. Here’s how states with my Midwest cities fared. The rank is national and the value is their proprietary index rating.

  • #11 – Ohio (51.250)
  • #15 – Indiana (52.602)
  • #18 – Missouri (53.277)
  • #23 – Michigan (55.383)
  • #24 – Illinois (55.983)
  • #27 – Pennsylvania (57.847)
  • #30 – Wisconsin (58.800)
  • #41 – Iowa (64.485)
  • #43 – Minnesota (72.149)

Happiest States

A group of researches created a ranking of the happiest states in America. (See the full results table). Here is where the Midwest states landed:

  • #29 – Wisconsin
  • #31 – Iowa
  • #35 – Kentucky
  • #41 – Pennsylvania
  • #44 – Ohio
  • #45 – Illinois
  • #47 – Indiana
  • #48 – Michigan

This must be one bleak part of the world to live in.

Census and Reapportionment

Daily Kos has a great breakdown of the likely results of reapportionment after the 2010 Census. (Obviously as a left politics site, their interpretation of the data is open to debate). Here is a look at likely changes in some state’s Congressional count, using the 2000-2009 data series.

  • Illinois (-1)
  • Iowa (-1)
  • Michigan (-1)
  • Ohio (-2)
  • Pennsylvania (-1)

Most Literate Cities

Central Connecticut State University issued their 2009 most literate cities list. Check their site for methodology information, but it looks like they are not using MSA, but city. YMMV (h/t BlogKC).

Here’s how Midwest cities stacked up in the league table:

  • #3 – Minneapolis
  • #4 – Pittsburgh
  • #7 – St. Paul
  • #9 – Cincinnati
  • #11 – St. Louis
  • #13 – Cleveland
  • #14 – Kansas City
  • #22 – Columbus
  • #25 – Indianapolis
  • #30 – Chicago
  • #31 – Milwaukee
  • #40 – Louisville
  • #51 – Detroit

The Creative Economy

It’s no secret that I’ve got a crush on Carol Coletta, and the video below will show you why. UrbanCincy pointed it out. While it appears to be from 2007, it is still relevant today.

If you don’t see the video, click here.

World and National Roundup

World mayors tackle climate change on their own.

NYT: ‘Smart Grid’ is making many households unhappy.

The Cleveland Fed publishes an interview with Matthew Khan.

Bruce Nussbaum: Is Green the “New Imperialism” or “New Communism”?

Slate ponders whether buying organic produce and natural shampoo can turn you into a heartless jerk in Buy Local, Act Evil.

Economic Development
NYT: In heart of Baghdad, plans to revive the pulse of a central artery

Governing: The Rise of the Megaregion (features commentary regrading my analysis of megaregions)

David Brooks proposes an innovation agenda.

Hector Tobar at the LA Times says recessions leave their mark on a city.

Architecture and Design
Christopher Hume: Good design sets a city up for success.

Flavorwire looks at the most beautiful airport terminals in the world.

Huffington Post: Best buildings of the decade

The New Yorker looks at the ten most positive architectural events of 2009 in that city (via @gosner).

Frank Gehry says don’t call me a starchitect.

Arts and Culture
NYT: In the arts, bigger buildings might not be better.

An interesting art event using vacant spaces in Minneapolis called Save Canvas (via @FTAC)

NYT: Is China’s economy speeding off the rails

Daily Mail: China’s 245MPH train service is the world’s fastest – And they built the whole thing start to finish in just four years.

BBC: Cheap fast trains are transport future

Boston Globe: Rail stimulus funds to bypass Northeast – The ironic rationale is “environmental studies”.

Jarrett Walker takes on the transit isn’t green because of empty buses canard.

Next American City: Cities and cycling

Atlanta: ARC’s new leader a visionary thinker.

The Oregonian: Portland not as white as figures show, coalition contends

FT on Baltimore: Home of ‘The Wire’ fears return of blight

San Francisco in the 1940’s

Instapundit pointed me at this interesting nine minute video about San Francisco, made in the 1940’s. If it doesn’t display for you, click here

On a related note, SF Weekly, in a lengthy story, calls San Francisco the worst run big city in the US, saying that in SF, intentions count for more than results.

New Cincinnati Streetcar Map

I dinged streetcar advocates in Cincinnati on the quality of their route maps, so let me recognize that they’ve rolled out a new one that is very good. Click to enlarge.

Bike Parking in Chicago

Tracy Swartz put together a great map of bike parking in various Chicago neighborhoods. Click to enlarge.

