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Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

“Brain Drain” vs. “Steel Drain”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is doing a series called “Can St. Louis Compete?” that I intend to dive into in some depth tomorrow. But I wanted to preview a piece of this today by looking at a quote from the third installment called “The Time to Act is Now:”

Every year about 23,000 people earn a four-year college degree in St. Louis. Then too many of them leave. In our new knowledge economy, universities are like factories. They make ideas. They produce talent. But unlike factories of old, that talent is highly mobile and keeping it close to home can be tough. [emphasis added]

This notion of the university as a “factory” gets very close to the truth. Then the PD veers away in order to talk about retaining talent and seeing the university graduate situation through the regular “brain drain” lens.

But let’s compare with another type of factory, the steel mill, and see if that frame makes sense. Indiana is the #1 steel producing state in America. A friend of mine noted that if we treated steel mills like universities, Indiana would be obsessing over “steel drain” and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to try to keep steel from leaving the state.

Obviously that’s ludicrous. Because Indiana has lots of steel mills, it is clearly going to be a huge exporter of steel. This is seen, as it is in almost any other context, as a win. Countries, states, and cities love to have exports. This huge export business has not had any appreciable impact on the supply of steel available to Hoosiers. Indiana can readily obtain all the steel it needs at a fair market rate without worrying about where the output of the USX Gary Works ends up.

Back to our universities. These are factories that produce graduates. If you’ve got a lot of educational factories in your town, don’t be surprised if you export a lot of product, i.e. graduates. That’s what factories do. Most factories are not intended to serve a merely local market. In the case of St. Louis, Washington University is a nationally prestigious school. It’s simply not realistic to believe any material percentage of those grads are going to stay in St. Louis. It would be an incredible uphill battle to try to convince even a small fraction of additional grads to do so. Universities export college grads. It’s the very nature of what they do.

I’ve made the same observation about tier one cities like New York and Chicago. Like colleges, these large cities also act as “human capital refineries”. They take in raw recruits in the form of immigrants and young singles, and export middle class Americans and families. These places are always going to be structural sources of outmigration.

That doesn’t mean you don’t try to sell students on St. Louis. You just look at the grads differently. Does the university itself see it as a loss for students to leave? Absolutely not. Those alumni are among the school’s biggest assets. They go on to build the university brand around the world through their accomplishments, and are important sources of funding and other benefits (such as hiring more grads at companies where they work).

Tapping into this alumni network for your city is a better way to look at your output of graduates from major universities, not looking at them all as opportunity lost. Sure, engage them, make them fall in love with your city as many people do fall in love with their college town. Sure, recruit them to your city. But don’t believe that the future of your city’s talent base resides in convincing a materially greater percentage of grads from local colleges to stick around.

If you really want to understand how to think about talent circulation and the geography of talent, surf on over to Burgh Disapora, where Jim Russell is pioneering the field as it applies to American cities.

Related:
The Talent Equation
Rethinking Brain Drain
Getting Serious About Talent

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Megan Cottrell: Don’t Fall in the Poverty Trap – You May Never Get Out

[ Megan Cottrell's One Story Up blog might be one of the most important in the United States. It is certainly a must-read for anyone in Chicago. She covers housing and poverty, two un-glamorous subjects that have all but been abandoned by newspapers. These aren't topics beloved of urbanist blogs either, but they are critical to understanding our cities and building successful lives for all citizens. As Megan notes, the phenomenon she describes affects up to 40% of all Chicagoans. I encourage you to check out her work. ]

Until you earn about $40,000 a year, you’re pretty much stuck in poverty, an economist’s numbers show.

In fact, until you get past $40,000 a year, any raise or higher paying job you get might actually sink you deeper into poverty.

Take a look at this story from economist Jeff Liebman, who now works in the Obama Administration.

The poverty trap is still very much a reality in the U.S.

A woman called me out of the blue last week and told me her self-sufficiency counselor had suggested she get in touch with me. She had moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more. I told her I didn’t know what I could do for her, but agreed to meet with her. She showed me all her pay stubs, etc. She really did come out behind by several hundred dollars a month. She lost free health insurance and instead had to pay $230 a month for her employer-provided health insurance. Her rent associated with her section 8 voucher went up by 30% of the income gain (which is the rule). She lost the ($280 a month) subsidized child care voucher she had for after-school care for her child. She lost around $1600 a year of the EITC. She paid payroll tax on the additional income. Finally, the new job was in Boston, and she lived in a suburb. So now she has $300 a month of additional gas and parking charges. She asked me if she should go back to earning $25,000.

Take a look at this chart by economist Clifford Thies, via Greg Mankiw’s blog.

The Dead Zone

From the green dot, you can see that earned income rises… for a while. Then there’s this screwy wavy line. That’s the mother making a little more, but earning a little less.

$40,000 a year is about $19 an hour. Over 40 percent of Chicagoans don’t earn that much.

There aren’t that many jobs out there that make $19 an hour. Bank Teller? $13.33 an hour. Office clerk? $15.60. Retail salesperson? $11.80. Security guard? $16.14. (Statistics via Chicago Rehab network).

Our tax incentives work… initially. Then they only serve to hurt people. They say the poor don’t work hard enough, but that single mother sounds like a pretty hard working person to me. The story goes on to say that she got a weekend job, to try to make ends meet. Except after childcare and gas, it didn’t help at all.

So if working harder means people might actually earn less, how is it that we expect people to work harder?

This article originally appeared in One Story Up. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Getting Serious About Talent

[ I was privileged to deliver the keynote address at the annual meeting of the IndyPartnership on Tuesday. They are the regional economic development agency for Indianapolis. I want to share with you one portion of that address dealing with talent. Earlier segments addressed the other important matters of demographic and economic growth. You can read coverage of the event in the Indianapolis Business Journal. ]

Lastly, I want to talk about getting serious about human capital. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser studied what made cold weather cities successful and found that it could overwhelmingly be explained by only one and only one variable, the percentage of adults with college degrees as of 1960. Now there’s actually nothing magical about that date. You could pick 1940 and get basically the same result. The key is that college degree attainment is overwhelmingly determinant in urban success.

An organization called CEO’s for Cities crunched the numbers to find out what it would mean for cities if they could increase their college degree attainment by just one percentage point. They call the resulting economic impact the “Talent Dividend”, a term you may have heard before. For Indianapolis, the Talent Dividend is $1.3 billion dollars a year. That’s right, Indianapolis would receive an economic benefit of $1.3 billion every year if the region increased its college degree attainment by just one percentage point.

