Friday, April 30th, 2010

Replay: What Made the Burnham Plan of Chicago Successful

As part of my Burnham Plan centennial celebration, I was recently prompted to ponder what made this plan successful. (Let us put aside for future postings the question of whether it was in reality a success). I started creating a list of attributes of the plan I think contributed to its success. Interestingly, all of these are lessons for today’s planners and are often overlooked. So let’s consider some of them.

1. It was a private sector, business led initiative. I hear people today moan about the feckless political leadership in their cities. But Chicago wasn’t immune from this in the early 20th century. The rest of the civic leadership didn’t wait around for the city politicians to get their act together. Rather, the Merchants Club of Chicago (which later merged with the Commercial Club, a still existing organization) stepped in and sponsored the creation of a plan that they saw as critical to overcoming the challenges the city faced at the time and propelling its future growth.

This is very relevant today. Most cities have some corporate/academic vehicle that is often a prime force in local initiatives. This is the logical place for such a civic strategy to be developed today. However, I might suggest that unlike in Burnham’s day, having a broader stakeholder base is critical. Thus involving cultural institutions or other non-business groups, plus at least some form of broader community input is essential today. But I still think that it is generally the business community that is the likely sponsor for any plan.

2. It took two years to create. The Burnham Plan was not an overnight creation. It took a lot of research and deliberation. Today, it would likely take even longer. This is another reason why politicians aren’t likely to be the driving force. They need solutions that show results within the election cycle. They need to cut ribbons, not produce three year studies.

3. It was well funded. While fundraising wasn’t a snap, the business community of Chicago and its wealthy elite subscribed in sufficient quantity to enable the production of a first class plan.

4. It included a lot of focus and investment in a high quality of design in the output. Notably, Burnham & Co. commissioned bespoke artwork for their renderings. They knew they needed first rate renderings and an authoritative final report to have credibility.

5. The practical side of getting things done wasn’t ignored. The final report included a lengthy appendix by a local lawyer talking about all the legal aspects of the plan. Notably, it anticipates the Kelo decision nearly a century later. These guys put a lot of thought into how they would actually action the plan.

6. They followed through with a long term sales and delivery program. This included extensive marketing and PR over the long term, including the creation of a children’s edition of the plan that was taught in the public schools. They created the Chicago Plan Commission as a semi-private agency to oversee getting the plan done. And so on.

7. The wisely glommed onto things that were already under consideration or had already been done. A lot of things are credited to the Burnham Plan that really pre-dated it. The lakefront park system was already partially constructed prior to the plan, which only recommended doing more. The Michigan Ave. bridge was already a fierce topic of contemporary debate. And so on. This not only imbued the plan with the patina of those successes, it helped to seed a holistic vision around something that people could imagine since they were living it.

8. The plan had a good mix of both the concrete and the conceptual. There were some very specific items such as the Michigan Ave. bridge while others such as the ring road network were more conceptual. This was good for a couple reasons. One, for those who don’t think conceptually or futuristically, the tangible gave them something to latch onto. Two, the tangible items could be picked off on the short term, to show progress and get people believing in the plan.

These items are good, but don’t tell the whole story. I recently was fairly critical of the Cincinnati Agenda 360 plan, and it incorporated most of the attributes above.

No, one additional key ingredient was Burnham himself. He didn’t even necessarily do the work, but he had a key quality. He was someone who was an urban visionary and forward thinker, but combined that with enormous credibility and social clout among Chicago’s elite. This is the rare combination. Burnham had long been the face of a successful architecture practice. His World’s Columbian Exhibition was a huge success that gave him massive credibility. And he had done city plans for other places such as Cleveland. He was trusted and taken seriously by the elite. So when he proposed ideas that might not have appeal otherwise, his personal credibility could carry the day, could resolve conflict, etc.

This is what is missing. There are urban visionaries and there are power brokers, but seldom are the two combined into one flesh. That was what made Burnham different. In a Christ-like way, he was two persons in one body. That, I think, is perhaps the key reason that Chicago not only created a plan, but actually implemented a lot if it and was successful from it. It takes a combination of power and vision. The ability to get things done with the wisdom to know what it is we should do. Absent the emergence of a Burnham, or perhaps a Lennon-McCartney type partnership, it seems unlikely that a plan of similar impact will be produced in any city any time soon.

I’m of course interested to hear additional perspectives on what made Burnham’s Plan unique. And yes, I’ll listen to the case that it is at least partially self-mythologizing on the part of Chicago.

To close, I’d be remiss if I did not say that a plan like Burnham’s wouldn’t be appropriate for today’s world. We’re at the dawn of the 21st century, not the 20th. And we are in the early days of the true post-modern, post-industrial era, not the middle age of that previous order like Burnham was. A plan of today, of the now, would be very different and recognize that we are in a very different world. More to come on that in future posts.

This post originally ran on April 15, 2009.

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Top Down or Bottom Up Leadership? Both!

There’s a lot of debate about whether strong leadership from the top or powerful grass roots initiatives from the bottom are what are needed to move our cities forward. I happen to think there are examples on both sides. Clearly, a strong leader with a vision and a range of skills needed to get things done can really be a catalyst for transformation. On the other hand, much neighborhood revitalization has come from bottoms up activities of people who more or less acted independently of the government or civic leadership.

But while either model can succeed, the best situation by far is to be able to combine strong grass roots with strong top level leadership. When it works, it’s magic. And too often when one element is missing, it vitiates the good work of the other.

Consider the large and high quality change in transportation and public space design that’s happened in New York. New York came out of nowhere to basically displace Portland as the poster child for transportation innovation in America. Who gets the credit? Well, you have to give big credit to Mayor Bloomberg and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. That’s a powerful combo that has a vision of what they want to accomplish and the ability to get it done.

But I don’t think it is any accident that New York is also home to Streetsblog/Streetfilms, America’s premier livable streets advocacy organization. So you’ve got to give Aaron Naparstek and Clarence Eckerson some credit for this too, along with other activist groups and leaders. (The Street* empire is funded by a hedge fund millionaire, but in New York, that’s still grass roots!). They played a huge role in educating the public, building public demand, and keeping the pressure on the city for better. On another front, it was also a grass roots initiative, combined with active city buy-in, that led to the creation of the stupendous High Line.

