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Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

VC Investments and More Thoughts on the Programmer Shortage

The Wall Street Journal put up an interesting interactive map of the “United States of Venture Capital” that tracks VC investments in the first six months of 2011 by metro area and industry segment. Check it out. The opening screen shot is above. (h/t Richard Florida).

My previous post on the so-called “developer drought” prompted some very interesting comments you may want to read. I wanted to share a couple of follow-ups.

While I said that I thought the notion of a “drought” is overblown, it is true that there seem to be fewer developers than in the past and that we are having difficultly scaling up the developer pool in the way that we did say in the dotcom boom. I have a few thoughts on why this might be.

Firstly, there are multiple sources of demand for programmers: tech companies, consultancies, IT departments, etc. While demand seems to be robust on the tech company side and in various tech specialties, there have really been some huge changes in the consultancy and IT department markets that have depressed entry into the programming field and even prompted people to exit it.

Most notable is the rise of offshore development. As recently as 2001 or so, pretty much all development was done onshore. Then the bottom fell out of the dotcom market, the Y2K bubble came and went, and the Indian outsourcers came onto the scene with a vengeance. Today, there’s an enormous focus on the consulting and IT department sides of the house to move as much work as possible offshore, because the costs are so much lower. And having done development with teams in India, Spain, and Argentina, I can tell you the talent is solid and the motivation levels high in those places.

Along with that, we’ve seen the rise of a theory that says, as one famous article put it, “IT Doesn’t Matter.” The embedded notion is that IT is becoming more of a utility and less of a differentiator, thus the focus will switch to managing it like any other cost. That is to say, cut it as much as possible. This is certainly no universal view, but is influential in many respects.

And corporate IT hasn’t changed its fundamental paradigms as frequently in the 2000’s compared with the 1990’s, leading to the commoditization of many functions such as screwing in SAP systems.

Give America’s youth some credit for getting it on this one. They saw the long term trend here and decided to say No, Thanks to that type of career. They watched what happened to manufacturing as a 30 year squeeze that has yet to abate (and likely never will) made it a tough and increasingly poorly paid sector in which to work and in which you constantly walk around with a target on your back. Fear of that happening to them looms large. I have a friend who was on the advisory board of a Big Ten business school. That school at one point had seen enrollment in its MIS program drop from 300 to less than 30 and the school was contemplating dropping that program altogether. The days when Andersen Consulting would hire thousands of bright people off campuses, put them through boot camp to teach them the basics of coding, then send them off to move mountains are over – at least in the United States. I think we probably have seen a large drop off in the number of people entering the tech profession.

Now you might be saying to yourself, “IT? MIS majors? What the heck is that? I need real programmers.” And therein lies another trend I observed, namely the increasing estrangement between corporate IT and the tech world, and the resulting desire for not just programmers by tech companies, but a certain type of programmer.

As the IT world went one direction, the tech company world went another. Open source LAMP-stack architectures sent the cost of software to zero for a new web company. The rise of cloud computing has driven hardware and hosting costs to near zero as well. This dramatically reduced barriers to entry. Also, while corporations stayed close to home with Java and .NET, a lot of the rest of the world moved on, to architectures like Rails and platforms like iOS and Android instead of the web. This caused a reconstituting of what a startup looks like and even spawned new philosophies and methodologies of software development such as the “lean startup” and 37 Signals “Getting Real.” A lot of the success of these companies is rooted in understanding the user/customer and design (perhaps inspired by the success of Apple), as well as rapid iterations – things still done best in America.

My own Telestrian app is an example of what this new world has wrought. A decade ago, it would have taken millions of dollars to start a company. Today, I built Telestrian myself with sweat equity and a tiny amount of cash for point assistance (such as my lawyer) under a bootstrap model.

These two evolving paths have driven a wedge between the IT/consulting model and the tech model, and to some extent bifurcated the labor market and the culture to an extent far greater than in the past.

One commenter on the previous post noted: “The developers that startups want to hire are a special breed: broad and deep technical skills, very current on technology and practices, ambitious and self-directed, derives satisfaction from the startup’s vision so they will work for less $$, good communicator, proven track record of success.” This shows that tech startups are increasingly focused on a narrow model of developer to staff their teams.

I think one of the challenges facing tech hiring is that tech companies have set up artificial boundaries around their potential labor force. Back in the dotcom days, we also had to radically scale up our programming staff at the macro level. But we did it. Sure, a lot of the people went into the field who shouldn’t have and they wrote a lot of crappy code. But you absolutely had to have an e-Commerce site, the CEO wouldn’t take No for an answer, and guess what? Lots and lots of stuff of pretty good quality actually got written in a very short period of time – and even without the architectures we have that today make it so much easier to do things.

Perhaps today’s models work in a certain sense, but if there isn’t the labor force to staff them, then maybe that model needs to be rethought. Perhaps we do need to raise more capital and be open to hiring from a broader pool of people, for example.

I think the dot com era holds two important lessons. Firstly, companies hired in bright people and let them grow into the positions and figure the internet architectures out. I see no reason why we can’t do this again today. I had lunch with the VP of Applications for a .NET IT shop in Chicago today and asked him point blank if he had problems finding .NET programmers to hire or as contractors. He said No. He uses mostly contractors these days, but there isn’t a shortage on the market. Why not grab some of the .NET IT guys who’ve shown they can develop code and teach them or let them figure out what they need to do for your Rails app or whatever? Another commenter said he’s had three open programmer positions for nearly six months and hasn’t been able to fill them. In six months, even a merely competent programmer could have cross trained to a new platform and gotten productive – and would probably be fired up about getting to do so. Again, remember, we took a lot of raw material in during the dot com era and ended up a lot of good tech stuff with it. And people want a job in which they can learn something new, stretch themselves, and grow. Hire one of those water walkers of the type profiled above and they’ll get quickly bored and move on for greener pa$ture$.

Second, salaries went way up during the dot com era. I think there was a misunderstanding by some on my point around pay. Raising wages isn’t just a method of reallocating a fixed pool of talent from banking to tech or something like that. In a typical supply curve, sellers are willing to supply more product at a higher price. A higher price attracts new supply to the market. There are lots of people who left the programming field for something else. Or like me got promoted into management. Or who are in legacy technologies and haven’t skilled up on something new. Or who are in school and trying to make up their minds about what to do. Etc. These are all potential sources of new or latent talent in the marketplace. The price signal is important to bring that potential supply into the marketplace, along with potentially some business/staffing model changes to make the tech world more appealing to those people.