Now if I had put up a chart of college degree attainment nationally earlier, Indianapolis would have been in the middle of the pack. Not bad, but not great either, and certainly not where it needs to be to compete in the industries it is targeting. So despite that big inflow of people, there is still plenty of work to do.

It is imperative that Indianapolis increases its educational attainment across the board. This means a mix of both educating its current residents – not just in traditional university, but also K-12 education, vocational-technical training, corporate training – and also attracting new residents. I’ll leave education for another day, and will focus on attraction. How do you attract residents, particularly top talent and people with college degrees?

Attracting people is no different from attracting businesses. To attract business you need a good business climate and aggressive recruitment. It’s the same for people. You need a good “people climate” and aggressive recruitment.

What makes a good people climate? In some ways, it’s the same things that make a good business climate. All things being equal, low costs and easy living beats high cost and hassles any day. Indianapolis is great here. It’s the lowest cost big city housing market in America, and has a strong economy as we saw before. That’s great.

But with cities all things aren’t always equal. Choosing a city to live in isn’t like buying laundry detergent. It’s more is like buying a house. It’s an emotional purchase. I’m guessing most of you aren’t living in the cheapest house you could find. More likely the opposite – you live in the most expensive house you could afford, in the best neighborhood, with the nicest amenities, the best schools, etc. Yes, price was a factor, but it wasn’t the only factor. When it comes to cities it’s not just about the price, it’s also about the product.

Indianapolis has to be selling a product that people will want to buy on its own merits, not just because it is the cheapest on the market. Cities, like houses, need to have curb appeal. They have to have amenities, they have to look good. That’s particularly true in Indianapolis, where it’s flat, there’s no beaches and no mountains, and the weather is what it is. The built environment, what we create, counts for more here. So we have to get it right.

The great news is that the city is already doing good things here. We are seeing it in things like the Cultural Trail, which is first class in addition to being is totally unique and innovative. And the new airport terminal, which is the best in America. And don’t just take my word for that, take the traveling public’s word for it. That’s what JD Power and Associates did when their consumer survey ranked Indianapolis International the best airport in the entire United States. Staying with our house analogy, the new airport is an entryway the city can be proud of. This is what we need to be building.

That doesn’t mean the city should forget about costs. Indianapolis has to keep a keen eye on the bottom line. This isn’t New York City. People aren’t going to pay any price, bear any burden for the privilege of living and working here. But often it is more a matter of will than of money. The Cultural Trail isn’t costing a penny of local tax money. You may have saw it just got a $20 million discretionary federal stimulus grant. Without doing that project, this community would not have seen one penny of that money. A new airport terminal would have cost a billion whether it was any good or not. Indianapolis is already spending money on projects, the key is to get the value out of them. Indianapolis must bring a focus and commitment to excellence in design and maximizing the value per dollar to everything it does. Look at the airport terminal. Make sure the city achieves the same level of quality, excellence in design, and attention to detail every time out on the field.

But once you’ve got that product, how do you sell it? You have to have a good story to tell. You have to create an aspirational narrative of life in this city that people who don’t live here yet can imagine themselves being a part of. Think about New York City. TV shows like Seinfield, Friends, or Sex and the City have created an image of what it is like to live in New York, even for people who’ve never visited it. What comes to mind when you think of Portland? You think people out hiking the mountains, hipsters riding their bikes, people drinking microbrews. What does Indianapolis bring to mind? What’s the unique story about life in this city that’s different from everywhere else? That’s the narrative the city needs to create, and figure out how to get out there into the world.

This is where my previous suggestions help. Think about setting a high competitive bar. Smart, talented, ambitious people, people with big dreams and plans for themselves want to live in a city where the civic aspiration matches their personal aspiration. The labor force of the 21st century is in demand. Top scientists, top researchers, and internet entrepreneurs have choices about where to live. When you set a high competitive aspiration for your city, you’re sending them a powerful message that this is place where important personal and professional ambitions can be realized. That’s the anchor for your narrative.

There’s one other narrative that needs to be created. This one is for local consumption and it is one that almost every city overlooks. Since the benefits of attracting the college degreed are so high, cities tend to focus on that. But what about the people without degrees? Less than 20% of adults in Indiana have a college degree. What about the other 80%? What’s it in for them in these progressive urban policies? Many of them are hurting right now, and I think they have a right to be skeptical about policies that seem to be focused on the most privileged in society. So we have to show the benefit to them and answer the questions.

Why should we be investing millions of dollars in Conexus and Biocrossroads? Why does it matter that corporate executives can have a steak dinner and a good time downtown? Why should we be investing millions of dollars in pharmacy education at Butler and Purdue, to produce graduates who will earn six figures the minute they walk out the door? Well, if you are a single mother in Clinton County with a high school diploma who can get a good job as a technician at Medco, it matters to you, that’s why.

That’s the type of story we need to be able to tell. To make it real to people why these forward looking policies are good for all Hoosiers. These stories have to be told, told loudly, and told often. The good news is that Indiana has a story to tell. Unlike some other places, where there are lots of high value jobs, but little else, Indiana can create a broader spectrum of jobs and build a real middle class economy for the 21st century.

Quality product, high aspirations, narrative, cost, jobs, and quality of life. Those are a few of the things that go into creating a good people climate.

As for recruitment, clearly almost no city puts even half the effort into people recruitment that they do into business recruitment. This gives Indianapolis an opportunity to step up, claim a leadership position, and get really, really aggressive about bringing talent to town.


Left to Right: Ron Gifford, CEO of the IndyPartnership, Yours Truly, and Mark Miles, CEO of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership

I can’t resist posting this photo I got taken with the Lamar Hunt Trophy the Colts were awarded as AFC champions. Every year the Colts are committed to competing and winning at the highest levels, and also to doing it the right way as a class organization. They show that it is possible to both aim high and embody the best of Hoosier values. That’s exactly what the city as a whole should commit to in everything it does.

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

“If we distill the design ethos of places to a few simple words, compare:

Italian design: First it must be beautiful, then it must function.

German design: Once it functions flawlessly, its beauty will be integral.

American design: If it’s ugly and barely functional, we’ll still pay too much *provided* it’s on the taxpayer dime.” – Donna Sink

Top Stories

1. Gateway Streets: The economic impact of highway removal is zero – closure of I-64 for two years in St. Louis for reconstruction had no adverse economic impact.

2. Cleveland Magazine: Tear It Down – “Cleveland won’t be reborn until it buries its dead.”

3. LEO Weekly: Off the cliff and into the water – more coverage of Louisville’s impending bridge debacle.

4. LA Times: New York has the edge in learning to share the road – a profile of Janette Sadik-Khan’s trip to LA.

The Civic Deterioration Model

Ed Morrison at Brewed Fresh Daily posted this graphic of civic decline:

I think this illustrates again that growth, and especially decline, are positive reinforcement cycles. This makes breaking out of decline difficult.

