Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Taking Chicago Transit from Good to Great, Part One – Building the Vision

[ Last year I ran a five part series called “Good to Great” about how to fundamentally change the game on transit in Chicago. I guess you could sum it up as, “We need a Chicago2016 for transit.” In the lead up to the mayoral election, I am re-running this series over the next month. Virtually all of the material is relevant to any US city with an existing major transit system, so please check it out.

I will add one thing by up front offering the new mayor a suggestion. As much as I might covet the job for myself, he should try to keep Richard Rodriguez as CTA president. I don’t even know if Rodriguez wants to keep this tough and thankless position. But given the constraints and pressures he’s operating under, I think he and the team there have done a very good job at managing the agency in some difficult circumstances. He’s a keeper. If you need to see an example of why, read this article. ]

Earlier this year, I won first prize in a global transit competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. So perhaps it is past time that looked at transit in Chicago. While this article is about that city, the techniques are applicable to most places.

Both the current and former CTA presidents, Richard Rodriguez and Ron Huberman, said that Chicago has a good transit system (I agree) but deserves a great one (I also agree). So with apologies to Jim Collins, this article kicks off a multi-part series on taking Chicago area transit from good to great.

The Problem: No Public Demand

Why doesn’t Chicago have a great transit system? I’m going to make a rather contrarian and controversial indictment. Namely, I think Chicago doesn’t have a great system because its citizens don’t want one. If there were greater citizen demand for a better system, that’s what we would have. Absent that demand, we get at best a good system. That’s because it is impossible to create a great, world class regional transit system without more money – a lot more. This might sound a lot like blaming the victim, but please bear with me.

The numbers are stark. According to a joint promotional site run by the region’s transit agencies, Moving Beyond Congestion, Chicagoland needs $10 billion in funds just to bring the current system up to a good state of repair. Even if the city wanted to simply keep the system at current levels, spending at $1 billion per year would be required. The 2007 strategic plan says that $57 billion is needed over the 30 years to give the city the system it wants and needs. The stimulus funds and monies provided under the state’s recently passed capital program are only a minimal start. Even if you think these numbers are inflated – and I don’t – they are certainly not orders of magnitude too high.

Without significant new dollars being made available, it simply isn’t possible for regional transit agencies to create a transit system worthy of Chicago. It’s just not going to happen. I actually think regional agencies do a pretty good job considering the financial and regulatory constraints they operate under. As they say, “You can set your watch to Metra”. The CTA too has improved service markedly in recent years, and has proven that you can accomplish a lot when you take a “can do” attitude despite not getting more money. The CTA has done a lot to reduce the number of slow zones, roll out passenger friendly services like bus tracker, and experimented with things like iGo car integration.

So why do I say that the people of Chicago don’t want a great system? Because it’s true. People in Chicago like to grouse about the CTA the way they complain about the weather. But that doesn’t translate into anything more than amusing newspaper columns and blog postings. Like the weather, the problems of transit underinvestment are viewed as simply the “background noise” you have to put up with to live in Chicago.

Contrast public reactions to the state of transit investment with that on other controversial affairs of the day – parking meters, the Olympics, crime, or whatever. Heck, there are more people out there pounding the table about how upset they are about the pending demolition of Michael Reese Hospital than there are people demanding more money for transit. If tens of thousands of angry citizens were marching, publishing blogs, and writing letters to Springfield and Washington to express their unhappiness about this state of affairs, we’d see action. If politicians thought they would lose their jobs in the next election if they didn’t do something about transit, well, they’d do something about it.

So much of the writing on transit futures focuses on what we ought to do functionally and technically. But that’s irrelevant if we don’t have the money to pay for it. So this series will focus on how we build public demand for transit investment, elevating its status in our civic priority list. And give an idea of how to actually get the money. This will be a five part series:

Part 1: Building the Vision (this article).
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

This installment focuses on building a shared civic vision of the future of the city and its transit system.

Why a New Vision Is Necessary

Frankly, it is pretty easy to understand why the public views investing in transit with all the enthusiasm of a dose of castor oil. It’s what I call the “Rusty Furnace Effect”. Imagine you’ve got a gas furnace in your house that is pushing 20 years old. It’s been poorly maintained, is badly rusted, and has an alarming tendency to break down. You open the door to your utility closet and stare at that thing for a while and contemplate a choice: spend $6000 on a new furnace, or pay $250 every time it breaks down. I think most people are going to defer shelling out $6K as long as they can. It’s the same reason I put off getting my wisdom teeth removed until I was in college and had a particularly bad infection. Until the pain of the disease outweighs the perceived pain of the cure, we aren’t going to act.

Transit is in the same boat. We are told that we need to spend $10 billion to “bring the system in a good state of repair”. This will no doubt involve much inconvenience as well, including station closings, three track operation, etc. Why would anyone want to pay $10 billion to get a system that is basically the same as the one we’ve got today, only a bit spiffier? Until, for example, trains start derailing, people don’t perceive the need.

This is basically the problem with all “plumbing replacement” type operations. I don’t think it is any accident that the people selling furnaces tout their potential to reduce heating bills through energy efficient operation. You’ve got to have a hook to convince people that they are getting something.

That’s what we need for public transit in Chicago. We’ve got to have a hook to show people how they are going to get something for all this money. We have to create a vision not just of how transit will be better – though we should do that – but how life in Chicago is going to be different and better when we execute the capital plan. We have to make it real to people and inspire an emotional connection so that they say, “Yes – we’ve got to have some of that!” to the point they support the fund raising necessary to see it happen. That’s the piece we are missing today.

Why Transit Advocates Are Often Poor Marketers for Transit Spending

One thing I’ve noticed is that pro-transit advocates are ofter poor at selling the need for public transit to the public at large. Indeed, except where the public is already primed to support it – places like Portland and Seattle – opponents of transit are generally more effective at making their case. I recently noted this, for example, in the case of Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar system.

I think part of the problem is that the case is obvious to us, thus we are unable to conceive of others who don’t think or feel the same way, which creates a blind spot on selling. Pro-transit activists tend to view people who oppose it as Philistines or representatives of nefarious forces. The idea that people have to be convinced seems foreign.

We see this problem in the Moving Beyond Congestion site. It relies heavily on facts and figures to make its case, as if the mere fact that we need $10 billion to repair regional transit stands on its own. Well, people like me read that and think, “Seems pretty straightforward to me. How much can we afford to spend now and where can we go start raising the money?” But to others those are just numbers. The facts are not in dispute. The numbers on the MBC site are what they are. But facts don’t inspire. Because many of us live and breathe in this space every day, we don’t need the sales job and thus don’t appreciate the need for it.

