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Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Replay: Picture-Perfect Portland?

[ For my American readers, this is Independence Day weekend. I hope you all have a great time. I'll be back after the holiday - Aaron. ]

Portland is one of the most-praised cities in contemporary America. But is the hype real? To some extent, it actually understates the case.

Portland didn’t invent bicycles, density or light rail — but it understood the future implications of them for America’s smaller cities first, and put that knowledge to use before anyone else. The longest journey begins with a step, but you have to take it. Nobody else did. In an era where most American cities went one direction, Portland went another, either capturing or even creating the zeitgeist of a new age.

In the agro-industrial era, Chicago first understood the true significance of railroads, the skyscraper and even urban planning. It saw what others couldn’t — and acted on that understanding. That made Chicago the greatest city, indeed the orderer, of its age.

In the late 20th century and continuing to the present day, for cities below the first rank, Portland plays that role. Like Chicago, it is remaking much of America after its own fashion. Light rail, bike lanes, reclaimed waterfronts, urban condos and microbreweries are now nearly ubiquitous, if not deployed at scale, across the nation.

Has there ever been a case in American history of a city as relatively small as Portland having the same sort of pervasive impact on the policy and the built environment of America? It is truly remarkable, shocking even, and something I dare to suggest will likely never happen again.

Louisvillian JC Stites lived for a time in Portland and said of it, “Portland is real. It’s not about ad campaigns pushing false benefits, rather it’s about addressing very real issues regarding how cities grow and sustain themselves.” Partially inspired by Portland, Stites co-founded 8664, a grass-roots organization dedicated to tearing down the Interstate 64 riverfront freeway in Louisville that has excited a large part of that city. That’s the influence of Portland half a continent away.

For a moment in time it wasn’t New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco that captured the national imagination, but a small city on the West Coast far from the cultural and economic capitals of the nation. Portland in the 1990s was, in its own way, the equal of Chicago in the 1890s. The city punched far above its weight.

What’s more, Portland’s legacy is a largely positive one. While too many places transplanted Portland’s solutions into foreign and unsuitable soil, it’s undeniable that Portland played a major role in making the nation respect cities again, seeing their potential with fresh eyes.

Portland is, however, unique and impossible to replicate. As with Chicago, even had another city seen the future, it likely could not have acted on it in the same way. Portland is an outlier. It’s geographically at the edge, has a remarkable natural setting, is one of America’s least diverse cities, and has a very different development and social history than most U.S. cities. Like Chicago, Portland was the right city, in the right place, at the right time.

But though Portland can’t be copied, it can be an inspiration. Many of its ideas can and have been adopted elsewhere. Whether most cities succeed in reclaiming their urban cores is not yet known, but it’s a fight worth fighting. Without Portland, we might not be even trying.

A drawback: our economy

However, in one way Portland today is very unlike that younger Chicago: economically. As low-cost haven next to troubled California, with fantastic natural amenities and resources, a burgeoning talent pool, a small underclass, a comparative lack of the legacy problems of other cities and a high degree of civic consensus, Portland should be an economic juggernaut — but isn’t.

Portland’s GDP per capita ($47,811) is comparable to Indianapolis ($46,450) and Milwaukee ($45,591). It trails talent hubs like San Francisco ($60,873) and Boston ($57,916), and even Seattle ($55,982) and Minneapolis ($50,797). Seattle’s metro region is only 50 percent larger than Portland but has produced fabric-of-the-economy companies such as Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon. Portland has not. Nor has Portland established itself as a go-to location for a major sector the way Silicon Valley has for high tech or Miami for Latin American trade. A recent Metro Monitor report from the Brookings Institution placed Portland’s economy in the bottom quintile of performers.

Part of the challenge is effectively deploying its talent. Portland’s unemployment rate exceeds the national average. The problem of underemployment among the many high-talent people who moved to Portland for its amenities also has been extensively written about. This is notable given that Portland’s population growth rate, while healthy, is half that of talent hubs such as Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C. But those cities added many more jobs than Portland. From the first quarter of 2001 to the first quarter of 2009, Austin created 79,000 jobs (11.8 percent growth) and Raleigh 55,000 (12.8 percent), while Portland created just 10,000 (1.1 percent).

Lack of dynamic conflict

Portland’s performance isn’t bad, but given all of its advantages and low degree of difficulty, it should be a lot better.

Why is this? Perhaps Portland is actually a bit too livable. As urban scholar Joel Kotkin put it, “Portland is to today’s generation what San Francisco was to mine: a hip, not too expensive place for young slackers to go.”

People move to New York City to test their mettle in America’s ultimate arena. They move to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in high tech. But they move to Portland for values and lifestyle; for personal more than professional reasons; to consume as much as to produce. People move to Portland to move to Portland.

Portland may also lack the diversity needed to be a truly dynamic city. It is one of America’s least racially diverse cities and lacks a single non-white city or county elected official. Portland may also have excessive civic consensus. People I interviewed who left Portland were uniform in their praise. They also noted with approval the lack of negativity about the city in contrast with other places they had lived, and the high degree of shared values among its residents.

But civic dynamism fundamentally derives from conflict and dissatisfaction. London architect Sam Jacob once said, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.” Portland perhaps has too few conflicts of vision, with too few incompatible demands.

Why change?

For the future then, where does Portland want to go? Continue to innovate and remain the driver of what it means to be a successful small city in America? Maintain and enjoy the sustainable, high quality of life the region has built (for those fortunate enough to find a job there, at least)? Seek to become a center of greater commercial ambition?

To create a truly dynamic city and realize its potential as one of America’s top small city talent hubs, Portland needs to embrace a more aggressive mind-set toward job creation and look to attract a more diverse resident base.

