Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Super-Regionalism in Kentucky

Joe Nannery sent me a link to an interesting Courier-Journal article where Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer talks about super-regional collaboration with Lexington on economic development and other matters. There’s a great video interview with him that accompanied the story that you can watch below. (The video won’t display in Google Reader or platforms like that, so to watch it please visit my main web page by clicking here). I think he and his economic development director do a great job of laying out the case for a greater regional vision in an accessible way.

It seems pretty clear that Fischer understands one of the key challenges facing Louisville, namely that it is just a bit too small to really have the heft it needs to go to market in the new economy. He sees collaboration with Lexington as one way to help both cities punch above their weight, particularly in attracting international attention. He believes this is essential to the long term relevance of the cities.

He is weaker on what exactly this collaboration would consist of as the reporter tried to pin him down on specifics. As he put it, “We’re in the early stages of dating.” I wouldn’t feel bad about this if I were him since the mega-regionalism concept is pretty nebulous. Lots of people are saying it’s the next big thing and that cities and states should be thinking this way, but as I myself noted in a previous blog post, nobody tells us exactly what is we’re supposed to actually do to make this a reality. It’s not just about Louisville and Lexington. The reality is that mega-regionalism as an operational program not just a concept is in its early stages. This is part of the process of figuring out what it really means. I do think if we’re ever going to have true mega-regions though, they are going to emerge from bottom-up collaboration between cities like Louisville and Lexington, not from top-down visions and programs.

Fischer also understands that Louisville and Lexington are non-overlapping in their industries in many regards. That’s actually a good thing in my book. This allows them to specialize and gain the advantages of that on some things. My analogy is to a football team. Not everybody is a quarterback. Not everybody is a linebacker. Not everybody is the kicker. Everybody has to know and excel at their own role on the team.

He’s talking about partnering with Brookings to help draw up the plan, and also on a new strategic plan for Louisville itself. I generally like Brookings, but as a former Southern Indiana resident, I can tell you that I did not care for the previous Louisville plan, which suggested any growth outside of Jefferson County was actively bad. I’m all in favor of a strong core, but that plan went too far in its core-centric and almost anti-collar county tone. I can’t imagine it played well anywhere outside Jefferson County because the key goal of the plan was to keep as much regional growth as possible inside the boundaries of that county (notwithstanding that much of Jefferson County itself is suburban or rural in character).

Hopefully this next version is much more actively embracing of the region. I was glad to see Fischer include Southern Indiana explicitly in his regional concept. For too long Kentucky and Indiana have been acting crazy just paying businesses to move back and forth across the Ohio River as if that is some sort of net regional economic add. It would be much better if they could both focus their energy on bringing net new growth to the area instead.

We’ll see where this goes, if indeed it goes anywhere. But it’s certainly interesting indeed to see Mayor Fischer talking about mega-regionalism, and definitely a change from the more Louisville-centric Abramson administration approach.

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Replay: Is Nashville the Next Boomtown of the New South?

I traveled to Nashville for the first time in 2007, spending most of my time in the downtown area. I posted my impressions here, noting the high growth and high ambition level as well as the fantastic freeways, but also the generally unimpressive development and built environment.

I did another fly-by in April 2008. I made a conscious effort to try to get out and see different areas this time around. My tour guide was an Indy native who had spent the last decade or so in the northeast. He’d moved to the city about a year previously, so was seeing some of this for the first time himself. But it worked well, I thought.

I believe Nashville is an extremely important case study for metros in the Midwest to examine. Here is a city that was a sleepy state capital for many years while other southern towns such as Atlanta and Charlotte took off. Then it began heading on an upwards trajectory. It is not yet at such a high growth rate that it appears to be a completely different sort of place than the Midwest. Its population growth is only 1.9% per year, for example, not much higher than Midwest growth champion Indianapolis at 1.5%. But all the trend lines are accelerating. Corporate headquarters are flocking, in city development is booming, transplants from the north are arriving. It would not surprise me to see this city pop into a higher gear when the economy turns upwards again.

Nashville is a great case study because we can observe the inflection point in growth more or less as it happens. And also try to make sense of what is driving it. And to understand why Midwestern cities aren’t seeing it. I look at Nashville and ask myself: what does this place have on the Midwest? Compare it to Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Kansas City, and Milwaukee and see if anything jumps out that would explain it. Some unique factor of Nashville. Consider:

  • Nashville is smaller than most of those places today, so it isn’t size
  • It can’t be just because Nashville is in the south or a no income tax right to work state. Memphis in the exact same state and is hurting. Birmingham and Montgomery haven’t done much in right to work Alabama.
  • Its college degree attainment of 31% is below many comparable Midwest cities, though it should be noted that Nashville is moving up the league tables fast. It was recently ranked the 4th biggest “brain magnet” in the United States.
  • It has no particular unique industry or assets. It can cite its Music City USA image, which certainly drives tourism and money. But Midwestern cities have other equivalent things they can counter with. Plus, it was Music City USA all the time it was a sleepy state capital as well.
  • Just being the state capital doesn’t explain it. Indy and Columbus are both in that role and are getting out paced by Nashville.
  • Having a consolidated city-county government is not unique. Indy and Louisville are both consolidated, and Columbus is quasi-consolidated because of the ability of that city to annex most of Franklin County and even parts of several adjacent counties.
  • There are mountains, but the geography does not appear to be particularly compelling.
  • There are not fabulous historic districts in every region. In fact, while there are some nicer neighborhoods, much of the city is built out exactly like most Midwestern burgs of equivalent size. A lot of it is outright dumpy.
  • Its cultural institutions are not as advanced as Midwestern ones. The Nashville Symphony isn’t going to take on the Cincinnati Symphony any time soon, that’s for sure.
  • It doesn’t have some fortress home grown companies that are driving it.
  • It has Vanderbilt University, but most Midwestern cities have a good school in them too.