Of course, whether higher pay attracts them also depends on whether they believe that those salaries are permanent or part of another bubble. People got burned when the dot com bubble blew up. Even today you read about another bubble. Once bitten, twice shy, so it will take time to convince people. But while there will always been ups and downs, I believe tech is here to stay in America. We just need to find out how to attract a labor force to it and build business models that work well with the labor force they can get.

Update: Check out this new piece over at New Geography: “Supply of Tech Workers Greater Than Estimated Demand

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Is There Really a Developer Drought?

One of the most common memes I come across in the tech world is that there is a huge shortage of quality software developers out there. No matter the market – Silicon Valley, Chicago, New York – you’ll soon enough hear about the talent shortage.

For example, someone recently told me that if I wanted to work as a developer in New York, “I’d have a job by noon.” A couple of recent articles in Chicago highlight supposed challenges there. Technori notes that “the #1 question we get every day is ‘How do I find a good developer in Chicago?'” and they recently put a lengthy primer on how to find one. And Alex Wilhelm recently chimed in with a piece on “Chicago’s Great Web Developer Drought.”

But is the developer shortage really as bad as it is portrayed? I’m skeptical.

First, when someone says there’s a shortage of talent and that they can’t find a good programmer, what that shows me is that the market is actually sending a very clear and important signal: your salaries are too low. In New York, I hear that the banks have sucked up all the good coders. Well how did that happen? Maybe they offered a market price. What this tells me is that there isn’t a shortage of developers, just a shortage of developers willing to work for ramen noodle money in a very expensive city.

Not once in its lengthy advice piece on hiring programmers in Chicago did Technori suggest paying a generous salary. But maybe that ought to be the first thing you try. Wilhelm notes that Groupon has sucked up a huge amount of Ruby on Rails talent. But that’s not just because of the options. Groupon also pays its developers very well. Unsurprisingly, it’s fairly easy for them to recruit.

I think what’s happened in a lot of places is that in trying to build the next great tech hub, they’ve basically tried to copy the entire business model of Silicon Valley. But perhaps other places ought to rethink that. Maybe in Chicago people aren’t willing to work 24×7, sleep on a sofa, and make peanuts in order to have a shot at a big exit one day, someday, maybe. Perhaps in these markets the compensation focus should be heavier on cash money, at least for funded startups. You build that into your business plan and raise capital appropriately.

Realistically, if there are more would-be buyers than sellers, then the market price has to go up to bring balance. It’s that simple. I don’t think startups need to put a deal on the table that’s based solely on the headline salary. Startups are generally great places to work, let you do really cool and interesting stuff, and do offer upside potential. But the cash side of the equation can’t be ignored either. Because while one business model after another has been upended and destroyed by the globalized, networked age, there’s one thing that’s remained as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar: Want to secure someone’s services? Open your checkbook.

Second, my own personal experience makes me wonder how big this so-called “drought” could be, at least in Chicago. I personally coded an entire Ruby on Rails SaaS application (www.telestrian.com), wrote the only program ever I’m aware of to recover data from corrupted gzip files, co-founded and was a principal author of an open source, clean room implementation of the Java standard class library prior to Sun open sourcing Java, etc. Yet no one has ever even so much as inquired about hiring me as a developer. Granted, I’m not really looking to work as a pure coder. But if you are really as desperate to find a developer as you say you are, wouldn’t you be turning over rocks to find one?

Lastly, most development problems aren’t rocket science. Even if it’s hard to find Rails hackers, there are tons of solid, competent Java and .NET developers all over our major cities, even in corporate IT shops. Why not hire one of them and let them skill up on Rails? That’s basically what I did with myself. When I wrote Telestrian, I wanted to learn Rails too, so I solved both problems at once by buying a Ruby book, buying a Rails book, and starting to write code. (Incidentally, IMO Ruby is the best language I’ve ever used, at least from a programmer perspective). I think you could probably get a competent web developer on one platform doing useful work on a different one inside of a month.

Now we all know that a great developer is 10-100x as productive as an average one, etc, etc. But do most straightforward development problems require a truly elite programmer? I would suggest that most web site development in cities like Chicago or New York is not what Mark Suster has called “a San Jose problem” – that is, a problem that requires deep, arcane technical skills best brought to bear by a Stanford CS Ph.D. And for those, maybe you’d be better off going to Silicon Valley anyway. (Given the rarity of niche skills in some of these areas, I really can believe SV companies have some recruitment issues). For most problems, maybe there’s an answer closer to home. Because a good coder in one platform is likely to be a good coder in another after picking it up.

Obviously the better the programmer you can get the better. And I’d never suggest hiring someone that can’t cut it. But I think the talent pool is probably a lot deeper than we suspect.

Now I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t personally tried to hire any programmers lately, so I’m willing to be convinced that I’m wrong. And I’m not going to say there isn’t something of a tight market out there. But it strikes me that there can’t be the absolute shortage of talent that I keep hearing about. More likely, the aspiring tech communities in these cities simply need to bring their compensation in line with marketplace reality in order to attract that talent that already there out of the banks and other shops and into the tech industry. Please feel free to share your opinion in the comments.

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

“Sick Housing Market” Ranking Shows Why Many “Top-10” Lists Should Be Deep Sixed by Drew Klacik

The financial news and opinion site 24/7 Wall St. recently ranked Indianapolis number two in its list of America’s 10 sickest housing markets.

I’ve always been fascinated by top-10 lists. Fellow Hoosier David Letterman delivers one every evening. Purdue fans get excited when their basketball team makes the top 10. IU fans hope to earn that distinction too, because recent recruits are ranked in the top 10. Then, of course, there’s the Big 10, which is so enamored of top-10 lists that it retains its name despite having 12 teams.

The Big 10 (12) example points to a big challenge for top 10 list makers. Sometimes, there’s little difference between number 10 and number 11 – or even number 25 for that matter.

A second challenge is that often, a list’s creator fails to fully or even partially explain how the list came to be.

A third challenge is that two different organizations, each ranking the same thing, can come to different conclusions. Take football, for example. The various polls often disagree as to who’s number one.

Given these list-making challenges, I decided to examine Indianapolis’ housing ignominy to determine whether we are justifiably bottom-of-the barrel.

To start, I compared some of the 24/7 Wall St. data for Indianapolis to a few cities that didn’t make the bottom 10.

The key criteria used in this ranking were homeowner and rental vacancy rates for either the 75 largest U.S. cities or, more likely, their metropolitan areas. They excluded from their list any locale that improved its vacancy rate over the last year or quarter and then enhanced the data set with unemployment rates and median home prices.

Of the 75 areas considered, Indianapolis had the fifth-highest home vacancy rate and tenth-highest rental vacancy rate. These are troubling statistics that clearly suggest a supply-and-demand issue. Indianapolis likely needs to reduce the supply of homes and rental units and/or increase demand by attracting more owners and renters.