One might ask: Because Portlanders are happy with their city, why change? There are values in life beyond commercial ones and the pursuit of growth. True, but that’s a choice with consequences. As the people who’ve had to leave Portland because they couldn’t find real employment there can attest, in order to take advantage of its justly famous high quality, sustainable lifestyle, you first need a job. It’s not livable if you can’t live there.

This column originally appeared in the Portland Oregonian on January 17, 2010.

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Why Aren’t We Building ‘Emotionally Connected’ Cities? A Guest Post by Peter Kageyama

[ Thank you to the folks at Infrastructurist for permission to repost this piece - Aaron. ]

We think of city infrastructure in a particular way – sort of like bones and connective tissue in a body; the major structural components that support our existence. Beyond the bones, we need to include key pieces that nourish our higher selves- our minds and spirits. If cities are merely paved surfaces and police and fire service, there is nothing that distinguishes one place from another. But this isn’t the case: The Gallup Soul of the Community survey from 2008 to 2010 found strong correlations between peoples’ emotional attachment to the communities they lived in, and higher levels of local GDP. They also found a link between passion for and loyalty to places, and the health of the local economy.

These results should not be surprising — we all recognize that when children, pets, plants or even objects are loved, they thrive (yes objects – just look at the car of someone who loves it). So this emotional dimension to infrastructure should not be seen as superfluous. Not long ago, the medical community discounted the idea that sunlight, plants, laughter and human proximity were inside the serious discussion of medicine. Today, the best hospitals like the Mayo Clinic employ design teams to incorporate gardens, social activity rooms, and more to improve patient outcomes. These elements do not take away from the core science and technology, but rather provide a necessary compliment to our overall approach to health.

So why is it so hard to think about these elements for our cities today?

Politics has played a key role in this dilemma. Politicians don’t want to appear frivolous and insensitive to fiscal challenges, so they say “no” to things that make a city fun, like the arts, culture, design, landscaping and events.

Instead they fill potholes, because when people are polled, they typically cite potholes as their chief concern. But filling potholes wins the politicians and cities very little love. There is no emotional capital in return for that investment. At best, people will say that the roads don’t suck quite as bad.

But invest in a little emotional infrastructure like a dog park or a piece of public art that kids can actually play on, and you get love and emotional engagement in spades.

Or do something symbolic that reinforces the emotional connection people crave with their communities. Look at Durham, North Carolina. In early 2011, a group of private citizens, with no official city support, created the “Marry Durham” event which they described as the largest “civic union” in history. On March 19th, 1,600 brides and grooms married not each other, but the city of Durham. Their vows included promises to keep the streets clean and safe, to shop local, to protect their environment, to support their city’s arts and culture, to cherish diversity, and to elect responsible leadership. The event, done entirely by volunteers, raised over $25,000 for local charities.

Yes, we need to pave our streets and fix potholes — but there is more to a city than that. My worry in the current economic/political climate is that we will fixate only on these traditional “essentials,” and in doing so undermine the very thing that is keeping many communities going – the love, affection and loyalty that people have for their places. We need to expand our expectation of “essentials” and include that which speaks to our higher selves, and invest at least a little in beauty, fun and engagement. This does not take lots of money — it takes creativity, imagination, and an awareness of its importance.

When I ask people what they love about their cities, the answers always involve small things that often cost little or no money — a comfortable place to people watch, a favorite street corner, a local dog park, a street festival or outdoor movies in the park. These things are like a handwritten note that accompanies the formal gift — the note is just as important as the actual gift, because of the thoughts and emotions conveyed within it. The cost is incidental, but their impact is significant.

Cities today need that emotional connection with their citizens. City authorities have to make hard choices, and those choices will no doubt anger some. But this anger is a function of the level of emotional capital the city has put in the bank over the years. Cities that have emotionally-connected citizens will see those same citizens do extraordinary things for their cities. Take the Durham example. Emotionally engaged citizens were the source of this event, and in the coming months/years, our cities will need engaged citizens to fill the widening gaps between the communities we desire and the communities we can afford.

Ultimately, we need to invest in the “infrastructure of love” because emotions matter. They play a critical role in our decision-making process since they tell us what to value. If we are not emotionally attached to our cities, it shows. And things we don’t value become disposable, so we feel free to walk away from them without a second thought because we have little emotional or other investment in them. When we love someone, we are willing to do more for them, to make sacrifices — we forgive shortcomings and fight for them. Emotions are contagious, and our cities need them now more than ever.

This post originally appeared in the Infrastructurist on May 17, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

Employment Challenges Facing Smaller City Downtowns

I recently wrote about the return of jobs to downtown in large tier one cities like Chicago. There are a number of factors driving this: the rise of the “global city”, the locational advantage of downtown for commuters, the significant rise in central city residency for professionals, etc. This has enabled the central cores of cities like New York to remain extremely strong even if in some sense they are losing job share to the suburbs or even outright losing jobs (as in Chicago).

Smaller cities, which I define as anyone below those tier one global type cities, face a much rougher challenge in my opinion. They operate under a different set of dynamics where many of the boosters to downtown employment are absent and indeed there are structural reasons for jobs to migrate to the suburbs. Some of these are:

1. Lack of downtown based industry clusters, notably finance. Cities with vital commercial cores are almost always major global centers for an industries that have historically been based in the core, and which benefit from clustering economics and face to face interaction. Notably, almost all of them are financial centers, often with financial exchanges. This extends far beyond the basic commercial banking sector found in most cities. Other core industries centered in Manhattan, for example, include publishing, media, and fashion. Smaller cities less often have has an equivalent to these industries. Generally the favored target industry clusters of today – life sciences, high tech, advanced manufacturing, etc. – are highly dispersed throughout the region.

