Friday, September 24th, 2010


People – real people – want narrative. They want to be inspired and be able to see themselves as having a place in the stories they witness. They don’t care about graphs, charts, business plans, 180,000 new jobs, capital investment totals, compound annual growth rates, MSAs, multipliers, and on and on. Get that stuff into a dossier for CEOs if you are trying to attract corporations, but get it off line and get some visually stunning and masterfully crafted narratives about Columbus and her residents online for real people to see. – Mike Reed on a Columbus Underground thread about that city’s brand

My Labor Day open thread on what successful low income neighborhoods look like prompted a ton of great discussion. If you didn’t see it, I suggest checking it out.

Top Stories

1. Greg Hinz: After Daley’s Retirement, Chicago Needs a New Approach – “What Chicago really needs now is fewer ideas and orders from the top and more proposals and initiatives from the bottom. In the same way that this city’s economy is much better at applying than innovating, its political culture needs to be opened up so that new, better policies can be implemented. ”

2. Michael Lewis: Beware of Greeks bearing bonds – Not really urbanist related, but a great read. “As it turned out, what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was turn their government into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it. ”

3. Streetsblog: The Financial Foolishness of Christie’s ARC Gambit

Indianapolis Parking Meters

One particularly insidious part of the Indianapolis parking meter contract is the way closure penalties work. On hearing that meters can closed 6% of the time, you might think, How could the city possible shut down meters in the city more than that? The key is that this is not an aggregate system wide number, but applies on a meter by meter basis. Per the contract:

“Temporary Closure Allowance” means, with respect to a particular Metered Parking Space and a particular Year, Six Percent (6%) of the number of Days (rounded up to the nearest Day) during such Year that such Metered Parking Space was a designated Metered Parking Space for Metered Parking System Operations… [emphasis added]

The city might overall only close meters 1% of the time, but a major road construction project could knock out a mile of meters – and that would be $15-$20, every spot, every day, all summer long. Yikes!

I’ve previously suggesting using revenue bonds for the meter upgrades or doing a transfer to Citizens Energy similar to the water company deal. A commenter on the IBJ made another interesting suggestion: get the money from the Indiana Public Employees Retirement Fund. Pensions love long term, cash generating assets and frequently invest in privatization deals. Why not cut out the middle man? PERF would also be more likely to structure a true partnership with the city than a private company.

More Radical Racial Segregation Cartography

The previous piece I linked showing a map of racial segregation in Chicago from Radical Cartography prompted Eric Fischer (of locals vs. tourists fame) to do an entire series of dozens of cities across America. Here’s his map of New York:

Check out the whole set.

World and National Roundup

Toronto Globe and Mail: China’s new boom towns

WSJ: High speed rail stalls

Stateline: States pressed to fix local water systems

The Atlantic: Why Oklahoma City Could Represent the Future of America

Next American City: How Houston Became a Global City

Felix Salmon: A unified theory of New York biking

Washington City Paper: Inside DC’s Food Truck Wars

The Economist: The Big Sell: Asset Leasing in Chicago.

Chicago Tribune: Daley the Builder leaves unfinished business

Chicago Sun-Times: Suit: Firm negligent in analysis of parking meter deal – Someone filed a class-action lawsuit against William Blair for faulty analysis in the now infamous Chicago parking meter lease.

Terry Teachout: Disaster for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

NYT: Thieves cart off St. Louis bricks – having already stripped all the metal from houses, thieves in St. Louis are now hauling away the bricks themselves.

St. Louis Arch Grounds Competition

UrbanStl first reported that the MVVA design team won the international competition to design the grounds surrounding the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. UrbanStl previously posted a full review of their proposal. Here’s a video of MVVA’s concept. (If the video doesn’t display click here).

More Metra Follies

Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail system, continues to live up to its reputation as “The transit agency that can say No.” This week it was “No” to quiet cars on trains. Add this to no credit cards (until the state forced them), no wi-fi, no electronic ticketing, and more.

Also, the Tribune reports on chaos and angry riders as Metra restricts service as part of its poorly conceived UP-North Line bridge replacement project. Don’t worry, the riders will have plenty of time to adjust to the new reality – eight years in fact. I hate to say I told you so, but….

Time Lapsing

Here’s another short but cool time lapse video, this one via Copenhagenize, that appears to be a promo for a conference of some sort. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Cargo Bikes of Copenhagen

Clarence and the team at Streetfilms have done it again. Here’s a great video of the cargo bikes of Copenhagen. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Historic Billboards of Chicago

Thanks to Lee Bey for linking to this wonderful 1942 promotional video touting outdoor advertising in Chicago. Very interesting. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).


Last week was (PARK)ing Day across America, sponsored by Architecture for Humanity. This involves installing temporary park areas in parking spaces in cities. This is a photo of the installation in Indianapolis. It features a shade built from recycled RCA Dome roof material, designed by Wil Marquez of Wpurpose, fabricated by iFAB, and funded by People for Urban Progress.

Note the bagged parking meter in this photo. If privatization goes through, that will be $20/day in contract penalties please.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis, St. Louis

24 Responses to “Urbanoscope”

  1. the urban politician says:

    Regarding your New York segregation map:

    I have been to the African American areas of New York and they are not anywhere near as bombed out looking as many parts of Chicago’s south and west sides.