The Jobless Decade

TNR/Brookings had an interesting post on the uneveness of job performance the so-called “lost decade” of the 2000’s. Here’s their map of how various cities fared:

I pulled job stats for Midwest cities from Q1-2001 to Q1-2009 (the max YoY range the BLS had an easy download form for), and here is where my cities stacked up in job creation. Ranked by percentage change with absolute change also shown.

  • Indianapolis: 2.12%; 17,091 net jobs
  • Kansas City: (0.51%); (4,905)
  • Columbus: (1.33%); (11,757)
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul: (2.21%); (37,396)
  • Cincinnati: (2.49%); (24,431)
  • Louisville: (2.51%); (14,524)
  • Pittsburgh: (2.65%); (28,906)
  • St. Louis: (3.71%); (48,054)
  • Chicago: (4.43%); (190,582)
  • Milwaukee: (5.79%); (48,115)
  • Cleveland: (10.06%); (108,661)
  • Detroit: (18.71%); (382,832)

The quantity of job losses in Detroit is simply staggering.

Green Cities Index

American City Business Journals did a study of which cities were the most green in areas where they had publications plus select others. Portland was #1, unsurprisingly. Here’s where other Midwest cities stacked up. Click through to find your city.

  • #8 – Pittsburgh
  • #11 – Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • #14 – Milwaukee
  • #16 – Kansas City
  • #22 – Columbus
  • #24 – Cincinnati
  • #31 – Cleveland
  • #33 – Indianapolis
  • #35 – Louisville
  • #40 – St. Louis

Again, this is not a comprehensive list of all US cities, so YMMV.

Next American City Profiles Bruce Katz

Next American City just did a flattering cover story on Bruce Katz, head of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. I’d like to see some of Bruce’s writings before his editor cuts out all the salty language.

Bruce was also featured on an NAC podcast you can listen to below. (Click through the above link if the player doesn’t display for you).

A Trifecta on Immigration

Here are three recent pieces on the importance of immigration to renewing America’s struggling cities:

Joel Kotkin says that immigrants are key to the economy’s recovery.

Richard Herman wants to know if a dying Cleveland will finally turn to immigrants.

Detroit News columnist Laura Berman says the strategy for Detroit should be lure immigrants.

World and National Roundup

CEO’s for Cities: What makes a city entrepreneurial? – Coverage of the Glaeser/Kerr entrepreneurship study

NYT: Toxic Waters – saving US water and sewer systems would be costly.

Ed Morrison: The strategic challenge facing Midwest auto communities

Alexandra Lange @ Design Observer: Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough – a criticism of the NYT architecture critic. This prompted a response from Nancy Levinson

The Oregonian: Portland in New York: Outposts of Precious

Transport Politic: Oklahoma City readies modern streetcar as centerpiece of major redevelopment plan.

The Case for Cleveland

Some of you may have seen the video series making the rounds called “Reason Saves Cleveland”, put out by the libertarian Reason Foundation. The difficulty with Reason is not whether one agrees or disagrees with their position, but rather that it is so predictable that it isn’t necessary to pay attention to anything they say to know what they think on virtually any conceivable topic.

However, I did want to share their final installment called bring back the people, which features many Clevelanders talking about the things that make their city great, especially through the middle of the piece. I consider it the best “case for Cleveland” that I’ve ever seen. (If the video doesn’t display, click the link above).

More Midwest

Too big to fail? – no clear way to rescue Gary (Post-Tribune)

With Ohio’s economy at stake, drastic action needed on deficit (Plain Dealer)

Buffalo
Bury this big mistake (Art Voice)

Chicago
Wind energy stirs up bad feeling, health concerns (Tribune) – Includes a video of shadow flicker. Whatever the merits of the case, that shadow flicker is legitimately obnoxious.
Support network seeks to grow biotech companies (NYT)
Chicago retails sales have biggest drop since 1985 (Crain’s)

Cincinnati
Chamber exec blasts Delta over job cuts (Business Courier)

Columbus
Urban Land Institute Launches City 2050 Initiative (Columbus Underground)

Detroit
Telling Our Story (TIME)
Shrinking Detroit back to greatness (Ed Glaeser @ NYT)
Downsizing Detroit (TIME)
Is urban farming Detroit’s cash cow? (Free Press)
Foundations take action for Detroit (Detroit News)

Indianapolis
City, NCAA forge 30-year pact (IBJ)
Angel capital network cancels meeting for lack of deals (IBJ) – I’ve said it before: the problem in the Midwest is not fundamentally a lack of capital, but a lack of deals and lack of entrepreneurs.
City ready to tout its quality of life online (Indy Star)

Louisville
Differing views on downtown development (WFPL) – The first segment is worth listening to.
Groups opposing tolls on Ohio River bridges starting to form (C-J)

Milwaukee
Benchmarking the region’s pursuit of innovation (Milwaukee Talkie)

Postscript

Crop art in Japan (via Planologie). I don’t know if it’s real or photoshop, but the pictures on this site are very cool nevertheless.

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Midwest Success Stories

My latest blog post is up at New Geography. It is called “Midwest Success Stories.” It’s no secret that the Midwest is a region of the country that is struggling, but there are success as well and they don’t always get told. I highlighted six cities that are clearly doing better than the nation as a whole demographically and economically: Columbus, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Madison, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Now you’ll obviously note the prevalence of state capitals on the list. I addressed that earlier in my piece called “The Urbanophile Conjecture“. There are also a few other characteristics these cities largely share that I intend to explore in a future post.

I picked these cities because their metro area data was so strong, but there are plenty of other cities with successful attributes as well and with indications they are turning up. I just noted Pittsburgh’s first in-migration in ages, for example. And Chicago’s urban core boom is beyond impressive. So please don’t think this is an exhaustive catalog of success.

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Census Bureau Releases 2009 Population Estimates

The 2010 decennial census data collection is underway, but in the meantime the US Census Bureau just released its 2009 annual population estimates for counties and metro areas. So let’s take a look, focusing on the Midwest, but also giving everyone else a look at some types of analysis that might be useful for them to apply to their own city.

Let’s Not Fool Ourselves on Urban Growth

There has been a lot written lately about the return to the city. I’ve noted myself how places like central Indianapolis have reversed decades of population declines. That’s exciting. And the New York Times, for example, just trumpeted how “smart growth is taking hold” in America.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. In my view this represents a possible inflection point, but it is way too early for the type of triumphalist rhetoric being bandied about by advocates.