Now, these two sides don’t always agree. Streetsblog and Streetfilms are about strident activism for better street and public space design in New York. They are not afraid to get in the face of city agencies when they feel it is necessary. Similarly, the city deals in a constrained world, not a utopia, and has to make compromises and balance other objectives at times. The two don’t always see eye to eye. But that’s a healthy tension. There’s a difference between a robust, engaged grass roots and obstructionism, partisanship, or other types of destructive behaviors. As a consultant, I have always believed that the best results come from a strong consulting team, with real insight and their own point of view, working for a strong, demanding, talented client. It can make for some tense moments at times, but that’s when the best business value is often delivered, and really, really ambitious things get pulled off. I think NYC’s leadership recognizes this, which is one reason why Sadik-Khan praised the Street* crew in a recent speech.

The advocacy community has been instrumental in getting us where we are today. There’s absolutely no question that groups like Transportation Alternatives, folks like Clarence at Streetsblog and Streetfilms, all those kinds of people worked hard at the hard business of change, day in, day out. That’s the hard work. And that really set the table for people having a different view and having a different conversation.

Contrast NYC with Chicago, arguably America’s greatest top-down success story. With rare exceptions like Millennium Park, New York is far better than Chicago in terms of innovation and quality of design in streets and public space. Chicago has strong leadership, but no effective, independent grass roots or bottoms up advocacy – certainly none that is willing to stick its neck out and challenge the city. As good as Mayor Daley might be, he can’t have all the ideas himself. As a result, quality has suffered – the city’s streetscape designs are epically banal, for example – and Chicago has basically embraced the role of fast follower, such as by hiring the same firm that designed the High Line to create a local copy called the Bloomingdale Trail.

And many cities alas don’t have a strong, good leader. Getting one seems to be a crap shoot. That’s why if you have to dispense with one or the other, you’re probably better off having strong grass roots change. In a large city, your odds of having motivated citizens who’ll get out and make something happen are a lot higher than that you’ll elect the next Mayor Daley. And when hopefully good leadership does come along, they’ll have something in place to work with.

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Chuck Banas: This Is Sprawl

[ I stumbled across this incredible post via a link from Buffalo Rising. The author, Chuck Banas, posted it on his blog, Joe the Planner, which has only a few posts, but boy do they pack a wallop. Chuck, who is an urban planning consultant and community activist in Buffalo, New York, and chairs the SmartCode Committee at the New Millennium Group (of Western New York)., kindly gave me permission to repost. – Aaron ]

Sprawl is a word familiar to most people, but few can tell you exactly what it means. Even experts don’t always agree on a precise definition.

The term itself is somewhat ambiguous, and often divisive. This is especially true when the word is preceded by the modifiers suburban or urban, which is commonly the case. Then the term is really loaded. Political discussion of the topic regularly provokes the already contentious relationships between cities and suburbs. This needlessly causes communities that should be cooperating to take sides against each other.

Here in the Buffalo-Niagara region, only one other word is as divisive: regionalism. Yeah, I said it. First the s-word, and now the r-word. Good thing I’m not a politician, because my career would probably have just ended. The r-word, as I shall call it from now on, became a four-letter word in this area just shy of a decade ago, after a certain County Executive decided to make city-county consolidation his focus. He got pretty far, too, before allegations of political corruption, a county bankruptcy, and public dissension finally killed the idea. Too bad.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The intent of this post is to provide some conceptual clarity regarding the concept of sprawl, both nationally and locally. I’ll also be explaining what sprawl and the r-word have to do with one another, and why this is fundamentally important to the future of everyone in the Buffalo-Niagara region. As usual, I’ll do this by providing a big-picture narrative combined with some statistics and visuals.

A Case Study for Sprawl

No matter what the wording, sprawl refers to the spreading-out of a population of people and its effects—effects that are often harmful to our individual lives and counterproductive to our shared goals. Of course, sprawl is not unique to us in Western New York, or even to the United States. It occurs everywhere throughout the world in varying forms, but we Americans arguably lay claim to inventing a most peculiar and pernicious strain of it. This has resulted in the virtual trashing of our traditional cites and towns, along with the paving-over of agricultural lands and other countryside that surrounds them.

But the argument against sprawl is not simply an aesthetic one; some of the most debilitating effects are social, cultural, and economic. You might wish to check out my previous post for a provoking take on sprawl as a national phenomenon.

As it turns out, the Buffalo Metro area is a nearly ideal case for the study of sprawl and its effects. This is for two main reasons: (1) the region has well-established pre-World War II, pre-automobile cities and towns, and (2) the metro population has essentially remained unchanged since the end of WWII.

Yep, you read that right. Buffalo’s metro population has essentially remained unchanged for the last 60 years. With all the talk about population loss, it seems that many people don’t realize this. Buffalo hasn’t shrunk; it’s just spread-out. This makes the effects of sprawl quite obvious because there’s been no significant statistical muddying caused by changes in population.

Same Number of People, Three Times the Stuff

What does this mean? Put simply, the same number of people spread over an area over three times larger means there is three times the amount of stuff that the same number of people have to pay for.

Most visibly, that’s over three times the infrastructure costs: three times the roads, power lines, water lines, sewer systems, gas service, schools, fire stations, police, etc. This stuff doesn’t get magically built and maintained on its own; the money has to come from somewhere. And it does: it comes out of all of our pockets directly or indirectly through higher local, county, and state taxes and fees; through the personal requirement to own and maintain one or more automobiles; through the wasted time and money of longer commutes to/from work, shopping, and entertainment; and from chauffeuring the kids back and forth to hockey practice or piano lessons.

All of this extra space we occupy has precisely the effects you’d predict. We in Erie and Niagara Counties now drive 53% more miles per year than we did in 1980. Nationally, the effects are even more stark: from 1977 to 2001, the number of miles driven every year by Americans rose by 151%—about five times faster than the growth in population. Americans spend four times as much on transportation as Europeans. It costs over $7,000 per year to maintain a single car. And, if you can believe it, the average American household today makes 14 individual car trips per day. (An interesting study found that if only one car trip per day were eliminated, this would result in an annual savings of about $1,100 per household.)

Statistics aside, all of these additional obligations in time and money make us poorer—both individually and collectively. Over the last 60 years, we’ve been too busy trying to keep up with basic infrastructure maintenance to invest much in our future. Individually, people have less to spend on housing, food, transportation, health care, entertainment, etc. There are fewer public resources available for schools, parks, cultural institutions, and other public services. There is less disposable income at all levels, and little capital left in society to invest in new business and new forms of wealth creation.

The cycle goes like this: We spread out and build more stuff. Costs go up. Taxes go up. Services get cut. Institutions languish. The quality of everyone’s life diminishes. Citizens complain about the corruption and inefficiency of government. And it repeats in a vicious cycle.