2. Limited “global city” effects. As documented by Saskia Sassen in her book The Global City, globalization, while it enabled much routinized production to be done all over the world (the “flat world” of Tom Friedman), also created a need for new specialized financial and producer services. These are increasingly clustered in a limited number of global cities (the “spiky world” of Richard Florida). Smaller cities are often not a major producer of these services. While they may have law firms, accountancies, ad agencies, etc, most of them exist to serve a purely local market. Whereas those firms in global cities not only service the local market, they produce services for export to other markets. This benefits those global cities by creating outsized employment in sectors that are the “natural constituency” for their downtowns.

3. Favored quarter development pattern. Cities typically follow a so-called “favored quarter” development pattern. That is, development is not balanced throughout the region, but is biased to one quadrant, which is also home to a disproportionate number of the college degreed, white collar workers, and higher income groups. In the US, this is often the north side for historical reasons. Because the white collar labor force of the city is disproportionately located in the favored quarter, the approximate center of this labor shed is somewhere in the middle of that favored quarter. Thus a suburban location in the favored quarter may actually be closer to most workers than a downtown one.

4. Traffic and transit. Location in the favored quarter suburbs is further enabled by the small size and comparative lack of traffic congestion in smaller cities. This makes it feasible for workers from anywhere to commute to the favored quarter in a reasonable amount of time, even if they don’t live there. By contrast, the tier one cities are very large and have significant congestion. This limits the commuter shed of suburban locations. On the other hand, their downtowns have 360 degree transit access the enable commuting from anywhere, making it in many regards the most accessible location. (I believe the difficulty of cross-town commuting is one reason Pittsburgh’s downtown has remained relatively strong, for example).

5. Size. Additionally, the smaller size of these cities means for many businesses the entire metro area can be effectively served by a single location. In places like New York or the Bay Area, the regions are so large and spread out that frequently even if there is a suburban location, a second downtown location is also required. This isn’t always the case elsewhere.

6. Positive reinforcement from urban core residential development. Tier one cities have also experienced a significant resurgence in near downtown living by professionals. These people often display a strong preference for a downtown location, where they can avoid commuting in traffic congestion or even not own a car. While the greater downtown of smaller cities have started showing residential growth, it is not yet at a level to generate this type of demand, though it is possible it could at a future date.

Considering these different dynamics vs. tier one cities, the playbook and strategies for strengthening the downtown as a truly commercial center have to be different. I’ve yet to see a truly compelling plan for it anywhere. I can’t claim I’ve got a great one sitting on a shelf here at Atelier Urbanophile either. It’s a hard problem.

I speculate that today most smaller city CBDs have employment that is increasingly concentrated in two sectors: public and quasi-public sector, and the visitor and hospitality related sector. To the extent that there are still truly commercial headquarters and such, many of them are legacy. Every report I’ve seen where someone has done the research has shown consistent declines in private sector employment in downtowns. It will be interesting to see if there are market forces or strategies that can be brought to bear on these smaller city downtowns to enable some of the same results we’ve seen in the tier one cities.

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Did INDOT Cancel the Remainder of the Northeast Corridor Project?

I hope you’ll indulge me a “throwback” post in the style of the early days of the blog, when I was more or less covering Indianapolis in detail.

I was looking at INDOT’s web site for the I-465 northeast corridor expansion project and noticed that there was an updated schedule graphic posted that deleted any parts of the project post-2012, including the reconstruction of the I-465/I-69 interchange:

Notice that they added a huge box for something called “Operation Indy Commute”, but this is a separate tactical and much smaller project. (Looks like a distraction tactic to me). According to the FAQ, the work that’s been dropped from the schedule is now postponed until after Operation Indy Commute. That is, until post-2015, after Major Moves expires and there’s no more money for major capital expenses.

Possibly this was covered previously, but I certainly didn’t hear anything about this major deferral on the real project in the area when INDOT was rolling out Operation Indy Commute. Instead, I recall it touted in a manner that implied it was net new spending. (See this article for example among some other coverage I went back and looked at).

I tried to email the listed contact for this project to get an official response but the email bounced.

I also took a quick look at the 2012-2015 Indianapolis Regional Transportation Improvement Program and there’s no money for construction on the deleted segments. (You should at least glance at that document for some comic relief).

As a general rule, when agencies put out a plan to do something, they trumpet it to the heavens, call the papers, etc. When they kill something you half the time only find out by reading obscure documents no one’s ever heard about. Or by engaging in some Clintonian parsing of what the agency tells you. I’m not saying they for sure did that here, but it certainly warrants investigation. Keep in mind, in Indiana, projects are almost never actually officially killed, they just keep getting indefinitely deferred.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if “Operation Indy Commute” was never anything more than a smoke screen for canceling a project INDOT ran out of money on. I think there’s a pretty good chance you can color this one dead. The local media should be asking themselves if they got snookered on this one.

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Five Innovation Myths Applied to Urbanism by Brendan Crain

[ I'll remind you again that Where is an awesome site. Here's another sample from it by Brendan Crain for you - Aaron. ]

A recent CEOs for Cities post pointed out a great article by Dev Patnaik that outlined five common mistakes made by businesses looking to be innovators. All of them, in one way or another, dealt with the myth of the silver bullet, and the article made a clear and concise argument for the importance of institutional context and diversified methodology. The myths that Patnaik does away with are all important for urbanists to consider as cities work to position themselves as both innovative places and as incubators of economic and technological innovation. On top of that, responding to context (cities each have very different conditions, physically and economically) and diversification (urban problems are both numerous and intrinsically interconnected, and there is no one solution to anything) are particularly applicable. The following is a breakdown, in urbanism terminology, of Patnaik’s ideas.