I compare Nashville to the top performing Midwest metros and just scratch my head. Nashville’s arguably got nothing on the Midwest and in many ways is playing from an inferior position. So what is going on?

I’ll take a shot at explaining a few things I’ve noticed. I’m not saying these are necessarily the answers. But they are things to consider. If I were head of strategy for a Midwestern metro, I’d be conducting an extensive peer city comparison of Nashville to try to figure it out in more detail. But here are some thoughts:

  • First, as I previously noted, is the extremely high ambition level. These guys are clearly looking at places like Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, etc. and saying “Why not us?” Their mission is to become one of America’s great cities. There’s no “era of limits” in Nashville. You see this come through, for example, in their convention center plans, which call for 1.2 million square feet. It comes through in their highways, which are being built 8-10 lanes with HOV lanes, as if getting ready to become the much bigger city they plan to be. It shows in the numerous residential high rise and midrise projects. It shows in how Nashville, unlike every comparable Midwest metro, already has a commuter rail line in service. Midwesterners recoil from change, and would view becoming the next Charlotte or Atlanta with horror. But Nashville is eager to move up to the premier league, so to speak.
  • Second is the unabashedly pro-growth and pro-business stance. Every development in the Midwest is opposed by some group of NIMBY’s. Densification, even in downtown areas, is often anathema to influential neighbors. Not in Nashville. Huge tracts of inner city are being rebuilt from vacant lots or single family homes into multi-story town houses or condos. There are midrises all over the place. It does not appear that development has any problem getting approved there.
  • Third is low taxes and costs. Tennessee does not have a state income tax. Electricity from the TVA is dirt cheap. Property taxes cannot be increased without a public vote. It remains to be seen if this environment can be sustained, but for right now, cost appears to be an advantage.
  • Fourth is that they’ve embraced instead of rejecting their heritage. Rather than saying that country music is for hillbillies and an embarrassment to their new ambitions as a big league city, they’ve proudly embraced it. They updated the image with a glitzy, “Nashvegas” spin and made it the core of what Nashville is all about. Most Midwestern elites seem to view their existing heritage negatively. But great cities have to spring from the native soil in which they are born. Their character has to be organic. Import all the fancy stores, restaurants, sports teams, transit lines, etc. you want, but it won’t distinguish your city. Nashville learned this lesson well, probably from Atlanta. The southern boomtowns took their existing Southern heritage, dropped the negative items that needed to be changed, updated the core positive elements, and created the vision of the “New South”. This is something that can be embraced by the masses, unlike the elitist transformations that are often promulgated.
  • Fifth is that, again, they appear to have studied the lessons of places like Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. They’ve seen the need for freeways. They’ve looked at the style of development and the neo-traditional urban form. I was very impressed to see that there while most condo developments and such were fairly undistinctive, I did not note any that exhibited poor urban design form. When I consider the poorly designed projects that are frequently implemented in, say, downtown Indianapolis, it is easy to see who gets out more. Nashville has done its homework.
  • Sixth, Nashville is realistic and open to self-criticism without being self-flagellating. I posted my previous take on the city on a discussion forum dedicated to that city. Given the modestly negative tone contained in much of it, I expected to get crucified. Surprisingly, most of them basically agreed with it. Too many cities in the Midwest either engage in naive boosterism or wallow in woe-is-us. Perhaps because of the large number of newcomers, there’s a more realistic assessment of where Nashville stands. And this enables rational decisions about where it needs to go.

If anyone else has observations to share, I would love to hear them.

Here are some photographs I took while there. First, a view of the Tennessee capitol building across a green space I believe is called the Bicentennial Mall.

A street scape in Hillsboro Village, a small commercial district near Vanderbilt University.

The Pancake Pantry in Hillsboro Village, a breakfast place of high local repute. I was initially skeptical but the food was actually pretty darn good. This place is huge and there was still a line out the door at 10am on a Friday morning. Pretty crazy.

The storefronts are a nice urban touch, but if you look behind this building you see a gigantic parking lot. This is perhaps an example of faux-urbanism. Putting the parking lot in the back doesn’t make it any less a strip mall. It is a difference in form, not function.

One of the many vacant lots with a “condos coming soon” sign.

The main road heading west of out downtown, West End Avenue, is developed at very high densities. I haven’t seen much in the way of this in most Midwestern cities. Midrises line both sides of the road basically from downtown to the interstate loop. It’s a six lane mega-street that moves tons of cars, but appears to have great bus service as well.

Here is another one under construction.

A proposed, but I believe not yet funded, high rise development. Indianapolis readers will no doubt recognize one of the towers as a clone of the proposed Intercontinental hotel for Pan Am Plaza that lost out as the convention center anchor hotel.

If you continue out to the west from here, you run into neighborhoods like Green Hills, which is where the most premier shopping in the area is found, and the suburb of Belle Meade, which serves as Nashville’s mansion district. Unlike traditional Midwestern mansion districts, this one is more rural in nature, with large estates that wouldn’t be out of place in a plantation. I did not take pictures of these areas, however.

Back closer to downtown is a nearby area known as the “Gulch”. It is not too far from Nashville’s Union Station.

This appears to be some seedy industrial district that is being transformed all at once by a series of large developments. It also has several clubs and restaurants. I ate at a seafood place called Watermark that was surprisingly good. I believe most of the places are upscale chains, though I’m not sure if Watermark is or not. Here’s a picture of some of the development.

