Friday, July 16th, 2010


“I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will “attract business”, always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a “normal” city — or a “perfect” or “safe” one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat s*** crazy — and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don’t arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philarmonic.” – Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations

Top Stories

1. True Economics: The Future of Our Cities – An interesting look at a number of points around economic changes, skill concentrations in cities, talent shortages, etc. from a European perspective.

2. Greg Hinz: Springfield Taking CTA, Metra Riders on Road to Nowhere – Talking about the Illinois capital plan, Hinz talks about how transit got pimped again, noting: “Roads and schools have received big initial allotments of the billions of new state bonds that have been or are about to be sold. In fact, the Illinois Department of Transportation says this year’s budget for road work is its biggest ever….. But transit? The thing that millions of us Chicago-area folks rely on to get to work every day? Not one penny. Zip — even though, as of next week, the state will have issued $3.2 billion in bonds under the new program…I guess the money that goes for transit is a different color than the money that goes for roads…instead of giving money directly to the CTA and Metra and Pace, the Legislature gave it to IDOT to administer.”

3. Detroitblog: Graveyard Shifts. Detroitblog is arguably the very best there is. This piece hits close to home. Growing up, I know there were many times local car repair shops and such did work for free or at deep discount for my single mother because they knew she needed it and had no money to pay. Because it was a tiny rural community, they knew her and her situation intimately, which is why there’s so little scam-ability in a place like that. Real Grapes of Wrath style. All of those places I remember are gone today. Most of them passed with their owners. I’m no Wal-Mart hater, but I can’t help but wondering what this means to our social fabric in America.

4. Chicago’s Transit Chief – A nice profile of CTA president Richard Rodriguez.

Is the Smart Grid a Dumb Idea?

National Geographic has an interesting article on the smart grid this month. It’s clear that there is no single thing that is the “smart grid.” Rather, it’s a collection of things ranging from upgraded transmission lines to new wind farms to so-called “smart meters.”

Things like mainline transmission upgrades seem straightforward. We’ve under-invested there for years. But the smart meters that are being rolled out across the country give me pause. First, they are a huge privacy risk. It seems likely that, especially with so many samples to analyze, that real time information on electricity consumption would let the electric utility know what you are doing – that uses electricity at least – at any given time. Listen up, kids, you think they can spot your grow lamps now…. I’m not sure adequate safeguards are in place.

Also, there seems to be relatively little consumer benefit. There’s a lot of talk about saving money, but consumers are already complaining about their bills going up. These meters will not, for example, help me by introducing consumer choice about my electricity provider the way we have choice on broadband providers. That would be a real game changer. We are still captive to a monopoly supplier at the residential level.

Which brings me to the final point, which the author of the article makes for me:

When consumers are given a price difference, they can choose to use less of the expensive electricity and more of the cheap kind. They can run clothes dryers and dishwashers at night, for instance. The next step is to let grid operators choose. Instead of only increasing electricity supply to meet demand, the operators could also reduce demand. On sweltering summer days the smart grid could automatically turn up thermostats and refrigerators a bit—with the prior agreement of the homeowners of course.

The principal reason for these meters is to introduce “real time tariffs”. In other words, airline style pricing. Now I’m all in favor of “congestion pricing” and demand management, but the tagline at the end – and which I can see the author with a smirk on his face as he wrote it – shows the risk. In the politicized world we’re in, how likely is it that in fact a market price will be chosen? These “smart meters” frankly enable involuntary rationing of power when someone decides you are consuming more juice than you should be.

I realize this sounds a bit black helicopter, but whatever the motivation for these meters, there is clearly huge scope for abuse of this technology. I think we ought to take a breather on deploying it until we’ve had a more robust public debate on the issues and put appropriate safeguards in place.

New Indian Currency Symbol

Apparently India decided they needed their very own currency symbol:

Looks like an inverse euro symbol with some garish flair. AOL keyword: Not Good. (h/t Ryan Avent)

World and National Roundup

Vanity Fair: Architecture’s Modern Marvels

The US DOT just awarded a major round of circulator grants. This includes $25 million for the Cincinnati streetcar, $25 million for a St. Louis trolley loop, and almost $35 million for BRT in Chicago. Transport Politic has complete coverage and a full list of the winners.

