Sunday, February 7th, 2010

An Interview With the Urbanophile

Indianapolis arts and culture maven David Hoppe is a columnist and editor at Nuvo Newsweekly, the city’s alt-weekly paper. I sat down with him for nearly three hours in December for a free-ranging discussion about the city that was turned into a three page interview in this week’s paper. I’ll let you read it there for yourself, but will share some highlights below.

One of the things we can do – and that we did in the past – is innovation in an urban context. If you go back to the Lugar and Hudnut administrations, we did some innovative things. Unigov was way ahead of its time. The amateur sports strategy – using sports to renew a city – nobody had thought of that. The Circle Centre Mall: we did retail in a downtown context right.

We need to bring back innovation. I think the Cultural Trail is one example of that. If we’re just going to import ideas like bike lanes and light rail, then we’re perpetually going to be playing catch-up. Cliques are, by definition, exclusive. So places like Chicago and New York and Portland are going to define themselves as cool in opposition to places like Indianapolis. It’s like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. The minute you think you’ve got it, they’ve moved on to something else.

With something like the Cultural Trail, other cities will say, “Why can’t we have one of those?” I think our challenge is trying to figure out how to be innovative in a low-cost manner; to do it a lot faster and a lot cheaper and execute rapidly.


NUVO: It sounds like the challenge is reconciling suburbia with an urban idea.

Renn: One of the things we need to do as a city is realize we cannot compete with the collar counties head-on. When we build things like strip malls downtown, or you put Arby’s, Subway, and White Castle right there on South St., you’re basically saying we’re going to compete with the suburbs on their terms. If you give people a choice between a real suburb and a city trying to act like one – but with all those cost and infrastructure issues – you’re going to lose most of the time.

We have to have a different product. It’s going to take courageous leadership to articulate a more urban vision for Indianapolis that people will buy into.

We don’t need to Manhattanize this city. If we just changed our zoning so that anywhere you have a single family home you could build a double with a carriage house in back, you would triple the effective residential density of Indianapolis without any change to the visual scale of the city. Moderate densification is what we need.

We have had a very powerful civic sector. Business and community leaders coming together to get things done in a way that doesn’t happen anywhere else. That leadership culture has served us very well.

The challenges we face today, though, are different. That leadership culture is perfect for projects. But what we need to do is lay up a new vision and make the case for change in public policy and planning, land use, zoning and public transportation in a way that’s probably not going to be popular initially. That requires someone to make the case in the political realm. Somebody has to have democratic legitimacy in saying, “This is where we’re going.” I know everyone hates Carmel, but [Mayor] Brainard in Carmel has done that. We have to have someone to stand in the kitchen and take the heat for a new vision of the central city.

Another excerpt:

The thing about urban visions being pushed right now is that they’re updated versions of Jane Jacobs’ ideas from the 1950’s. But we have a radically different world today. What should cities look like now? I think we could be the innovators in defining what it means to be a city.

We can own what it means to have sustainable agriculture. Given the size of Indianapolis and ease of getting out of town, we could build linkages between our urban and rural areas that are difficult to do in much, much larger cities. I think that’s one of the imperatives for us in bringing Indiana along on the journey.

If you set out an agenda, you can rally people by the promise of what is to be. To some extent, all of Christianity was built on that: the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven that we’ll never see here.

Topics: Civic Branding, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Regionalism, Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction
Cities: Indianapolis

8 Responses to “An Interview With the Urbanophile”

  1. OTR says:

    Great interview! The difference between “World Class Indianapolis” and “World Class” in Indianapolis is a big and important difference. It’s refreshing to hear someone who knows the significance of the “what have we got that they ain’t got?” but also isn’t fooled by typical build on assets and importation of ideas scheme. Cincinnati is tackling what could be its largest asset in Over-the-Rhine. Dayton is making strides when it comes to embracing unconventional leadership in City Hall. Lexington and Columbus are both making strides too. In many ways, Indianapolis was the modern idea trend-setter for these cities.

    Fantastic blog, I hope it endures for many years.

  2. cswitzer says:

    My last city, Nashville, and current city, Indianapolis, have both been Unigov cities and to be honest, I fail to see how Unigov is “way ahead of its time.” My belief is that most other cities and counties have avoided this type of consolidation not because of parochial power concerns but because the theoretical benefits never materialize.

    Cities provide a level of competition and diversity within a county, with each responsible for its own growth, business development and identity. With consolidation, the “brand” becomes Unigov, and it become much more difficult for individual areas to distinguish themselves. As a result, many people (and businesses) disinterested in locating in Indianapolis proper are disinterested in all of Marion county. All of Marion county, in many people’s eyes, stands for high taxes, poor schools, crumbling infrastructure, decayed housing, etc. I’m not saying Unigov caused this, but I think it hurts more than it helps.