More development

North of downtown is a small historic district called Germantown. This was rather unimpressive if you ask me. I didn’t see much that was German about it. It sure isn’t Columbus’ German Village, that’s for sure. There were some restaurants there. I had lunch at one of them which, fortunately for them, I can’t remember the name of because it was terrible. This area is mostly older single family homes.

The amazing thing about this area is that almost every vacant or industrial parcel was being redeveloped as condos. This really brought home to me the difference between Nashville and the Midwest. Were this, say, the Cottage Home area in Indianapolis, the local neighborhood association would use their historic district status to keep developments like these out. In Nashville, they are seen as a positive. Here are some examples.

More condos

More condos with retail space. Sorry for the very blurry pic but it was raining as you can see.

More condos being built, and still more proposed.

You get the picture. Also, note from all these photos the lack of design disasters. These are all workmanlike structures. The challenge for Nashville is that while there is a ton of new development, all of it is in a relatively generic, undistinguished style that could be in the downtown of almost any city. I did not get a strong sense of any type of vernacular style emerging. That is something I’d be looking for if I were them.

Lastly, here’s one suburban example that shows something I pointed out last time. Namely that even in brand new, upscale subdivisions they aren’t putting in sidewalks on both sides of the street. I find this very odd. While I noticed some bike lanes this time around, Nashville’s definitely got a long ways to go when it comes to pedestrian and bicycle friendliness.

Nashville is definitely a city that is on an upward trajectory. The volume of urban development and the business attraction success are impressive. It is exceeding even the best performing Midwest metros in that regard. However, it still lags the top southern and western metros. The current rate is very healthy, but probably isn’t sufficient to realize the civic ambitions. It remains to be seen whether Nashville can put it in another gear and take its place among the boomtowns, or whether it will merely stay on its current growth path. Either path is possible or a valid civic choice. While always possible, the likelihood that Nashville is going to take a major downtown does not appear high in the short term.

This is an updated version of a post originally appeared on June 22, 2008.

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Imported from Detroit

Unless you are one of my overseas readers, you’ve doubtless seen the $9 million “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler ad featuring Detroit grit and Eminem that ran during the Superbowl. It was a huge crowd favorite and I really thought it was done well. I’ve never had anything that generated as many “did you see this?” type emails as this one did. Here’s the ad (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

I suppose it was inevitable that this would generate blowback, but even I was surprised to see such strange bedfellows as Mother Jones and Mark Steyn united in their distaste of the commercial. It’s notable that most of the criticism seems not to be from Detroit or the Rust Belt itself, which liked the ad and doesn’t feel patronized by it. The critics seem to be mostly those who are incensed that the auto industry and Detroit have the temerity to dare to fight back rather than meekly accepting due recompense for their unholy bailout-Democrat-autodependent-consumerist-capitalist sins.

But to me that’s not the interesting part. What this really shows once again is the power of brand Detroit. Is there another city in America an ad like that could have been created about? Even in a radically different style, it’s hard to imagine someone using the power of a city’s brand to sell a product in that way other than perhaps a tourist town or in a totally facile way (“We brew our beer in Milwaukee”). If someone tried, it certainly wouldn’t be nearly as effective. There are lots of cities that have “been to hell and back,” but I can only think of two where you could pull off something like this: Detroit and New Orleans. Not even Chicago has the brand power to resonate like this, showing at least one way in which Detroit actually exceeds the Windy City.

Detroit may be facing a very tough road ahead, but if nothing else, it remains a place that has the power to command the world’s attention in a manner few other American cities could ever aspire to achieve.

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Welcome to the Urban Revolution (Part Two) by Evan O’Neil

[ Here’s the second installment of Evan O’Neil’s interview with Jeb Brugmann. Part one is here – Aaron. ]

You note that authoritarianism can’t survive the complexity of urban association, that cities are the world’s strategic centers of social innovation. What is it about cities that makes them so revolutionary? What types of innovations should we expect from them?

One of the natural economies of urban settlement is what can be called “economies of association.” At its most basic level, economies of association can be understood in terms of probability. If you have lots of diverse people socially organized in a way that they can interact intensively with one another, especially with high economic and service interdependencies on a day-to-day basis, then there is a high probability that like-minded people, or that people with different but synergistic interests or expertise, will find each other and common cause. The probability of this happening in dense settlement is so high, I’ve argued, that new forms of independent association will arise even under conditions of centralized police control.

This probability is further increased if central planners design urban space and commerce so as to concentrate anti-establishment people together. Think if the township areas of apartheid South Africa or the African-American ghettos of the mid-twentieth–century United States. Now add the factor of economies of extension—that the African National Congress or U.S. civil rights activists used urban infrastructure networks to create extended networks of activist communities, connecting the urban districts of their allies internationally. This makes for a revolutionary movement.

In terms of innovation, we can also understand these very place-based, connected civil rights communities as urban innovations in forms of collaboration, governance, political theory, and cultural expression. These highly recognized movements are just one of thousands of examples of how specific urban communities leverage the natural economies of association and extension, and the plasticity of urban space (including the development of zones of autonomy), to forge social, political, economic, and technical innovation.

The inventors of the Internet leveraged the particular urbanisms of Cambridge, Stanford, and other high-tech defense R&D districts in university towns. The origin and spread of rap music is another example. Another example is the spread of innovations in criminality, which originate in specific zones of autonomy in some cities and extend to receptive urban districts elsewhere, and then merge with criminal enterprise innovations introduced from other zones of autonomy in other parts of the world.

