Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Replay: “They’re Not Current”

As part of keeping up with this blog, I read a lot of what other people write about various Midwestern cities. A recurring theme from Midwest urbanists is a frustration with local civic leaders’ unwillingness to implement what they see as new and better policies and approaches, especially in light of the struggles the region has encountered and the resulting imperative for change. This is often phrased in less than charitable terms and there seems to be a low opinion of community leadership in many places. I’m guilty of it myself at times. Sometimes it is warranted.

But other times a better way of looking at it was put forth by a friend of mine when he said of the people who he was working with on a civic project, “They’re not current.” By that he meant that while they were well-intentioned, smart, good at business, good at their technical specialty, and excellent at things like fund raising and building community support for initiatives, they simply weren’t up on the latest and greatest thinking in the urbanism space. They weren’t bad leaders or bad people at all – they just had gaps in their knowledge and thinking about cities.

I think this makes a lot of sense. Something to consider is that most Midwestern cities really haven’t experienced anything but decline in the last 40-50 years. Even in the best performing places, large tracts of the city look like bombed out shells of what used to be there in decades past. For people who’ve spent a good chunk of their lives fighting to turn this around, experience does not offer a template of what success looks like. Also, against a backdrop of secular decline, it is easy to delude yourself as to what progress means. A shiny new building downtown might seem like a coup, and indeed it might be in a certain qualified sense, but if every similarly situated city has a similar new building, is the relative status improved? I see little evidence that civic leaders in many places do what Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard advocated and “get out into the world” to see what is going on first hand.

Also, we find ourselves in a rapidly changing world. This means that there is a lot of innovation going on all over the place in all sorts of fields. It is easy to quickly fall behind the curve. I’ll use myself as an example. A couple years ago I asked one of the youngest people on my staff, a very tech savvy guy, whether he thought Blu-Ray or HD-DVD would win in the market. He looked at my like I was crazy and said that no matter which one won, it wouldn’t matter for long, since everything was going to go digital download anyway. He was already downloading high def movies legally on his XBox360 and thought the experience would only get better. Not a bad point of view – one that now appears to be right, in fact – and one I didn’t even consider. Why did I join Twitter or Smaller Indiana? Certainly not because I thought I needed another time sink. I just feel I have to be out trying new things, or else I’ll end up cut off from what’s happening out in the world.

That’s one reason I, like my friend, love talking to students. They are my pipeline to the now. I think it is incumbent on all of us, but especially community leaders, to be aware of the limits of their own knowledge in the context of a rapidly changing world. In today’s age, the traditional skills and ways of making things happen continue to be relevant, but there needs to be additional expertise and insight informing us as to what we need to be doing. People talk about underfunded infrastructure and such, but the reality is that money is often the least of our problems. Every day I open the paper and find lots of money being spent on some project of dubious merit. The challenge is as much about doing the right thing as it is about getting things done. So it’s more important than ever for cities to have a high receptivity to new ideas, a willingness to change and embrace calculated risk taking, and broader networks – including geographically dispersed networks – than ever before. People have to realize that there’s no way to keep up with both today and the way things are going in the future as easily as happened in the past.

The first step is awareness. Today’s urban leaders have to realize that they often, like all of us, aren’t current. Then they can proceed to make sure they seek out and incorporate more leading edge, innovating, and just plain different thinking into their approaches.

This post originally ran on May 6, 2009.

Topics: Urban Culture

7 Responses to “Replay: “They’re Not Current””

  1. Quimbob says:

    I hope you see the irony in RE-posting an article about keeping current.

  2. Matt Hall says:

    This is certainly Cincinnati’s greatest challenge. There is a real commitment to place in Cincy but there is a section of the population that will fight to the death against anything genuinely new. I think they feel that if Cincinnati becomes truly different that they will lose their sense of identity and meaning in life. Cincy isn’t just their home, it is their faith. How do you overcome such intense fears?

  3. Brad Crawford says:

    Re Comment 3, I don’t think you have to overcome those fears, necessarily. There’s no doubt that Cincinnati has a certain stubborn resistance to change, but in the race for latest and greatest, being charmingly retro (e.g., Charleston, Savannah) is a real point of distinction. Cincinnati’s far enough behind the cutting edge that it might well make more sense to move forward by digging into the past–that fantastic architecture, riverboat ambience, brewing/cigar/tobacco culture. I don’t think Cincinnati needs to search for something new so much as codify and promote what makes it different, then sustain that vision long enough (at least a generation) that planning and development remain consistent with it. Isn’t that what makes cities like Santa Fe and Portland so desirable to visit and live in?

  4. George Mattei says:

    Aaron, I like what you said about speaking to students. I notice that myself-that when you’re 18 or 20 it’s ingrained into your life to pick up the newest thing of the future. But wehn you’re 30-something and have kids, a mortage and a busy job (speaking from experience), you don’t have time to keep up on the newest things.

    I do notice hwever that I am much more seasoned and ready to make change happen, because I have the experience and know-how to do so.

    I think all of our leaders would do well to keep in contact with our youth, especially circa college age. It’s their job to keep an eye on the future so they can integrate into the fabric of society as they enter it. They can provide precious insight on the future of societal revolutions.

  5. Matt Hall says:

    Brad, your point is well taken but I think there is a level of resentment and disallusionment almost unique to Cincinnati around the fortunes of various neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Many native Cincinnatians have a sense of almost religious devotion to their neighborhoods and institutions and seem to feel an overwhelming resentment if they felt they have had to leave a former neighborhood or institution with which they felt so deeply identified. This sense of resentment seems to motivate them to so fully embrace their new, usually suburban, neighborhood and reject their old neighborhood so completely as to actively oppose anything that might help where they have come from. They do so even if the effort will clearly help the overall metro area in which they, and many others they care about, still live. They openly celebrate their old neighborhood’s or institution’s decline, and even call for its destruction. These toxic emotions seem to get in the way of most public economic development efforts in Cincy. The only succesful economic development efforts seem to be privately led or administered.

    I suppose that when someone sees their neighborhood as almost sacred space, any suggestion of change is treated as sacreligious. It can heartbreaking to observe Cincinnatian’s sense of betrayal about Cincinnati’s fortunes expressed through the many local political fights around economic development issues such as the current streetcar plan. This is the very tough nut I think Cincy has to crack to somehow move ahead. As a relative newcomer, I continue to look for any ways that I can work with others to change the social dynamic here in what is still a surprisingly interesting city and region.

  6. Quinn says:

    I think having access to universities, and, in turn, to have universities be active in communities will be paramount to community success. Research & idea implementation, amongst the culture of place & pace of learning universities employ, can help communities outside of the typical “college-town” embrace & accept new, innovative, fun, and efficient ways of living.

    Great post, as always!

    p.s. – It would be great if all of the people complaining would do something about the things they are unpleasant about. If they do get involved, what’s the guarantee they won’t become corrupt? Are they to blame…or the system?

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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