That’s not the only cost. In this zero-sum game, every winner in the region creates one or more losers. As we’ve subsidized new development in the region, older neighborhoods have suffered. Every new house built on a greenfield means a house somewhere else blighted, abandoned, or demolished. Every new square-foot of retail space devalues or destroys a square-foot elsewhere. Poverty and crime grow like a cancer, which are huge economic drags on the region. Without the resources for proper maintenance, older roads, bridges, sewers, and other infrastructure deteriorate. And that cycle repeats itself, too.

The result is we’re less able to compete against other, growing, lower-taxed areas. We have a hard time attracting new people or new investment because we’re continually burdening ourselves with new costs that add no real value to our region.

In fact, it’s not too much to say that virtually all the so-called ‘growth’ that we’ve seen here in the last half-century has been an illusion. Sure, it kinda looked like real growth—new roads, new homes, new strip malls, new schools—but because there has been no increase in population, it’s really a rigged shell game. For the last three generations, we’ve spent the greater part of our collective regional wealth moving about a third of our population further and further out into the countryside.

“So what?” you say? “People voted with their feet.” But if you think this has been solely a matter of consumer choice, a free-market phenomenon, think again. It is well documented that sprawl is driven mainly by destructive public policy, bad planning, and a lack of municipal coordination (again, read my previous post).

There is another significant cost to the low-density, auto-oriented living arrangement we’ve constructed. Vitality, be it economic, cultural, or otherwise, requires a critical mass. If too many elements of the economy and society are spread too thin across the landscape, then even a million people can’t create a healthy, dynamic economy, let alone pay for the required infrastructure. Economic and social capital don’t work if spread too thin. Markets don’t work if too many ingredients are isolated from each other.

The result? We end up exactly in the type of situation we find ourselves today. Surprised, anyone?

The Big Picture

At this point, all of this blather about strip malls, taxes, and blight might have you a bit glassy-eyed. It’s often easy to get lost among the details, so sometimes it helps to step back and look at the big picture.

Specifically, I’m referring to the picture below, which may help bring the issue of sprawl into even sharper focus. This map tells the story of our region’s problems perhaps more clearly than any of the reams of reports issuing from governments or foundations. The diagram also suggests a obvious solution to our regional problems.

Shown on the map at left is the extent of urbanized area in Metro Buffalo in 1950 and 2000 (yellow and red, respectively). The wording of the official U.S. Census Bureau definition is a little tricky, but for these purposes urbanized area refers to just about any census block within Erie and Niagara Counties that has a population density greater than 1,000 people per square mile.

What does this simple measure mean? Well, a high-ish population density of 1,000 or more implies an urban or suburban settlement—and all of the infrastructure required to support it; namely, roads, sewers, electric, schools, police, etc. All that stuff we covered above. So as the map shows, we’ve now got over three times the amount of stuff to maintain for the same amount of people we had in 1950.

If this isn’t a shocking call to action, I don’t know what is. This shows the vital critical mass of people and money and ideas diffused and squandered. This shows our region bleeding to death.

In simplest terms, this is sprawl. This is arguably our area’s essential problem, summarized neatly in a single picture. And bear in mind that this is only a snapshot of a ongoing trend. When the 2010 figures are released, there is sure to be a bunch more red on this map.

The R-Word

What’s the solution? Well, in a word: the r-word. Some people call it regional government (which for me is way too close to the r-word). Others call it metropolitan government or inter-municipal coordination. Whatever the term, it refers to a layer of governance and planning at the regional scale, so that all of the region’s resources can be coordinated effectively.

Currently, there are 64 separate municipalities in Buffalo-Niagara, with virtually no coordination or cooperation between them. Towns poach development from each other. Villages plan independently of their surrounding towns. Developers know the game, and play government entities against one another for public subsidy. There is duplication of services and unnecessary waste. And no one is steering the big ship.

In short, we spend most of our time fighting one another instead of working to compete effectively against other regions—many of which already have their metro-government acts together. If we want things to change, we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done. More of the same old self-inflicted harm won’t turn things around.

There is hope, however. The city-county merger almost came to a vote before county bankruptcy, a control board, and the events of 9/11 put a stop to it. Metro Buffalo already includes respected regional government entities that address certain cross-jurisdictional functions, including an excellent metro transportation system (NFTA) and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system.

Also, it must be noted, most other regions have leadership that’s just as slow and incompetent as ours seems to be. Nationally, the bar isn’t set that high.

Suffice it to say that, as a region, it is our choice to work together. Or not. We have it within our power to shape our own future, but only if we see that all of us—all the cities, towns, and villages in this thing we call Buffalo-Niagara—are in this together.

The metropolitan area is the only meaningful social and economic unit that exists in this region. We share the same history, culture, climate, sports teams, and cultural assets—and we all ultimately share the same fate. Perhaps, after decades of declining fortunes, we’ve forgotten this fact. Fear has made our politics dysfunctional and turned our leaders into insular cowards. Decades of tough times will do that.

The good news is this: some of the groundwork is already laid. The good ideas are out there. Most people in this area would agree that we need to change how we do things, and a significant number would advocate a regional approach to governance.

But we must choose to govern not based on fear, but on the faith in our ability to shape our future. And each new day hands us the same choice.

This post originally ran at Joe the Planner under the title “Sprawl and the r-word, a Buffalo-Niagra Case Study.” Reprinted with permission of the author.

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Thoughts on a Federal Policy for American Cities

America is a metropolitan nation, as has been tirelessly documented by the Brookings Institution and many others. Two-thirds of Americans live in the top 100 metro areas, which generate 68% of employment and 75% of GDP. You’ve heard the stats before I’m sure.

Yet the federal government has often given cities short shrift, preferring to think instead of the federal-state partnership through our system of federalism. The Obama administration has brought a new focus on cities, creating the first ever White House Office of Urban Affairs, but we are still a long way from having a real 21st century federal policy for America’s cities.

I’ll share some thoughts on a federal urban policy today, though clearly am not laying out any sort of a complete program myself. I just want to highlight some key considerations and ideas to stimulate thinking and conversation.

The Importance of Flexibility

The first thing to consider is the danger of a stronger federal urban policy. The biggest risk is that of the federal government imposing a one-size-fits-all model on cities. It is the nature of governments to promote uniform rules. Also, urban policy is incredibly faddish. As a result, we tend to do pretty much the same thing in almost every city around the country, whether that be freeways yesterday or bike lanes today.