Tucson, the one city deemed to have a sicker housing market than Indianapolis, had the highest home vacancy rate and sixth-highest rental vacancy rate.

But here’s where it gets confusing: When considering some other housing-market fundamentals, Indianapolis appears very sound. For example, between 2008 and 2010, the median sales price for a home in the Indianapolis metro area increased by $12,100 or 10.9 percent.

The only community on the 10 sickest-housing-market cities list to experience a greater increase in median sales prices was Oklahoma City (13.7 percent). Only two others had any increase at all.

To further confuse matters, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Minneapolis didn’t make the sick-housing-market cities list, yet all experienced a decline in median sales prices – Minneapolis with a precipitous 15.5 percent drop. That’s certainly sickening to would-be sellers.

In addition to its sales-price success, Indianapolis was one of six sick-housing-market cities to experience a decline in unemployment (from 10 percent in June 2010 to 9.1 percent in June 2011) – generally a positive indicator for the housing market. Meanwhile, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Nashville (also not on the list of 10) all experienced an increase in unemployment during the same period. If people aren’t working, they struggle to buy houses.

Then there’s population growth. Between 2000 and 2010, Indianapolis grew by 12.6 percent – fourth fastest among the sick-housing-market communities. Only three on the list (Detroit, Dayton and St. Louis) experienced population loss. Yet other cities suffering losses – including Cincinnati and Milwaukee – were somehow deemed healthy for housing. Go figure.

By now, you might be asking yourself how Indianapolis can be increasing employment and gaining population yet still have high vacancy rates and a sick housing market?

At least part of the answer is that between 2000 and 2010, while Indianapolis added 39,963 people, it also added 36,893 new housing units. That’s a lot of property per resident.

While there’s plenty of room to debate the details of Indianapolis’ sick-housing-market ranking, we undoubtedly have serious and difficult work to do if we’re to address our supply-and-demand imbalance while keeping local housing affordable (we rank in the top 10 for that!).

On the other hand, it might be best to not be in the top ten in either the “sick” or “affordable” lists. Then, Indianapolis would have more balanced market fundamentals, fewer vacant houses and better price appreciation.

As for top-10 lists in general, they’re about image. The data provide the real substance. And when it comes to substance, fundamentals matter, as the Butler University men’s basketball team taught us the past two seasons by proving that you don’t need to be in the top 10 to make the Final Four.

Drew Klacik is a policy analyst for the Indiana University Public Policy Institute at IUPUI. He focuses on public policy related to economic development, state and local taxation, affordable housing and neighborhood development.

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Beer and Evolving Urban Culture

[ Ok, the title is a bit over the top. Indianapolis blog the Hoosier Beer Geek just turned five years old. As part of their celebration, I wrote this short piece on how their blog shows a bit about culture shift in the relationship of the city and state over the course of the last couple decades. ]

I grew up in rural Southern Indiana where the Indianapolis I knew much of my early years was as a dot on a map. The rest of the state did not loom large in our eyes. Today it’s quite different. One of my cousins and a high school classmate are both Colts season ticket holds and Colts fandom is rampant. Another high school classmate started a winery and is very active in the state’s wine making industry. He now often travels to Indianapolis for various festivals and events.

Traditionally Indianapolis had been very cut off from the rest of the state. And while sometimes resentment of the state capital still runs high, Indy is much more connected than in years past, as my own personal story illustrates. Part of that is the result of Indy becoming a sort of “cultural commons” for the entire state, with the city increasingly a focus of statewide attention for things like pro sports and local wine making.

Another example of his has been in the state’s emerging microbrewing scene. Indy itself has fairly few of these, but the state as a whole a large number of high quality brewers, including what I think is the best brewery in the United States – Munster’s 3 Floyds.

The Hoosier Beer Geek has been a key element in binding the state’s brewing industry together and bringing knowledge of the state’s beers to Indianapolis. Rightly they focus on whatever is of the absolute best quality regardless of origin. But they’ve also championed Indiana beers, when they find them measuring up the standards of the world. This includes breweries from the furthest reaches in the state, such as their special tasting events for New Albanian (which is brewed close to where I grew up).

I believe things like this are important in helping Indianapolis build and maintain connections and trust throughout the state, and lowering the barriers of resentment that have traditionally caused problems. This is of critical importance for both the success of the city and state. While HBG may be but a small element of this, it’s very significant because truly vital relationships are built not on a few single mega initiatives but a multitude of small and diverse interactions.

Congrats and best of luck to HBG in its next five years.

This post originally appeared in the Hoosier Beer Geek.

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Alex Steffen TED Talk on the Shareable Future of Cities

Here’s another urban related TED Talk from this year’s TED Global conference. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).


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Topics: Sustainability, Urban Culture

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Miriam in the Midwest by Miriam Fathalla

[ So a few months back I got an email from Miriam Fathalla. As crazy as this sounds, she was quitting her job as an urban planner in Melbourne (yes, Australia) not to move to back home to Portland, but to come spend a few months checking out the Midwest. She is now here, traveling to various parts of the region, and blogging about it over at Miriam in the Midwest, which I'd encourage you to check out. She also graciously agreed to talk about her project and some of what she's learned so far along the away. I hope you enjoy - Aaron. ]

Hi, I’m Miriam. I’m an American/Canadian citizen and an Australian permanent resident who has been living, researching and writing (www.MiriamintheMidwest.com) in Chicago since April, when I left my job as an Environmental Planning Officer at a Melbourne-area local government and moved myself, my curiosity, my Australian dollars and my post-graduate studies of Urban Planning and Community Development to an environment that would increase the value of these things: the American Midwest. I also kind of like run-on sentences. And fragments.

So why did I do all of this? Well, I’m intensely curious about people, their places and emerging and established social and economic structures in the American Midwest.

I have been following The Urbanophile for well over 2 years and the site’s analysis of the American Midwest coupled with stories about creative individuals and communities I found in Detroit Blog, Yes!, Ode, Good, New Internationalist, and New Geography inspired in me an increasingly strong attraction and curiosity about this thing called the Midwest, until it could no longer be ignored. As an American who hadn’t lived in the USA since 2004, I was curious to know what it meant to be an American anymore, I was frustrated by my fruitless attempts to turn my inspiration from reading these accounts into actions in my local area and I wasn’t entirely sure the Midwest existed (I kind of always thought it might be a Hollywood soundstage – like the moon landing). So, for these reasons I came to the Midwest to experience, research and write about emerging social and economic structures and discover what magic element was missing from my projects in Australia.

My broad, sweeping generalizing observations so far include:

People in the Midwest are young and fun.