Also, as we well know, political decisions aren’t always made on the basis of facts and rational analysis. The numbers elected officials really care about are the vote totals, the number of constituent letters and phone calls, etc. So we’ve got to make sure we create that public demand so that politicians see the numbers that matter.

I’m not going to be prescriptive as to what that contents of the vision should be here, but rather talk about some of the elements and techniques that should be brought to bear, including some that were used to great success in Burnham’s Plan of Chicago.

Learning from High Speed Rail

A commenter in one of my blog posts described a lecture at one of the Burnham Plan celebration events, and how the section on high speed rail seemed to really get people excited. This person was wondering why that was. Why has high speed rail captured so much of the public imagination and gotten so much federal funding when we can’t mobilize similar results for metro transit?

It is actually pretty easy to understand why. High speed rail would be a major new transportation system that doesn’t exist at all today, unlike fixing up the CTA to “bring the system up to a good state of repair” which merely lets us keep what we already have. Again, do you want to replace your rusty old furnace or get a shiny new kitchen?

Also, high speed trains tap into a deep romantic streak in the human psyche. The best description of this is Jonathan E. D. Richmond’s paper, “The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. This is actually written as an anti-rail tract (metro rail, not high speed), but also provides the playbook in favor of it. I can’t do it justice here, but this is an absolute must-read paper. Among other things, he clearly explores the idea of the fast train as sex symbol. Per Richmond:

Arnold Pacey (1983) writes about the “virtuosity values” of technology, the enjoyment of:

having mechanical power under one’s control, and of being master of an elemental force. The teenage enthusiasm for motorcycles reflects this. Many farmers, it is said, buy larger tractors than they really need, to the detriment of soil structures, because of the pleasure they get from using such powerful machines… Dennis Gabor talks about “archetypal human desires” which include the wish to communicate at a distance, to travel fast, to fly [p.84-85]

It is the meanings related to power, virtuosity and sex which the train appears to symbolize which most convincingly seem to focus attention on the technology. The technological power of the train was often equated to sexual potency by those interviewed. A train as both genders: it is referred to as “she” and as a penis. According to LACTC Commissioner and Mayor of Santa Monica, Christine Red:

There was an intense amount of ego over the fact that San Diego had whipped a trolley system out, kabloom, like that. They just did it. And I mean everybody else was like, oh my God, you know, what an affront that this little city could do that, and here we are – a big county – powerful, two-thirds of the population of the state, blah, blah, blah, and we can’t do this [my emphasis]

The fact that San Diego got their bright red cars in working order before Los Angeles even got off the market left LA feeling impotent or even castrated. The metaphorical sexual imagery – of penis envy – in this account is unmistakable. When the LACTC (1991) publication Metro Moves announced the opening of the Blue Line tunnel into downtown Los Angeles, furthermore, it headlined: “A tunnel just waiting for a train.” A picture of the tunnel was contained within the outline of a heart (Fig 4)

Clearly, as the ultimate fast train, high speed rail is also high on the sexiness factor. Also, the idea that the United States is falling behind, and that the world’s super-power is being humiliated by much smaller countries (and major competitors like China) with rail investments plays a role.

There’s a lot more in there, and clearly tapping into the lessons Richmond teaches is important. Chicago is a city with a long history of massive civic pride and boosterism. A city that refused to be anything other than #1. This is something that can be leveraged to good effect in selling transit investment. Likewise Richmond’s “social connections” metaphor (investing in disadvantaged communities to connect them to opportunities) would appear to be a good one to leverage.

Learning from the Plan of Chicago

The most viewed article ever in this blog was called “What Made the Burnham Plan Successful”, which outlined nine items that contributed to the plan’s success. A few of these are highly relevant to this effort as well.

  1. A mix of the practical and conceptual. Burnham’s plan both included things like a Michigan Ave. bridge – a practical and concrete item – with items like the harbors and ring road diagrams that were more just ideas. We need something similar here. A mix of practical items like “build this rail station here” with more forward looking items like high speed rail integration or airport express service.
  2. A mix of both work in progress and new items. Burnham wisely glommed onto things that were already in the pipe or partially completed. The Michigan Ave. bridge and the lakefront park came to mind. By mixing these with the new, the forward looking items were associated with recent successes. Plus, by having near term items included, they could demonstrate rapid progress on the plan. The CTA could do the same. Today, projects like the Brown Line expansion or the Douglas L rehab are presented as standalone projects, not part of a larger program of renewing Chicago’s transit system. Similarly, the three new L extensions that were approved are likely to be viewed as ho-hum. Unless it affects you directly, why would you care? I’ll likely never take the Red Line to 130th. Having discrete projects instead of a program means each individual one is of mostly parochial interest. What Burnham did was draw the big picture and showed how the pieces fit in. That’s what we need to do. Actually, a lot has already been done. Combine the past projects with near term items and longer terms with an overarching vision to show the public that we are marching towards a better future. Then you also build a coalition in support of an overall program, instead of just having different groups and neighborhoods who care mostly about their own local project.
  3. High quality renderings and design in the plan document. This is examined below. But the quality of design in the plan itself excited the public, made the vision real to them, and gave it an authoritative feel.
  4. Sustained follow-through on sales and marketing. The plan didn’t sell itself. There was a big, consistent push behind it. This famously included the Wacker Manual, a condensed version of the plan taught to children in the public schools.

Planners today could learn a lot from the techniques of success used by Burnham and his team.

I’ll conclude this post with a look at three examples of efforts that have done this right, focusing on visualizations, to show the type of effect we need to be aiming for: Burnham’s original Plan of Chicago, the “Imagine KC” project from Kansas City, and Louisville’s 8664 initiative.

Burnham’s Artwork

One of great things about the Plan of Chicago is that its backers spared no expense in creating a high quality output. They commissioned an artist to do bespoke artwork to literally show a conceptual picture of what the Chicago of tomorrow would look like, drawing on the legacy of the World’s Columbian Exhibition. These were gorgeous, full color plates in the output. Even children could appreciate them. Here are a couple of samples:

It’s easy for us to take Chicago for granted today. But in 1909 it was a crowded, filthy, dangerous, and rather ugly place. For people to see these gorgeous renderings of a clean, beautiful, well-ordered, spacious city, with gorgeous parks and boulevards must have prompted amazement, perhaps even disbelief. This is Chicago? The city could really be like this? Ultimately, it whetted people’s appetites to actually get it.