But our country is incredibly diverse and only getting more so. Our cities are likewise are diverse to match. Indeed, they often have radically different demographics, histories, economies, etc. The needs of one place are vastly different from those of others. Policies that are right for Chicago may be wrong for Detroit. Those that are right for Detroit would probably be wrong for Columbus, Ohio.

Economist Joe Cortright, who did much of the research behind the CEOs for Cities initiatives, has said that the four issues cities must pay attention to are talent, innovation, connection, and distinctiveness. Per Cortright:

The point about distinctiveness is the most important issue for cities. There is no single model for the city of the future. One failing of public policy work is that it often assumes there is only one model for cities to follow. While there are common elements like talent, innovation and connections, they all mean different things in different places.

The challenge is for each city to figure out its special niche so that it can define its strategic opportunities. What can they do differently or better than others? What about their populations, DNA, culture, traditions, history and specialized knowledge make them unique?

And Harvard business professor Michael Porter, the godfather of strategy, has said that “competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique matrix of value.”

Being distinctive, being different, are important to urban success. You have to find your niche as a city. That means you actually have to do something different. A federal policy where everyone was more or less forced to do the same basic things would be antithetical to the development of the rich tapestry of diverse and specialized cities that we need to create in order to promote urban success and prosperity across this country.

In that light, one key element that should underpin federal urban policy is flexibility. That is, the federal government needs to be willing to give broad discretion to cities and regions to pursue different approaches, even if those sometimes don’t agree with what some federal officials might prefer. This might seem like the opposite of a federal policy, but it is not, as we’ll see.


The first area we need reform in is transportation. Today most transportation funding is allocated to highways and flows down through state DOT’s. This lets the states siphon off the money for boondoggles. It seems unlikely the states will ever stop doing this voluntarily, so the federal government ought to look at changing the way it distributes money.

The first way to do this is to directly allocate the bulk of transportation funds to MPO’s whose size exceeds a certain threshold, such as urbanized areas of greater than one million people. The MPO would be the conduit for the money directly from the federal government. Some type of analysis could be done to calculate the cost to maintain rural interstates and federal aid highways, plus some reasonable expansion funds. That money could continue to flow to the state DOT’s. Perhaps they could also administer funds for smaller urban areas that lack the technical expertise to do it themselves. But the majority of the money should go directly to metro areas. Remember, these metro areas account for a the bulk of the population, jobs, and economic output, so this is where the money probably should be going. Let’s cut out the middle man, which will probably be more efficient to boot.

Secondly, this money ought to be in the form of bulk flexible funding, not all these byzantine special funding programs that restrict money to certain highly specific uses. This is the way we bring flexibility.

A city like New York needs big dollars for new heavy rail investments. They could perhaps allocate their money to that. Maybe Chicago feels it needs more transit operating funds. It should be allowed to use some of its annual federal funding for operating needs if it wants. Portland might want to stress bike infrastructure. Some cities might even choose to build highways. Believe it or not, rapidly growing cities do need more road infrastructure. The key is to let cities choose for themselves.

I’m not sure what the federal role is here, but we also need some type of MPO reform to make sure that MPO’s don’t start acting like state DOT’s. In particular, way too many MPO’s have a “one municpality, one vote” system where a tiny suburb gets as much say as the central city. Perhaps this is best addressed through broader regionalism initiatives, as I don’t see how successful regionalism could be imposed from outside.

Lastly, there’s high speed rail. I can certainly respect that many people might think it’s a boondoggle. The cost is very high and the benefits speculative outside of the Northeast corridor. But if we do move forward with it, we should at least make sure it has a shot of succeeding. That means making sure: a) we have real high speed rail, not a 110-MPH Amtrak on steroids system, b) that we charter a real high speed rail operating authority or hire a competent overseas operator and don’t rely on Amtrak to run it, c) we make sure it stays as a major metropolitan service, without being forced to serve and stop at every small town along the way. (I don’t object to occasional “stoptrein” service, as long as the bulk of service is limited stop).

I previously wrote a long take on high speed rail in the Midwest addressing these points in more detail.


This is a broad topic I’ll only touch on. A lot of federal housing programs seem to be restricted to areas with very low income levels and towards projects that have a certain percentage of low income residents. Again, I think we need more flexibility here.

For example, for a city like Chicago, the main issue might be affordable housing. That’s less of an issue in smaller cities where housing is virtually free given the levels of abandonment. A city like Cleveland might want to emphasize spending money on demolition of vacant structures. Other cities might want to look at middle class neighborhoods that are declining and try to stabilize them through public investment before they become the next basket case. (This seems to be a huge gap in the federal program right now).

Environmental Policy

Environmental policy with regards to cities needs to start from the premise that the most environmentally friendly thing we can do is to have more people living in cities. Thus the aim of federal environmental policy should be to increase the attractiveness of cities vs. greenfield developments on the fringe.

Unfortunately, much policy has exactly the opposite effect. Particularly the Clean Water Act might be one of the most important forthcoming drivers of sprawl. Pretty much every older city is facing a multi-billion dollar bill to eliminate combined sewer overflows to comply with the act. A noble goal. But the costs of compliance are staggering and will only encourage people to flee to the fringes. (In general, even places with regional sewer utilities have plenty of suburban areas that are outside its boundaries and thus are not burdened with these costs). CSO remediation is the biggest local capital project in pretty much every city I track.

Also, the preferred approach today to compliance is a so-called “deep tunnel”, where excess sewage is stored in huge underground tunnels bored into bedrock. This is a pretty horrible waste of money. Today there are much better ways to do this using modern green infrastructure such as green roofs, rain gardens/swales, permeable pavements, etc. But the EPA hasn’t been with the program on this. Cincinnati wanted to do this and got shot down. Philadelphia is trying now and we’ll see where they get. This should be encouraged. We need to stop pursuing 1970’s solutions.

There are two big things the federal government could do here. First, the President could tell the EPA to get serious about green stormwater management and do everything possible to put a halt to any more deep tunnels. Second, the federal government ought to pick up tab for Clean Water Act Compliance.

Now some people say that the federal government is spending too much money. I agree. So let’s stop the endless stream of bailouts for what Reihan Salam called the “McMansion-and-Hummer economy” and start focusing what we do spend on investment in the upgrades of basic urban infrastructure that will actually power our future economy. And in this case the money is being spent one way or the other. The question is whether or not we’ll do it in a way that promotes sprawl or not.

I outlined a more complete case for both of these actions in two previous posts called “A Better Road to Clean Water Act Compliance” and “Clean Water Act Compliance Costs are Hurting Our Cities and Promoting Sprawl.”

