Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Milwaukee’s Relationship with the Chicago Mega-City Revisited by David Holmes

[ I am going to take a break until early 2013. See you folks in the New Year. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this piece by David Holmes that follows up on my “Don’t Fly Too Close to the Sun” piece. He makes some of the same points I did at the conference, as well as some new ones I found interesting. Bye for now! – Aaron. ]

I was intrigued by Aaron’s recent post “Don’t Fly Too Close to the Sun Piece” which focused on the relationship between Milwaukee and Chicago and the notion of whether “proximity to Chicago or another mega-city represents an unambiguous good,” or – as posited by Aaron – may actually be more of a curse than a blessing, and something that drains vitality instead of increasing it. This is a topic that interests me both from the perspective of a long-time resident of Milwaukee and as a long-time fan of the City of Chicago. There are likely unique combinations of factors to consider in this type of evaluation for every city pair – including the distance between the cities, the presence or absence of high speed and/or low cost transit options between the cities, and the relative size. Although I did not comment on Aaron’s post at the time of publication, I thought it would be useful to consider some specific examples of ways in which Chicago enhances or decreases Milwaukee’s economic vitality as both the article and many of the comments on Milwaukee-Chicago and other city pairs, seemed to lack specific examples of both positive and negative impacts.

I will begin by presenting several examples of ways in which Chicago’s proximity appears to negatively impact Milwaukee’s economic vitality. I will then consider the impact of Chicago’s proximity on professional services, which Aaron evaluated in his recent series of articles on Chicago as a potential key growth area for Chicago’s economic future. Finally, I will conclude with examples of ways in which I believe Chicago’s proximity adds to Milwaukee’s economic vitality and/or quality of life.

Ways in Which Chicago Drains Vitality from Milwaukee

1. Competition for High End Specialty Retailers and Restaurants. The first specific example of a way in which Chicago drains economic vitality from Milwaukee is in the competition for certain types of high end retailers or restaurant chains that have a national presence, but one that is limited to perhaps 30 or 40 locations. When I travel to other Midwestern cities that are more geographically isolated or more dominant in their geographic region (such as Kansas City or Indianapolis) I am usually surprised by the number of high end specialty stores or restaurants that have a presence in those cities but none in Milwaukee. Chicago’s proximity is almost certainly a major factor in this dynamic, and a perception (rightly or wrongly) that either the business can’t sustain two locations in SE Wisconsin/NE Illinois, that residents in Milwaukee could be served by a Chicago location. A good recent example was the announcement approximately two weeks ago that: (a) Nordstrom is planning to open a store in Milwaukee in 2013, and (b) Milwaukee is the largest city in the U.S. that does not currently have a Nordstrom store. Chicago is almost certainly a major factor in Milwaukee’s status as the last metropolitan area of its size to get a Nordstrom store.

In researching this point, I came across a research article titled “Can We Have a High-End Retail Department Store? How to Tell if Your Region is Ready” which presented a formula for predicting the number of high end department stores (defined as Macy’s Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Saks) that could be supported in a metropolitan area based on its population, land area, and the percentage of households with at least $150,000 of income per year. Although the article did not present the findings for Milwaukee, I followed the researcher’s definition of high end department stores, and reviewed the current number of locations for these five stores that are in Chicago, Milwaukee, and several peer Midwestern metropolitan areas, using data available at The findings generally confirmed my impression that Milwaukee is underserved by high end department stores – with 38 of these stores being located in the Chicago metropolitan area, 8 in both Kansas City and Columbus, 6 in Indianapolis, but only 2 in Milwaukee. Although the research study did not consider proximity of a metropolitan area to a neighboring larger metropolitan area, I think it likely that this is a factor, and one in which Chicago’s proximity negatively impacts Milwaukee.

2. Competition for Federal Offices Another example where I believe Milwaukee loses out economically due to its proximity to Chicago is in serving as a location for regional federal offices. I know this from personal experience in developing business plans for pursuing federal work, and discovering that in terms of regional facilities (versus those that are present in nearly every major city such as postal service, federal courts, social security offices, etc.), Milwaukee is pretty much limited to a Forestry Service Regional Office and a Veterans Administration Regional Headquarters. Although I don’t have any detailed data to back me up, I did review the locations of regional offices for five agencies, including the IRS, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. EPA, Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), and determined that Chicago has regional offices for 4 of these 5 agencies (the USACE, U.S.EPA, FRB, and SBA). Among peer cities, Kansas City has regional offices for all five agencies, followed by Minneapolis/St. Paul (with regional offices for three agencies); and Cincinnati, Memphis, and St. Louis (each having two regional offices for these agencies).