Imagine KC

Here’s another example, this one transit specific. It comes from Kansas City. Kansas City does not have rail transit today. A proposal to fund the construction of a light rail system was voted down last November. Frustrated that people did not really understand what light rail would do for the city, a local design agency created this video for Kansas City Public Television to try to make it very clear visually. Some of you may have seen it since I’ve linked it before, but if not this three and a half minute video is well worth watching.

The video shows the time wasted in cars, followed by a demonstration of benefits of dense, mixed use development, then an example of transit creating this very type of environment in Kansas City.

One cautionary note here. This video would makes Kansas City look like a nearly 100% white city. Plus the development featured – fitness clubs, sushi bars, etc – are oriented towards yuppies. This feeds into criticisms of transit in small cities as being gentrification tools and subsidies to the already well-off. This is a common failing in small city transit advocacy. Of course, Chicago is nothing like Kansas City. The value of transit is clear to the whole community.

The techniques of this video are very applicable to Chicago.


Lastly, I’ll mention again a movement out of Louisville, Kentucky called “8664”. This is a grass roots movement that wants to stop a major new downtown bridge and expressway widening in favor of tearing down an elevated waterfront freeway, replacing it with a park.

8664 tapped into a powerful idea of recapturing the rivertown heritage of Louisville. They’ve relentlessly touted the benefits – financial, recreational, environmental, etc – and have really captured the public imagination. Without any official backing, they have totally changed public opinion. While many many not be sold on the idea of tearing down I-64, they clearly have soured on the idea of the huge Spaghetti Junction reconstruction and new bridge.

Part of 8664 has been a series of wonderful drawings and videos, some of which I’ve shown before. Here’s their compare and contrast of the state’s plan:

with their plan:

Extremely effective. Their marketing is running rings around the state DOT’s. They are rigorously on message, repeatedly touting a more livable future for Louisville, and enumerating the benefits of the project, while continuing to generate quality collateral like this.


To really capture the public imagination and build demand for public transit is going to require the creation of a compelling vision, an emotionally resonant picture of what life will be like in our new and better future, and a strong and sustained marketing plan to sell it. As the examples above show, the vision can be conceptual at some level, as long as it is generally honest and there is a real, credible plan behind it.

More Chicago

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great
Part 1: Building the Vision (this article)
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)

This post originally ran on August 19, 2009.

Sunday, November 28th, 2010


Once you accept the facts of instability, every dilapidated building becomes an opera set, every anarchic service becomes a business idea, every un-enforced law is an opportunity. – Bahi Ghubril, speaking of Beirut in Monocle magazine

Check out my Thanksgiving open thread to see what people are thankful for about their city.

Another awesome program by CEOs for Cities is the Give a Minute campaign, in which they are asking people what would encourage them to bike, walk, or take the CTA more often. Please click on over the web site and make your contribution.

And also if you’re in Chicago, you might want to check out Metropulse Chicago, a new community indicators site put out by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

For anyone interested in the story behind Cincinnati’s abandoned subway tunnels, Jake Meckelnborg wrote a book about it you can check out.

Indianapolis Parking Meters – Final Installment

I wanted to close the loop on the Indianapolis parking meter lease. Unlike in Pittsburgh, where a wise city council rejected a long term lease, Indianapolis unsurprisingly passed it, which is truly disappointing.

I focused on the bad public policy angle of this, others covered conflicts of interest or political angles or whatever matters to them. But all this debate over the transaction of the moment I think obscures the larger trend. Once, Indianapolis was a place where visionary and determined leadership across the community and across parties transformed an overgrown small town and backwater state capital known as “India-No-Place” into arguably the best performing large Midwest city and one of the few holding its own or even leading the rest of America. Today, as this contract helps illustrate, Indianapolis is more and more just another city. That’s disappointing. I certainly hope for the best, but it will be interesting to watch Indy’s performance going forward in this new civic era for the city.

Richard Florida on CNN International

Richard Florida talked about his book the Great Reset on CNN international last week. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here). Unfortunately, there will be a pre-roll ad on this video.

World and National Roundup

Esquire: Janette Sadik-Khan named one of 2010’s ‘Best and Brightest’

The National Endowment for the Arts published an interesting report on Creative Placemaking

William Fulton: City and State Smokestack Chasing Blows Mostly Smoke

Neal Peirce: A ‘Golden Moment’ for Cities?

Joel Kotkin: The Rise of the Efficient City

NYT: “Smart” Electric Meters Draw Complaints of Inaccuracy

New Geography: The Other Chambers of Commerce

Richard Longworth: A Region on the Mississippi

Daily Yonder: Many outmigration counties are prosperous

NYT: Walgreens tackles food deserts

Owen Hatherley: Shanghai International Exposition

Steve LaFleur: Toronto Election Shows the Failure of Amalgamation

WSJ: New York Poised to Grab New Jersey’s Tunnel Money

NYT: New York Studies Subway Tunnel to New Jersey – Extending the 7 line to Secaucus.

Richard Layman: Corruption: DC vs. Maryland Jurisdictions

NYT: Los Angeles Mass Transit Is Expanding

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Area stunts growth by feeding on itself

Indianapolis Business Journal: West Side revitalization plan aims to capitalize on diverse retailers

Chicago Tribune: Deals bring Chicago’s public pension funds to the brink of insolvency and Risky investments not paying off for Chicago pension funds.

Chicago Sun-Times: Houses more valuable near Metra stations

Vote With Your Feet: Stalled on the Bloomingdale Trail

The Guardian: Top Players Fall Silent as Detroit Symphony Orchestra fights for survival – Even Detroit’s symphony issues are able to muster tier one international press coverage.

NYT: Hello, Columbus – How Columbus, Ohio became a gay mecca.

Winter Cycling in Copenhagen

Apparently most cyclists in Copenhagen keep right on doing it even in the heart of winter. Copenhagenize put up this great one minute video to prove it. (If the video doesn’t display, click here). It’s something to keep in mind as he head into the winter season here in the US and the rest of the northern hemisphere. Copenhagenize the planet!