You say that China faces the conundrum of allowing its cities to flourish without toppling its tyranny. What will be the tipping point there?

Sticking with my first principles about natural economies and plasticity, there is every reason why China could innovate and support forms of true urbanism that serve the policy and developmental objectives of the non-pluralistic, centralized state. The fact is that they don’t, because of a seeming belief that progress and development in the urban sphere involves reading from other countries’ hymn books. So rather than forging regional Chinese urbanisms that empower resident-users in ways that are consistent with state policy and interests, they are doing their own forms of “urban renewal” and master-planned development à la modernist Europe and U.S urban renewal.

Of course, a major reason is expediency. First, the importation of foreign city-models is an expedient way to scale-up vast quantities of new urban space to serve the huge urban migrant population. Second, these city-models are also an expedient way for state-industrial elites to collect rents and secure windfalls.

The struggle in Gaza can also be understood in urban strategy terms. Israeli urban strategy towards Palestinian populations has effectively been to manufacture zones of autonomy. This prepared the way for Hamas, whose urban strategy, like that of other Islamic movements in the region, is based on providing services and infrastructure in these zones of autonomy—making them even more politically autonomous.

The alternative could have been to lead the development of robust, functioning urbanisms in Gaza and the West Bank—to create not only goodwill but also a viable functioning homeland that is integrated with Israeli and with the wider regional economic life even as it is politically independent. The City is plastic at all its scales. This is unique to urban geography. It can be designed to serve myriad strategies and strategic interests—including to align seemingly opposed interests.

You write that first generation urban migrants are a self-selected entrepreneurial breed, that migrants have no intention of returning to an unequal position in life, that they tap into and create what you call urban advantage. What is urban advantage and how does it work its magic?

Urban advantage is the strategic leverage that a city-building community creates when it develops customized urbanisms, putting unique form to the natural economies of a location, to achieve its purposes. I write at length about Dharavi in Mumbai as a “migrant city” because Dharavi represents scores of innovations in urban design, services, business models and logistics, and governance that provide urban advantage to its waves of poor migrant settlers from rural areas.

On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, industries today are increasingly trying to wrap their heads around the development of urban advantage, and what might otherwise be called “locational advantage” and “agglomeration economies.” For instance, in Silicon Valley, a number of the major corporations anchored there are collaborating with each other and with municipal governments and developers to create urban spaces that support greater employee productivity.

One of the key issues is how to overcome the monoculture of employee technical bias and perspective, and to stimulate fresh thinking and collaboration between knowledge professionals with different expertise and perspectives, ultimately also fostering shared strategic (business) interests. By relocating offices from isolated single-company suburban campuses to vibrant, mixed-use, mixed-company “innovation hubs,” there is some expectation that the productivity benefits could offset the labor cost advantages of emerging high-tech regions.

How might a city take advantage of this migrant energy without being overwhelmed? Do cities that grant migrants sanctuary accrue any strategic advantage?

Cities that create development pathways for their migrants achieve strategic advantage. We know this all too well in the United States, as one of the first true migrant nations. Most of those people passing through Ellis Island were not coming to board Conestoga wagons and to homestead out west. Most were coming to secure some urban advantage in an ethnic district in a manufacturing city. The rest is history.

It was a tough history in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, and Chicago with plenty of conflict between ethnic neighborhoods over urban “turf”—streets, parks, jobs, intersections, etc.—but government enabled, invested in (and often politically exploited) a unique form of industrial city urbanism in which specialized manufacture, worker residences, and commercial/retail services were conveniently and efficiently co-located. In other words, a pathway was created for poor people to get off the boat, join an ethnic “slum,” organize their commerce and socio-political institutions within that district, and then to become metropolitan specialists in certain trades and industries, secure political representation, and ultimately secure public investment in services and infrastructure for their district.

The question is, Can we reverse-engineer this often trial-and-error process and accelerate capital investment alongside the customized development of migrant districts across the world? I don’t think it is rocket science, but it takes a very different approach to the production of urban space than the dominant, standardized, outside-in approach today.

You write that we need to become “masters of a stable, just, and ecological urbanism.” Describe your ideal ecological city. What makes it just?

There is no truly ecological city in the traditional sense of the word city. This is because a city is largely an extractive system that by its concentrated, intensive nature demands more materials, resources, energy, and nutrients than can be produced internally within the urbanized area. The first step towards ecological urbanism is increasing the energy and nutrient productivity within the city, but the only way to move sufficiently from extractive mode to a sustainable productive mode is to think, design, and develop at the scale of the City. This is the topic of my next book.

In my mind the problem of justice is at least technically more straightforward. Justice, as I’ve indicated above, can become a self-organizing process when disadvantaged city-building communities are given support to develop customized urbanisms from which they can leverage improvements in their social and economic status. In the so-called slums around the world, particularly where they are allowed to mature and to grow into urban districts, migrant communities have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate the empowering way that the urbanism facilitates freer association and greater justice in the world.

This article originally appeared in Policy Innovations. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives license. The original article can be viewed here.

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Topics: Globalization, Urban Culture

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

The Problem of Innovation

And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, that Elias is come already, and they knew him not…Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist. – Matthew 17:10-13

Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass that, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered way. And some fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, some sixty, and some an hundred. – Mark 4:3-8

I was privileged to give the keynote address at Friday’s urban innovation symposium put on by the graduate student association at the UIC Department of Urban Planning and Policy. I’ll be posting an audio at some point, but I wanted to reprise for the blog the first part of it, which is about the real problem of innovation.

A lot of innovation events, contests, initiatives and such seem to be about how to get more innovative ideas or stimulate more outside the box thinking. But I’d argue that finding innovative ideas is easy. It’s implementing them that’s the hard part.