As a 29 year old in Australia, I would go out with friends and often wonder where all of the people my own age were. But I have met many others in my age bracket with similar tastes and goals in Chicago and Detroit; even a handful that has also left professions to follow passions. This may be due to simply being in a larger urban environment or perhaps the stronger Australian economy and more conservative society is more conducive to twenty-somethings taking the house and husband path and American culture is more encouraging of independent and creative pursuits.

People in the Midwest are motivated.

The ambition, drive and energy of Chicago and Detroit are palatable. It’s not just willingness to work, it’s a desire to. Though this is likely connected to the elongated economic downturn of the area, especially compared to the currently surging Australian economy, this is none the less impressive. From Michael McDonald-themed dance parties to community learning structures to neighborhood parks to grassroots heat wave strategies (broken open fire hydrants), people are creating the elements of their society they wish existed. DIY isn’t just a scene here, a weekend pastime; it’s a way of life, the way of life of the Midwest.

This is likely due to the traditional middle-class nature of this society. I believe the proliferation of this mentality is a part of a wider social phenomenon that is being born out of shifting expectations of the government vs communities and I am excited to see this shift is not resulting in notions of competitive scarcity and increased social isolation but rather in creative and collaborative social initiatives and enterprises.

People in the Midwest can eat well.

Food is cheap. This may shock, offend or humor Midwestern residents, but compared to Australia food is definitely cheaper here. And I’m shopping and eating within the third largest American city – I’ve been told groceries are a lot cheaper in further outlying areas.

Stay with me, because this argument compounds.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, colloquially known as food stamps) provides qualifying low-income individuals and families with a monthly credit of a minimum of $200 that can only be spent on food items. In my opinion, Australia’s social welfare system is more generous overall than the USA’s, however this type of benefit does not exist in Australia. Rental assistance, unemployment, parenting payments and baby bonuses are available but nothing that directly ensures residents have access to food is part of the Australian system. I think the American SNAP system is gold.

Since February 2011, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s “Double Up Food Bucks” program doubles the value of SNAP benefits used at many farmers markets in Michigan and Ohio. So, provided they can get to a participating farmer’s market, low-income residents are guaranteed access not just to food, but healthy, fresh and local produce. 

The program works by trading SNAP benefit credits for bonus tokens. This alternative currency can only be spent on produce from within the state, thus stretching consumer food dollars while supporting the local economy and local food producers. As an added bonus, the program provides experiential local food market education; participants can’t help but learn about what grows in their local environment and in what season as they seek out local growers and their goods.

Also, there is no good Mexican food in Australia* and I love burritos. I love them so much I almost stopped on my way from Australia to Chicago in San Francisco for a day just to get my fill. But then I realized that Chicago has a very high Hispanic population, and my love for my future city grew exponentially.

And then I tried a Chicago-style hot dog. 

And then I met the Tamale Guy.

Yes, I approve of the culinary culture of Chicago.

And it’s true that, portion sizes are enormous compared to those in Australia.

*I purposefully say this, hoping that some will be offended and make it their mission to prove me wrong when I return.

People in the Midwest are nice.

Yes my Chicago neighborhood is a far cry from my Australian home town of 300,000 where I often wouldn’t close, let alone lock my back door. Living on the western side of Humboldt Park, most people make a face when I tell them where I live, while I lovingly refer to my neighborhood as ‘vibrant’.

I’m on a relatively quiet one-way street a mini-block away from a major intersection but there’s always noise in the street. I consider it a lively buzz, the heartbeat that lets me know that there are others here with me. Right now I hear sirens, dogs barking, cars arriving and kids playing hide and seek. Often it’s someone(s) yelling in Spanish, ghetto beats and Spanish radio stations. They say you’re not really in Chicago until your bike gets stolen; count me as ‘arrived’ then. I’ve learned the difference between the sound of gun shots or fireworks from a couple of blocks away (but wouldn’t be stressed by hearing either), I see my neighbor dealing drugs on the street daily and the police patrol my neighborhood, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Despite Chicago being the largest city I’ve ever experienced, I find the people here to be incredibly friendly. Not just polite, but actually ‘want to get to know you’, ‘help you with your groceries’ friendly. Chivalry is rife and I’m not complaining. I can truthfully say that every time I have gotten on a bus with others, men of all ages have stood back to let myself and other women board first.

I believe there are a number of compounding reasons for this:

  • Americans are generally more extroverted than Australians. However people in the Midwest seem to be friendlier than Portlanders.
  • In an undergraduate Urban Communication course, I discussed how Hispanic cultures can be found to be more extroverted than white groups (apologies, I’m having difficulty finding the exact reference). Chicago has a high Hispanic population. I’m not saying I’m only running into friendly Hispanic people, but that the strong influence of these cultures may affect how everyone acts here. (And I admit that I live in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood so my experiences may have a certain bias.)
  • People are inherently good, creative and social creatures. I’m happy to see frequent examples of people bonding together to withstand hardships and create positive responses to potentially stressful situations. I have found that the lack of law enforcement in Detroit actually makes way for must more creativity than violence.

People in the Midwest are proud.

Okay, first of all Americans in general are proud. This is sometimes perceived as arrogant or haughty by others.

One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival was just how long it took to order breakfast at Denny’s. White/wheat, how do you like your eggs, what sides…  In Detroit I met a man who told me that he would purposefully ask for water with cucumber at bars just to prove that when asked what he would like, he should be able to be served whatever it is that he actually would like at that moment. 

I believe this proliferation of choice and the belief that we should have an abundance of options is a direct derivative of promise of American liberty. Australia does not have a Bill of Rights (and I was terrified when I discovered this). Considering how often references are made to this document, The Constitution and the rights and responsibilities these articles describe, it is clear to me that this absence would  affect the comparative culture of Australia.  However which is ‘better’ is of course impossible to say.  However a recent article in the New York Times is relevant to the discussion.

But Midwesterners are really proud. Proud of their country, their region, their state, their city, even their neighborhood and street.  I’m not really sure what is behind this, but I’m enjoying the scenery of t shirts, stickers and business names that proclaim hometown pride. And I admit that I’m getting sucked into it too.

When I share my new found love for the Midwest with others, pride of place is often reflected back at me. However sometimes it has been met with raised eyebrows and “You haven’t been here in the winter yet, have you?” 

I understand that the summers in Chicago are generally known for their magic, especially in relation to the city’s dastardly cold, bleak and isolating winters. Therefore it may be that the vitality of place I am currently experiencing is the annual aggregate energy of 8 million people condensed into a few hospitable months; however I won’t know for some time.

According to today’s travel bookings, I will leave the Midwest at the end of October. In the meantime, I am open to any suggestions regarding individuals, communities or organizations that are doing interesting things in the Midwest that lead to more connected, sustainable and healthy societies.