Buffalo, This Place Matters

I normally don’t link to promotional videos, but this piece from from Buffalo’s CVB called “Buffalo, This Place Matters” is very well done. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

New York Bicycling

EcoMobility.tv in Montreal created the four minute video below about cycling in New York that’s definitely work a watch. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Reinventing Pittsburgh

A web site called “Changing Gears,” a collaboration of public radio stations in Chicago, Michigan, and Ohio, did a five part series profiling Pittsburgh’s turnaround and the lessons it might offer to others. The site has audio available of course, but also the transcripts of the pieces are there for your reading pleasure:


Matt Heidelberger profiles the 12 most dingy New York subway stations in his wonderful post “The Dirty Dozen.” Like the loss of the Bilerico Project duo to DC, the loss of Matt Heildelberger to NYC is a cruel blow to Indy’s blogosphere.

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Thanksgiving Open Thread: What Are You Thankful For About Your City?

I’m going to be off the rest of the week for the US Thanksgiving holiday. But I’ll leave up this open thread for people to chime in with what they are most thankful for about their city.

I’ll kick it off as usual. I won’t pick just one city, but I’m thankful that across America, no matter how thriving or struggling the city, it always seem there are people passionately making it a better place. From Austin and Chicago to Detroit and Braddock and Buffalo, there’s a passionate generation of urbanist out there fighting the fight for their city. I shudder to think where we’d be without them. This gives me hope that more places that we think that are struggling are going to ultimately make a turnaround.

All the best to you and your family.

PS: I realized late yesterday that all the links to my suburbs series were to my old blog site. Here are the updated links for you that should actually work:

Review: Retrofitting Suburbia
End Property Tax Collection in Arrears

Building Suburbs That Last Series:
#1 – Strategy
#2 – New Urbanism and Parcelization
#3 – The Mother of All Impact Fees
#4 – Supporting Home Based Businesses

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Building Suburbs that Last #5 – Redevelopment Insurance

Photo Credit: Flickr/julianmeade

This is another in a periodic series about building sustainable suburbs properly so-called.

To recap, I consider the suburban decay facing inner ring suburbs across America, especially those of the 60’s and 70’s vintage built on a modern suburban pattern, as one of the key challenges facing urban leaders over the coming decades. I outlined a lot of the case in my review of the book “Retrofitting Suburbia”.

Why is this happening? One big reason cities tend to fall into decline is that they accumulate huge unfunded liabilities, and those liabilities attach to the territory, not the people. This lets one generation of residents rack up huge future bills, then skip town to leave the next generation or those not lucky enough to get out with the bill. It’s the equivalent of being able run up a huge balance on the civic credit card, then pawn the bill off on someone else.

Imagine if you will if your house worked this way. Your mortgage, your credit card debt, etc. all happened to be chargeable not to you, but to whomever was living in your house. If you simply stopped paying and moved elsewhere, you’d be relieved of all those debts. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly how municipal debt and unfunded liabilities work. It is a huge incentive for politicians and residents to vote for immediate gratification with the bill – infrastructure costs, pensions, redevelopment costs, or what have you – pushed out 25-30 years. Then these people or their children simply move to a greenfield and start the process over again.

I suspect this, perhaps more than any other force, is what drives urban and suburban abandonment in favor of newer towns.

For various reasons I won’t go into here, I don’t think it would be a good idea to have municipal debt follow people. So we have to find ways to prevent people from accruing unfunded debts and off balance sheet liabilities in the first place. My previous installment was about using more robust impact fees to ensure new development pays for the infrastructure it needs on a fully loaded basis. As with that one, my idea here is more of a concept to explore, not at this time a specific policy recommendation that could be implemented.

This one deals with redevelopment costs. Let’s imagine the life cycle of a strip mall. A developer comes in proposing to build a strip center full of big name retailers like Best Buy. The town council salivates over the prospect of a commercial taxpayer. They dicker about cosmetics such as facade materials. Then it is approved and the center built.

The developer goes into this with a certain business case lifespan – say 25 years. That’s a long way off, so for a long time, everything’s great. But eventually the next exit or two down the interstate opens up. And there are even newer malls. Some of those big name retailers move to the new mall. Maybe the owner invests in a refresh, or maybe he just sells it to some downscale operator.

Over time, the tenant mix changes. There are fewer upscale chains and more pawn shops. The mall is considered dowdy. It is old and run down and was cheaply constructed to begin with. And the format of the center is obsolete. The incomes in the area are stagnating or declining as too. And the infrastructure that was new 25-30 years ago is wearing out. Maybe stores close, leaving empty “grayboxes”. Maybe the owner demolishes them to save on taxes while holding onto the weedy remains as a speculator. Or maybe there are still some tenants, and not necessarily bad ones, but not the full range of neighborhood services the town would like to see.

The town as a problem on its hands. Where once it was locked into a virtuous circle as growth led to more growth and more increased taxes and fixed costs spread over more assessed value and income, it is now in a decline cycle. It’s taxes are going up as the tax base erodes and people leave. Many of the remaining residents are older and there is not a new generation waiting in the wings. Suburban decay has arrived.

What is this town to do? Many have fought back with subsidized redevelopment schemes such as new town centers or new urbanist developments or other flavors du jour, but that costs money – money the town doesn’t have. You have to buy out landowners looking for a big payout, you probably have to pay to scrape the site, and you have to give incentives to the new person to come in. It has a major redevelopment liability that has come due. To address it, the town has to borrow from the future, a risky bet that development will pay off enough not just to repay the bonds, but also add to the civic coffers. Some towns aren’t even in good enough condition to do that.

If you think about it, we spend virtually all of our time in the planning process thinking about the upfront side of the development. We charge impact fees to mitigate road needs from new development and such. We go through an extensive review process to make sure there are no adverse impacts on the surroundings. But we spent little time thinking about the back end of the project, of its end of life, and the types of negative externalities that occur there as people can simply abandon homes and malls and go elsewhere.

I suggest we need a lot more thought and more policy tools for managing the end of the life cycle – particularly around acquiring title if necessary and paying to get sites ready for redevelopment. We need to think and plan about the full lifecycle of what we are building up front.

One idea is to require developers to insure against redevelopment costs. That is, landowners and developers should be required to make some financial provision to indemnify municipalities against these types of costs. It could take all sorts of forms such a performance bond or even a credit default swap, but I like to think of it as redevelopment insurance.

Think about it, we don’t let people own and operate cars without liability insurance. Why let them operate strip malls that could fail and leave the town stuck with a bunch of grayboxes while the developer and retailers skip to the next exit down? Imagine if developers had to get insurance to cover any redevelopment costs from a third party in an open, competitive private market. We know the companies writing these policies would be keen to not lose money on them. It would also allow distinctions between good developers and bad ones. And it could encourage provisions such as guaranteed ongoing investment to make sure strip centers and such stay relevant.