As many of you know, a couple years ago I won a global innovation competition to generate ideas for boosting public transit ridership in Chicago. My entry was a comprehensive program of over 50 ideas. After winning, I was actually able to present my program in person to the CTA’s senior leadership.

How many of those ideas do you think were implemented? That’s right. As near as I can tell, none. Now, that’s not to say they were all practical ideas, as I was trying to be innovative. And I think most of you know that I’m a big fan of Rich Rodriguez and the team at the CTA. In fact, I think they really have done a lot with innovation, from train tracker to the new fare system that’s on the way to adding remote sensor technology to old viaducts. The point is that ideas by themselves have little value, no matter how innovative they are.

The sad reality is that most cities and organizations have enormous structural and cultural barriers to innovation, and it is in overcoming these that true innovation results. I’ll share a couple below.

The Tyranny of the Org Chart

I spent 15 years working for a major international consulting firm. I spent most of that time out doing work for clients, but the last three I spent in an internal staff position. When I was out at clients, I always thought people hired consultants because we were really smart guys. We had the best practices, the innovative thinking our clients said they wanted, etc. We’d put together fancy Power Points and show them to the VPs and such and they loved it. I’m proud to say we accomplished a lot of great things for our clients.

When I took my internal role, I was excited to get to apply the same tools and thinking to my own company. I thought it was going to be great. Instead, I’m sad to report that in three years, I totally failed in my ambitions. It wasn’t that I did a bad job, but I was able to deliver little of the innovation I’d hoped, and few of my ideas were adopted.

It was then that I realized why people really hire consultants.

When you occupy a box on an org chart – in a company, a government, etc – or a known position inside a social structure, everything you say or do is seen through the lens of that box. If you are a middle manager say, what are the odds that you can even get access to the CEO, much less have the CEO act on your ideas? It doesn’t seem likely.

Consultants, by contrast, exist outside the org chart. To steal a phrase, they stand behind a “veil of ignorance” about their status in the hierarchy. Consultants take great pains to maintain this, which is one reason why consultants have such nebulous, generic titles. It’s to disguise the fact that the “partner” consultant is actually middle management in his own firm. This enables even top level executives in large corporations to engage with the consultants in a totally different type of way.

In fact, I hate to say this, but a lot of times all consultants do is talk to middle managers at the client and document up what they’re told for higher level consumption. That’s one reason middle management particularly despises consultants.

I call this principle the “tyranny of the org chart” and consider it one of the biggest barriers to making innovation happen. As virtually all innovative ideas occur below the top levels of the pyramid, they become imprisoned in lower levels of the organization. This is as true of cities as it is of companies. I’ll be the first to plead guilty to the offense myself, as I’ve little doubt that I’ve behaved any better than anyone else in my career on this point.

I think this also accounts for why so many innovators have to leave town to find success. I have noticed for myself that while I’m most closely associated with Indianapolis and Chicago, virtually none of my major breakthroughs or milestones in building my urbanist career came from those cities apart from the transit innovation contest, which was a blind competition. In your home town people might not know who you are, but they know you who aren’t – and that’s one of the boys. Whereas people in other cities don’t know or care about anything but the value you bring. Perhaps that’s why, as they say, “an expert is somebody from out of town.”

Interestingly, CEOs and other top level leaders and thinkers are actually very receptive to new ideas and new people. It’s the lower layers, possibly because they are less secure and feel more threatened from below, that tend to try to squelch things. It’s an organizational axiom that’s rarely failed me that the higher up you go in the pecking order, the more open minded and flexible people become – and certainly much more open minded and flexible than those who work for them would lead you to believe.

The Play It Safe Mentality

This is another classic barrier and is aptly summed up by the old tech adage, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” People have a nearly overwhelming desire to go with a known quantity versus an unknown, and the tried and true versus an unproven idea.

I’ll give another personal example here. I started my blog over four years ago. I wasn’t a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution nor a hot shot academic from Harvard or something. But I thought I had something to say and wanted to put it out there. Sure enough, I quickly started building an audience.

Among my readers were journalists. They would start contacting me for help with stories they were working on, which I was delighted to supply. But they almost never quoted me. In fact, I even had one journalist tell me directly, “You aren’t authoritative for us to quote in this article.” For about the first two and half years of the blog, I had extremely limited notice, despite my readership.

Then when I won the transit contest I got my picture on the cover of the Chicago Tribune. That was thanks to the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and certainly not to me, so I’m very grateful to them. You’d better believe I featured that prominently on the blog. Then shortly a journalist from Detroit talked to me and wrote a column about my ideas on talent in her paper, which I also blogged. Then the Christian Science Monitor did a piece. All of these I put up on my blog. As a result, people now see that I’ve been used as a source by others, and so feel safe using me themselves.

I’d like to think I’ve gotten better with age, but I don’t think I’m that’s much better than when I was starting out in the blog business. The difference is less in me, than in how people perceive me. Now imagine if this were something with serious stakes at risk and see how much less likely it is people will take a chance on the new.

People wonder all the time about things like, “How did we lose Mark Andreseen and Netscape to Silicon Valley?” Well, the answer is easy. He wasn’t Mark Andreesen then, he was just a punk college kid. Or rather, he was Mark Andreesen, but they knew him not. How many times have we seen this movie again? That’s why I say that it’s highly likely nothing has changed, and the next Mark Andreesen who comes along will get the exact same treatment. Too many cities and companies just sit there waiting for Elijah to come, not realizing he’s already passed them by half a dozen times already (assuming they didn’t behead him the way Illinois tried to do Andreesen).