Let’s take a look at the change in the regional population share in core counties in 2009 vs. 2008 for the Midwest cities I typically focus on.

City  Core County Share Change   2009 Core County Share   2008 Core County Share 
Columbus 0.02% 63.83% 63.81%
Pittsburgh 0.02% 51.74% 51.72%
Milwaukee (0.01%) 61.52% 61.53%
Minneapolis-St. Paul (0.02%) 50.84% 50.86%
Chicago (0.06%) 55.19% 55.24%
Louisville (0.07%) 57.33% 57.41%
Kansas City (0.11%) 34.13% 34.25%
Cincinnati (0.17%) 39.37% 39.54%
St. Louis (0.18%) 47.68% 47.86%
Indianapolis (0.23%) 51.09% 51.32%
Cleveland (0.26%) 61.00% 61.26%
Detroit (0.32%) 43.47% 44.06%

For St. Louis, I use St. Louis city + St. Louis County as the core. For Minneapolis-St. Paul, I used Hennepin+Ramsey as the core.

As you can see, only two regions managed to increase core county share of population, and these by a minuscule amount. Everyone else lost core county share. Keep in mind that even these “core” counties have many places with suburban characteristics. Now you might prefer a purely core city measure, and if so, be my guest. But don’t be surprised if the data gets even worse in many cases. Even in Chicago, which might have experienced the biggest urban core construction boom in America, the city lost population while Cook County gained it. Looking at the core city would make Chicago’s share loss worse.

I think this shows there is still some work to do, to put it mildly.

So why the difference versus the EPA study the NYT trumpets? Well, for one thing, the EPA study is worthless as a measure of urban health. They measure only new building permits, not people. This I think taps into a subtle suburban mindset in our outlook, that new housing units must represent net new inventory and net new people moving in, but in urban areas that’s not necessarily the case.

The sad fact is, many of our urban cores have experienced significant housing abandonment and demolition. So in addition to construction of net new units, there’s a countervailing force of reduction. For example, the greater downtown area of Indianapolis has been seeing lots of construction. But the regional center comprehensive plan noted that between 1990 and 2000, the net number of dwelling units actually decreased. “The actual number of housing units declined over the 10-year period as some housing became dilapidated or was demolished and as some projects were emptied to await renovation (the Census only counts habitable units).”

What’s more, as yuppies move in, and others move out, there is bound to be an effect on household sizes. Is it is really a good idea to price out larger immigrant families to the inner ring suburbs so that DINK’s can move in? How’s that for the environmental footprint of the region?

I’m glad we’ve got big increases in urban construction and even population increases in some neighborhoods, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves by trumpeting a “fundamental shift”, as the EPA does, when the demographics don’t back it up.

The New York Times article is also a disappointment. It fails to do any independent analysis of the data and only talks to people who are cheerleaders for the study, making it a sad piece of journalism.

Someone recently described me as an “apologist for sprawl”. I in no uncertain terms reject that label. I am a passionate urban advocate who wants to see our core cities thrive and prosper. I want more growth there. I live in a city in a walkable neighborhood and rarely drive.

But advocacy research of the type urbanists are quick to decry in others does a disservice to the cause. To change the trajectory of our cities and our built environment in America, we need to start with something called “reality”. I am optimistic that there’s a change in the air. But let’s not make claims about “fundamental shifts” that are simply not supported by any realistic look at the totality of the data.

Pittsburgh!

The big news is that for the first time in forever, Pittsburgh, the incredible shrinking city, actually had positive net domestic in-migration. Here’s a chart:


Graphic via Null Space

The region still lost population, but that’s because of an odd case of natural decrease – more deaths than births. It looks like Pittsburgh might be really hitting its inflection point and starting to regenerate positive demographic growth.

Population Growth

The United States as a whole grew by 0.9% last year. Here is how my Midwest cities fared, ranked by last year’s percentage growth. The rank is the rank within the 52 metro areas with more than one million people.

  • Indianapolis – 1.3% (#19)
  • Columbus – 1.2% (#22)
  • Kansas City – 1.1% (#24)
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul – 1.0% (#26)
  • United States Average – 0.9%
  • Chicago – 0.7% (#34)
  • Louisville – 0.7% (#34)
  • Cincinnati – 0.6% (#37)
  • Milwaukee – 0.6% (#37)
  • St. Louis – 0.4% (#44)
  • Pittsburgh – 0.0% (#49)
  • Cleveland – (0.1%) (#51)
  • Detroit – (0.5%) (#52)

This is pretty much the same as last year. I’ll again note that while Indianapolis is #1, and is growing 50% faster than the country as a whole, Columbus is coming on strong, increasing its growth rate from 1.1% to 1.2%. I would not be surprised if Columbus took over the top spot shortly.

Let’s take a look at this sorted by absolute population growth.

  • Chicago – 64,913 (#8)
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul – 32,202 (#21)
  • Indianapolis – 22,862 (#27)
  • Columbus – 22,026 (#28)
  • Kansas City – 21,502 (#29)
  • Cincinnati – 13,253 (#35)
  • St. Louis – 10,302 (#40)
  • Milwaukee – 9,216 (#41)
  • Louisville – 8,838 (#42)
  • Pittsburgh – (434) (#50)
  • Cleveland – (2,765) (#51)
  • Detroit – (20,344) (#52)

Cities that added more people in 2009 than 2008: Indianapolis, Columbus, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. Cleveland and Detroit also lost fewer people, as did Pittsburgh. Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Louisville, and St. Louis added fewer people than last year.

Net Migration

Again, I like to look at net domestic migration as a key figure of urban demographic health, so let’s take a look.

  • Indianapolis – 7,034
  • Columbus – 5,018
  • Kansas City – 3,929
  • Louisville – 2,122
  • Pittsburgh – 1,144 (WOW)
  • Cincinnati – (384)
  • Milwaukee – (2,336)
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul – (2,503)
  • St. Louis – (4,532)
  • Cleveland – (10,191)
  • Chicago – (40,389)
  • Detroit – (45,488)

Keep in mind, these are total, not percentage figures. Chicago is huge so will naturally put up big numbers. Chicago is also a big immigrant port of entry, with significant international in-migration to offset this, and a structural exporter of people domestically as a result.

Indianapolis remains the migration champ of the Midwest. In terms of total net domestic in-migration, it ranked #18 in the nation. Over 72,500 have moved into Indianapolis metro in the past decade. That’s pretty amazing for a Midwest city and a huge source of demographic strength for the community.