• Over-reliance on high-profile, “sexy” projects

The Guggenheim Bilbao made just as big a splash in the fields of urban planning and policy as it did in architecture. Now, it’s a commonly-held belief that cities can build megaprojects that will catapult them into the international spotlight and trigger a surge of prosperity. In reality, even when such projects are independently successful they are never the silver bullet that was imagined. Chicago’s Millennium Park, for example, is by all accounts a huge success as a public space and tourist attraction. Still, it was a financial fiasco, and the glamour and goodwill afforded the city by the park is now being squandered by the miserable failure of the city’s transit system — a battle in which the City of Chicago is too strapped to play any meaningful role. Big projects can be important to cities, but it’s even more important to pay close attention to what trade-offs will need to be made in terms of basic services (transit ain’t the only thing hurtin’ in Chicago) in order to pull off a good piece of stunt urbanism. Millennium Park is an innovative piece of landscape architecture, but as an urban regenerator it’s as archaic as they come.

• Unhealthy fascination with unique, charismatic civic leaders

Michael Bloomberg, Gavin Newsome, and Ken Livingstone all command a considerable amount of media attention for their efforts to improve their cities. This innovation red herring is especially potent in urbanism: everyone loves a superstar mayor. And while these mayors can teach us a lot, it is important to remember that the best and most innovative mayors from the past (Jaime Lerner is a prime example) were willing to take risks; that is to say that great mayors have often made names for themselves by bucking trends and trying new ideas that were responsive to their specific cities rather than following standard procedures being replicated, cut-and-paste style, in other cities.

• Misapplication of other cities’ approaches

Building on the previous point, it is often assumed that because Idea X worked in City Y, it will be equally successful in City Z. This is absurd. Take, for instance, the public transportation system in Medellín. The city’s 3.2 million inhabitants live in a long, narrow valley. While the central part of the city, located in the lowest and flattest part of the valley, is served by a standard subway system, the densely populated neighborhoods that climb up the western hillsides are served by the Metrocable, a cable-car line that has become very successful both as a transit line and — to the delight of city officials — a tourist attraction that has helped (along with other projects) to lower crime and improve the economic outlook for the neighborhood’s poorer residents. The lesson to be learned here for other cities is that unconventional transit options can be worth the risk if they are properly tailored to the needs of the community. The misapplication of this lesson would be for a flat city to assume that building a cable car would be a good idea since it worked in Medellín. This is a relatively simple illustration, but you get the idea.

• Descent into a cycle of self-recrimination

Pittsburgh, the oddball city so dear to my own heart, is the poster child for this kind of thinking. Many Pittsburghers labor under the assumption that their city is suffering because it is unable to hold onto the talented young people who graduate from major universities in the area like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University. (In fact, Pittsburgh has an unusually high rate of retention of its young natives). Pittsburghers see Creative Class capitals like San Francisco and Austin attracting large numbers of young creative types and makes the assumption that it is not cool enough to compete. Untold energy is put into trying to make the city cooler and more attractive to young people. Meanwhile, the draconian tax system that discourages start-ups (the number that exist regardless of this fact is a testament to the city’s unrealized potential) go unchanged because Pittsburgh fails to realize that music festivals and extensive bike paths aren’t going to save the city. The Burgh was a global hub of commercial and technological innovation at the turn of the 19th century. To be successful today, all cities (Pittsburgh included) would do well to look back at their strongest points and learn how to replicate that kind of success.

• Resignation to superficial changes

Patnaik uses the example “Let’s just paint the walls purple” to mock companies’ shallow understanding of the funky interiors of creative business HQs — most famously, the Googleplex. Cities have a long and storied history of believing in the power of cosmetic changes only to be let down by the results. A phenomenon that you might call Trinket Urbanism had a death grip on North American cities until relatively recently as every city rushed to have their version of one-off amenities built in other cities. Baltimore’s Festival Harbor spawned a gazillion of those so-called “Festival Marketplaces.” Arenas were all the rage throughout much of the 1990s. Making a city more attractive is certainly not a bad idea, but there is a dangerous perceived correlation between beautification and prosperity. Flowering medians do not a center of innovation make.

Links:
Innovation Mistakes (CEOs for Cities)

Five Common Mistakes in Innovation (Business Week)

This post originally appeared in the Where Blog on October 31, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Replay: Resolving the Paradox of Success

In a previous posting on innovation, I talked about how coming up with innovative new ideas is surprisingly easy. It is actually trying to do them that is hard. I pointed out many of the structural barriers to this, most of which lie in the realm of organizational dynamics.

One of the problems is what I call the “paradox of success”. That is, it is harder for someone, be it an individual or company, to do something new and different to the extent that what they are currently doing is already successful. This actually seems, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, prima facie rational. The investment and level of risk one takes on by giving up something that is already working is much higher than giving up on something that’s failing. The probability weighted R might be the same, but the I is much different between those situations in an ROI calculation.

It comes as no surprise to me to hear entrepreneurs talk about starting a business after losing a job or going bankrupt. That lowers the risk threshold to the new dramatically. If you have to quit a six figure job to launch an uncertain new business, that’s a much more high stakes move. Similarly, I’m not surprised to hear people who found religion to say that they turned to Jesus after they “hit rock bottom”.

However, there is an underlying assumption about this analysis, namely that the future will more or less resemble the present and past. If that assumption is wrong, then the whole thing can break down. The subprime mortgage business seemed like a good one until it hit a wall. If you were in the vulnerable sub-sector of the housing industry, it might have made more sense to actually get out early and establish yourself in something new before you and everyone found yourself on the street. But I see little evidence much of this happened, whether that be in traders or real estate agents.