If you are a city trying to build a cultural of entrepreneurial innovation or some such, a big challenge is how to find and support the potential tomorrow’s big success stories before they have their first major startup exit, not just celebrate the people who’ve already made it, which is only innovation via the rear view mirror. Any fool can tell you which horse you should have backed after they’ve already won the big race.

So You Want to Be an Innovator?

It’s sexy to be an innovative, outside the box thinker. Not so much to be the effective organization man who figures out how to make things happen. Our heroes are people like Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb or Alexander Graham Bell the phone.

But if you really want to make your ideas actually happen, if you want to really change your city for the better, to do something new and innovative that will take it in a better direction, then you should spend less time thinking about ideas and more time studying organizational theory, politics, sales, relationships, and the art of getting things done. Because the people who’ve mastered those skills and who can take their idea through to reality are the ones who’ll make a real difference.

For top leaders themselves it’s the same challenge. How can they create the conditions in which structural barriers like the tyranny of the org chart or the play it safe mentality don’t sabotage innovation?

If we consider the parable of the sower, we tend to think that the problem of innovation is not enough seeds. But the true big problem is not enough good ground. Every city and organization I know has tons of seeds raining down on them every day. I’m constantly amazed at the incredible innovative thinking and ideas that I come across in practically every city I visit. The problem is that most of those seeds are landing on the rocks or in the weeds.

That’s the challenge to any mayor, CEO, or civic leader who wants to create a culture of innovation in their organization or city, not to create a place with more new innovative ideas, but a place where more of the innovative people and ideas they do have can land on good ground.

Friday, February 4th, 2011


Inside that circle of things [government] should do, absolutely, is be very aggressive about constructing public – or seeing that public infrastructure is constructed and is maintained — well, because this enables the private sector to grow. If you have excellent roads, bridges, rail, and – in this world, broadband – it is more likely that men and women of enterprise will be able to suspend their good ideas, their investments, from that, or build it next to that. – Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels

Cap’N Transit wrote a response to my post about us needing to build more roads. You can check it out over here.

Top Stories

1. Joel Kotkin: The Midwest – Coming Back? – “With enhanced power in Washington and more common sense government at home, the Midwest could be poised to regain a competitive advantage that has been missing for several generations.”

2. Governing: The Rust Belt Has Arrived

3. Lauri Apple: Being ‘Chicago Enough’ – “Just because someone grew up in a place doesn’t mean they have a better understanding of how to go about leading it (duh). Leadership skills are transferable, and often strengthened when a person leaves a place for a while. Residing elsewhere for a time can help you to gain perspective and become exposed to new ideas that you can then take back with you to your hometown.”

4. Payton Chung: On the Cheap – Payton gives another great example of a foreign heavy rail project that is coming in at a much lower cost that we can build them in America. Something is wrong, people. What is going to really kill transit isn’t political opposition but its stunning price tags. We advocates need to be as focused on bringing the costs down as we are on getting projects approved. With a fixed amount of federal money too, every dollar that we free up can go for more projects too.

5. Richard Longworth: Pain, Yes. Bankruptcy, No

Scary Chart of the Week

Ryan Avent posted this scary graphic at the Economist Free Exchange blog:

Not Good.

World and National Roundup

Forbes: Danger: America is losing its edge in innovation

Grist: An interview with Ed Glaeser

The Economist: Tribes still matter

WSJ: Even in death, budget cuts take a toll – Apparently some places now can’t even afford to pay for pauper burials.

NYT: Mayors see no end to hard choices

NYT: Unusual wave of violence strikes police officers

TNR: The case against economic disaster porn – It’s about Detroit, of course.

The Economist: No Dawn for Detroit

Diana Lind: The bright side of blight

National Post: City of mass construction: Toronto’s unstoppable condos show no signs of slowing down

National Geographic: Paris Underground

This Big City: Why London will struggle to become a cycling city

Architect’s Newspaper: Bloomberg makes space in New York

NYT: Can a city this self-serious take a joke? – A discussion of the new IFC series “Portlandia.” You might remember that I posted a promo for it a while back.

Rust Wire: The Problem With Boosterism

Jason Tinkey: Indiana wants me, but I can’t go back there

Mental Floss: 10 Quick Facts About Pittsburgh

Kansas City Blizzard

There are already cool videos of the Blizzard of 2011. Here’s one out of Kansas City that shows the snow in its most beautiful light. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Chicago and the Blizzard: We Were Warned

Ok, the Lake Shore Drive snow-over was a fiasco. But on the whole, Chicago, despite suffering the third highest snowfall in history, took the blizzard in stride. One day off during the event itself, and a day later we’re getting back to normal. Yup, snow will be piled high for longer than I’d like. But after seeing main streets nearly clear only a few hours after the snow stopped and many sidewalks quickly shoveled, I’m proud of my city. But about the Lake Shore Drive disaster show….

Views of Detroit

Here’s a Detroit video that of all places I found on Copenhagenize. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

They also posted this photo of the intersection of Woodward and Monroe Avenues in 1917:

The Dreaded Stairs

My friend Ashvin Lad sent me this cool You Tube video of another VW sponsored installation that encourages people to take the stairs by making it fun. In this case by making the stairs keys of a piano that really plays. I think I’ve posted some of these before and they’re pretty cool. (If the video doesn’t display click here).

Post Script

A bus shelter bites the dust in Chicago.

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Can Chicago Get Out of Its Parking Meter Lease?