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Richard Longworth: Paying for Cities

[ Many of you undoubtedly already know Richard Longworth, who wrote Caught in the Middle, the most important book out there on the Midwest. What you may not know is that he has started his own blog, The Midwesterner about the Midwest in the global age. This blog is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of the Midwest. Add it to your newsreader now. As an added incentive to check it out, Longworth was gracious enough to supply us with a sample of the type of piece you'll find there. - Aaron ]

The way we finance our cities is broken and must be fixed. A lot of people know this but, so far, most of the fixing amounts to minor measures, a splint here and a band-aid there, a finger in the financial dike, while the big problems grows and grows.

There could be a big new field of academic study out there called Urban Financing, but it’s pretty sparsely inhabited. A few scholars around the Midwest are probing the issue. But no overall picture has emerged, no real attempt to close the gap between the resources now available and the needs of the future.

I hereby offer the use of an oblong table here at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs for Midwestern scholars who want to come together to imagine the urban future. I will throw in a few stuffed pizzas to fuel their thinking and, at the end of the day, some beers to fortify them as they sally forth into the gales of public debate.

But don’t look to me for any solutions – just a statement of the problem. I can’t sing, but I know when the soprano is off key. I can’t balance a civic budget but I know when something isn’t working, and isn’t going to work.

The problem is this:

Midwestern cities have always counted on state governments for big chunks of their funding, especially in infrastructure and education. In return, states have exercised control over much of what cities can do. This includes the power to define units of local government, set the powers of local government, including taxation rights and zoning, dictate how schools are run, and decide what infrastructure will be built, and where.

But many cities are suffering because (1) all states are in a financial jam and the money for cities just isn’t there and (2) state control over cities is keeping cities from doing what is necessary to reinvent themselves. In other words, both sides of this bargain hurt cities.

So the key to urban financing lies in redefining the relationship between cities and states. This is not something that’s going to happen overnight.

There are two big issues here:

1. Restructuring urban finance to enable cities to pay for themselves much more than they do now.

2. Doing this in such a way that it doesn’t price low- and medium-income residents out of the cities themselves.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 dictated where Midwestern state lines would be, even before there were cities or states here. The region’s cities and states grew up together. Indeed, they made each other possible. The states funneled food, raw materials and people into the cities. The great manufacturing cities generated the economic vitality that energized the states. Most Midwestern states looked to their major cities – the biggest city, like Chicago or Cleveland, or the state capital, like Madison – for leadership. In that era, cities and their states needed each other.

That relationship has broken down. Food goes into global markets. So do raw materials, and so do people. For the most part, Midwestern cities no longer project enough economic vitality to enliven themselves, let along their states. Most of the big manufacturing cities are rusted derelicts. Some big cities, like Minneapolis-St. Paul – remain powerful but their states share little of this potency: the Twin Cities generate 64 percent of Minnesota’s economy and 75 percent of its personal income, but much of rural Minnesota is dying nonetheless.

Most of these big cities, having been built on rivers or lakes, lie at the edge of states: think Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee. But state capitals, sited in days of poor roads and hard travel, usually lie in the center of states. Some state capitals – Columbus, Indianapolis, Des Moines – were never industrial centers but thrive now. But non-capitals, by and large, are suffering. No surprise: the capitals and non-capitals are where they are for totally different reasons – one political, the other economic – and never really had much to do with each other.

This worked, more of less, in the industrial era, when the Midwest boomed, when not only cities but smaller towns boasted factories and good wages, when there were still enough farmers to keep rural areas strong. State governments had the money then and shared it.

That day is gone. Even before the recession began, state governments were stiffing their cities, cutting funding for infrastructure, schooling, policing, health. This budget-slashing has now gone into overdrive. Illinois has just announced that the state’s municipalities will be getting 7 percent of the state’s income tax revenue, instead of the usual 10 percent, a difference of about $300 million. Mayor Daley, irate, says the state government must go on a diet. The state no doubt will say that Chicago needs to go on a diet. So it goes.

Illinois’ state government may be notorious but, in its attitude toward cities and in its response to the current economic squeeze, it’s no different from other Midwestern states.

All this was going on before the recession started and it will continue after the recession ends. All Midwestern states face the same double whammy – an eroding economy , meaning less tax income, plus the demands that spring from economic decline, such as the costs of welfare, retraining, rural collapse, imploding infrastructure and widespread poverty.

Each state is so consumed by the burdens of the past that it hasn’t the time, focus or money to deal with the needs of the present and the future, like education or the problems of its big cities.

The recession will end. This disconnect between cities and states won’t. This is why cities must realize that their future lies in their own hands. States won’t help, because they can’t help. If the future is to be bought, cities must pay for it themselves.

Few cities have even begun to think about this. It means a revolution in urban financing, and a new relationship not only with states but with citizens.

Some components of this debate are obvious. One is higher taxes – city income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes. Another is user fees, including higher parking meters rates, higher fares on public transportation, higher dockage fees at marinas, even tolls on highways into town. Another is increased taxes on businesses. Another is privatization of public services, such as bus lines, airports, possibly even schools and some policing. Another is special fees, like the tolls that London charges for motorists who want to drive into the center of the city.

Other possibilities present themselves. One is the consolidation of city and suburban governments, to share tax revenue and achieve economies of scale on public services. Other is the reduction of civic costs, especially cuts in government personnel.

All these possibilities, and many more, will be on the table. Needless to say, not all will become policy. Each gores some well-connected oxen. Business hates the higher business taxes. Homeowners hate higher property taxes. Unions hate civic staffing cuts. Commuters hate higher fares.

But almost all of these solutions exist somewhere in the world, and if American cities are to survive, some of them must be adopted here. None of them will mean the collapse of civilization.

Everyone knows that city governments and other public facilities are grotesquely over-staffed. Businesses may hate to pay higher taxes but will do so to be where the action is. There is no social benefit in clogged highways: if commuters insist on driving, they should pay more for the privilege.

The fact is that cities don’t want to be cheap places to live and work: low-cost places draw bare-bones businesses paying minimum wages, guaranteeing that the cities themselves stay poor. The cities of the future will be those that draw people—both residents and businesses — who are willing to pay for the privilege of being there.

In other words, they need to draw the wealthy, those who can afford to pay the higher costs. Which raises the crucial question – what about everybody else? At what point does economic necessity – the need to pay for the city – bump up against social equity – the need to be affordable to the non-wealthy?

Already, the poor are being squeezed out of cities like Paris, New York – and Chicago. At some point, the middle class could be squeezed out, too. At that time, cities become gated communities, golden ghettoes.

This is not a solution that anyone wants. But neither are cities so cash-strapped that they can’t afford to pay for the amenities of civilization.

This is the terms of the debate to come. How do we pay for our cities, not that the old sources of money are no longer there? But how do we do it without undermining the vibrant economic diversity that has always been the soul of cities?