This assumption that the future resembles the past or that we can extrapolate trends seems to be buried deep in the human psyche. I noted before how this was one of the classic errors Dietrich Dörner identified in how people fail at complex problems. It’s always dicey to talk evolution. You can always gin up a plausible sounding evolutionary rationale for a behavior. But it does strike me that biologically there might in fact be good reason to favor having this assumption genetically embedded. The primitive world was in fact a fairly static, slowly changing system. Which animals are dangerous or not, what foods are safe or poisonous, the danger of fire and ice, etc. – all of these things it is good to learn fast and learn once. We heated our house with a wood stove growing up. One time as I kid a touched it burned my hand good. After that, I was much more careful around it. Why would I assume that somehow a hot stove wouldn’t burn me next time? Indeed, behaviors like this seem to get so ingrained in us that even when they stop giving us the results we want, we keep on trying them anyway.

David Hume famously refuted the idea that there is any logic at all in the concept of the future resembling the past. We believe it reflexively, but there is actually no logical reason to even believe the laws of nature are constant. But this appears to be unquestioned. This general notion is programmed into us a priori. I believe it is literally bred into the species.

The problem is that the modern economy is not a stable, slow changing system and it is becoming increasingly less so with time. It is a different class of phenomena than those with which the human species evolved. In this environment, the logic of risk is different. In a rapidly changing environment, the safe course can actually be the more dangerous one. A company that is too laser focused on its market could miss a fundamental shift that leaves it high and dry. The skills that command a premium today might be obsolete tomorrow, or suddenly tradeable in the global market leaving you competing for a job with someone in India making a fraction of the onshore wage.

We’ve seen many business models begin to falter. Industries as diverse as newspapers, land line telephones, and IT services have been radically upended in just the last few years. Creative destruction is operating at a speed heretofore unknown. In this environment it is most likely a matter of when, not if, the way things you are doing them today will be not just not as successful as they used to be, but completely unsuccessful. If you aren’t prepared, this could be catastrophic.

That’s why innovation and change aren’t just empty buzzwords. They are an imperative. We have to use our brains and intellectually realize that the safe course isn’t as safe as it might appear, overcome our inborn predisposition to assume a static world, and look at the risk situation rationally. We have to overcome our instincts.

Frankly, this world isn’t going to be pleasant for most of us, myself included. I don’t like uncertainty about the future any more than the next person. But that is the world that we are going to be in. The one thing we can be certain of is that things are very likely to change significantly in the future. We don’t now how much, when, or to what, but we have to be ready for it.

I think this means a few things. One, overly focused solutions, while en vogue in some B-school theory, is heavily vulnerable to niche exhaustion. Overspecialization leads to death. So unless your plan is to get in and get out, it’s risky. You at least need to be constantly examining when the likely end date is. Two, that means to increase your chances of having long term staying power, you should be placing some bets on the new, and probably some diverse bets, spreading some money around the table instead of piling on the chips on Red 14. I have a friend who owns a software company. The keep building small software as a service applications and seeing whether they get take-up. They idea is to try a lot of different things and see which one hits rather than putting too much investment in one big thing. Given the low cost of entry for web applications today, this is a smart move. And three, from and individual perspective, we should be wary of overspecializing even if that is what the market demands. At least to some extent, we should remain broad as well as deep. This is the famous “T shaped” person model. Someone with deep expertise today, but a base in many things. Today’s hot skill isn’t going to stay that way forever.

What does this mean for cities? Firstly, cities themselves have to eat the dog food. You can’t target being an innovation hub for business if your civic strategy is the status quo or rooted in totally traditional thinking. Cities too need to be spreading some bets around the table, trying new things, etc. This is extremely difficult to do in a political environment, which is why good leadership in a community is so important. You need leaders to make the case for change. By the way, this applies as much to cities that are succeeding today as it does to those who are struggling. Even more so perhaps, since struggling cities probably at some level know they need to try something different while successful cities can delude themselves that they have it all figured out. Secondly, cities need to look at how they can create a culture of innovation that permeates the people and businesses that locate there. Rather than targeting a few sectors that appear to be hot for innovation, the real answer is how to infuse innovation and a forward thinking view into everything we do.

By the way, this does not mean pitching what we do today away wholesale. But it does mean a willingness to try new things, and a willingness to see some of them fail, which is inevitable. That’s a tall order. But if you can get there, I’m convinced it will pay big rewards down the road.

This post originally ran on April 30, 2009.

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Job Migration from the Suburbs to Downtown

I think a look at the numbers would show that employment in our metro areas continues to decentralize. Brookings has labeled this phenomenon “job sprawl.” Yet America’s downtowns, particularly for its most thriving tier one cities, aren’t done yet. In fact, we’re seeing intriguing evidence that for at least certain types of employment, the downtown is again coming back into favor.

In a story titled Corporate campuses in twilight, Crain’s Chicago Business examines how companies that once decamped from the Loop in order to built large, self-contained campuses in the far flung suburbs are now reconsidering their decision:

Like the disco ball, the regional shopping mall and the McMansion, the suburban corporate headquarters campus is losing its charm.

All reflect changes in the corporate mindset that spawned the campuses dotting outer suburbia. Empire-building CEOs from the 1970s through the 1990s craved not only cheap real estate but total control of their environments. They created self-contained corporate villages that cut off employees from outside influences.

As the 21st century enters its second decade, many companies are discovering the drawbacks of the isolation they sought. Hard-to-get-to headquarters limit the talent pool a company can draw on and feed a “not-invented-here” insularity that ignores major shifts in industries and markets.

Companies seeking to tap a broader talent pool and get into the flow of innovation are looking back to the urban core. Sara Lee is only the latest suburban company to seek a new headquarters in downtown Chicago. United Airlines made the move in the past decade, as did Navteq Corp. and Allscripts Healthcare Solutions Inc. Some of the most successful local companies of recent years, like Morningstar Inc. and Accretive Health Inc., never left the city.

“The whole corporate campus seems a little dated,” says Joe Mansueto, chairman and CEO of Morningstar, who moved the company’s 1,100 headquarters workers across the Loop to a new office tower at 22 W. Washington St. two years ago without even considering a move to the suburbs. “We’ve always liked being in Chicago. It helps keep employees on the pulse of what’s happening in our society. It keeps them current with cultural trends and possibly technological ones.”