What this means economically varies from agency to agency, but for Kansas City, the office for the IRS regional service center reportedly occupies an 11-story building with 900 employees (based on data from Emporis). In addition to direct economic benefits to cities that host a greater number of regional federal offices, there are likely significant indirect benefits as well, as consulting firms are more likely to establish locations in cities that host federal regional offices, as there are benefits to engineering firms from being in the same cities as USACE regional offices, benefits to accounting firms from being near IRS regional offices, benefits to financial firms being near FRB regional branch offices, etc. Although there may be other major cities in the Midwest that are also losing out in the competition for regional federal offices, I believe that Chicago’s proximity puts Milwaukee at a particular disadvantage, and my impression is that on a per capita basis, Milwaukee has fewer federal offices than almost any of its peer cities.

3. Ranking as a Metropolitan Area A third example of a possible negative impact from Chicago’s proximity on Milwaukee’s economic vitality occurred to me as I was researching the example presented above on the competition for high end retailers. In trying to confirm that the Indianapolis and Kansas City metropolitan areas are in fact comparable in size to Milwaukee, I noticed that both are ranked ahead of Milwaukee – with Kansas City currently ranked as the 29th largest metropolitan area (with 2,052,676 residents) and Indianapolis ranked as the 35th largest metropolitan area (with 1,778,568 residents) versus the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis MSA’s ranking as the 39th largest metropolitan area (with 1,562,216 residents). This size difference could provide an explanation as to why Milwaukee would be chosen after these cities as a regional location for certain businesses.

However, Milwaukee’s ranking below Indianapolis and Kansas City is arguably more of a statistical artifact than reality, and due to Chicago’s proximity and the manner in which the U.S. Office of Management and Budget choses to split the two metropolitan areas. Indianapolis and Kansas City, which are more geographically isolated than Milwaukee, have MSAs that extend over approximately 3,200 and 8,000 square miles, respectively, whereas the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis MSA is defined as a much more compact 1,500 square mile area. If Chicago was not located in as close proximity to Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha Counties would almost certainly be included as part of the Milwaukee MSA. Adding the 361,000 residents in Racine County (defined as a separate metropolitan area) and Kenosha County (defined as part of the Chicago MSA) would result in a Milwaukee metropolitan population of 1,920,000 residents in a land area of 2,100 square miles – in theory, a market greater in population than Indianapolis and only 5% smaller than Kansas City, in a far more compact land area than either MSA.

Competition for Service Businesses

A fourth potential negative influence of Chicago on Milwaukee’s economic vitality that I considered (but rejected) is the competition for serving as a location for professional service firms. I considered this factor partly in response to Aaron’s recent series of articles on Chicago, which noted Chicago’s status as the Midwestern center for professional services such as management consulting, technology consulting, business process outsourcing and legal services. In theory, large firms with greater resources based in Chicago might out compete smaller firms based in Milwaukee. While I am not familiar with all categories of professional services, for law and engineering firms with which I am familiar, Chicago’s proximity and large pool of major firms appears to have no negative impact on the vitality of similar firms based in Milwaukee. This is probably most surprising with law firms, given that Chicago not only has 17 of the top 250 largest law firms in the U.S., but has an even more impressive 5 of the top 13 firms (based on data at Internet Legal Research Group). Milwaukee has 5 of the top 250 firms (including Foley and Lardner at No. 29), which not only compares favorably with Chicago on a per capita basis, but compares even more favorably with cities such as Charlotte (with 2 of the top 250 firms), Cincinnati (3 firms), Columbus (2 firms), Indianapolis (3 firms), Kansas City (4 firms), and even Houston (5 firms). None of these cities has a firm ranked as highly as Foley and Lardner at 29. The main point is that in spite of the incredible concentration of major law firms in Chicago, there is no evidence that this has negatively impacted Milwaukee’s vitality as a center for legal services. The fact that this is the case is significant for Milwaukee’s downtown, as nearly every major office building proposed or constructed in the last decade in the downtown had one of these major law firms as its anchor tenant.