The beauty of this is that the development could not be sold until the purchaser could also manage to get such a policy, sort of like title insurance. This would tend to prevent companies from scrapping developments by selling to sleazy operators – and make sure that the original developer could not try to easily wiggle out of his obligations.

This policy would be triggered when certain criteria were met. This is where it gets dicey. How could criteria be specified in advance? And what entitlement might the town have in terms of exercising these rights?

I won’t profess to have the answer. Unlike some of my other suggestions in this series, this one is again more of a thought experiment to show how we need to take more seriously the end and well as the beginning of developments, especially in suburban settings where preferences changes and older formats rapidly become obsolete. This is something I’d like to see academics and policy makers give more thought to know. (I believe some places have already started experimenting with this).

More Reading on the Suburbs

Review: Retrofitting Suburbia
End Property Tax Collection in Arrears

Building Suburbs That Last Series:
#1 – Strategy
#2 – New Urbanism and Parcelization
#3 – The Mother of All Impact Fees
#4 – Supporting Home Based Businesses

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Replay: Louisville – An Identity Crisis

Following on from my article on Cincinnati, I’ll now take a short 100 mile trip downstream to another old river city, Louisville. Louisville came of age in a similar era and traditionally viewed itself as a sort of little brother to Cincinnati. However, while Cincinnati was once the Paris of the west, Louisville never held so lofty a position, so it lacks Cincy’s grandeur. Luckily, it also appears to be missing some of the dysfunction.

See here the river city tradition as the Belle of Louisville steamboat fires up. There were obviously no emissions standards back in the day.

Straddling the Ohio River, which serves as a border of sorts between the South and Midwest, Louisville has always had a bit of an identity problem. A recent article in Leo, a local alt weekly, highlights this.

For some reason for which modern science has no accounting, the subject of Louisville’s identity keeps coming up — in bar conversations, coffee shop summits, Chamber of Commerce meetings, at church, at shows, in this newspaper — and nobody knows really what to say about it. We are a city of naturally prideful, boasting people who are, to some degree, unsure about what we’re pitching. In some ways, we grate against our inferiority complex by offering wildly optimistic comparisons: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Austin. It’s hard to just be Louisville.

Louisville is a jumble. It’s got that genteel Southern feel at the Derby. It’s also the place that was “strike city” in the 1970’s, a bastion of hard core unionism and industry more befitting a Rust Belt burg than a southern metropolis. It retains the legacy of Kentucky and its rivertown heritage as a traditional haven for vice. Old school leading industries have included tobacco (Brown and Williamson cigarettes), booze (Brown-Forman and other distillers), gambling (Churchill Downs), and freon (DuPont). It has extremely low educational attainment levels, but has also been home to a large number of influential creative types, especially in the indie rock world, with people like Will Oldham, Janet Bean, Slint, Rodan, VHS or Beta, and others. It is comparatively lacking in corporate headquarters. It has been a home to innovative architecture. It’s heavily segregated by race and class, but has an comparatively large number of thriving in-city neighborhoods. It is a hotbed of evangelical Christianity and also home to a large regional gay entertainment complex. It’s too small to be a true big city, but big enough to force itself into the conversation. It has a phenomenal selection of local independent restaurants.

Here is some of that innovative architecture. The Michael Graves designed Humana Building is on the right. This mid-80’s structure was one of the buildings that really created his reputation as an architect you’d actually hire for a structure you planned to build.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Louisville is that the locus of civic identity is not downtown, but rather in the neighborhoods. Louisvillians have an immense attachment to their native soil. I’ve never been to a place where it is so frequently stated as a point of pride that “I’ve live here my whole life.” People who move away are viewed a bit strangely, as if, what’s wrong with this person?

For those in Jefferson County, what matters first is the segmentation by class and race. The West End is almost totally black, the South End working class whites, and the East End the home of the white upper classes. This class consciousness is highly pervasive and permeates people’s vision in a way I’ve rarely seen in other places.

At the next level down, Louisville has many distinct and thriving neighborhoods in the city, mostly spreading to the east and south of downtown. And one of the things that is really different about Louisville from Cincinnati is that these neighborhoods are basically still connected to the downtown. It is possible to walk or bike from downtown through Old Louisville and out to the University of Louisville, for example, without passing through a bunch of slums to get there. Similarly to the east end there is a chain of more or less intact neighbhoods extending all the way from downtown to the eastern burbs. Louisville experienced in city decline and population loss to be sure, but is never had the central city implosion that hit so many other places. The one exception is the West End, where one finds the unfortunately standard impoverished black neighborhoods. The river cuts off the West End, leaving it as an isolated island of blight in an otherwise surprisingly strong inner city, it’s residents largely ignored and forgotten.

Unfortunately in my view, the city has overly fixated on building up downtown as the heart of the region at the expense of investments in neighborhoods. As the Leo article would suggest, Louisville has a major inferiority complex and so feels compelled to invest in the trappings of big city downtowns so that it doesn’t appear to be “falling behind”. This is misguided in my view. Louisville does not have the population base, corporate base, or financial heft to compete in this game at the level it would take to build a distinguished offering.

That’s not to say Louisville doesn’t have a nice downtown. It does, including some great architecture that includes, for example, a large cast iron storefront district on west Main St. I also think that judicious investments in downtown are a good thing. It shouldn’t be left to whither on the vine, that’s for sure. But disproportionately investing in downtown ignores Louisville’s greatest strengths in favor of a game where it is not well positioned win.

Buildings along Main St.

The Kentucky Center for the Arts, also on Main St. The concentration of attractions on Main St. is one of the nicer elements of downtown.

Louisville has always self-consciously viewed and promoted itself as a city with a great arts community. Some of this is overblown, IMO, but that’s not the important thing. What’s important is that Louisville is a city where the arts are taken seriously, and where having a strong arts scene is something that is core to what the city is about. I do think this is something that should be played up and leveraged for the future.

The Louisville Science Center, a sort of children’s museum, also on Main St.

The cheesy 4th St. Live entertainment complex occupies what was once a failed downtown mall called the Galleria. Louisville bought into the dubious trend of pedestrianizing its traditional principal shopping street, in this case 4th St. While I guess having a downtown bookstore like Borders is a good thing, I can’t believe investing in cheesy bars downtown is really the key to having a great city.

Since I’m saying that it is Louisville’s neighborhoods that are so great, I probably shouldn’t spend too much time on downtown, though I must confess that’s what I mostly have photos of. In case you were wondering, downtown Louisville does have its share of classical architecture, such as this example.