Image via The Expired Meter

It’s almost surreal that the two year old parking meter lease remains politically potent in Chicago. At least two mayoral candidates have said they are in favor of undoing the deal. The others suggest it will be difficult, but haven’t said that it is undesirable. Could Chicago in fact get out of that deal? Possibly, though it’s a long shot. But it’s imperative that the next mayor at least take a run at it.

The reason to undo the lease is not that it was a bad financial deal, that rates went up, or the way it went down. Rather, it has to do with parking meters being a bad candidate for this type of transaction in the first place. As I explain in “Parking Meters and the Perils of Privatization,” parking meters are not a public service like garbage collection, nor a capital asset like a toll road. Rather, parking meters are an urban planning tool that we use to manage access to precious street real estate for the benefit of the neighborhood. Because neighborhood dynamics change over time, the management of the space needs to change with it. Heck, we might not even want to use that real estate for parking the future.

However, the parking meter turned this urban planning tool into a revenue generating mechanism. The lease locks Chicago into a particular policy on parking for 75 years – including setting rates decades into the future. In effect, the city sold off a 75 year ground lease on the streets of Chicago, that is to say in the most important component of the city’s public space, to a private company. This will clearly hurt our ability to implement livable streets type initiatives going forward – the types of projects that are key to attracting the talent Chicago needs to be competitive in the 21st century economy. Maybe they won’t be impossible, but you don’t want to be wearing ankle weights in a race with China – or even New York, which is killing Chicago on the transportation innovation front right now (see here, here, here, and here for examples).

What’s more, Chicago locked itself into an old-school “X quarters per hour” pricing structure just as we’re on the cusp of a revolution in parking management. San Francisco is already experimenting with dynamic pricing. Similar to congesting pricing for roads, this varies meter rates based on demand to most efficiently use the space. It also de-politicizes parking rates by letting the market decide what the price ought to be. Chicago’s lease is the parking equivalent of building the new Comiskey Park right before Camden Yards opened.

So we have to at least take a shot at. How then?

The lease cannot be cancelled. But there’s no reason it can’t be renegotiated. Private businesses renegotiate contracts all the time – all the time. I believe the city should engage with Morgan Stanley and the consortium in good faith negotiations to repurchase the meters at a fair value. I believe Morgan Stanley would be open to this. If not, perhaps the IVI-IPO lawsuit will succeed. And I believe there are other ways we can bring them to the table. But this is not about trying to get revenge or screw the banks. I’m talking a good faith negotiation and fair valuation.

But we already spent the money. So how would we give it back? Good question. Remember though, we would not only have to give the money back, but we would get back the revenue stream. After all, Morgan Stanley gave the city the money in the expectation the meter revenues would pay it back. Why wouldn’t that work for us? The city even has advantages here. It doesn’t need to turn a profit. It doesn’t have to pay taxes. And as a AA- rated borrower with no equity component in the deal, it has a lower cost of capital.

Conceptually, the city would create a parking authority that would issue revenue bonds backed by the meter revenues in order to pay back the money. Possibly this would have to be supplemented with general obligation debt or some type of contingent city guarantee. But the idea is that the meter revenues themselves would cover the payments. If not, then by definition the city overpaid.

You might argue that the city can’t take on any more debt. Well in effect it already did. Because the actual assets of the parking system are minimal, and this more or less just involves a monopoly franchise, another way to look at the meter lease is as a form a high interest off balance sheet financing. In effect, the city borrowed the $1.1 billion from Morgan Stanley to start with and is paying it back with the meter money. I say it’s time to look at refinancing that into a more conventional product. Note that there’s no reason why we can’t continue using a private company to run the system for us, as who cares who collects quarters out of the meters. I have no objection to private sector involvement and am a privatization fan generally – just not of this deal.

Now this isn’t without risk or pain. (It might affect the city’s credit rating, for example). Nor will it be easy. In fact, it’s probably a long shot. But because the price of staying in the deal is so high, it’s something the city has to give a serious look at. Because who knows what we might be able to make happen if we put as much effort behind getting out of the deal as we did to getting into it.

Unfortunately, because we need to use meter revenues to pay back the debt, getting out of the lease only solves half the problem. We’ll still be saddled with having turned an urban planning tool into a revenue raising mechanism. But at least we’ll be in a position to look at solving that problem ourselves. Without getting out of the lease first, there’s basically no hope for the next 73 years.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Welcome to the Urban Revolution (Part One) by Evan O’Neil

[ The next two Tuesdays I’m delighted to be running this interview that Evan O’Neil conducted with noted urbanist Jeb Brugmann. Here’s part one – Aaron. ]

We must become “masters of a stable, just, and ecological urbanism” writes Jeb Brugmann in Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). His book combines detailed street-level research in the style of Jane Jacobs with analysis of the city system on a planetary scale to explain the forces that are shaping our urban future. For Brugmann, urbanism is not some grand theory but rather the process by which a community taps into urban advantage to build a district of mutual benefit. He and I corresponded by email about these issues. –Evan O’Neil

Is globalization driving or displacing bottom-up urbanism? On the one hand we have the organic and productive industrial urbanism of slums like Dharavi, while master-planned projects aim to bring in the bulldozers and build sterile high-rises. Who will win this competition?

Globalization has been quite abstractly understood as processes, networks, technologies, and laws. But materially, globalization is the emergence of a new geography. Look at the Earth from space at night. You can see this extended, lighted urban geography that I’ve called the global City. This City is organized at many scales—from streets to districts to metro regions to urbanized continents.

At each scale, the production of urban space provides the human enterprise with two advantages. The first advantage is what I’ve called the “natural economies” of urban settlement—economies of density, scale, association, and network extension, which make the infrastructures that we associate with globalization, like the Internet and air travel, economically viable.