    I don’t know what it is about midwestern cities and their black neighborhoods being in such horrific shape. Abandonment, decay, nothingness. Such despair. I just don’t get why things happened the way they did.

  2. Pete from Baltimore says:

    Regarding the first comment by The Urban Politician:

    Thats what happens when thousands of factories shut down and millions of jobs are lost.

    East coast cities like Baltimore have the same “bombed out” neighborhoods. Almost every city in america that is in serious decay is a city that once had large amounts of its population working in industrial jobs

  3. Pete from Baltimore says:

    Regarding the article in the NYT about brick thieves : As someone wo does interior demolition on brick rowhouses in Baltimore ,i honestly have never heard of brick thieves. I wonder if its a regional thing.Copper and other metal,yes. I even “scrap” , myself[legally of course].But i never heard of bricks being sold ,legally or otherwise. .

    I actually have thrown away thousands of bricks over the years.I actually hate doing it , and often try to give them to friends.Old bricks are great in my opinion.

  4. Pete from Baltimore says:

    One final comment. Regarding the article about broken water sytems:
    With all of the stimulus money that was spent , you would think that at least some should have been spent on sewage systems. Maybe im wrong about this.But a lot of it seemed to have been spent on road re-paving.

    Which is a shame.Since road building and road re-paving are not labor intensive at all nowdays.But digging up old sewer systems is still fairly labor intensive.Even with a backhoe, you still need a few guys to dig around the pipes

  5. One of the things that has always struck me about New York is how few vacant lots there are. Even downtown Chicago has many lots that were cleared and paved over. Maybe the real estate is just too valuable. It would make an interesting study. San Francisco also seems to have far fewer vacant lots than Chicago.

  6. Pete, my building was built to look like a loft even though it was new construction. One of the thing they did was make “exposed” brick walls out of old Illinois brick from demolished buildings. I love it.

  7. Pete from Baltimore says:

    MR Renn
    I actually spent all day exposing a brick wall today.It can look nice. The wire brushing of the bricks by hand is tiring though.

  8. the urban politician says:

    Aaron, I don’t know what it is about Chicago and vacant lots.

    Interestingly, I don’t think it’s a post-war phenomenon as some would think. Watching the “Vintage Chicago Signs” video you posted above, as well as other vintage Chicago videos I’ve seen, the cityscape was full of vacant lots even back then (pre 1950’s).

    Maybe there is something about the inherent economics of the city/region that would explain this. I sure don’t have the foggiest idea what that would be.

  9. New York and SF both have tighter geographic constraints and land is much more expensive. Part of the issue is that property taxes should be primarily on land values to avoid creating incentives to demolish old buildings for land banking. It would be interesting to study the history on this.

  10. Joseph E says:

    “Property taxes should be primarily on land values.”
    I agree wholeheartedly. We don’t impose property tax on motor homes, boats, or tents, why should houses, apartments and offices be different? The tax should be based on the land. You might want to keep taxes much lower on undeveloped land (farms, ranches, etc) to further discourage sprawl, but land values out there are also much lower.

    I need to find out if a “land value tax” could be instituted in California, considering Prop 13 having capped property tax. If so, it would be a great way to fund new transportation projects like light rail, street improvements like bikeways, and neighborhood services. And it would help discourage property owners from leaving commercial or residential vacancies during a recession, while hoping for a higher long-term lease.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    TUP: which black areas of New York have you been to? I’m asking because while both centers of black culture, Harlem and Bed-Stuy, look fine, I’ve heard different things about East New York and Brownsville. A visitor to Harlem and Bed-Stuy who did not know much about American culture would not think of them as low-income, but I don’t think the same is true for Brooklyn neighborhoods further east.

  12. Wad says:

    A land value tax could be implemented in California even under Prop. 13, which caps the rate of increases to the property tax. Thing is, if it were to roll over from ad valorem to pure land value, the amount of tax collected would have to be the same, and subject to the same rate increase caps. Nothing is really gained.

    Also, taxes are reformed to the classes of people who gain the most from shirking.

    So Joseph, the scenario of capturing land value to improve the public sphere doesn’t account for the fact that the cost of public goods won’t come down with a new revenue source (it’ll almost certainly go up). Plus, you can’t give both lower taxes to property owners while also increasing public investment at the same time.

    The tax reform won’t pan out.

  13. The urban politician says:

    Alon, I have certainly been to Harlem a few times, Bed-Stuy, and some of the areas near Brooklyn Heights (Fulton St, etc). I have only ridden a cab through E. New York.

    All in all, I have never seen the kind of neglect, decay, and utter vacant-ness (with the exception of perhaps one area in Brooklyn that I could not identify at the time–seemed mostly African American with a great deal of vacant tracts of land) as one would see in Detroit or in many swaths of the west and south sides of Chicago.