Just south of downtown is a neighborhood called Old Louisville. This was actually an earlier suburb where the moneyed folk build their mansions. 2nd and 3rd Streets and awesome for just walking around and leisurely enjoying the architecture under a canopy of trees.

The Filson Club, a local historical society.

A streetscape, I believe along 2nd St.

I noted that three of the things that are great about Louisville are its neighborhoods, its great independent restaurants, and its funky arts scene. All of these are on display in the Highlands. Now the definition of the Highlands is fluid and depends on what real estate agent you are talking to. But the popular conception of its spine is the major commercial district extending outwards along Baxter Ave. and Bardstown Rd. This is an area that doesn’t photograph well, but to me has a very college town type of feel to it.

A yuppie running store across the street from a tattoo joint.

Seviche, one of those great restaurants I mentioned.

Not to be missed if you are on Bardstown Rd. is a quick visit to the legendary Ear X-tacy record store. Pick up a bumper sticker and slap it on your guitar case.

One of the other great assets Louisville has is a great park system designed by the firm of Fredrick Law Olmsted. Places like Iroquois Park and Cherokee Park are just lovely. You can experience a slice of Cherokee Park for yourself by driving east from downtown on I-64, where you almost don’t know you are in the city.

Louisville currently has a first class, ambitious initiative ongoing called City of Parks, which is designed to add thousands of acres of parks and trails, mostly in the outer county area. While I’m all in favor of this, it also illustrates the Savitch and Vogel theory that city-county consolidation in Louisville, which occurred recently, would lead to the center city tax base being exploited to build suburban infrastructure. I’ve written before about Louisville’s big plans. I’m not so sanguine on all of them, but really like City of Parks.

Speaking of big plans, that reminds me that one of the more innovative proposals floating out there is one that would tear down this:

That idea is called “8664“. Proponents want to tear down I-64 along the riverfront near downtown in order to reconnect downtown to the river. It is touted as a cheaper and better solution to traffic problems than the $4.1 billion Ohio River bridges plan. As financing prospects for the bridges become ever more bleak, 8664 continues to gain supporters. The establishment doesn’t even want to evaluate it, fearing it will shatter the fragile consensus around the bridges that took nearly 40 years to build.

The bridges project is an interesting case study because it highlights a problem that has long bedeviled the region: civic strife. It has proven extremely difficult to gain consensus on any major local project because of in-fighting between the various parts of town and various interest groups. The various ends of town area all suspicious of each other. Indiana and Kentucky have poor relations across the river. Mayor Jerry Abramson has long been outright hostile to any development of any type occurring outside the city limits.

The bridges project had this in spades. Indiana demanded an east end bridge to complete the I-265 link across the river. Abramson, then mayor in the pre-consolidation age, saw this as a threat and demanded a new downtown bridge instead. Wealthy residents of the east end hated the eastern bridge too, as did various environmental groups, some of which were east end fronts. In the grand spirit of political compromise, ultimately it was decided to build everything, leading to a crazy price tag and opening the door to 8664. I think it is still fair to say that nobody trusts anybody on this project, even to this day.

Fortunately, the situation generally is much improved post-merger.

Before I go too far astray, I should probably complete my neighborhood tour with this shot of Crescent Hill. This is a small commercial district along Frankfort Ave., another one of Louisville’s fantastic neighborhood arteries. It is well worth a drive out from downtown along through this, as you see the transition from Louisville’s established neighborhoods, to the older suburb of St. Matthews, and out into the full metal burbs. Heine Bros. coffee is money, by the way.

One other unique characteristic of Louisville is that it has not experienced a collar county boom. This is probably partially due to its smaller size versus places like Cincinnati. The vast bulk of people and commercial development is still inside Jefferson County. I don’t believe there is any significant Class A office space outside its borders for example. This gives Louisville the opportunity to get ready for the future before Jefferson County is full and the suburban counties really explode. Places like Oldham County have gained people, but are still largely rural in character and without a significant population or commercial base.

The key challenge facing Louisville is what to do about the transition to the 21st century globalized world. It was traditionally a manufacturing center and has a workforce and education levels with that orientation. But its manufacturing base is significantly eroded and continues to experience significant threats. Ford, which manufactures the Explorer here, has downsized considerably. General Electric’s appliance division is based here, employing 5,000 people, including a large number of white collar employees. But GE is planning to dispose of that division, and it seems likely Louisville is going to experience significant job losses, and perhaps the near total disappearance of that business.

So what should Louisville do?

I’ve long argued that Louisville should focus on being a Geneva-like jewel of a city, not a “big league city”, whatever that means. That is, focus on having the best quality of life, the best neighborhoods, etc. Strengthen the traditional city assets such as the park system, the local restaurant scene, unique architecture, and the arts community. Louisville has long appealed to offbeat, funky types of characters. It is sort of reminiscent of a college town in that respect, so taking a page from the Austin playbook and self-consciously cultivating this would be a great thing. The clear focus of civic development should be the neighborhoods, with downtown in a supporting role. This is a reversal of current priorities.

I don’t believe 21st century jobs are going to rain down on Louisville like manna from heaven, so the onus is on the city to principally drive its economic future through organic growth. I’m don’t believe attracting the creative class is the only things cities need to do to be successful, but Louisville is definitely well positioned to attract that sort of person and indeed has traditionally attracted it. The question is how to turn that creative firepower into economic growth.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention Museum Plaza. This great proposal was vintage Louisville. It was innovative, unique, and would really show the world the differentiated character of the place. However, this project appears to be on life support, and likely not to secure financing. If it fell through, that would be unfortunate, but as with bridges, arenas, etc. Louisville has always seemed to find an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

This post originally appeared on May 18, 2008.

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

European Urban Quality of Life

This post has been sitting in my draft file for a while, but over the summer the European Union put out a study on perceptions of quality of life in European cities that was interesting. The study involved surveying people in 75 cities across Europe (including a few in non-EU countries like Turkey) and asking them what they thought about various aspects of life in their city.

This is interesting to me because as Americans we typically experience these cities as tourists. We stay in hotels in the historic core, we travel to a circumscribed list of sites, well served by transit, well-policed, and well-patronized. But that can give a warped and misleading view of what it would be like to live there. While perception isn’t always reality, it is interesting to me to see what Europeans like and don’t like about their cities.