Richard C. Longworth is a Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, author of the book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, and host of www.globalmidwest.org.

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

A New New Media for Cities

Nancy Levinson, in a piece decrying architecture criticism as a global parade of junkets to starchitect buildings, notes in contrast some critics who’ve focused on a more local market:

It would mean that we’d all have to be willing somehow to deglamorize the global, to make it a measure of critical strength to commit to the local. And in fact some really good critics — Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times, David Dillon at the Dallas Morning News and Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune — have already made that commitment. (Kamin’s Why Architecture Matters is subtitled “Lessons from Chicago.”)

Now I think this somewhat understates Kamin. He did just return from a trip to Dubai to cover the opening of the Burj Khalifa. If Kamin isn’t a big name part of the parade, that’s less a reflection on him – Kamin’s a fantastic writer on architecture who’d surely have many interesting things to say on global buildings – than it is of the incredible shrinking Tribune, a paper felled by the same forces destroying the whole industry: market changes, gross mismanagement, and a journalism corps that clings more stubbornly to its culture, traditions, and legacy business practices than any UAW member ever dared, that cares more about its way of life than the very survival of the profession.

But the characterization of Kamin as a fundamentally local critic is a mostly fair one. And therein lies the story.

There was a day when regional newspapers like the Chicago Tribune mattered nationally. When the thoroughly Republican Tribune turned against Richard Nixon, for example, it was a national event. No longer. No one outside Chicago cares what the Tribune thinks today. Heck, neither do most people inside Chicago.

This decline threatened to rob Chicago of its clout and indeed its voice on the national stage. But fortunately the decline of the newspaper was matched by the rise of one the greatest democratizing mediums the world has ever known, the Internet.

On the Internet, there’s virtually no barrier to entry. If you have something compelling to say, a bit of tech savvy, some street smarts, and a bit of good luck, you can create a monster platform without the backing of a major media concern. Sites as diverse as the Huffington Post, Gawker, TMZ, and Politico have proven that. With so many quality journalists out on the street, there’s already ample human capital to make it happen.

But has it happened? In Chicago and in most cities, unfortunately not.

The Obsession With Local News in Chicago

I’ve attended a lot of new media and other journalism type events in Chicago to try to network and get a flavor of what’s going on in the city. And there are only two words I ever hear in Chicago related to media: “local” and “hyper-local”.

The journalism community in Chicago is obsessed with the idea of news and media as a fundamentally local phenomenon. Who’s going to be the watchdog on Mayor Daley, or report on neighborhood happenings, seems to be the primary concern. The new media field reflects this incredibly local focus. The Windy Citizen bills itself as a local alternative to Digg or Reddit. Gapers Block is a purely local online web publication. This notion of local reached its apex with the Tribune’s own Chicago Now blog network, which only pays bloggers for page views originating from a Chicago IP address, officially declaring non-local readers worthless. Note the very names of these publications, which almost proclaim they don’t have ambitions beyond the region. That’s not to say they are bad sites – on the contrary, I read and enjoy all of them – but they are, above all, local. Others, like the Albany Park Post focus at even more granular, or so-called “hyper-local” level. Or they are branch plant operations like Huffington Post Chicago (where I have contributor status) or Chicagoist. Various old media branch plant bureaus fall into this category, though there are fewer of them by the day. The exception to all this is, of course, the Big O – but whether or not you consider Oprah a journalist is a moot point as she’s closing up shop shortly and moving to LA.

Making the Global Local

Now local isn’t all bad. We need local news and information. But local is precisely what the daily papers are already doing to try to stay afloat. They’ve more or less abandoned national and international coverage in order to focus on purely local events, sports, personalities, and moms. So why does new media replicate that model?

Believe it or not, there’s an entire world of journalism out there beyond local and hyper-local. For example, the role of the newspaper was not always about telling us who won last night’s high school hoops match. Newspapers used to explain what national and international trends and events meant to us, to our towns. They put the major events of the day in a local context.

Journalist Richard Longworth diagnosed this problem with his typical insight in his book Caught in the Middle:

As a former newspaperman, I worry about how Midwesterners will learn about the globalized world that will determine their future. Once the Midwest boasted excellent newspapers….but newspapers are failing, and it’s not just because the world has become so complex and interconnected. Newspaper publishers, panicked by falling circulation, have latched onto a report, issued by the once responsible journalism school at Northwestern University, urging papers to draw readers by stressing local news. There’s only so much space the paper [and less every day - AMR]. All over the Midwest, local news, no matter how trivial, is squeezing out the global coverage that readers need to make sense of their world.

I realized how far this had gone when I got a letter from a friend, an editor of the biggest newspaper in his Midwestern state, saying he was focusing on local news because “readers are getting national and international news from other sources. We are rebuilding our news organization into an information center that can feed a multitude of platforms – community magazines, community newspapers, the core newspaper, various web sites – with custom content that can serve communities that advertisers want to reach: communities such as young mothers who universally don’t read newspapers.”

This jargon is the background noise to a Midwestern newspaper abandoning its responsibility to its readers. If I were a resident of this editor’s city and curious about the world, I couldn’t read about it in my local paper. Instead, I’d have to read the Tribune [not anymore - AMR], or, more likely, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Or I could scour the Web. All carry plenty of global news, but none takes this news and applies it to the particular circumstances of my life and my city. This is what good local papers do.

Longworth is a retired foreign correspondent for the Tribune, a Tribune that no longer has any foreign correspondents. As an old school journalist, he obviously has a newspaper-centric view of the world, but his observations apply equally as well to new media, in Chicago and most other places.

One of his prescriptions for the Midwest was the creation of a serious Midwest newspaper to take on that role for the region. There’s unlikely to be any such thing as a standalone publication, at least not in the print world. But there is something that could have been – and might one day still be – that newspaper. It’s the Chicago edition of the New York Times. The NYT has started dropping in small local sections in cities like San Francisco in Chicago in an attempt to create localized editions.

In Chicago, this news is produced by a non-profit outfit called the Chicago News Cooperative, run by very senior level Tribune refugees. I had high hopes for this, but as it turned out, the Chicago section in the NYT is just more of the same local game, the Mayor Daley parking meter beat and the like. Perhaps their brief from the NYT brass requires it, but the Chicago NYT section has proven to be little more than me-too local reportage. It isn’t putting the big issues from the front page of the NYT into a Chicago or Midwest regional context. (Perhaps Rupert Murdoch, a newspaperman to his core, will be the one that makes this happen with the Wall Street Journal. He’s gearing up to spend $20 million taking on the NYT in New York, so stay tuned).