The reasons I call these economic advantages of cities “natural economies” is that they are accessible to all; they are a classic public good. Even the most repressive police state cannot fully control the poorest person’s access to the economic potential created when so many diverse activities and so many diverse people are concentrated into a space, which is more time-, transport-, and cost-efficient than rural and suburban settlement.

The second advantage of urban space is its entirely plastic nature—its underlying economic potential can be designed, by anyone, in myriad ways to achieve specific industrial, criminal, social, or ecological objectives.

This brings us to the question of whether we build robust urbanisms that serve the strategic purposes of specific user communities, or whether we build generic, standard-issue urban “products” offering a basic utility to general, typically higher-income consumer segments. Both are fair game in the ever-plastic City. My argument is that if we want to achieve strategic purposes like poverty reduction, then we need to customize forms of urbanism that specifically create the economics that serve those purposes.

What we so often dismiss as “slums” are in fact specialized forms of urbanism that allow the world’s poorest people to leverage the natural economies of an urban location to create impressive wealth on a cash-economy basis. I think we need to support the self-building process of those urbanisms, improve them with better materials and technology, and bring greater capital investment into them at their earlier stages of development.

Meanwhile, in response to the enormous demand to build new urban space for another 3 billion people, most of the formal property development industry and government planning agencies are focused on high-volume production of higher-end, single-purpose products—apartment buildings and condominiums, office towers, shopping malls—at basic standards. The self-organized production of urban space by migrant poor communities has conflicted with the scaled, institutional-industrial production of urban space for other segments of society. The result is often all-out conflict, which ends up being mediated by criminal organizations.

But because urban space is fundamentally plastic, we could also develop new forms of urban space production that ameliorate these tensions and serve the different strategic objectives of quantity, standards, and qualitative solutions to poverty.

What are zones of autonomy? Where do they form? Should they be encouraged?

Zones of autonomy develop when one form of urban space production, including its commercial life, is geographically marginalized or isolated from the dominant form and commercial life of the city. At one end of the spectrum we find large, informal, so-called slum districts, which establish their own legal, governance, financing, business, and social arrangements because they are intentionally isolated by conventional law, government investment, services, and police from the “mainstream” life of the city. At the other end of the zones of autonomy spectrum are industrially produced gated communities where the richest population segments pull back from the mainstream life of the city.

Zones of autonomy confound a city-region’s strategic development because they represent user communities whose interests and modus operandi have been separated from the rest of society. This does not mean that they should be razed by bulldozers, because the real challenge is to forge new kinds of urbanism that better align the interests of these separated user communities with those of the mainstream city. If you just clear them and replace them with substantially inferior urban space, as we did in the U.S. era of “urban renewal,” you get a worse outcome. That is why we are dynamiting the high-rise barracks slums of 1960s public housing today. Those developments neither served the strategies of their residents nor the interests of wider cities that hosted them.

Corporations and wealthy countries are experimenting with building cities from scratch, many designed along sustainable principles. What must they do to make these places interesting and not just empty green office parks?

The industrial production of urban space and facilities, with no matter how many bells and whistles, is not the same as the more self-built production of an urbanism by a city-building community. An urbanism, as I define it, is the ways that specific city-building communities design, build, govern, and co-locate activities in customized places to support their specialized forms of production and living. In other words, robust urbanism is user designed and often user built.

Think of our central business districts, port districts, university districts, entertainment districts; or of the bazaar districts of Asia. These are the true centers of commerce, culture, and often political power in our societies. There was no build-it-and-they-will-come aspect to them. They were built with purpose, and strategy, and with a honed sense of what makes them thrive and what undermines them. It is great to be a big company or big government and to have the capital and muscle to launch a big idea about some new kind of urban product on a piece of urban soil, but that does not often engender the formation of an urbanism, or what you might call a living, interesting place.

We’re seeing the emergence of municipal foreign policies. Does this operate at some level other than attracting investment? Can cities advance international cooperation on problems like climate, rights, human trafficking?

Cities have been involved in foreign policy since they first came into existence. The urban economic process that I’ve described as extension—using the robust economics and commerce of a city to pursue worldwide strategic interests—is core to what cities are all about. Cities are vehicles of strategy in human enterprise. Think of the origin of Chicago. The Chicago project was always about, and continues to be about, a commercial-political community creating a hub of global commerce—whether involving the construction of a hub for the Great Lakes shipping system, for the American railroad system, or for global air travel.

What has changed is that city governments and other urban organizations are getting strategic together about their foreign policy ambitions in addition to their commercial ones. This activity, which started in the United States in the 1980s, when the term “municipal foreign policy” was coined, reflects the emergence of the global City as a highly connected self-aware system. “Think Global, Act Local” is another, popular expression of this awareness in highly urbanized societies. Cities are now connecting to achieve strategic political and social purposes.

This reflects our knowledge that the City is the system that needs to be changed. For instance, if you want to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent internationally, you’d better be working in coordinated fashion to change the City system that accounts for 60 to 70 percent of global energy end use. For legacy reasons, city governments are closer to the levers of the required change than the national governments that negotiate international climate policy, so city governments have been taking coordinated action together since 1989, before the UN-sponsored negotiations began, and long before the popular recognition of the problem in this decade.

Note that all this municipal foreign policy—cities creating policy-driven sister city relationships, divesting from Apartheid South Africa, developing local climate action plans—began before the Internet was a functioning system even in the United States. The story is similar in other areas of global strategic concern.

This article originally appeared in Policy Innovations. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives license. The original article can be viewed here.

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Topics: Globalization, Urban Culture

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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