Sunday, May 2nd, 2010
This post is not about policies per se, but about how they are marketed. Progressive urban policies such as improved transit, density, quality of space, excellence in design, and green friendliness often run into significant resistance in cities where there is not a long history of urbanism. This is because too often they are poorly positioned, packaged, and sold to the public. Advocates for these policies attempt to lift and drop a solution such as a Portland-style streetcar into a very different environment. Getting a transit line approved in Portland is like shooting a layup – degree of difficulty low. Getting one approved in the Heartland is a very different matter. Advocates have generally ignored the salient facts on the ground in their cities and failed to make a robust case for forward looking policies beyond a narrow base. Let’s look at some examples.
Cincinnati narrowly beat back a citizen-led ballot initiative to derail a streetcar system last fall, but it remains controversial and unfunded. The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published a skeptical editorial and the project is far from guaranteed.
While proponents have upped their game a bit lately, they were doing a generally poor case of selling the streetcar to Cincinnati, using arguments that among other things made a case based on a narrow appeal to gentrification. Here’s a video the city released featuring the mayor and city manager discussing the streetcar (if the video doesn’t appear, click here):
At 1:00 into the video, here is how the mayor describes the economic development benefit of the streetcar:
If you make the investment of putting rails in the ground, and people know there’s going to be a train, we’re talking a about a modern train that comes every day, developers and investors now look at the streetcar line and say, “Well there’s a vacant building. I’m going to buy that building. I’m going to put a Starbucks in the first floor and I’m going to put condos above it.” [emphasis added]
Starbucks and condos. I wonder if the mayor has ever considered this key figure: the median household income in the city of Cincinnati is $33,524. Keep in mind, that’s household income, and by definition half of all households earn less than that amount. Think they care about whether Cincinnati has a few more Starbucks or condos? Or do they have other bread and butter concerns that might weigh more heavily?
Too many urban advocates have an impoverished vision of city life that amounts to little more than “Starbucks urbanism.” I believe we need reinvestment in our cities. I believe we need to attract “choice” consumers, people who have options about where to live. Focusing exclusively on helping the poor only ensures your city will stay poor as everybody else wises up that they are the chumps serving as the city’s ATM machine and head for the hills. But we’ve got to make sure projects are conceived and marketed in ways that appeal to the broader community, not in ways that might actually seem threatening to them. This example is particularly unfortunate since it wasn’t necessary. The mayor could easily have said put a “store” on the ground floor and “residences” or “apartments” above.
Imagine Kansas City
Here’s another example, this one from Kansas City. It’s a video that was run as part of a public television series on the future on Kansas City. I’ve actually highlighted this video several times as an example of good transit advocacy. One of the most important things you need to do in pushing for something new and different is to create a vision of how life in the city will be better and different when the plan is carried out. This video does a great job of that. (If it doesn’t display, click here).
Good as this video is, it has the major weakness that it too is selling transit as a generator of Starbucks urbanism. Did you notice the types of businesses? Coffee shops, fitness clubs, sushi bars in what appears to be an upscale neighborhood. Also, considering our obsessively politically correct climate (far too politically correct in my view), it is notable that the people in this video were almost entirely white and upscale.
Again, consider who this is being marketed to. In cities like Chicago or New York where working class and poor neighborhoods have reasonable quality transit and at least semi-walkable neighborhoods, selling them on investments in urbanism is generally not a challenge. Indeed, the usual debate is around them clamoring for more transit type investments and demanding equity in spending on them. But in places like Kansas City, where bus service for the poor has often lagged and the city isn’t nearly as walkable, marketing to yuppies misses the broader audience. Perhaps that’s why it was voted down last time.
It should come as no surprised that poor and minority communities who are stuck with pathetic bus systems that don’t meet their needs today are often skeptical of rail transit that appears to be for rich people. It isn’t just anti-tax people who often fight it. The NAACP in Cincinnati opposes the streetcar. And a organizations representing a majority black neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota are very skeptical of a light rail plan there, which they are afraid will only lead to displacement in their community. (Here’s a related article which shows that proponents didn’t do their homework).
The person who created this video – which again I think is among the best in many ways – made some changes for his next iteration for Indianapolis that created an even more effective story in my view by addressing some of these points.
What About Everybody Else?
My other favorite example besides transit and neighborhood redevelopment is talent attraction. It’s accepted by virtually everyone that having a critical mass of the right talent is key to success in the 21st century economy. Boosting college degree attainment is critical. But in most states the majority of adults don’t have college degrees. So why would they be interested in this? Trying to make the case for investments in luring the college degreed can seem like investing in people who are already privileged. People seldom explain why it is good for the average person in the community.
I addressed this matter in a recent blog post excerpting my keynote address at the IndyPartnership annual meeting, so I’ll include a clip here again:
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 [a mail order pharmacy company] 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.
What stories are you telling about how investments in talent and the new economy boost everyone?
A Broader Urban Vision
When I was part of a panel at Rail~Volution with Ryan Avent, he made a really great observation that we used to have this notion in an era of urban abandonment that riding the bus, or other hallmarks of urban living, were a second class choice, something you did if you didn’t have better options. Now now we’ve gone to the other extreme where that’s considered the luxury option. But we forgot that there’s this entire spectrum in the middle where we can have more middle class oriented urbanism.
Designing for and marketing to people outside of the Starbucks urbanism crowd requires taking the time to understand their lives, aspirations, and point of view, and making sure you take their perspective seriously. Legendary leftist radical Saul Alinksy made this point clearly back in 1971:
To bring out this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 percent of American families – more than seventy million people – whose incomes range from $5,000-$10,000 per year. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat.
Many of the lower middle classes are members of labor unions, churches, fraternal, service and nationality organizations. They are organizations and people that must be worked with as one with work with any other part of our population – with respect, understanding, and sympathy. To reject them is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can’t switch channels and get rid of them. This is what you have been doing in your radicalized dream but they are here and will be.
Doing It Right: John Robert Smith and Reconnecting America
We have to go beyond Starbucks urbanism. We have to find a way to build broad coalitions for forward looking policies. We have to get serious and start marking the case in a better and much more effective way by making sure to reach out to the whole community.
To see one great example of how to get it right, watch the video below I shot with John Robert Smith, CEO of Reconnecting America, at Rail~Volution in Boston. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).
(FYI: I’d like to stress that I shot that video myself with a Flip camera during a busy conference – it’s not an official video. A real marketing video would of course have real production behind it)
Smith is running an organization that is heavily pushing transit oriented development, but understands the importance of both bi-partisanship and building bridges to smaller towns and rural communities about creating a transportation bill that works for everybody. People should take lessons from this approach. John Robert Smith gets it.
The sales job on better urban policies has frankly been wanting. For those who don’t live in low degree of difficulty communities, it’s time to seriously raise the game on the marketing plan and execution.
I’ll have another installment in my “Failure to Communicate” series at a future date.