If you want to “think global, act local”, you first need to figure out what the global means to the local. What’s the implication? That mission isn’t being carried out in Chicago or most other cities – by either the old or the new media.

Does Chicago Have Anything to Say to the World?

But even this type of journalism only helps make sense of what the world has to say to Chicago. There’s another question to answer: Does Chicago have anything to say back? This was once what the Tribune was to the city. It was Chicago’s megaphone to the world.

Is there anyone playing that role today? Sadly not. I’m told that Real Clear Politics is based there, not that you could tell from looking at it. RCP is a successful national site, but one that could be based anywhere, and for all anyone knows, probably is. It is not a recognizably Chicago site, nor does it speak from a Chicago perspective or point of view.

Now it makes sense that certain types of publications will be based in particular places. New York City is the media capital of the US, so obviously is going to have the most popular sites. And indeed there are many, including a number of well known sites that are recognizably NYC, have an NYC perspective on the world, and are often valued for that reason. I think here of Gawker, The Sartorialist, and Streetsblog as examples. Of course DC lends itself to political writing, LA to entertainment, etc. Still, there should be plenty of room for other players.

So where is Chicago in this? Nowhere that I can find. Bringing it back to Kamin, Chicago is a city known for its architecture. And it has several first class architectural writers, including not just Kamin, but Lee Bey, Lynn Becker, and Edward Lifson. Why hasn’t Chicago created even one of the world’s leading architecture blogs? These bloggers write almost exclusively about Chicago – again, the obsession with local – and don’t seem to have major national profiles. Contrast with Los Angeles (BLDGBLOG) or New York (A Daily Dose of Architecture or the Architect’s Newspaper). Where’s Chicago?

The lack of major “local-global” sites in Chicago, which is after all the third largest city in America and the #8 most important “global city” according to Foreign Policy Magazine, is puzzling.

What’s even stranger to me is that no one in Chicago ever seems to talk about this or even recognize it. It’s nothing but a chorus of “local” and “hyper-local”. It’s as if there’s a missing gene in its media DNA.

The plain fact is, outside its own four walls, Chicago media is irrelevant. In the great global conversation, Chicago stands mute. If it wants to get its story told, someone else will have to do the telling. Perhaps this explains why the city gets all giddy like a schoolgirl when Coco comes to town or the New Yorker prints a flattering profile of the mayor.

This is not to overly pick on Chicago in particular. I just know that city best. The same situation prevails in most places.

Doing It Right – Bil Browning and the Bilerico Project

The reason for this is not that the global age has led to the ever greater concentration of new media. There has been concentration, yes. But the competitive landscape is more open that ever, even for places you might never think of.

A great example is The Bilerico Project, co-founded by editor Bil Browning of Indianapolis. Bilerico is basically the Huffington Post of the LGBT world. It is one of the single most important LGBT sites in the entire United States. And yes, it is based in Indianapolis. What’s more, the people reading the site know Browning and know the site is from Indianapolis. While it has certainly become a much more national platform, there are still many Indiana-based contributors, and Browning maintains an Indiana vertical on his site. Bilerico matters in the LGBT world. So in a sense, Indianapolis has acquired the ability to move markets in this space. That’s pretty incredible.

How did Browning create such a site? For one thing, he was ambitious to do so. A local Indy nemesis of his attempted to criticize Browning by saying that “All he ever wanted was to be famous.” To which I say, and your point is? Famous as opposed to what, obscure? Who aspires to be that?

Of course Browning wanted to be famous – and he was ambitious to create a monster platform in his space. He toiled away at it long hours until he caught a break during the last election cycle, and then rode it for all it was worth. This made Browning something of a rarity – a full time, paid professional journalist in the new media space – he might prefer the term “professional gay” – with as close to a sustainable model as anyone is likely ever to get in this world.

This is a powerful example. Chicago probably has ten times as many gays as Indianapolis, but isn’t home to a single nationally important LGBT new media site I’m aware of. The difference is the ambition, talent, and hard work of Browning, co-founders Jerame Davis and Alex Blaze, and the many contributors who’ve made the Bilerico Project what is is today.

Lessons for Cities

What are the lessons for your city? I think there are two.

1. It’s a big world out there. There’s always a need for local news, and if that’s your passion, then go for it. But as local papers proceed down that route on the slow march to oblivion, there’s a bigger mission to fill, and that’s bringing a broader perspective. Particularly for urbanist sites, I’d put the challenge out to think hard, dig deep, and really try to think about how these national trends and policy discussions affect you and your city. I read a lot of urbanist blogs, many of them very good. The blogs in smaller cities are often bringing the good news of progressive urban policy to places who have a desperate need to hear it. But so often this is just “pass through”. The authors have a tendency to adopt the perspectives of the people generating the national discussion. They see the local environment through the global lens, rather than seeing the global environment through the local one. I literally had someone write to me a couple weeks ago, “We know we need to be like Portland, but we aren’t. So what do we do?” No! You don’t need to be like Portland. Don’t measure yourself against Portland as the standard. Instead, look at what Portland is doing and say, “Wow, there’s some nice stuff there. What might that mean to us? How might we actually apply this to our city? What unique things might we want to do different from Portland? Hey, and maybe, where are we ahead of Portland?” Don’t be a supplicant to the throne. Have a bit of amour-propre about your city while not being too proud to learn from elsewhere.

2. Find your own voice. It is a wide open world. There’s an ability for a small city to get its message out in a very powerful way on a global basis that never existed before. I come back to the fantastic sites Copenhagenize and Cycle Chic from Copenhagen that have had such an impact. It doesn’t matter who you are anymore. Get out there and tell your story and grab a seat at the table in that great global conversation. Let the world know what your city has to say.

In short, think Bilerico, not Chicago. There’s a big, wide-open new media world out there. Get in the game and claim your city’s piece of it.

Related:
The Future of the American Newspaper – My 6,500 word essay from last spring on this topic.

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Janette Sadik-Khan on Changing the Transportation Game

I don’t normally post on Saturdays, but am compelled to put out this “Urbanophile Extra” to highlight this absolutely beyond must-watch video of NYC Transportation Commissioner Jannette Sadik-Khan explaining to an audience in LA what it takes to implement progressive transportation policy in our cities. If you care about transportation in our cities, you must watch this relatively short piece.

It’s not just that I’m sucking up to Sadik-Khan here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am sucking up to her, but more than that, she says more about this in about one total minute of talking than most people do in a lifetime. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Want to change the game on transportation in your city? Here’s Sadik-Khan’s workplan for you:

  1. It starts with strong leadership from the top (i.e., the mayor) with a long term vision of the city.
  2. Then you need a policy framework to make it reality. “The public needs to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. What’s the plan?!”
  3. You need a team of great people, and the institutional capability to deliver.
  4. Move fast, don’t get bogged down in endless debates, and don’t be afraid to experiment. The results will speak for themselves. (I’m reminded of Jaime Lerner’s dictum: “If you want to make it happen, do it fast.”)

