Friday, March 19th, 2010
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:
- Trends in international economics and culture
- Transformation of the public square in American life
- 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.