    Where it seems theoretically beneficial it is not. It could be great for transportation planning – and Indianapolis has at least decent freeways from what I’ve seen, but it has a terrible bus system, no light rail, and no street cars, which seem like something a Unigov would be good for. But Davidson County has horrible streets, a convoluted spoke and hub system (that predates consolidation, but the non-downtown corridors have not been improve since), and also terrible mass transit. Further, Marion county has kept its townships, which seems to defeat much of what could theoretically be gained from consolidation. I guess I just don’t see how Indianapolis has benefited from Unigov in ways it would not have benefited without it.

  3. John Morris says:

    I guess I don’t know enough about what unigov means and exactly what services and governments are connected.

    I’ve really thought about this a lot in the context of NYC which is made up of once were a bunch of separate cities. Of course the scale is very different in that one has a city made up of five counties, with separate DA’s.

    My general feeling is that on net–it has not been good.

    I want to define my terms and goals here. My ideal in terms of NYC would be a city in which most neighborhoods have good transit access and a mixed use walkable density. Also, I think the city would be much healthier and more sustainable if it built up a number of alternate “downtown’s”.

    Of course, in the pre subway era, it had a lot of that with both Downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg acting as downturns and smaller alternate ones like Court Square along the Queens waterfront. Jobs outside of Manhattan revolved around either manufacturing, the docks or farming. Queens was still mostly rural.

    On the positive side, combining the city meant that the immediate loss of tax base, was less when the car era hit full blast since a lot of it’s suburbs were in the city. Queens, was the big pot of undeveloped land.

    But the negative impact was likely very huge. At first, it was probably pretty small, in that Waterfront areas were the home to a thriving manufacturing job base. But, from the late sixties on as a lot of the advantages of urban manufacturing started to erode and need less land, one failed to gradually open up and allow more complex and built up mixed uses.

    Why? I mean, here was this huge opportunity for the city which local people should have grasped. Less heavy manufacturing and the loss of the docks meant less pollution, a fewer trucks, and the chance to clean the waterways while still allowing complex light industry. Of course, the new waterfront highways didn’t help with this, but not every area had them–the Queens waterfront was mostly clear and yes there was still a lot of very viable manufacturing and a need for warehouses, and city service land. Even so, one has to wonder about what happened.

    I think the biggest single reason so little was done is that the now consolidated outer boroughs, now had no driving economic incentive for development. They coasted as bedroom communities which relied on the dense business tax base in Manhattan. No way would that have happened if they had been separate cities. The need for cash would have driven a much more balanced mix of waterfront development. This wasn’t good for anyone in the long run. Overloading the tax burden on Manhattan has helped drive many jobs out of the city and the peak hour single direction commuter lines are stressed.

    Also, NYC suffered through many years of bad city government. It’s easy to imagine the whle area will be run by a wise and efficient government. One needs to think about what happens if it isn’t.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t think cities should be competing with one another. This leads to a race to the bottom, as each city pledges to provide more subsidies for big business and cut wages and benefits further. If consolidation helps prevent that, then consolidation should be considered a success.

    The same is true on the school district level. Individual school districts made sense in the 1930s, when the feds didn’t do much about education and people lived in central cities. Nowadays, when the middle class shops around for the school district with the fewest minorities and free lunch kids, the system leads to segregation. City-county consolidation then has the effects of decreasing segregation within the county, and giving an incentive for the richest people to leave the county.

    There’s also the tax base issue. As with school districts, fractionalization leads to segregation. If New York had been five separate cities, then Brooklyn and the Bronx, which are as poor as Detroit, would have little money for schools, police, firefighting, or subway maintenance. In short, they’d look like Detroit.

    By the way: great interview. Like OTR, I like the distinction between world-class Indy and world-class in Indy.

  5. Thank you all. I appreciate the kind words.

    Interestingly, I have a mini-series forthcoming on the downsides of consolidation. It’s difficult to make any type of a “but for” argument around consolidation, but it is notable that the Midwest cities have have done the best mostly either consolidated (Indy) or had plenty of room to annex (Columbus & KC). Consolidated Nashville is the best performing metro in its state, IIRC. Certainly doing better than unconsolidated Memphis. In any event, if you were going to date the inflection point or demarcate the modern era of Indianapolis, you’d have to start with Unigov, whatever its downsides.

    NYC is an interesting case. Consolidation happened in the 1800’s. The interesting question is whether the outer boroughs would be nearly as dense as they are now without consolidation. I wonder….

  6. Curt says:

    Inflection point… Aaron, you really bring your math skills to bare here sir! 😉

    Keep up the good work. It was a really nice write up and as I said at the SSF, good to see you are reaching a broader audience as time goes forward.

  7. Kaid @ NRDC says:

    Really nice thoughts, Aaron.

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.

About the Urbanophile


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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