On the positive side, Europeans generally feel positively about:

  • Cultural Facilities
  • Public Spaces
  • Beauty of Streets and Buildings
  • Public Transport
  • Quality of Health Services (in northern Europe)

A small majority in most cities believed that the presence of foreigners was good for their city, though significantly fewer felt foreigners were well-integrated. This is an interesting finding given the news that makes its way to America about some of the immigrant issues there.

On the negative side, residents did not like:

  • The Job Market
  • Availability of Affordable Quality Housing
  • Poverty

There were also pockets of specific types of dissatisfaction. All Italian cities thought air pollution was a major problem. All German cities but Munich were negative on the quality of city administrative services. Whether these geographic specific findings are legitimate or a result of cultural factors I don’t know. I do know that when my IT group did global customer satisfaction surveys, we implicitly normalized the scores on a geographic basis since some countries were more inclined to give high scores than others. (This was reflected in a broad range of survey types).

It’s an easy to scan report, so worth checking out if you are curious about how Europeans feel about their own cities. You can compare it to how you feel about yours. The only obnoxious thing about it is the use of native spellings of city names rather than using English names. But you should be able to figure it out.

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

After Daley’s Retirement, Chicago Needs a New Approach by Greg Hinz

[ Greg Hinz, reporter and columnist for Crain’s Chicago Business, would have to be on anyone’s short list for the best journalist in town. I’m a religious reader of his blog and if you’re in Chicago you should be too. This is one of his columns from a couple months ago that Crain’s was kind enough to allow me to reprint for you today. They didn’t make me say this, but if you want to be sure to read all of what Greg has to say, you should subscribe to Crain’s. – Aaron. ]

Note: The arranged period with Crain Communications for the re-publication of this article has expired and it has been removed.

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

Are People Really Fleeing Shrinking Cities?

Update: The self-service tool that has easy query access to the IRS migration data, including at the metropolitan area level, is available at www.telestrian.com. You can also read the launch announcement with more info on this tool and what it can do for you.

When people think of Rust Belt or other regions that are either shrinking or growing extremely slowly, what often comes to mind is the thought of rats fleeing a sinking ship. The concern over “brain drain” reinforces this exact type of narrative. And when you look at the net migration figures from the Census Bureau, it’s easy find the image confirmed. For example, here’s net domestic migration for Midwest metro areas from 2007 to 2008:

I’m sure that high out-migration was a big thing fueling the exodus to the suburbs, but are people really leaving the region? Are people really fleeing Detroit and Cleveland on a metro area basis?

Part of the challenge in answering this question is that the Census figures are net: in-migration minus out-migration. So you don’t know if the net figure is negative because lots of people left or because very few people came or both.

Fortunately, there is data out there that lets us disaggregate the number and look at in and out migration individually. It is the tax return data from the Internal Revenue Service. (This is actually one of the major sources the Census Bureau uses in estimating migration). Not many people really work with this data though because it is so painful. A friend who’s a well known demographer recently told me he “found it to be about the worst data I had ever seen, in terms of working with it.”

I believe I have cracked the code on this data, rendering it easily useful for real analysis by ordinary human beings for the first time. In addition to making the basic data easy to use, I also generated a ton of other data from it, including the MSA-MSA migration that I talked about in a previous post. I’m planning to launch a tool for this soon, so if you’re interested, you should definitely mail me so I can tell you when it’s ready.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some interesting things I’m finding in it, notably in the migration rates. I calculated these myself and the numbers are still experimental at this point, but I wanted to share some early results.

Looking at the most recent year for which data is available – 2008 (2009 data comes out in the spring) – here are the ten lowest metro areas for out-migration rate* between 2007 and 2008, along with the all metro are:

Not what you expected, is it? That’s right, Pittsburgh is dead last among all 366 US metro areas I’m tracking in terms of its out-migration rate. People aren’t leaving, just like they aren’t leaving a lot of other places famous for large absolute net domestic out-migration. Not even Cleveland (#13 from the bottom) or Detroit (#17). (In fairness, net migration did turn positive for Pittsburgh this year).

I’m still validating some of the numbers. Large metros seem to have lower rates than small metros, probably an artifact of many small metros being single county. But still, this was surprising even to me.

What’s really killing these places is that they have even lower in-migration. Here’s the bottom 10 MSAs in the US for in-migration rate.

Here’s all 12 of my Midwest MSAs on in-migration rate, as a percent of the US all metro average:

What I tend to see is the Rust Belt and other struggling regions have both very low in-migration and out-migration, and the net migration number is bad because in-migration is very low indeed.

I’m reminded of what Jim Russell once said about one city being a “cul-de-sac of globalization.” That seems to be the effect at work. These cities are not getting the human capital churn they need to build the talent networks necessary to connect them to the global economy. (Places like LA and Chicago are different in my view, since they are really two cities in one – a thriving global city core and a larger lumpen-city that more fits the Rust Belt model).

It made me wonder what the relationship really is between something like out-migration and population growth. Here’s a quick map of 2007-2008 population growth by county in Indiana, growing counties in blue, shrinking counties in red, color shading proportional to the percentage change.

Now here’s county out-migration rate from 2007 to 2008, grayscale, but again with intensity shading:

It’s a bit difficult to tell, but it does look like the belt of stagnant to declining population northeast and southwest Indiana roughly match the low out migration areas on that map.

I was curious so just before this post I dumped out-migration rate and percentage population change for all counties in the US and plotted them quickly:

Hmmm. This one I did in about two seconds right before this blog post when up, so while everything in here is caveat emptor right now, that one particularly so.

Anyhow, I think this analysis shows that we can’t fall into simplistic notions around people fleeing regions. It would appear that the opposite may in fact be true. People are stuck in them – either because they don’t want to leave or because they can’t. I’ve got to believe at some level that recovery means boosting the human capital circulation factor – in and out – significantly. I think these migration rates are a key indicator to watch in seeing if cities are turning the corner. I’ve got the data going back to 1996, and it looks to me like the rates are very stable over time for most of these places. That’s probably not a good sign.

* I calculate the migration rate as a rate per thousand people. The formula I used is (migrants) / ((non-migrants+out-migrants)/1000). If you have feedback on this methodology, I’d love to hear it.

Friday, November 12th, 2010


Urbanization, one of humankind’s most successful and ambitious programs, is the triumph of the unnatural over the natural, the grid over the organic… Underway on a scale never before witnessed, one side effect of urbanization is the liberation of vast depopulated territories for the efficient production of “nature”. – Bruce Mau

For all my fans in Central Ohio, I am going to be the speaker at the Harrison Smith, Jr. Design Awards ceremony at the Columbus Metropolitan Club. There’s open registration for the event, so click on over to the site and sign up. There’s going to be a Q&A so you’ll have a chance to have me answer your questions too.