My goals are to document people’s stories and develop my understandings, while growing my network of community development, urban planning and design professionals and enthusiasts. I consider what I do ‘gonzo journalism and contemporary anthropology’ and my card says even says so. 

My research so far included pieces on group dance phenomena, placemaking, the last company town in the USA, community signage, informal street-level governance and more while I have articles on alternative food structures, community composting, crowd sourced funding, hometown pride, an underground library, alternative grassroots health care schemes, alternative housing, Detroit blogs, sustainable fashion and the general magnificence of Detroit in the works.

I have gone on “field trips” to Portland, Oregon and Detroit, Michigan and have more planned for Iowa City, Omaha, Wyoming, Winnemucca, Nevada, Burning Man, Provo, Utah, Moab, Utah, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Kansas City, Missouri, St Louis, Missouri, New York City, Los Angeles, California, as well as a return to Detroit).

Please feel free to contact me via my blog at Miriam in the Midwest with any questions, comments contacts or suggestions for further research.

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

Building Suburbs That Last #6 – Limit Restrictive Covenants

This is another in my occasional series on creating suburbs that will remain successful over the long haul. To recap, I consider the suburban decay facing inner ring suburbs across America, especially those of the 60’s and 70’s vintage built on a modern suburban pattern, as one of the key challenges facing urban leaders over the coming decades. I outlined a lot of the case in my review of the book “Retrofitting Suburbia”. This series looks at ways to keep this same decay from happening to tomorrow’s suburbs.

The Market Urbanism blog recently ran a post called “Covenants as a Substitute for Euclidean Zoning.” As its name implies, this blog prefers free market type solutions to urban problems rather than government ones. In this case, they’d like to see voluntary restrictive covenants as a substitute for zoning in many cases. I tend to see covenants as a generally bad way to go.

I’m not sure when these really took off, but today it seems like basically every new subdivision comes with various restrictive covenants. These can restrict things like the types of materials or even paint colors allowed on houses, rules about where cars can be parked, the types of decorations that are allowed, banning fences, or even who can live in the house. The idea of these is to protect property values by making sure neighbors can’t do obnoxious things to their homes.

Part of the problem though is that unlike with zoning or other matters of purely public policy, restrictive covenants can be difficult or impossible to change over time. As someone who went through the process of amending his condo association incorporation declarations for something like this, I can attest to its difficulty. This tends to create a situation where it is difficult for the housing stock to evolve over time to meet changing needs, particularly when a development runs into trouble. It seems unlikely, for example, that the paint colors that are in fashion today will still be as fashionable 30 years from now.

Retrofitting Suburbia did a nice job of demonstrating how even the relentlessly monotonous homes in the Levittown developments were able to be adapted very successfully over time. People made additions, radically changed exteriors, etc. It’s hard to imagine these developments would have been nearly as long lasting as they were if the houses were legally required to have stayed more or less in their current state.

I think that the newer type subdivisions that are loaded up with restrictive covenants are going to face particular redevelopment challenges in the future. Those places without covenants may actually end up with long run competitive advantages because of their ability to adapt to change.

In fact, I predict that at some point in the future, as covenants make redevelopment aging subdivisions (or perhaps even just some of the failed projects caught out by the housing bubble bursting in the here and now) difficult in the future, we’ll see state legislatures (or perhaps even the courts) invalidate these as contrary to public policy.

In the meantime, I think lawmakers ought to take a look at what these might mean over the longer term. Perhaps covenants are ok in the short term, but longer term they should expire. This is already how they work in some cases and so perhaps this is a good balance of meeting present and future needs.

More Reading on the Suburbs

Review: Retrofitting Suburbia
End Property Tax Collection in Arrears

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

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Megabus – King of the Road


Source: Flickr/Budahbless

In recent years there’s been a resurgence in intercity bus travel, driven by the rise of low cost, non-stop service linking tier one cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC with other regional hubs in their surrounding areas. This is a lively and diverse market, particularly on the east coast, with providers like Megabus, Bolt Bus, Greyhound, and a host of so-called “Chinatown” buses.

These offer service for very low fare, ostensibly as low as a dollar, but more typically $20. Still, that’s far cheaper than even driving in most places, and certainly than flying. These services typically involve curb side loading (no stations) adjacent to a city’s main train station, making them almost a quasi-rail service or rail adjunct, while giving many of the same rail benefits as direct CBD-CBD service without requiring extensive, and expensive, ground transport on either end. With amenities like AC power outlets and free wi-fi – which many Amtrak and commuter trains don’t yet offer – it’s easy to see why they are popular. And this isn’t just with the stereotypical bus ride customer, but increasingly with everything from hip Millennials to the mothers of yuppies coming into the big city for a visit. Megabus and others are drawing an entirely new market who previously would have discounted intercity bus service – including Yours Truly.

With a low cost service that gets people out of cars and planes and into what is basically a shared transit vehicle, you would think that Megabus would be extremely popular in the urbanist/sustainability community. But you’d be wrong. A large segment of them have indeed seen the virtues of this new school intercity bus service, but a surprisingly large number of them actually revile Megabus.

Among the common complaints are that Megabus is “subsidized” because it uses valuable curb side real estate in cities for free, that they are implicitly subsidized by highway funding, that passengers waiting for the bus at the stop are a nuisance, that the buses clog the streets and pump fumes into the air in a way that harms the “neighborhood,” and that the service really isn’t that good because of congestion. Even the government of Washington, DC is getting in on the act, as reported they want to charge Megabus a fee for access to their loading zones.

Every last one of these is bogus. The quickest way to illustrate this is to simply ask how urbanists would react if anti-transit forces made similar arguments against ordinary municipal bus service.

First, municipal bus service is massively subsidized, both from a capital and operating perspective. Megabus pays for its own buses, drivers, and fuel and actually pays taxes to the government. As for subsidies from free use of curbside real estate and highway funding, large amounts of our city streets – including on pretty much every block on major streets in major cities – have permanently dedicated space to bus stops. The bus agency does not pay for these. City buses also runs on streets paid for with highway and general fund dollars. And in any case, this concrete investment in streets and highways is a sunk cost, with buses contributing little to general freeway congestion.

As for passengers congregating at stops, that’s frequently the case with city buses as well, as this picture from Chicago shows:

And to argue about crowds hurting city life seems a bit odd given that we’re told one of rail’s benefits is bringing all those people in to patronize businesses. I know I’ve made purchases at businesses near the Megabus stop that I wouldn’t have otherwise made. And in places like Midtown Manhattan, there are already vehicles of all types more or less continuously stopped or even double parked along the avenues. Megabus is barely a blip here. Plus don’t forget all the loading zones that already serve many private businesses all over our cities.