There’s a lot more to the article which I encourage you to read. Subsequent to publication, United Airlines announced it was relocating another 1,500 jobs downtown without any subsidies. This is in addition to another 1,000 new GE Capital jobs recently announced, also without subsidy.

Part of this simply reflects what I previously labeled “the big city CBD advantage.” In these large, sprawling, congested regions with good transit access to the CBD from all parts of the region, being downtown gives you access to the greatest potential labor pool, which can be very important when sourcing for specialized skills. Others are attributing this to lifestyle preferences of younger workers. Whatever the case, businesses wouldn’t be choosing to relocate these workers without a good business reason. And in these cases subsidies aren’t the reason.

Chicago isn’t the only place this is happening, incidentally. The NYT wrote about who UBS is thinking about moving back from Stamford, CT to Manhattan.

I’m not going to suggest these anecdotes undercut the job sprawl narrative, but they show that employment markets and business location markets continue to evolve, and that there’s a lot of nuance under the headline numbers. We’ll see to what extent this is the start of a serious trend.

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

The Cleveland Comeback: Version 5.0 by Richey Piiparinen

[ Here's a piece that originally ran on the great blog Rust Wire. I'm pleased to be able to bring you occasional selections from their great Rust Belt coverage - Aaron. ]

Every decade or so in Cleveland the headlines reappear like locusts—a Renaissance, a Rebirth. In fact the city has been remade in the visions of its leaders over and over. But today, we are still poor, still municipally cash-strapped, more vacant, and shrunk.

Today is 2011, and the reality is not what was envisioned in the late 80′s and 90′s—or that Cleveland heyday of being high on the renaissance hog. After all, the leaders had been building new stuff: the Galleria (’87), Key Tower (’91), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (’95), the Great Lakes Science Center (’96), Jacob’s Field (’94), Gund Arena (’94), and Tower City (’91). And new stuff means things will inevitably get better, a comeback for the “Comeback City” yo.

At least that was the belief being fermented by the civic booster of the time, the New Cleveland Campaign. And the belief eventually made its way into the PD with headlines like: “Cool! Cleveland’s hot — they like us! they really like us! City basks in the glow of national admiration” (1995). And national admiration there was: “The Mistake Wakes Up, Roaring” (New York Times, 1996). And even the academics were feeling it. Here’s a bit from a 1997 article entitled “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cleveland” from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science of all places: “Cleveland has enjoyed a….renaissance and has swiftly moved from backwater to the forefront of contemporary urban change”.

It’s apparent, though, that we receded to being “backwater” again. Why?

It boils down to method. And the renaissance method back then (and one which still dominates today) was about big, stand alone projects that will either attract tourists (e.g., Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) or the suburban diaspora (e.g., downtown malls like the Galleria). The thinking was to get a critical mass through splashy—if non-unique—development so as to increase the tax base through sales and other spin-off projects. That is: city investment was being catered toward non-residents and away from neighborhoods, no doubt an acquiescing of sorts that the immediate future of the Rust Belt city was not through its neighborhood real estate. And it was a strategy that perhaps pushed back the immediate future of Cleveland even more far off.

The failures rested heavily on two faults of the investment: product type, and placement. Regarding product, the development in the 90′s was for the most part layered on top of the city’s history and culture as opposed to being built through it. Copycatting a suburban, glass-built mall as a means to recapture retail market is a prime example of being what you’re not, and the signal this sends works at cross-purposes to your intent, i.e., “you love the suburbs so much we’re bringing it into the city for you”. But it’s much easier to stay in the suburbs to buy your coat. And so people did, and now both Tower City Center and the Galleria are both cash cow liabilities emptied of cheerleading, not to mention coats.

And then there are the splashier tourist attractions like the Rock and Roll Hall. Here, the concept is more unique to the Cleveland identity but the look and experience of place effectively vanilla’s the shit out of the opportunity to differentiate the city by making a Rust Belt Chic stamp on the landscape. In fact, whatever you think of I.M. Pei this does not exactly sing the Kinks or WMMS. It’s rather every big-ticket building on every city’s waterfront and is thus lost in the non-imagination of everyman’s mind’s eye. (Note: Below embodies WMMS. And I still remember their efforts at rallying the city to give Cleveland the Hall of Fame nod. That said, the Rock Hall in an adaptive, industrial reuse would’ve been killer.)

Making matters worse is the obvious: the developments for the most part are islands. And given that Downtown Cleveland is an expansive CBD with expansive streets (I was shocked walking the Philly and Boston CBD as I was so used to the swaths of C-town’s avenues), the effect was to make it a one-trip wonder for the suburban diaspora or an unwelcoming field of streets for the out-of-town would-be pedestrian. Moreover, if you want to start a fire—or in this case: a mass—you don’t do it by starting the ends of disparate sticks. You do it through strategic placement and flow. And in a city like Cleveland where you only have a few matches, you better sit, think, and make strikes on the matchbox count.

Hopefully this time they’ll count, as with a grip of new projects in the pipeline—namely the Medical Mart and the casino—we are at it again, with the voices of the renaissance reaching a crescendo both locally and nationally (hell, even the White House believes it). And whether or not we’ve learned from past mistakes is uncertain, yet there appears to be some proof that this is the case, at least relating to placement and connectivity.