Top Stories

Alex Pazuchanics: Stop Worrying About Losing Young Pittsburghers – “Our region’s growth will come not from trying to keep people in Pittsburgh, but from capitalizing on a highly mobile culture. Pittsburgh should be the physical epicenter of a much larger reality: people moving freely, bringing with them their ideas and experiences, allowing for new developments to occur. Some people will stay in the Pittsburgh region; others will leave and later return to start a new family or open a business; still others will leave and never return. But they all will remain connected to a Pittsburgh that is not just a place, but a people.”

Witold Rybczynski: The Cities We Want: Part One and Part Two – “Judging from the direction that American urbanism has taken during the second half of the 20th century, one answer is unequivocal—Americans want to live in cities that are spread out.”

WSJ: Finnish architect has a rap (literally) on modern urban architecture – “Architecture lectures commonly involve laser pointers and slides. In his, architect Tuomas Toivonen prefers throbbing bass and electronic drums. ‘U is for Utopia, U is for Utopia,’ Mr. Toivonen rapped at a recent New York performance of his new record, which he bills as ‘an architectural album.’ Yes, he makes records, too.”

Last Chance Indianapolis Parking Meters

The Indianapolis City-County Council is scheduled to vote on the proposed parking meter lease on Monday. This is your last chance to call or write your councilor to urge him or her to vote against the deal.

This proposed lease is universally unpopular outside the administration and is a terrible deal for the city, something that has been amply documented by me and many, many others. Don’t let the city make a mistake it will regret for the next 50 years.

Well Being Map

Thanks to Richard Florida for pointing us at the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. It’s worth a look.

World and National Roundup

Owen Hatherley: Flyovers – A look at the ubiquitous elevated expressways in Shanghai and what they say about that city and about China. He also has a follow-up piece Megalopolis

David Brooks: The Crossroads Nation

Human Transit: The Basics of Stop and Station Spacing

Steven Vance: Buffered bike lanes makes bicycling easy – A couple of interesting videos.

Rust Wire: Officials need to know people are concerned about the Great Lakes

Next American City: Integration in Chicago – On the Train if Not in Housing

NYT: Washington Rethinks Its Rules on Building Height

Boston Globe: Aerotroplis – The rise of a vibrant new kind of city – and how Massachusetts missed a chance to have one

Pop City Media: The Entrepreneurial City: Pittsburgh?

WKRC-TV: Lessons Cincinnati Could Learn from Pittsburgh

Transport Politic: New transit plan for Indianapolis emphasizes frequency over splash.

City of Cyclists

Copenhagenize had another cool video of bicycling in Copenhagen called City of Cyclists. (Click the link if it doesn’t display for you).

Post Script

Apparently you can now ride the number 6 train in New York through a turnback loop to see the abandoned but very well preserved City Hall Station:

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Indy: Livability Starts Now

CEOs for Cities recently held an event called the Livability Challenge in Indianapolis. You can view a collection of many of the excellent presentations on the event web site. Among its major themes was creating more beautiful cities.

I did not attend this, but someone who did told me, “The last 3 days have been some of the most inspiring days of my civic life in Indianapolis.” I’m not surprised. CEOs for Cities a) just gets it and b) puts on the best events I know, both from a content and organization perspective. If you ever get the opportunity to attend one of their events, I can’t encourage you enough to do so.

But having an inspiring conference does nothing for you if you don’t follow through on it and execute. The real problem in cities isn’t coming up with good ideas, but actually executing them. I know for a fact that Indianapolis has no shortage of good ideas. I’d like to think that I’ve provided a large number of very low cost good suggestions over the last four years on this blog. But what has been done?

In the spirit of livability and beauty, I want to highlight a couple of concrete actions that can be taken right now, immediately, that require little to no money and would contribute to a more beautiful, more livable city in Indianapolis.

Old City Hall Sign

Indianapolis will proudly talk about the world class Indy Cultural Trail downtown. But right along this $75 million show place is the remains of an old city-owned sign in from the old City Hall building:

Pretty ghetto to put it mildly. This building was temporarily used as the main library during a renovation and expansion project of the central library building. The top portion of the sign used to hold a library logo. Someone went to enough trouble to remove that, but left this behind.

Here’s the sign in context along the Cultural Trail.

Now is the time for someone to pick up a phone, call DPW, and have them send a truck over immediately to get rid of that thing.

What kind of message does this send to an outsider who has heard Indy brag about this Cultural Trail? What are they likely to think when they see this in the core of downtown right along it?

Keystone Ave. Big Green Signs

There’s an interchange on the North Side at Keystone and 86th St. that used to be owned by the state but was taken over by the city many years ago during the Goldsmith administration. The state ripped down their SR 431 logo off the two big green signs there, and they’ve sat rotting away ever since:

This looks like a still from a post-apocalyptic thriller.

What’s crazy about this is that it isn’t in some run down, blighted ‘hood. Directly on the other side of that bridge is a large office park with the tallest building in suburban Indianapolis and the Keystone at the Crossing mall, which is the most upscale shopping center in the state, with stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany’s.

Again, you’re a visitor, prospective resident, someone coming to a job interview in one of those office buildings, and you see this. What are you likely to think about Indianapolis?

The fact that this sign says “Carmel” is telling. The border of Carmel is one mile north. And once you hit it at 96th St., everything is pristine. They wouldn’t tolerate this kind of blight, certainly not when the government owns it. Combine stuff like this with better schools and lower taxes and it is any wonder that those with choices are bailing out of Marion County?

Someone once told me they thought INDOT still owned that sign. Does it look like INDOT thinks they own it? Send a crew out there one night ASAP and take both of these things – and all the brackets and such – down. There’s no need to even replace them. Many cities avoid the use of big green signs at just this type of interchange.

Our central cities like Indianapolis are in a brutally competitive market. To win you’ve got to bring your A game every day. You’ve got to show that you have some pride in your city. Cleaning up obvious blight in high profile locations is an easy place to start.

Let me stress that I don’t blame the current administration for this situation. As I noted, those green signs are on their third mayor now, for example. No, this sort of thing has been standard operating procedure for far too long. It’s time to get serious through both words and actions on walking the real beauty and livability walk. There are huge numbers of low cost items just like this that could be done starting today to begin the process of building momentum, racking up wins, and showing that the quality of space in the city is on an upward, not downward trajectory.

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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