    Chicago lacks a “Harlem” or “Fulton St”, a mecca of black urbanism, that New York has. If you head to Chicago’s south side all you see is much of this vacant land being replaced by utterly horrific and loathsome strip centers, like in the suburbs. Absolutely nothing of lasting value is being created in what should be the commercial core of Chicago’s African American community, and the lack of outrage from Chicago’s black leaders is frustrating. Do you really want your community to be oriented around giant strip malls? This was once ‘Bronzeville’, one of the world’s great black metropolises, and all we are getting is either vacant, weedy lots or a nasty Food4Less accompanied by a gas station and 35 acres of asphalt.

  14. tup, I’d say that Hyde Park serves that role in Chicago today. Yes, it’s often associated with the white dominated UofC, but clearly has a large black middle and upper class as well (e.g., President Obama). The black intelligentsia of Chicago has stayed South Side as far as I can tell. What is killing the South Side IMO is the migration of the black middle and working class out to the suburbs.

  15. DaveOf Richmond says:

    Eric’s racial maps have now been picked up by the London Daily Mail, and from there by the Drudge Report, so he’s likely getting a lot more traffic than he ever has before.

    Aaron, when you say “Hyde Park”, does that include Kenwood?

  16. Alon Levy says:

    TUP: ah, well, if that’s what you’re saying, then I can’t disagree. Bear in mind that my experience of the South Side consists of taking the L to Garfield, then taking the 55 to Hyde Park. So I can confirm that the area near the station looks like West Baltimore on The Wire, and that the scenery from the train trip reminded me of all those aerial photos of Detroit’s vacant lot-ridden streets, but not much else.

    Aaron: Hyde Park itself is more white than black. The community area has a small white plurality, and according to Rankin’s map the black population clusters in the north, in what’s really South Kenwood.

    On the other hand, the Near South Side has both a black majority and a relatively high median household income.

  17. The urban politician says:


    On the south side, 35th and 47th St have potential to come back and become true urban corridors. That is, of course, unless developers and the acquiescing communities screw it up and allow more worthless strip center development.

    In this economy, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I don’t expect the south side of Chicago to amount to anything more than one disappointment after another

  18. I would include Kenwood in my greater Hyde Park definition.

    Yes, Hyde Park has a majority white population I attribute to the university, but also a significant black population.

    The near south side is an interesting case. The South Loop (from say Congress to Chinatown) has definitely seen an influx of black professionals. I’m not sure what your definition is, Alon, and I haven’t looked at the map, but I wonder if some of the income numbers further south may be getting skewed by gentrification?

    I’m optimistic that the South Loop will be sustainable as an integrated neighborhood, which the city definitely needs more of.

  19. George Mattei says:

    Looking at the whole set, it’s fascinating and tells a very important story about the condition of our nation today.

    The maps also are very useful for looking at the relative densities and urban forms of cities, a useful by-product.

    Does anyone know if they are all to the same scale?

    Finally, I remember some conversations a while back about the topic of smaller Superstar cities, i.e. Portland, Austin, having a much smaller minority population than other cities, which may be why they did not end up with as many poor urban neighborhoods. Any evidence in these maps that proves that point?

  20. Alon Levy says:

    To be clear, my numbers are statistics for the community areas. As of 2000, the Near South Side’s population was 64% black and had a median household income of $56,000.

  21. Eric Fischer says:

    George, yes, the maps are all to the same scale.

    I’m sure the constrained sites of San Francisco and New York City have something to do with having fewer vacant lots, but could there a policy component to it too? I have read about Detroit’s practice of aggressively demolishing abandoned buildings instead of letting them stand empty. Does Chicago do this too? Whereas San Francisco’s policy is apparently to fine the owners of abandoned buildings $6885 per year and to make it difficult to obtain a demolition permit at all without having permits on file for a replacement building.

  22. Chris Barnett says:

    Eric, beyond policy I suspect part of it is mindset and skill. In more-dense cities, there are established models for small-lot redevelopment and creative adaptive re-use.

    In more-sprawling places, there is more of a “land assembly” and bigger-is-better mindset in development, as well as little local skill at managing close-quarters construction. Then there’s also the need to park cars.

    It also has to do with the distance of any given site from the urban core, as land value in a city tends to fall off rapidly going away from the core. (You can generally judge this falloff by whether there is surface or structured parking on a site in a non-transit city. My list of “transit cities” includes only NYC, Boston, Philly, DC, Chicago, and SF, which corresponds pretty nicely with the apparent density in your maps.)

  23. Eric, I’m not aware that Chicago has a particularly aggressive demolition policy. But I do believe demolition permits are fairly easy to obtain. Also, Chicago had many large scale industrial sites like USX South Works that you simply wouldn’t find in San Francisco proper. Some of these are vacant and or derelict. And Chicago has many undistinguished wood frame houses that are typically deemed not worth salvaging after advanced decay has set in. These are frequently demolished.

  24. George Mattei says:


    Thanks for the answer on the scale question.

    Detroit has lost over half its population, while Chicago has not lost anywhere near that. There is no way you can totally avoid demolition in a city that has lost half its population.

    I do think there is a policy difference, but one that is somewhat driven by need rather than preference. There ARE cities that tend to embrace demolition even though they are relatively healthy, but I don’t think Detroit is one of them.

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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