Said Joe Marinucci, CEO of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance: “Where we may have failed is we haven’t connected those investments properly in the past.” And so connectedness—or hemming the places of investment with public paths to be interspersed with revamped public spaces—has been a large focus. In fact the task was delegated by the Mayor Jackson to a newly-formed Group Plan Commission. Some of their recommendations to breathe circulation in Downtown are as follows:

  • Creating a new pedestrian bridge from the east end of the revamped Mall (which is Cleveland’s rather inert piazza as well as the site of the new Medical Mart and underground convention center) to isolated past investments along the Lake. This is needed, as the entry points crossing a dividing Route 2 are limited (Est. cost $13 mill).
  • Complete street policies–referred to in the plan as “Healthy Streets”–would be put into effect along the East/West streets of Lakeside and St. Clair. Bike lanes would be added filling a multi-modal gap between the Euclid Corridor and various bike-laned bridges heading into the western neighborhoods. As well, Rockwell Avenue—currently a small wasteful street along the southern edge of the Mall—will be closed and turned into a greenway with bike lanes connecting Public Square to the new investment (Est. cost $6 mill).
  • Public Square, Cleveland’s other grand public place but with actual humans mostly smoking smokes or swisher sweets and eating hot dogs from the vendor (pretty Cleveland really), will be turned into two sections from four with the closing of Ontario (Est. cost $40 mill). The idea is to inject life with the creation of an urban forest designed by Field Operations.

Now, regarding product type there is room for debate. Because as was stated, the problem with big ticket development is that it usually comes from the idea of some other success story and is then layered on top of a city’s topography like a toupee covering the internal dynamics of balding. Shave it, get tats: that’s the Cleveland way. And so if we are going to have a casino, at least make it Cleveland and not some night- club-lame, multi-colored neon egg that is this rendering for Phase 2. Make it more like Phase 1: historically accentuated, subtle, stone—and facing out into the winds of Erie.

As well—as far as branding—I think Gilbert and Harrah’s really missed an opportunity to create a Rust Belt Chic brand through the gritty, rock and roll culture that is Cleveland. Instead, it’s the Horseshoe brand. It could’ve been a really unique dynamic between the Rock Hall and the casino, complete with Kiss slots.

As for the Medical Mart, I for one am optimistic. First—and perhaps most importantly—it’s a development through the Cleveland lineage, the concept an amalgam of Cleveland’s health care and manufacturing histories. Second, it acts as a legitimate counterpoint to the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals along the bus rapid transit axis that is the Euclid Corridor. Now if we can only make it run like a BRT, i.e., rapid, and get a criticial mass to and from these endpoints, then I feel increased movement along Euclid can serve to create investment into Cleveland’s forgotten East Side…

You know what—eff it—maybe 5.0 is where it’s at. Maybe we have perfected failure to the extent where we are coming out the other side: coal into diamonds. Cleveland: we’re back baby!

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on April 4, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

On Urban Education

I talk to people all the time about attracting families to want to live in the urban core, and always they bring up the same barrier: school quality. There’s no doubt that far too many urban school systems perform abysmally and that quality of schools can be a huge factor for families deciding where to live. The conventional wisdom would suggest that until we fix the schools, we’ll never attract families back to the city.

But what if that reverses cause and effect? What if rather than improving the schools before we can attract families back to the city, it will be attracting families back to the city that improves the schools.

I think it is more likely the latter and there’s already plenty of evidence mounting out there. I noted a couple years ago that a number of my Chicago friends who had kids were simply unwilling to sacrifice their urban lifestyle in the way that previous generations did by moving out the suburbs. So they’ve pursued a variety of options. Some have gone the Catholic school route, but believe it or not I know several people who have their children in Chicago Public Schools. A few of these are magnet schools, but some are also well regarded neighborhood schools. As I’m preparing to list my condo for sale, I’m noticing that the elementary school district you are located in is now a factor in a way that it wasn’t not all that long ago. Any number of people with pre-school children are actively involved at their local schools, hoping to improve the quality so that when their kids are ready to start, they will feel comfortable sending them there. As more and more “choice consumers” decide on the public schools, quality continues to improve where it is happening.

I’m even seeing this in Indianapolis on a smaller scale. Several upscale professionals who live in downtown Indianapolis send their children to IPS’s Center for Inquiry magnet school. Most IPS schools remain terrible performers – the state is poised to take over several of them – but select magnet and neighborhood schools are starting to see nibbles from parents with choices.

None of this is intended to belie the urgency of education reform. Of course that’s imperative. But ultimately I think that a lot of the improvements in schools are going to be driven as much by bottoms up organic change as by top down structural reform.

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Announcing the Indianapolis Neighborhood Map

One of the things that has always struck me about Indianapolis is its weak sense of neighborhood. Now this isn’t monolithically the case. There are many neighborhoods with a strong sense of identity. But in many parts of the city, people probably can’t even name the neighborhood they live in apart from perhaps the name of their subdivision. This is probably an artifact of Unigov which consolidated the city and county governments. Much of the suburban area was anonymous. Also, many of the neighborhoods that do exist strongly in the minds of neighbors in the city are what I call “micro-hoods.” Many of them are basically glorified block clubs. That doesn’t make them bad by any means, but it is hard to call something a neighborhood if it doesn’t contain a single business.

You can see this in action in the way TV stations report crime, for example, which is generally just on the “East Side” or some such and not specific as to the neighborhood where it happened. There are many other possible examples as well.

As a start at changing this, a group of us decided to put together a first cut at a comprehensive neighborhood map of Indianapolis. We used every resource available, including city records, community documents, local experts, and the internet to assign every square inch of Marion County to a named neighborhood of reasonable size. Some of these were new areas we had to define ourselves. This is certainly not definitive at this stage. The idea is to provoke a discussion and to get people thinking about this. Eventually I’d love to see stronger neighborhood differentiation and different neighborhoods coming up with unique strategies to attract their own specific mix of residents and businesses. We’ll see what happens.