Similarly, rather than using federal funds to guarantee AIG credit default swaps at par and the like, how about putting some of that money into more brownfield cleanup initiatives, lead paint abatement, and otherwise removing some of the environmental barriers to urban living and redevelopment?

Immigration Reform

However you feel about this matter, I think most can agree that the current approach where we have neither enforcement, nor regularization has created an untenable situation. We need to get this situation resolved.

I’m generally a state and local policy guy who generally focuses on what cities can do for themselves to be more successful. But the federal government clearly has a major role to play in urban success or failure as well. The key again is to ramp up federal involvement without putting our cities into a straitjacket of red tape or imposing a one-size-fits-all model. Think about these cities: Detroit, San Francisco, Charleston, Miami, and Oklahoma City. I just picked those off the top of my head, but it is easy to see how remarkably diverse they are and the very different needs, challenges, and opportunities they have. We need a federal policy that recognizes that. Obviously this is but a sampling of the issues, but hopefully provides some food for thought.

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

It is significant that the cities doing best by their downtowns are the ones doing best at historic preservation. Fine old buildings are worthwhile in their own right, but there is a greater benefit involved. They provide discipline. Architects and planners like a blank slate. They usually do their best work, however, when they don’t have one. When they have to work with impossible lot lines and bits and pieces of space, beloved old eyesores, irrational street layouts, and other such constraints, they frequently produce the best of their new designs – and the most neighborly.” – William H. Whyte

Heads up to my Cincinnati readers: I’ll be in town to be part of a panel at the Cincinnati Business Courier Commercial Real Estate Developers Power Breakfast on May 6th. We’ll be talking about the new downtown casino.

The Business Courier also ran an interview with me this week as a lead up to the event.

Top Stories

1. Ed Glaeser: Why Humanity Loves, and Needs, Cities

2. NYT: Workforce fueled by highly skilled immigrants – Includes a nice mention of St. Louis

3. NYT: Plan for 34th St. puts buses and feet first – Yet another winning project from NYC DOT. The hits just keep on coming.

4. SF Weekly: The Muni Death Spiral – big problems with the way public transit is run in San Francisco. See also in the Chronicle, “Bay area transit up for unprecedented overhaul.” It’s pretty scary.

5. Richard Layman: Best practice bicycle planning for the suburbs – This presentation is a little wonky and planner oriented, but provides tons of useful thinking on integrating the bicycle into suburban environments.

Best Cities for Jobs

New Geography just released its annual best cities for jobs survey for 2010. It was developed by Mike Shires at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Rankings are available for small, medium, and large cities. Here is how the metros I principally track fared in the league tables:

  • #13 – Pittsburgh
  • #21 – Kansas City
  • #25 – Louisville
  • #26 – Columbus
  • #27 – St. Louis
  • #34 – Indianapolis
  • #35 – Cincinnati
  • #40 – Minneapolis
  • #49 – Milwaukee
  • #50 – Chicago
  • #58 – Cleveland
  • #65 – Detroit

There is a separate article explaining the methodology.

Globalization at Work

Someone posted some figures that really bring home the reality of globalization. The data is IBM’s US headcount. I can’t verify these figures, so caveat emptor, but the poster said they were based on IBM’s own reports (and that IBM has decided to stop reporting US headcount).

  • 2005: 133,789
  • 2006: 127,000
  • 2007: 121,000
  • 2008: 115,000
  • 2009: 105,000
  • 2010: 98,000 estimate

The poster suggests this is IBM abandoning the United States. I used to be a partner at an IBM competitor and I can tell you that this is not about abandonment, it’s about responding to competitive reality. Companies like IBM are in competition with offshore based competitors that have ultra-low costs. IBM has two options: respond by migrating more work to low cost locations itself, or forfeit a good chunk of its business. Either way, domestic workers are losing their jobs.

I suggest reading the Economist’s special section on innovation in emerging markets for more info on the world we are in. We can’t take anything for granted in America. People overseas are hungry for business and if we want to stay on top we’ve got to be hungrier and more fearsome competitors than they are.

PwC Global Cities Study

PricewaterhouseCoopers just release this year’s installment of their cities of opportunity study, which looks at 21 leading financial and commercial centers around the world on a large number of variables. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are included from the United States.

Pulling and normalizing international data is uber-painful, so I tend not to do it. I’m glad somebody did though and produced this report. Just be careful. Their rating scale and color schema leaves much to be desired. For some reason they put #21 as the best and #1 as the worst. Also, a color of black means good and light green means bad (?!). Lots of good data though.

World and National Roundup

Reuters: China banks on rail boom to fire inland growth

Transport Politic: Shanghai’s metro is now the world’s longest

BBC World Service (online audio): Witness the Building of Brasilia – The building of the artificial capital of Brazil was 50 years ago.

Joel Kotkin: The Heartland Will Play a Huge Role in America’s Future

Kaid Benfield: The Environmental Paradox of Smart Growth

Next American City: Can the densities of some neighborhoods be too low for transit to work?

Urban Omnibus: To LEED Is Human; to Lead, Divine

Rust Wire: The Stigma of the Small City

New Geography: Leading a Los Angeles Renaissance

The Economist: Portland and ‘Elite Cities’ – “Is Oregon’s metropolis a leader among American cities or just strange?”

Transport Politic: Denver rejects tax plan, puts FasTracks expansion in doubt

Montreal Gazette: Growth Stymied

Daniel Gross: Why Texas Is Doing So Much Better Economically Than the Rest of the Nation

Indianapolis Public Services

The Indianapolis Star ran a major article about the low quality of the city’s bus system. The dek says it all: “Cash-starved system rated among the worst is ‘just holding on.'”

However, what the Star misses is that you could substitute almost any public service and write the same story. The service levels for public services in Indianapolis are abysmal across the board. Usually with big cities you pay more to live in the city, but you get more and better services. But with Indianapolis, not only is it cheaper to live in the suburbs, but many public services – not just schools and safety – are better, ranging from sidewalk design to snow removal.

This puts the city in a bad spot, unless it is able to change that dynamic.

Ann Arbor Density

Ann Arbor denied approval to a proposed 62 unit apartment complex because neighbors felt it was too dense. There was some type of an anomalous super-majority requirement at work, but I think this goes to illustrate the challenge in trying to promote more dense environments. As the friend who sent me this article said, “Can density ever be approved anywhere?” If not Ann Arbor, where?

This also goes to illustrate why all too many of our inner cities are simply bad places to do business. It’s much easier to do things in the suburbs, where the zoning supports what developers want and the projects are generally so big they can absorb the approval headaches.