Airport Transit Service

Xing Columbus crunched some numbers to develop a list of transit trips per day to various airports in peer cities to Columbus, Ohio. Note, this is bus or rail. Here are how some cities fared, ranked by total number of daily trips:

  • Indianapolis – 81
  • Cleveland – 72
  • Milwaukee – 53
  • Cincinnati – 28
  • Columbus – 28
  • Louisville – 26
  • Kansas City – 22

Indianapolis has service every 20 minutes to downtown via its Green Line express service. However, that is only funded under a temporary grant. The Indy Star recently ran a story on this service.

Cleveland Re-Imagines Public Square

The Plain Dealer reports on Cleveland’s plan to re-imagine its public square

Two centuries after it was conceived as a New England-style town commons, Public Square in downtown Cleveland is a dead zone flanked by skyscrapers and filled by bus stops….But James Corner, one of the nation’s leading landscape architects, sees a huge potential to turn the 10-acre space at the heart of downtown into an iconic destination on par with Chicago’s Millennium Park. He wants to see the square filled with people strolling, sunning, picnicking or relishing public art, concerts, gardens or outdoor markets.

This should be a good project for Cleveland. Brewed Fresh Daily has some must-read commentary on it.

I find a couple of things interesting. First is again the reference to Millennium Park. I christened the term Millennium Park Effect as an analog to the Bilbao effect, describing how cities are increasingly turning to signature works of landscape architecture in an attempt to transform underutilized public spaces.

I think upgrading quality of space is almost always good, but also think we’ve got to be careful about over-extrapolating from the Chicago example. Michigan Avenue already was home to hordes of people. Millennium Park is a key draw, but wasn’t chartered with bringing life to urban dead space in the same way as many of these other projects. Chicago already had the people.

My guess is that Cleveland’s Public Square wouldn’t be viewed so negatively if there were people in it. In a sense we blame the space when the real problem may be more existential. Regardless, Jane Jacobs rightly inveighed against the fetishization of open space. Open space is, in an urban context, too often dead space, even if it does happen to have grass growing on it. Energizing a space like Public Square is going to be a challenge in the best of cases. My guess is that extensive programming will be required. However, given the success St. Louis has had with City Garden, changing the landscape would appear to have a role to play in making the space more inviting and actually used.

More Midwest

The Washington Post has a slide show about the recession in the Rust Belt (via Rust Wire)

Casino groups spend $47 million to win passage of an initiative permitting casinos in that state.

BlogKC made me aware of an incredulous fact: St. Louis and Kansas City don’t control their own city police forces. Apparently in Missouri, these municipal departments are controlled by the state. Wow. St. Louis wants that to change and I would 100% agree. Cities need to control their own public safety forces.

GoIndyGo looks at Midwest regional unemployment

Burgh Diaspora: Shrinking Cities Heartland in Youngstown chastises a business group for inviting unrepentant convicted felon James Trafficant to be a keynote speaker at their event.

Buffalo charges ahead into past (USA Today)
Buffalo Dreamin’ (Andrew Sprung @ The Daily Dish)

High prices at McCormick costing Chicago (Tribune) – Another piece on Chicago’s struggling convention business
Chicago architecture 2000-2009 (Lee Bey @ WBEZ)
The Stately Ruins of a Methodist Church in Gary, Indiana (io9)

A Downtown Cleveland Fantasy (BFD)
Welcome to the decade of the Super Region (Plain Dealer)

Detroit artists use city’s blight as their canvas (Yahoo/AP)
Repopulate Detroit with Urban Homesteading (Detroit News)
Investors see farms as a way to grow Detroit (LA Times)
Until Robert Bobb’s hands to fix Detroit schools (Free Press)

The Invisible Mayor (Indianapolis Monthly)
Profile of Barrett Crites from Atomic Indy (Indianapolis Monthly)
WANTED: People to roll up their sleeves and rebuild Martinsville – Jon Speer is looking for your help

Kansas City
Could recession and job losses to Johnson County be leading to changes in KC corporate welfare? (BlogKC)
KC school district has 1000 employees too many (KC Star)

St. Louis
St. Louis zoning needs to be change (St. Louis Urban Review) – True of many cities

Google moving into old Nabisco plant site (Post-Gazette) – Google is doubling in size in Pittsburgh (via Politics and Place)
Pittsburgh stands tall amid national turmoil (Post Gazette)

Twin Cities
MnDOT getting a line on Twin Cities-Duluth rail (Star Tribune)


Chicago Opera Theater General Director Brian Dickie posted some pictures from the Polar Bear Club of Chicago annual New Year’s Day dip.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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