The initial result though is what I believe is the first comprehensive neighborhood map of the city of Indianapolis ever created. With that, here it is:

This map was created by Yours Truly in conjunction with Josh Anderson and Matt Hale. There was significant input from Chris Barnett, Matt Hostetler, and Sarah Lester, along with review and suggestions from many, many others. The map itself is available as a 46×48 inch high quality poster you can purchase online at naplab.net and also at First Fridays at the Harrison Center for the Arts. I hope all of you in Indy will check it out and pick up a copy today.

What is Naplab? I’m glad you asked. Naplab is an informal group of us who decided to stop just talking about things and start doing actual projects that would be a positive influence on the city. This map was one of them. The fact that we’re a rogue operation made it possible for us to do things like draw lines on a map that would have been very difficult for government to do. Having said that, this map still took about two years to complete. I’m no longer active in the group since I don’t live in Indy anymore, but I know there are other cool projects in the works.

The graphic design of the poster is by Matt Hale, who incidentally was the designer for my web site too. He and Josh talk about the map over at Urban Indy‘s Kevin Kastner, and I got permission to re-run that interview here, so enjoy!


Word about a new neighborhood map for the city came to me unexpectedly. Phil Hooper, from DMD and the Greater Indianapolis Neighborhood Initiative, stopped me in the lobby of the City County Building, and the first thing he said was “have you seen the new Indianapolis neighborhood map?” He was excited, and I was intrigued. I’ve loved maps since early childhood and majored in Geography, so sure, tell me more. He mentioned it was a paper wall map that was for sale at the Harrison Center for the Arts’ First Friday event. I was unable to attend, but thankfully, the website for the group who designed the map went live. And it was worth every bit of hype

I sat down with the Naplab duo, Landscape Architect Josh Anderson and Graphic Designer Matt Hale to find out more about their inspirational creation.

Josh and Matt in the Indianapolis City Market

How did the idea for the map come about?
Naplab: Aaron Renn from the Urbanophile pushed for it, inspired by the Chicago Neighborhood Maps from Ork and other designers. We wanted to help create a dialogue about neighborhoods in Indianapolis and better establish a sense of neighborhood throughout the city. Initially, Aaron approached Ork about doing a design based on our research, but it wasn’t in the cards for us. We finally decided we would do a neighborhood-based map, but in our own design style. In the beginning, we had meetings with different people that have a good understanding of the entire city and we had a lot of discussion about what exactly constitutes a neighborhood in Indy and other cities. We wanted it to be a cool poster that people enjoy looking at, but also we also have a higher goal to promote a conversation about what it means to be a neighborhood in the city and help establish the identity of “the neighborhood” throughout the city.

What sources did you use?
Naplab: Human resources, as well as IMAGIS, city documents, google and wiki maps, official city neighborhood resources, Polis Center info, and of course, the internet. Chris Barnett, Matt Hostetler, and Sarah Lester were a tremendous help as well. We started out with a sharpie marker and a paper map, scanned it, and then spent months refining it with the multitude of sources we found.

Any personal favorite features of the map?

Matt: There are some really neat lesser-known neighborhoods that the map reveals. I grew up in Speedway, so the west side is my territory. North of 16th St (east of Speedway and north of Haughville) I never knew that that neighborhood was called Venerable Flackville, so that was a cool discovery for me. Also, though we don’t have the roads labeled, you can tell what they are if you know the city well. It’s neat to scan the map visually and fill in the informational blanks, so to speak.

Josh: Everything on the map is to scale. It makes it easy to see the difference in the scale of the airport when compared to downtown, the track, etc. It’s amazing to see the differences of neighborhood footprint size within the city. From the near southeast side, stretching around to the near north side, the neighborhoods are really small. Whereas the farther out you go, the neighborhoods increase in size, but also sprawl.

What font did you use?

Matt: It’s from a typeface family called Knockout by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. The specific weight/width is HTF26 Junior Flyweight. It’s ultra-condensed, and created better word-shapes across the wide spectrum of neighborhood word-lengths and combinations. Those word-shapes were more square, less horizontal, and that helped them fit in the varying neighborhood shapes more efficiently. In a nutshell, it’s a confident, condensed typeface that helped with legibility!

How has the reception been?

Matt: It’s been great. Snowballs are starting to roll. We just launched the website 2 weeks ago. Recently, we’ve been selling maps at the Harrison Center for the Arts on First Fridays. We have really seen the conversation that we were hoping for start to happen as we talk to people there. In one unexpected turn, Chuck Lofton from Channel 13 bought one last month. If we get people in the news organizations interested, it could have a huge impact on how neighborhoods are labeled in the city. Instead of always saying “a murder happened on the east side,” which is often blatantly false or misleading location-wise, a more specific area of the city can be specified. The City of Indianapolis is huge at around 400 square miles. We’ve got to stop labeling areas only by north, south, east, and west sides, or variants of those. It just makes less and less sense the farther out you go from Monument Circle.

Josh: I live on the east side, and if a crime happens anywhere within a particular 20 mile section of the city, then the entirety of that part of the city is dangerous. Also, regarding the map’s reception, people you don’t normally think of as urbanists do get very excited and proud when they see the name of their neighborhoods on the map and they begin to see the city in a new light. Especially for the lesser-known neighborhoods that people living on the other side of the city don’t know about.

Matt: You can see the lightbulb go off in their eyes. It’s really great.

What’s next for Naplab?

Matt: We’d like to find out more about the history of all these neighborhoods and display that somehow. The coolest way would be to have a clickable map online, but maybe just a wiki of some sort would be good too.

Josh: Yes, there are definitely more ways to promote this idea, make it more interactive, and expand the impact.

The Neighborhoods of Indianapolis 2011 map is available online for $35 at www.naplab.net

You can also pick one up at the Harrison Center for the Arts this Saturday, June 11 from noon to 8 as part of IMAF and the INDIEana Handicraft Exchange.

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