Examples of Ways in Which Chicago Increases Vitality

Having considered some of the ways in which Chicago’s proximity drains vitality from Milwaukee, following are several examples of significant ways in which I believe Chicago increases Milwaukee’s economic vitality and/or the quality of life for residents of Milwaukee:

1. Enhanced Travel Connectivity. It takes 60 minutes to drive from downtown Milwaukee to O’Hare International Airport. For all intents and purposes, residents of Milwaukee have two airports – one (General Mitchell International Airport) that is 10 minutes from downtown, and the other (O’Hare) that is 60 minutes from downtown. Which airport is used for a particular flight is a choice made by Milwaukee residents on a flight by flight basis, based on the most favorable combination of price, availability of direct flights, and/or preferred departure or arrival times. Quite often, General Mitchell International Airport is the choice because similar flights from the same airlines are actually cheaper than from O’Hare (a competitive pricing factor that is almost certainly due to the Chicago’s proximity and the presence of O’Hare as an alternative airport for Milwaukee residents). Even excluding Midway Airport from the discussion (which is appropriate as Midway is not convenient for routine use by residents of Milwaukee), Milwaukee residents through the combination of General Mitchell International Airport and O’Hare have better air travel options than residents of almost any other major metro area in the U.S. (New York City, Chicago, and perhaps Atlanta, being possible exceptions). Another benefit related to air travel that Milwaukee residents take for granted is the convenience for visits by friends from other countries. Chicago will almost always be one of the lower cost U.S. travel options for foreign travelers.

2. Enhanced Entertainment and Recreational Amenities/Opportunities. It is nice to be located adjacent to a city that has some of the best museums and cultural institutions in the US. Although there is some inconvenience in driving 90 minutes to downtown Chicago, there is the option to take Amtrak, or even Metra ($5 from Kenosha). I’ve thought about this when visiting geographically isolated cities with great (and often deserved) reputations such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Seattle, etc. I would even add some sizeable (>5 million resident) metro areas to the list such Miami, Dallas, and Atlanta. The cultural attractions in these cities do not match those present in Chicago, such as the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum of Natural History, or the Chicago Art Institute. For friends and family travelling from other countries, a trip to Milwaukee means they get a trip Chicago thrown in for free. It also means that these visitors will never run out of interesting places to explore available through the combined attractions in Milwaukee and Chicago. For visitors to other even fairly large metro areas in the U.S., the entertainment options for out-of-town visitors will typically be exhausted within a week or less. Not so in Milwaukee, thanks to Chicago. This is a quality of life factor more than an economic vitality factor, but one that should be a consideration in businesses trying to recruit employees from other major metropolitan areas to Milwaukee. Although I think Milwaukee has a pretty large and attractive set of amenities on its own, due to the proximity of Chicago and the amenities available in our mega-city’s “southern” downtown, residents in Milwaukee have access to amenities that are matched by few cities in the world, and this has economic value in the increasing competition for highly skilled and mobile workers.

3. Enhanced Business Expansion Opportunities. For businesses based in Milwaukee, having a metro area with 9.5 million residents an hour away is a significant plus. For entrepreneurs based in Milwaukee, Chicago presents an exceptional opportunity for expansion, as the cities are close enough together that it is possible for someone living in the Milwaukee area to oversee branch offices or locations in both the Milwaukee and Chicago metropolitan areas. Although one could argue that businesses in Milwaukee have additional competition from businesses in Chicago, this type of analysis varies greatly from business to business with no consistent rule. For major businesses located in Milwaukee, if they need access to some very specialized consulting expertise, if it isn’t available from firms based in Milwaukee, it will almost certainly be available from one or more firms based in Chicago, providing a very deep business support talent pool and a competitive advantage for firms based in Milwaukee relative to those based in more geographically isolated cities.