Buffalo Smart Code

Mayor Byron Brown of Buffalo announced that the city will move forward with a form based zoning code. Per the mayor:

Our zoning reform effort will act as the foundation for the new place-based economic development strategy for Buffalo’s neighborhoods in every section of the city. The new Buffalo zoning ordinance will be known as the Buffalo Green Code. It will embody 21st century values about economic development, sustainability, and walkable, green urbanism.

You can find out more at

More Midwest

Here’s one for you. Flint, Michigan wants to build its own pipeline to Lake Huron to get off Detroit water. Both Detroit and Flint are shrinking and they want to build duplicative infrastructure? Something doesn’t sound right.

Tollway Authority needs $2 billion to fix I-90 (Crain’s)

Transplants breath new life into Cincinnati (Soapbox)

12 Ideas Laid Out for Downtown 2010 Strategic Plan (Columbus Underground)

A Vision for a Shrinking City (MLive)
Dateline profile sparks backlash (Detroit News)

Indianapolis offers impressive urban planning lessons for Cleveland (Plain Dealer)

Transit fight derailed previous plans on Zoo Interchange (JS)

St. Louis
Can St. Louis Compete? (Kingsbikeway)
Ballpark Village to Ballpark ‘Tillage’ (Occasional Planet) – An interesting concept for a vertical farm in St. Louis
Just Doing It (Thomas Friedman @ NYT) – Another nice mention for St. Louis in this Thomas Friedman column.

Young talent hot spot Pittsburgh (Burgh Diaspora)

Twin Cities
Reverse Migration: Flight to the Exurbs Stops Cold (Star Tribune)
If The Build It, You Will Pay (WSJ)

Post Script

Someone posted this annexation map of Detroit in a Gawker thread about the Dateline NBC special on Detroit.

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

If You Want Sustainability, Provide Economic Security

Thinking about how we can create a more sustainable world on this Earth Day, my contribution to the debate is to encourage a greater focus on providing economic security to those at the bottom of the income pyramid.

It’s tempting to see all of the systems that make up our world as unlinked, or to chose one as the primal force that overpowers all others. Sustainability is seldom seen in the context of economic development, for example, unless the arrow points towards green jobs or attracting talent or some such. That is, there’s the notion that sustainability drives economic development in some way.

But the arrow goes the other way too. Like it or not, environmentally friendly policies are seen by many as a luxury purchase. People might like the idea, but they certainly aren’t going to buy it at the expense of items further down in Maslow’s hierarchy like food and shelter.

It should come as no surprise the enthusiasm around tackling environmental matters has waned considerably in the Great Recession. With untold millions unemployed or underemployed – and tens of millions more in a state of insecurity – a huge chunk of the public has items of more immediate concern on their hands. They are worried about being able to keep their house, or being evicted from their apartment, or not being able to feed their families.

Beyond even this cyclical recession, the forces of globalization are upending the US economy in ways that has almost everyone afraid. Everyone’s job is vulnerable. Even those who can’t be offshored often have as their customers people and businesses who are in industries that can be. Nowhere is safe, except perhaps federal government employment. Even when times are better, there’s a certain amount of angst, as if we are all living with Damocles’ sword over our heads.

The best way to make sure we can create public support for sustainability policies whose full benefits will not materialize for many years is to provide people reasons to feel economic secure in the here and now and to feel optimistic about their future prospects. Then they’ll be more likely to support investing in other initiatives like sustainability.

We can’t have sustainability without social justice, and without a broad-based prosperity for America.

Yes, government assistance can help and is absolutely necessary and proper at the moment. But contrary to the welfare bum stereotype, Americans will never be content to survive like that. People want the dignity of a job, self reliance, and the prospect of upward mobility.

One of our biggest challenges in building a more sustainable world is to provide economic hope to people in bottom half of the income distribution. Yes, green jobs are important. Yes, attracting the college degreed is important and so are knowledge economy jobs. But we also need an equal or even greater focus on the much harder problem of how to provide a broad based economic success in a global age that promotes inequality, and a few big winners with many others either losers or left behind. People who are worried about whether they will have a home to live in don’t care if their current apartment is in a LEED certified building.

Beyond that, we need to make sure that environmental policies are positioned in ways that are truly designed and marketed as benefiting the conditions of the less fortunate. There’s too much emphasis on climate change in my view, which is frankly a white collar concern at present. I don’t hear nearly as much talk about lead paint in poor people’s homes or the contaminated soils in neighborhoods where too many disadvantaged people are forced to live. Light rail is almost exclusively sold as benefiting upscale concerns, so it is no surprise minority groups are often skeptical, such as the NAACP in Cincinnati and St. Paul. In people’s desires to have public transit in many cities transcend the stigma of being only for the poor, we turned the dial too far the other direction.

We can have a cleaner and more sustainable world. To get there, make sure we care as much about economic sustainability for low income groups as we do about the environment, and make sure we design and sell sustainable policies in a fundamental and visceral way to benefit the full spectrum of our society.

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Drew Austin: Brief Interviews with Hideous Cities

Urbanism, like any field, has its own dogmas, orthodoxies and raging controversies. It’s both art and science, it affects almost everyone on a daily basis (whether they realize it or not), and it overlaps with a vast array of related disciplines.

In short, urbanism has a lot in common with language.

People have been calling attention to this similarity for ages–Christopher Alexander’s pattern language is a prime example–but David Foster Wallace may have unknowingly revealed the most useful facet of the relationship in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” by probing the conflict between linguistic Descriptivism and Prescriptivism. Prescriptivists are those who believe in objective, fixed rules to guide the usage of language; Descriptivists, on the other hand, seek to define a language by how people actually use it. DFW ultimately concludes that the English language depends upon the former group, although any would-be Prescriptivist must establish credibility before publicly defining what’s right and wrong.

It turns out urbanism has its own versions of Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: Professional planners, architects, academics, media and city administrators tend to develop consensus about what makes cities work. Density, mixed-use development, and transit become components of an urbanist orthodoxy; a freeway through a vibrant neighborhood troubles the urban Prescriptivist in the same way an “ain’t” irks the English teacher.

Meanwhile, every urban dweller is routinely playing the twin roles of critic and planner in many small ways. Cities are created by the sum of individual choices to live in certain neighborhoods, shop at certain stores or occupy public spaces, and everyone forms an opinion about what’s good and bad in their own urban environments. Urban Descriptivism would hold that these millions of collective actions and opinions are right, whether experts agree or not–even if those actions produce strip malls, car culture and isolation.