It’s really that simple folks. If you don’t have these basics – if you don’t have leadership, don’t have a plan – you might as well hang it up.

Like Sadik-Khan, I think you’ve got to give major credit to Mayor Bloomberg on this. As a CEO and guy who built a major business, he instinctively gets what it takes to make it happen on all these fronts.

And it was great to hear Sadik-Khan give some props to the folks at Streetsblog and Streetfilms. Way to go!

Update: Since I see this post went out on a number of transit lists, I thought maybe you’d like to read my award winning paper on boosting public transit ridership in Chicago.

Related:
New York: Leadership in Transportation Design
Another Epic Public Space WIN in New York
15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis Right Now

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Replay: The Importance of Aesthetics in Transportation Facility Design

As I sat down to write a review of INDOT’s nice 46th St. bridge replacement project in Indianapolis, it occurred to me that a sort of prologue was in order. I often talk about the importance of aesthetics and design identity in roadway design, but have to date not justified why that is something we should care about.

I argue that there are national and regional trends that lead to this, especially in a Midwestern city. These cluster in three groups:

  1. Trends in international economics and culture
  2. Transformation of the public square in American life
  3. Unique Midwestern challenges

As to the first point, we see a number of trends converging. Firstly is the rise of offshore economic production and domestic productivity increases, which have decimated the Midwestern manufacturing base and threaten to bring similar changes to the service sector. This might not seem on the surface to have much to do with transportation aesthetics, but it does. Previously, Midwestern states could rely on participating in a sort of commodity market for manufacturing jobs within a dominant region in a dominant country. That is, the most important determinants of factory location were access to labor and other manufacturers and the cost of doing business. This leads to a strategy of focusing purely on functional efficiency and minimizing cost. The problem is, in a commodity market, the low cost producer wins, and in a global economy with third world labor at pennies per hour and nearly ubiquitous low-cost transportation, the Midwest will never be a low cost producer again, no matter how much cost cutting they do on highway design. This means a more differentiated strategy needs to be pursued.

We also see cultural trends heading this direction. Witness the decline of a homogenized national experience in favor of more specialty, high quality products. Fifteen years ago, Hoosiers got their coffee from the $0.69 bottomless cup at Waffle House. Today they suck down so many $4 lattes that your find Starbucks outlets at interstate highway exits next to the truck stop and Starbucks even put its Midwest headquarters in Indianapolis. In the 1980’s you had your choice of three beers: Miller, Bud, and Coors. Today, the quality and quantity of beers available in even small markets is nothing short of astonishing. There used to be three major TV networks everyone watched. Today there are hundreds of specialized cable networks. If you wanted a good meal in the Midwest, it wasn’t too long ago that you had to hope you were fortunate enough to live in Chicago. Today, virtually every city has a variety of high quality restaurants.

Beyond the general quality explosion and niche markets, we also see the rise of design for its own sake. Today, every product is so sophisticated that it becomes difficult to separate DVD players, etc. based purely on technical criteria. Every new release of Microsoft Word only adds even more new features most users will ever need or care about. What is becoming more and more important is that products simply look cool. The best example of this might be the iPod, which even today is not the most advanced music player on the market. While Apple clearly got the value proposition right, the design of this product played a huge role in its popularity. Starbucks is known as much for the design of their stores as for the actual quality of the coffee. In short, design matters. And the importance of design will only continue to increase over time. This has been well-documented, for example in books like Virginia Postrel’s “The Substance of Style”. (Postrel has a new web publication called Deep Glamour you may want to check out).

To sum up, Midwestern cities cannot rely on traditional commodity approaches in today’s world. Rather, they need to pursue a more differentiated strategy that recognizes key trends like globalization, the rise of niche markets, high quality, and the importance of design.

Beyond these trends, the post-war transformation of American living patterns has changed the entire nature of the public square and the public experience, though this is often unrecognized. Our interstates and primary arteries are our new “Main Streets”. They are our true public spaces and shared experience. The only impression many people will ever have of a place is driving through it on the freeway. What type of impression does your town want to leave? Cities and towns invest millions in aesthetic improvements in their downtowns, downtowns that increasingly are not the locations that shape people’s perception of a place. Too often the places people predominantly see are neglected. This is where aesthetics is really key.

The Midwest also has a particular problem attracting the talent needed to compete in the 21st century economy in most places. Natives get their degrees and leave, and there isn’t enough inflow from elsewhere to make up the difference. This is a result of yet another trend: the mobility of people in our modern society. In today’s world it is as true that jobs follow people as it is that people follow jobs. One reason you see comparatively few life sciences and high technology jobs in the Midwest is the lack of a skilled labor force. The answer is not just to try to lure jobs, but also to try to lure the people.

This is where aesthetics in transportation really comes in. Why is this? The Midwest does not have mountains or an ocean or perfect weather all the time. So its built environment plays a critical role in the overall perception that people have of it. It also has to play a role in making people want to live there.

That’s the key. Cities need to make people want to live in them. As I’ve argued before, no one who is bright, ambitious, and has big plans for themselves will want to live in a place where good enough is good enough. The new economy labor force is going to migrate to places where the civic ambition matches their personal ambition. I believe there is no greater marker of the civic ambition of a place than the design of public spaces and buildings, and transportation facilities are the public space par excellence in our modern society.

Consider Wal-Mart. They understand that design and aesthetics say something important about what they are all about as a company. Wal-Mart could easily afford to make their stores look better. But they don’t. Why? It isn’t just to save money. Rather, they are doing it to send a powerful message to their customer that they don’t care about anything but rock bottom prices. This works for Wal-Mart because that design identity fits with who they are as a company. And fortunately for them, they are the low cost producer in a commodity market, hence their enormous success as a company.

But what if your town is giving off a Wal-Mart vibe but is still far from being a low cost provider, particularly when overseas competition is factored in? That’s the place all too many Midwestern towns can find themselves in. And that’s why designing high quality projects that also provide a sense of design identity for a place is so important.

By the way, this does not necessarily involve spending huge sums of money. For example, I highlighted 15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis in my Pecha Kucha presentation. I believe that if done right, making it look good doesn’t have to cost a lot of extra money. We have to keep two decisions firmly separate in our minds: what do we want? and how can we get that most cost effectively? It can be the case that we have to compromise on what we want in order to live within what we can afford, but let’s make that choice consciously, not by default.

This post originally ran on February 24, 2008.

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