Also, these bus stops are typically located in the CBD near a train station, which is already crowded and which itself can be a huge (and tax free) mega-structure in the city that poses disruption in its own right (e.g., Grand Central Terminal). What this also means that any fumes and such disproportionately are in the CBD, not really a neighborhood. Again, many train stations also feature diesel fume generating trains (Metra’s trains in Chicago were recently noted as having unsafe diesel fume concentrations). And also, city buses generally do pump out fumes as well, and truly in the neighborhoods. Anyone who’s spent time in a city knows the delight of having a poorly tuned bus pull away from the stop belching a huge black cloud. I frequently get to experience this while out jogging in my neighborhood.

Again, if an anti-transit writer tried to disparage investment in city buses with the arguments raised against Megabus, they’d be laughed out of the house by the urbanist/sustainability crowd.

So why the complaints? They can speak for themselves, but I suspect a couple of items. Firstly, some people just don’t like private sector solutions. That’s a view I can respect, but not agree with. But more importantly, I think that there’s fear that successful private sector intercity bus service undermines the case for high speed rail that is near and dear to the urbanist heart.

Indeed, it is true that in many cases Megabus frankly does undermine the case, particularly for the “Amtrak on steroids” style HSR proposals on the table in places like the Midwest. Megabus already delivers basically the end to end journey times of the proposed Midwest “high speed rail” system with similar amenities but without the need for billions in government expenditures. Even on the east coast, NYC to Providence has a journey time not that much worse than the Acela – and at 20% of the ticket price. Congestion might be a real concern, but if so, customers would notice. But give Megabus some credit – they build this into their schedules. Generally the journey times are as advertised.

I prefer to look at it differently though. What Megabus & Co. are proving is that there is a viable market for intercity transit-style travel at the right price. Thus they are helping to get people used to the idea of traveling that way and in a sense priming the pump for high speed rail at a later date as demand increases. The bus operators are doing the hard work of creating and proving out the market for this. Also, Megabus will hopefully force the backers of many of these HSR proposals to rethink their concept around 110MPH peak speeds in favor of true high speed rail. And even in the worst case, Megabus doesn’t say anything against such slam dunk investments as further upgrades to the NEC. Conceivably if and when HSR investments are made, these bus operators will service a different, lower end market and/or evolve into more of a rail complement. (For another perspective on this, see “Will Megabus Kill High Speed Rail?.”)

In any event, I’m totally puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm or outright hostility against a service which is providing cost effective, green transport and getting people out of their cars today without tax expenditures. That’s not to say these services can’t be improved. Perhaps they should make some payment for curbside space. The wi-fi service is frequently inoperable. And their buses, particularly later in the day, can see schedule slippage as problems cascade. Perhaps some stops should be relocated to be less disruptive. But all of these are easily solvable problems. None of them vitiates the fact that these intercity bus services are one of the best transport innovations of our time.

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Commercial District Revitalization and Return on Investment by Richard Layman

One of the things that bugs me about local economic development is that elected and appointed officials don’t seem to understand it much. Certain types of government funding add value and spur subsequent independent private investment and other types of funding do not. Ideally, each dollar you spend generates significantly more in private investment.

As Rolf Goetze makes the point in Building Neighborhood Confidence (1976), although referring to neighborhood stabilization, that government programs shouldn’t be fostering dependence but rather spurring people to continue to invest in their neighborhood–“building confidence in remaining in and investing in their neighborhood.”

This is why I don’t have much truck with complaints about “gentrification.” The problem most urban neighborhoods have, if they have problems, is the lack of investment.

The solution to lack of investment isn’t whining or glorifying being poor, it’s investment.

The solution to dealing with displacement is to develop programs to reintegrate the disadvantaged into the economy in substantive ways (such as along the lines discussed in the textbook Community Economic Development Handbook) as well as extracting some housing outside of market forces through the development of alternative ownership structures, either portfolio investment within nonprofit housing organizations, land trusts, cooperatives, etc.

Also see this very old blog entry, “More about contested spaces–gentrification” which derives from something I first wrote in 2004.

The other thing to remember is that it took many decades for neighborhoods and commercial districts to decline, so we have to recognize that it will take a long time for these places to be improved. It takes even longer when we don’t know what we are doing, and we fail to learn from previous practice, not to mention best practice, and we put in minimal amounts of money so that it makes improvement very hard to come about, and we don’t direct money in ways where it can have great impact so that money gets wasted.

So, it’s very interesting to read stories around the country about how in these economic times, many communities are looking into dissolving their commercial district revitalization programs (“Downtown development authorities help make city centers cool, but can West Michigan communities afford to keep them?” from the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan ) even while other articles acknowledge that it takes a long time, more than one decade to truly see results (“Strengthening Manitowoc’s ‘heart’ a challenge: Revitalizing downtown Manitowoc won’t happen overnight; takes work, planning and money” from the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter in Wisconsin and “Development plan still reshapes downtown 10 years later” from the Oshkosh Wisconsin Northwesterner).

Meanwhile the State of Maryland is working to change the state historic preservation tax credit to a sustainable communities tax credit program. (Press release from Preservation Maryland)

It’s a good move, because Baltimore City garnered most of the credits–because they have the most buildings of any jurisdiction in the state that are eligible because it is the oldest center city and once was one of the nation’s major manufacturing centers–and this upset legislators from other jurisdictions (sadly, as they clearly don’t understand what Jane Jacobs wrote in Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations about the necessity of center cities to thrive as they are the centers for metropolitan economies).

The state historic tax credit in Maryland generated more than $9 in direct private investment for every $1 in credit. The Maryland heritage areas program generates more than $40 for every $1 of state investment.

Yet these kinds of programs, and tourism support programs generally, are always under attack, even in decent economic times.

It makes absolutely no sense to me.

Also see “MAIN STREET NICHES IN A MASS SALES WORLD” (1/11/04) column by Neal Peirce. From the article:

Successful Main Street programs, Rand notes, take years to mature — four or five years to change attitudes and build initial confidence, five to ten or more years for owners to start reinvesting seriously, 15 or 20 for the full recovery and new growth to take solid root.

This post originally appeared in Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space on February 28, 2010.

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Replay: The Brand Promise of Indianapolis

This is premature article. I hoped to develop my thinking much more before posting it. But since there were some questions and a lot of conversation on my HARMONI thread about the brand identity and “brand promise” of Indianapolis, I thought I would post it now, with the idea of stimulating discussions and soliciting ideas.

Please keep in mind while reading that there are two separate questions: what is Indy’s brand identity, and what would the city like it to be in the future?

