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.

Topics: Economic Development, Globalization, Public Policy
Cities: Buffalo, Indianapolis

4 Responses to “Midwest Miscellany”

  1. the urban politician says:

    NIMBYism is a big problem.

    It is one of the biggest problems (not THE biggest, but one of the more significant ones) cities will face in the upcoming decades as they try to densify.


  2. DaveOf Richmond says:

    I took the Ann Arbor story to be more about revulsion to an influx of college students into the nabe than a reaction against density per se. So NIMBYism, yes, but not necessarily anti-density. Then again, I guess the feared influx of binge drinkers could have been just an excuse to oppose the project in general.

    Changing the subject slightly, there was a distressing comment in the Star-Tribune “Reverse Migration” article:

    “One possible game-changer is commuter rail. People anywhere near the new Northstar Line from Big Lake to Minneapolis are much likelier to find exurban living manageable.”

    Grand. Let’s build transit for the exurbs, geesh.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    The PricewaterhouseCoopers study is just weird. I mean, one of their parameters for evaluating cities is “strength of currency,” where strength isn’t measured by low inflation or being an international reserve currency, but by how much 1 unit of the currency trades versus other units of currency. Tokyo earns poor marks because the yen is denominated at the value of about 1 cent instead of 1 dollar.

  4. John says:

    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.

    I don’t know Indy, but this generally doesn’t sound right to me. In most Midwest cities (Chicago might be the exception) houses are usually more expensive in the suburbs and property taxes are usually higher as well. You do get the better services, but you most certainly pay for it.

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