Urban Descriptivism is probably more interesting, and it’s certainly easier. Robert Venturi and Reyner Banham have glorified the neon signs, freeways and sprawl of LA and Las Vegas, choosing to find beauty in those environments because they’re already there anyway. Venturi may have coined the Descriptivists’ mantra when he wrote, “Main Street is almost all right.” Their approach teaches us to treasure someone else’s trash, enhancing the urban experience without necessarily building anything.

Clearly, each extreme has severe flaws: One leads to hubris and utopian fantasies; the other ignores social pathologies in favor of intellectual entertainment. Hence DFW’s conclusion. We can’t assume those planning our cities are credible just because they’re making the plans. But we need rules and guidance—an entirely hands-off approach will create interesting cities with multitudes of serious problems.

Maybe this is why urbanists keep returning to Jane Jacobs. She reconciles these approaches in The Death and Life of Great American Cities by merging a Descriptivist’s eye for the way cities actually are (not how they should be) with a Prescriptivist’s desire to make cities better—by nurturing what’s already good in those cities rather than trying to recreate them. David Foster Wallace writes that every language needs its authorities; Jane Jacobs tells us that stepping outside and thoughtfully considering one’s surroundings are the first steps toward becoming an authority on the language of urbanism.

This post originally appeared in The Where Blog. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

The New Look of the American Suburb

This article is about the intersection of two trends I’ve written about before: suburban redevelopment and immigration.

If you want an easy demonstration of the unsustainability of the classic American suburb, just take a drive around the inner ring suburbs of almost any city, starting with the ones that have a classic branching, winding streets, not traditional grids or those that grew up along transit lines. It is easy to find untold miles of decay, of “dead malls”, “grayboxes”, and subdivisions that have seen better days. If most of today’s new suburbs think they’ll fare any better, they are going to be in for a rude shock in 30 years or so.

Some have argued that what we need are “suburban retrofits,” where older areas are redeveloped along new urbanist lines. While this is certainly an attractive option in some places, particularly in town center areas, the sheer quantity of decaying older suburbs means this isn’t a viable option across the board at the moment. Retrofits are hard to pull off and expensive to boot. There simply isn’t enough planner/political bandwidth or TIF dollars to make it happen on a wholesale basis. So we have to find some method to renew most of these areas in place.

Enter immigrants. In older cities, immigrants were historically crammed into near downtown ghettos like the various “Chinatowns” and the like we see. Today, in cities that have them, those districts might still have a cultural role, but they are no longer the demographic core of their communities. Also, for cities without longstanding histories of immigration, these ghettos never developed. Instead, today immigrants disperse throughout metro areas. You find them everywhere from inner city neighborhoods to the most posh suburbs. One of the places along that spectrum you can find them are these inner ring suburbs.

I want to share some pictures of immigrant driven revitalization of inner ring suburbs through some facts and photos from Indianapolis. But I think you’d find similar things in many cities across the nation.

Indianapolis was traditionally one of America’s least diverse cities, featuring only the classic black-white split. But it has seen a large influx of immigrants in the last decade. Its metro foreign born population is only 5.19%, which is small, but the Indianapolis Star reported last year that this represented a 70% population increase since 2000. Unlike some towns which have seen immigration driven almost entirely from Mexico, Indianapolis has seen a very diverse set of immigrants, that come from all over the globe, including 26,000 Asians and 10,500 Africans. The Indian population has doubled to 6,000, the Pakistani and Nigerian populations have tripled to 1,000 each. There are 5,600 Chinese and 1,500 Burmese. These aren’t huge numbers today, but given the network effects of international immigration and the lead time to build a large community (remember the example of the large community from Tala, Mexico, which has its roots in the 1970’s), this represents a potential future tsunami of immigration, provided the economy stays strong, the local climate welcoming, and a bit of pro-active marketing takes place. Again, I’m sure we’d see similar diversity of immigrants in other cities, ranging from Detroit’s Arab community to Bosnians in St. Louis to Somalis in Columbus, Ohio.

The most diverse area in Indianapolis is Pike Township on the northwest side. Though technically part of the city today, it is originally an inner ring suburban area. Its schools have children from 63 different countries speaking 74 different languages. The Lafayette Square area on the southeast boundary of Pike Township is a classic struggling inner ring commercial zone, complete with a dying mall.

Yet the presence of all of those immigrants has led to a spontaneous renewal of parts of this struggling area in the form of businesses catering to local ethnic populations.

One of them is a 62,000 square feet international supermarket called Saraga:

Saraga is run by Korean brothers Jong Sung and Bong Jae Sung and features hundreds of spices and 40,000 products from around the world, ranging from house made kimchi to a halal meat department. Lest I stir up too much suspicion I didn’t take many photos inside the store, but wanted to share one shot of some of the contents from a Middle Eastern aisle:

The owners are planning to open a second location on the South Side. They are facing a lot of competition from an array of new specialty markets in their current location, and also want to be positioned closer to the burgeoning immigrant community on the South Side and south suburbs. Not long ago the South Side of Indianapolis was stereotyped as the “redneck” side of town, but as American Dirt chronicled, this has changed a lot. While not part of the favored quarter, the South Side has increasing diversity both ethnically and in terms of incomes. Notably the South Side has become epicenter of the Indianapolis Sikh community.

Saraga should be careful. There are already two Indian groceries and a Mexican grocery in Greenwood. Here is part of the competition in Lafayette Square:

This, and many of the other establishments, might not look like much. But imagine what it would look like if they weren’t there.

Here’s one of my favorite signs from a nearby strip center, showing the diversity of establishments rubbing elbows:

The facade of Cairo Cafe shows a typical Indianapolis pattern, where an ethnic restaurant does double duty as a small scale specialty grocery.

It’s the same thing at the Vietnamese restaurant Saigon and Guatelinda. Saigon is beloved of hipsters, but I’ve got to confess I don’t think it is very good.

Another nearby strip mall always blows my mind for the diversity of restaurants and stores it contains. You might need to enlarge this one to see, but it’s a Peruvian restaurant next to a Mexican restaurant next to an Ethiopian restaurant:

A pastry shop next to another oriental market:

Some type of Latino shop:

A Cuban sandwich shop:

Hopefully this gives you a flavor for how immigrants can be a force of renewal for older, struggling suburban area. I’ll admit I focused on food establishments, since that’s what’s most interesting to me, but there are plenty of others. This also shows the increasingly multi-cultural face of America, even in an interior city in the middle of Midwest corn country. If I were a city with lots of these struggling areas – and let’s face it, that’s most cities – I’d sure want to get me a lot more immigrants pronto.