NPR: Cities’ woes will linger, thousands of jobs will go – a story on municipal finances

The BBC ran a series of upbeat profiles of Rust Belt cities. You can watch these segments on there site for Kokomo, Indiana; Youngstown, Ohio (a must watch), and Rockford, Illinois.

Technology and the City: Why city branding fails

I can appreciate Joel Kotkin’s contrarian nature, as I have more than a streak of it myself. He’s bullish on the Great Plains, and wrote a piece last week called The Great Plains Are Great Again that prompted a couple of responses. One is from Richard Longworth, who talks about the urban-rural split in this region. And Jim Russell makes some related points in War for Talent: Sioux Falls.

Richard Layman: It’s not enough to be smart, you have to be productive – rent seeking doesn’t count.

Richard Layman: Is Montreal the number one city for bicycling in North America?

NYT: After High Line’s Success, Other Cities Look Up

Time: What Lies Beneath – the salt mines of Detroit.

Time Detroit Blog: Getting a Regional Attitude

NYT: Budget in the red, Illinois has stopped paying its bills

WSB-TV: Giant quarry is centerpiece for a new park on the Atlanta Beltline – Reading the extolling of the virtues of this old quarry as both a water reservoir and a recreational amenity, I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be if someone proposed a new quarry in a similar location today.


Here’s a photo from downtown Columbus, Indiana that makes a point related to my previous blog post. It’s some concrete barriers and a fence around a construction site. Note the pride of place in spray painting their “C” log on the barriers, and the colorful artwork. This is totally superfluous, which of course it is why it is so very important.

Topics: Sustainability

6 Responses to “Urbanoscope”

  1. Everett says:

    The funny thing about the Rupee symbol is that it isn’t even usable and won’t be for some time. Current keyboards do not have a keystroke for such a character.

  2. formerlyanonymous says:

    Re: energy deregulation

    I live in Texas and it hasn’t really changed the game for the better. Costs are higher now than they were during the regulated period. I’m not really sure why, nor have I ever found an answer to really satisfy my desire to understand why. Perhaps a future post?

  3. Lynn Lucas says:

    Columbus IN Community Brand Committee supported the Columbus Area Arts Council’s branding the new Commons construction area. A symbol of community pride as well as the ongoing efforts to continue to improve our community’s downtown and quality of life.

  4. david vartanoff says:

    About the smart meters. I used to think that time of day pricing would be a good idea 30+ years ago. There even were a few high end appliances where you could program them to run in the discount hours. That much still would be okay by me, but a wi-fi reading system (PG&E in CA) is designed with several other inherent issues. First of course is the threat that the clerk in the office hits a single wrong digit, and your electric service is turned off for non payment even though you are not delinquent. Second and far more likely will be hacking of the system such that whole neighbourhoods will be blacked out by either pranksters or worse yet enemies. Third, the bad news is of course, there will be no “discount” hours, there will only be surcharge and surcharge plus hours. One of the single best reasons to install PV on one’s building is a middle finger to the utilities who are not our friends.
    And although the “smart grid” might be worthwhile, I believe widespread point of use generation should buy us a decade or more of not needing to enhance the grid as well as freeing us from the energy cartels. My solar thermal hot water system has completely replaced my gas fired water heater.

  5. Pete from Baltimore says:

    MR Renn
    Thank you for all of the great links. I especially enjoyed the BBc videos on Rockford and Indianna. I do think that it is worth pointing out one thing about Rockford though.The video suggested that not much is made in Rockford nowdays. But Rockford IL is where Estwing hammers are manufactured.

    I own an Estwing claw hammer ,a masonry hammer and a mini sledge hammer.All three of these Estwing hammers will probaly last me my whole life. They make great hammers that last forever and they are reasonably priced.And they are made in America.

    As far as i know the company is doing alright. So obviously it is possible to build and manufacure a good product in America and be able to make a profit.

    When people say American manufacturing went downhill because of poor qaulity they often are talking about the auto industry. As far as tools are concerned i can say without a doubt that American made tools are almost always of better qaulity than the tools made in China. And they are often priced the same or just a little more. The ones that are higher priced then the imports are usually of far higher quality and last far longer.

    I am gla dt hat the BBc did do a story on the harmonica factory though. While our manufacuring sector is hurting , there are success stories.I wish our politicians would talk to some of the successful manufacures instead of just the auto company CEOs

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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