After my most recent pecha kucha presentation, someone came up to me and asked a question: “What is Indianapolis’ identity?” She noted that when you think “Texas” a whole series of associations comes to mind: ten-gallon hats and cowboys, “everything’s bigger in Texas”, a certain exaggered masculinity combined with traditional “Yes, Ma’am” manners. But Indianapolis didn’t seem to conjure up anything for this person or those she worked with. It was a constant topic of conversation. This is, perhaps, not uncommon in the area. I noted how Louisville struggles with the same questions of identity.

I attribute the lack of strong identity to a few factors:

  • The city’s image is tighly linked to that of Indiana as a whole, and thus to a general Midwest image. It has not traditionally been viewed as distinct from its state in the way that, say, New York City has been.
  • Indianapolis has not historically been prominent on the national radar because it is a smaller city.
  • The images that are conjured up when thinking of the city are those that cause embarrassment to a lot of people locally, such as auto racing and tractors.

Think of the first point. What do you call someone from Indianapolis? I can’t think of anything other than “Hoosier”. As I noted in that pecha kucha presentation, Indianapolis is culturally Hoosier. There is not a huge cultural gulf between the city and the rest of the state. I happen to think that’s a good thing. However, the Indiana association does predominantly conjure rural images such as flat farmland, tractors, small towns, etc. that are clearly not what a city like Indianapolis is about. So I do believe city needs to add a layer of unique civic identity on top of the existing stack (Hoosier, Midwesterner, American, etc). While Indianapolis should by no means try to declare independence from Indiana, it does need to strengthen its own brand.

On the second point, I’ve long noted that while other Midwestern cities are trying to turn around decline, and have to come to terms with their diminished relative standing in the nation, Indy’s profile (and that of some other places like Columbus, Ohio) is on the increase. Indianapolis has never been a larger, more important, more influential player in the nation and world that it is today. Is it in the truly big leagues yet? No, but it is at its highest level ever and is still on the way up. As it continues that upward trajectory, it will start to get more press. For example, the Colts have been incredibly instrumental in bringing Indy to the fore in the public imagination. So assuming they keep it up (and hopefully win a few more Superbowls!), the Colts (and potentially just the Colts blue color), could become more associated with Indy. Raising the city’s profile is a slow process, but the trend lines are positive here.

Lastly, let’s face it, Indy is carrying around a chip on its shoulder about being a “cow town” sort of place. It is desperate to prove its big city bona fides and have people see it as a real big city. That’s why there is so much focus on things like swanky restaurants, shops, pro sports, light rail, etc. Indy is desperate to be perceived as having the trappings of a “real” big city and be taken seriously by the Chicago’s and New York’s of this world. I think this leads to embarrassment about the things the city is associated with and a desire on the part of some to downplay its strongest brand assets.

The best example of this is auto racing. Indianapolis and the 500 Mile Race are basically synonymous around the world. Yet the city does not fully champion it as core to its modern identity. One, because it doesn’t want to be viewed as a one trick pony, which isn’t necessary a bad thing. It sees itself as being more than a one event town and is eager to showcase the new. Two, because in the US auto racing is considered déclassé by the urban elite, and the brand image of the typical Indy car or NASCAR race fan isn’t something the city really wants to portray itself as being all about. Similarly for all the traditional Hoosier attributes such as pork tenderloin sandwiches.

This is typical behavior for all human beings. When we were little kids, we wanted to emulate the older kids. When we were freshman, we were desperate to be cool like the upperclassman. As we mature through the various stages of life, we often come to view the things we left behind with embarrassment, as “little kids stuff”. We go New York and see fashionable people strutting through the streets and we feel inadequate. I understand completely the impulse behind this. But as we fully mature, we settle into our skin and become comfortable with who we are and confident about ourselves. We’re able to resist peer pressure a little better.

I personally try to live by the credo of what I call the “random bastard” theory. That is, why should I care what some random bastard on the street thinks of me? There was a Dr. Pepper commercial a while back that showed a guy happily doing all sorts of embarrassing things for his girlfriend: buying tampons, folding her underwear at the laundromat, holding the clothes she wants to try on at the boutique. The only thing he’s not willing to do is share his Dr. Pepper. We all have a good laugh at this, but I think it illustrates the way that we all as human beings care very much what even random strangers might think, even about activities that are perfectly normal and rational. The first time I took the Eurostar train to Paris, I walked out into the Gare du Nord desperate to look like I knew exactly where the cab stand was. There’s nothing I hate more than looking like I don’t know what I’m doing in public, and especially in Paris I wanted very much to look like I was a sophisticated regular, not a doofus American tourist who’d never set foot in that station before. But what could be more natural than having never been in a particular train station or airport before? It’s a perfectly normal thing. So I wandered around like an idiot tourist for a while and finally found the cab stand. I try to always remember that I shouldn’t spend any time worrying about what those random bastards on the street think. I don’t always succeed, but I do try.

I think there’s a similar process at work in cities. As Indy (and most places) start to move up in the ranks, they want to be taken seriously by the upperclassmen. But the cities that are truly successful and truly maturing have moved beyond imitation of what others deem cool. They have the confidence to boldly chart their own path to the future, and to find their own unique success. Cities, very successful ones, as diverse as Austin, Las Vegas, Portland, and Charleston, SC. have figured this out.

When it comes to brand image, having all those big city trappings ultimately amounts to nothing. Rather, I argue that it is those truly organic local items that are the key to building a future brand image. Look at almost any corporate rebranding campaign. The first thing the company does it try to go back through its history and understand its core essence, its “brand DNA” to use an overworked term. Even the hippest of companies such as fashion houses do this, mining their archives for inspiration for future collections. That’s what Indianapolis needs to do in order to understand where it is and where it should go. Indy can tack on pro sports teams and light rail lines till the cows come home, so to speak, but that provides nothing distinct for anyone to latch onto. And whether things like auto racing and pork tenderloins are good or bad is often purely a matter of attitude and perception.

Consider a few examples. Smoking is considered a lower class activity in America these days. Yet in France they smoke like chimneys and everyone thinks it is cool. Why’s that? People talk about Hoosiers chowing down on deep fried tenderloins and the like as a sign of provincial unsophistication and poor eating habits, then go to Belgium and go gaga over french fries in a greasy paper cone slathered in mayo. I fail to see the big difference. Nobody thinks Chicago hot dogs, Philly cheese steaks, or NYC pizza are bad, despite how fattening and horrible for you they are. They are all sources of pride to their communities. Heck, in Europe they even decided auto racing (Formula 1) was cool and something rich, sophisticated people should be into.