In the interest of completeness, I should also note that the Lafayette Square area has also become home to large number of independent black-owned businesses. In addition to being Indy’s immigrant heart, Pike Township has also emerged as a key hub for the region’s black middle class. That will have to be the topic of a future post, alas.

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

In Praise of the Chicago Opera Theater

I hope you’ll indulge me an off-topic post for my Chicago readers. I’d like to make my annual pitch for the Chicago Opera Theater.

Why do you live in Chicago? Institutions like the COT are why. COT presents productions of lesser performed works from the repertoire, from Monteverdi to the modern day, with fresh, innovative productions and fantastic young singers. This is art you simply can’t get anywhere else – not even in New York City.

Chicago Opera Theater is arguably America’s most important opera company.

Their spring festival season is here. I know opera isn’t for everyone, but if you like it or are interested in giving it a try, I’d encourage you in the strongest way to check them out. I just saw opening night of Mosè in Egitto, a serious opera by Rossini, and it was simply wonderful. And that’s not just me, the entire audience was massively enthusiastic. And check out Andrew Patner’s glowing review as well.

Remind yourself of why you live in a truly world-class city like Chicago and check out a performance by the Chicago Opera Theater this year.

Thanks for reading.

Comments Off on In Praise of the Chicago Opera Theater
Topics: Arts and Culture
Cities: Chicago

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Replay: True Cities and Shadow Cities

As many cities, particularly smaller industrial ones, continue to struggle with the loss of manufacturing jobs, people wonder how or if these places will come back and again become economically prosperous. I think the potential for economic renewal at least partly depends on whether or not a place is a true city or a shadow city. What do I mean by that?

Here is one way I categorize the economic life of cities. One can divide companies into three types:

  1. Local goods and services. These are things like banks, grocery stores, dry cleaners, coffee shops, plumbers, etc. that exist in order to provide goods and services to the people who live in a place.
  2. Branch plant or departmental export. These are things like raising wheat, building brake components for cars, certain types of laboratory work, or any other type of specialized product that exists as a captive service or commodity to satisfy particularized demand from elsewhere. They are often specialized and routinized.
  3. Indigenous exports/industry. These are pieces of the production puzzle, often creative or innovative, that either serve a broad and diverse market or create markets. This could be anything from a biotech firm to a hedge fund to a specialty bike manufacturer to an internet company to a specialty manufacturing concern to a Fortune 500 headquarters. These types of businesses constitute the independent economic life force in a city.

Every city has local goods and services type industries. Many of them have other companies as well, but the kind of companies and industries is important. In particular, we need to distinguish between types 2 and 3. Consider the case of Flint, Michigan. This town was extremely prosperous at one time as GM located huge numbers of auto factories there. But these factories existed only to the extent that they served a need for GM. Once they no longer served that need, they were gone. Flint, in a sense, was not a true city. It was a shadow city that existed because Detroit needed it and wanted it to. Flint was a shadow cast by Detroit. Once Detroit no longer needed it, Flint began to wither. And because it did not have the independent economic life force that comes from having significant internally generated production and indigenous exports – and no culture of even trying to – it has had a hard time figuring out how to revive its fortunes.

Contrast Flint with Chicago. Chicago not only was a location of many branch plant operations, it had significant indigenous industry. Just like Flint, most of its manufacturing got wiped out. But it had other things to fall back on. Now, many of those local indigenous industries got wiped out too. That’s the nature of creative destruction. But what Chicago had from these was a legacy of creating new indigenous industries and a mindset that viewed the city as controlling its own fate. This has allowed Chicago to renew itself despite an epic manufacturing collapse. Chicago has economic life force apart from companies in Detroit, Tokyo, or elsewhere deciding to locate a plant there. It is a true city.

Or contrast with Indianapolis. It’s a branch plant town to be sure in many ways. There are few local large companies headquartered there. But Indianapolis has significant internally generated economic life as well. It has a tourism and sports industry, it has the motorsport cluster, it has significant life sciences companies like Lilly and Dow Agro Sciences that didn’t just locate a facility there because it was convenient. It has technology startups like Exact Target and Angie’s List. What’s notable is how many of these companies can generate either serial entrepeneurism or spin-offs. Chris Baggot left Exact Target to found Compendium Blogware. Scott Jones didn’t just sit around counting his money after inventing voice mail, he has started several companies since. Not all of these will be successful, of course. But the key is that many of them can be started and sustain their operations without having to convince a company in a far away place to locate there. They are local, independent sources of production. They are also often creative companies that are building new and innovative products and services.

For Flint, Chicago or Indianapolis we could substitute in innumerable other cities.

Cities that are capable of generating this type of internal economic life force have a much greater chance at adapting to the new economy than the ones that do not. Unfortunately, many small manufacturing cities were really just branch plant towns that were there to take advantage of a certain need at a certain point in time. But they were almost totally dependent on outside actors to sustain their economic life force. Their animating power was elsewhere. That’s not to say that they don’t have assets like a skilled labor force or good infrastructure. But they are only able to deploy them profitably to the extent that economic forces elsewhere dictate.

It comes as no surprise that these types of “shadow cities” are often victims of macroeconomic forces they can’t influence or even sometimes understand. We’ve seen that for sure in the Midwest as our agricultural and manufacturing industries have gotten pummeled by structural economic changes and vast increases in productivity. But even if a place is successful today, to the extent that it either overspecializes or is dependent on outside forces to animate its economy, it is living on borrowed time.

To be successful, a city needs to be a true city, one that has a healthy and diverse mixture of businesses, and with a combination of all three types of companies. It simply must have some capacity for internally generating economic life, innovation, and indigenous exports. Starting or restarting that economic fire is the key to turning around struggling cities. Without it, they are only going to be waiting for their number of come up in the site selection lottery, and slowing shrinking away over time.

You’ll notice one big difference between Flint and Chicago/Indy is size. It strikes me that in most cases there’s a certain minimum scale or critical mass you need to achieve in order to operate as a true city. My rule of thumb is a metro area population of one million or more. There are cities below that which are successful, but mostly they seem to be college towns or satellites of bigger cities. If you look at the Rust Belt, there are plenty of one million plus cities that are beating national averages or otherwise doing well in some measurable degree, but other than college towns, there aren’t many below that. The cold reality may be that the future isn’t that bright for most of those places. The question is, how do we address that from a policy perspective? In my view, a key part of this is linking them into broader metropolitan economies, but that’s a topic for a future post.

This is an edited version of a post that originally ran on December 21, 2008.

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