What Indy needs to do create that brand image is to stop being embarrassed at what it is and start showing a little pride and swagger about it. What could be more hillbilly than ten gallon hats and the whole Texas schtick? Yet they are perhaps the most proud people of what they are of any state – and it has worked well for them. Indy seems embarrassed of anything that has a whiff of Southern, blue collar, or rural influence, but the fastest growing cities in America are in the South, where they are proud of their heritage. Why can’t Indy show the same pride and swagger? I’m not talking about the naive boosterism that is so prominent in some circles. That really is embarrasssing. But rather about setting a lofty goal and ambition, based clearly in the local culture. A good mixture of high ambition, bravado, and audacity, all in a local wrapper.

I think a lot of the places of the South are a good model to follow. For many years they were beaten down, economically depressed, with many national image stigmas. Yet they reinvigorated themselves through optimisim, embracing the best parts of their image while shedding the worst (creating this image of “the New South”) and having that swagger I mentioned.

I consider Atlanta as a great example. Indy and Atlanta were about the same size 50 years ago. Today, Atlanta is one of America’s largest, most booming cities. Back in the 80’s when their metro area reached the 2 million mark, civic leaders launched a bunch of balloons to celebrate. Can you imagine such a thing happening in Indy? It would probably be greeted as a sign of the apocalypse by many. When nobody gave them a chance, Atlanta said, “Let’s host the Olympics”. They believe they are destinted to be one of the top world cities. All too often, Indy just seems happy to be here, satisfied with its modest levels of outperformance versus the nation and a region that is suffering.

I just got back from Nashville, a city slightly smaller than Indy and only growing a bit faster, and there is a huge belief in their future as the next great city of the South. It is very much worth a visit to see how they are reinventing themselves, with much bigger plans and ambitions than Indy, even though I’d argue they have little to nothing on Indy and in fact are inferior in many ways. And of course they are building a lot of their identity around country and contemporary Christian music, more déclassé items among the urban elite. But what they’ve done is a put a modern spin on it with their glitzy “Nashvegas” approach. I think it is well worth spending a long weekend in Nashville checking out the vibe in the town.

I believe a successful brand repositioning for a city will probably rely heavily on creating the new brand from the essence of the old, as well as creating a new level of ambition that is combined with an optimistic world view. The first part gives people something they can relate to. The second gives them something to believe in and inspire them. I think this is something that Indy needs to do. It needs to take the best of its existing Hoosier and Midwest identity, get rid of the non-core negative aspects of it, and set forth a new ambition and positive vision for the city and what it can achieve.

So, yes, Indy’s identity is a bit weak today, but I believe the ingrediants are there to really create something. Perhaps one day Indianapolis could even be “the Capital of the New Midwest”. Ok, Chicago will always be the capital of the Midwest, but it is a complete outlier and so different from other places that you can almost consider it its own standalone region – it seems to be doing its best to declare independence from the Midwest in its bid to join the league of world cities. The lessons of Chicago are for the most part not applicable to other Midwestern cities. This leaves room for Indy to take the lead in creating a new identity amongst the real Midwest, and redefining the region for the 21st century. Indianapolis, along with cities like Columbus and Kansas City, offer a real Midwestern model of success, one that can produce viable lessons for how other parts of the Midwest can reinvent themselves to be successful.

What would this involve?

  • Self-conciously define and embrace the “New Midwest” identity, keeping the best of the past and the present, while having the courage to change the things that need it for the future. Change is always a hard sell in Indiana, but if it is not a wholesale throwing out of the current identity, but more of a reshaping, it is probably a lot easier to pull off.
  • Things to keep and build an identity around for the city are auto racing (yes, keep it front and center), the Colts, the small city feel, pork tenderloin sandwiches, the “good, solid, reliable people” ethic, basketball mania, highway orientation (“the Crossroads of America”), patriotism, etc. Think about the imagery the city, the state, the region conjures up. As I noted in my HARMONI review, some of these are tractors in the field, lunch pails and smokestacks, fierce competition on the sports field, airplane engines, big rigs, a researcher’s white lab coat, war memorials, and so on. These are powerful, masculine images. Chicago took more or less those same ingrediants and called itself “the City of Big Shoulders”, an image it is now consciously abandoning (a decision I feel is a terrible one, incidentally). There’s something similar there for Indy, both in terms of expressing what the place has to offer, and as inspiration for a design language and design identity for the city.
  • Here’s my favorite example of taking what is and making it what could be. Hoosiers have a sort of contrarian, even ornery attitude towards the world. Indiana stood virtually alone on DST for the longest time, for example. But this is exactly what I advocate – having the courage to go your own way and not follow the lemmings. In a world where everyone else is following the pack, Indianapolis (and perhaps Indiana) dare to be different. The key is to start applying that attitude towards shaping the future, instead of digging in about the past (e.g., DST). The exact same attitude that so many view as a weakness is in fact, when used properly, a huge strength. This is what I mean by forging the “New Midwest”.
  • Figure out how to leave behind some of the more negative aspects of the current brand image such as environmental degradation, racism, and, for the city itself, some of the more overtly rural imagery inappropriate to an urban envirnoment. For example, I’ve argued before that the black community of Indianapolis should be front and center as one of the central growth pillars for the central city, and represents one of the great untapped resources of the city. Virtually no other cities have blacks as one of their target markets. This leaves a big opportunity for Indy to build on its rich black heritage to create an image of one of America’s great cities for blacks. Incidentally, this was one of the things that has been absolutely critical to Atlanta’s success (“the city too busy to hate”).
  • Be optimistic about the future, and set high goals and ambitions for the city. There are places in the Midwest that deserve to feel gloomy. Detroit, for example. Plenty of places are in bad shape. While Indy is not immune to the current economy or the forces of globalization to be sure, it is actually beating not just the Midwest but the nation at large in things like population growth, percentage of residents with a college degree, new high tech jobs, etc. I personally believe that Indy is a city with huge future potential. It’s not the only Midwest place like that to be sure. But it belongs in the top tier of places, no doubt.
  • Embrace getting bigger and boosting national and international prominence. This alone will create better brand recognition among the public at large. So many people in this day and age are anti-growth. They cite all the perceived negatives of it. But growth is good. Growth is what provides opporunities for people and what ultimately provides the scale necessary to support those urban amenities like rail transit that so many people want. Those types of things take people and wealth to support them, and growth is how you get it.

These are just some ideas. I had intended to let this bake more and think harder about how to extract the current brand image and how specifically to update it and strategies for implementation. Instead, I decided to throw them out there and let the world collaborate on it with me. This is a complex, difficult matter, not one with simple answers. And ultimately, a culture and vision of a place grow organically out of the people who live there. Good leaders can point the way, but it can’t be imposed top down.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

This post originally ran on July 6, 2008.

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