4. Enhanced Global Mindset. This is a little more subtle advantage, and a quality of life enhancement versus an economic vitality enhancement. Even if I don’t go to Chicago for several months, I like having Chicago nearby. I’m conscious of it. It is definitely one of the reasons I like living in Milwaukee, even if it is impossible to precisely quantify this aspect. In my mind, I always know that I have all of Chicago’s assets readily available to me, whenever I might feel inclined to “imbibe” (but without the hassle of actually having to live in Chicago, as well as not having to live in a state that is currently ranked 49th or 50th in most financial health measures). When I travel (and I suspect this is the case for most people) I almost always measure the city I am visiting in my mind to my hometown of Milwaukee. Whenever I visit some nice, but geographically isolated metropolitan area, the quality of life in that city is frequently downgraded in my mind as I can imagine how quickly the interest of living in that city would wear off once I exhausted the list of unique attractions in those cities. Chicago is a component of how I measure Milwaukee against those cities, as all of its attractions are in fact readily accessible to residents of Milwaukee. I suspect there are many other cities where a similar dynamic plays out – such as for residents of Baltimore including the attractions and opportunities available in Washington DC in their similar assessments.

5. Increased Groundedness. This is a subtle point and one that occurred to me only recently. Milwaukee is a city that definitely does not have an inflated view of itself. I think part of this is the result of its proximity to Chicago, and knowing that by a hundred different measures, Milwaukee does not match Chicago. If there were fifty new 50-story skyscrapers constructed in downtown Milwaukee over the next 100 years, I am pretty sure that our skyline would still fall short of Chicago’s. I think there is a tendency of other somewhat “successful” cities (Charlotte and Indianapolis come to mind) to always be chasing some grand ambition. Although there are definitely positive aspects to ambition, there can also be a tendency to pursue goals that really aren’t important, as well as a greater reluctance to realistically address obvious shortcomings. Milwaukee, through its proximity to Chicago, is relieved of this aspirational burden, and can simply go about its business in a quiet, but usually highly effective way.

David Holmes is an environmental consultant focused on brownfield redevelopment issues. He is also a co-author of a book on the history of the Chinese community of Milwaukee: “Chinese Milwaukee” (published by Arcadia Publishing in 2008).

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

What to Change the World? Start With Your City

Lee Fisher, President of CEOs for Cities, recently gave a talk at TEDxDePaul University. It’s called “Want to Change the World? Start With Your City?” There’s good stuff in here so check it out.

Something to think about as you watch this is my recent post “What Are You Doing for Your City?” While I’d intended that as a challenge, not a question, a number of people did reply with comments about what they were doing, so you may want to revisit the post in order to be inspired by them.

If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

IRS Cancels Then Uncancels Migration Data Program

There’s been some interesting behind the scenes developments on the data front this week. The IRS publishes annual data on migration based on tax returns. This is the best source of data available IMO because it is place to place (county to county and state to state), the data set of tax returns is so large, and income data is included. This data lets you map where people are moving from and where they are moving to at a reasonably granular level. It’s one of the data sets in my Telestrian system (which I don’t mind saying that I think is by far the best tool for using the data) and I’ve used that migration data extensively in the blog. See here for an example.

Last week the IRS quietly cancelled the migration data program. The story on this broke after a couple of conservative political publications, the National Review and the Daily Caller posted articles about it, leading to broader notice in demographic circles.

The migration data is regularly used by conservatives to create reports bashing states like New York and California. They speculate the data was being killed for political reasons.

But beyond political uses, this data is critical for metro regions to understand their talent networks. Cities like Louisville and Cleveland have based talent strategies around it. It’s also needed to understand flows of people and income within metro areas. This data is extremely valuable.

Apparently somebody else agrees as the IRS quickly backtracked on their decision. I’m not sure what the real story behind this cancellation was, but it clearly shows that key data that’s actually needed may not be around forever. You’d think we’d be getting better and better data over time, but it isn’t always the case.

Republicans in Congress want to eliminate the American Community Survey program, which is the only real authoritative source we have for key demographic information about the country. It’s inconceivable to not have something like it. Whether politics was involved in the IRS decision or not, clearly we should be on our guard against losing the data we need because some political party or another doesn’t like what it reveals.

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Replay: This is Why We’re Broke

I part ways with many urbanists in that I don’t hate suburbs. In fact, I think we need to start with a basic acknowledgment of the fact that most people like owning single family homes and like living in the suburbs. I might live in the city and not own a car, but that doesn’t mean other people necessarily do. Did subsidies and public policy contribute to sprawl? Of course, as we’ve recently been examining here. But I do believe there’s a legitimate consumer preference for the suburbs.

I do think we should invest in cities and can build urban environments that attract a lot more people. But equally if not more important is to build better suburbs. What we see in America today is a suburban form that is unsustainable. I don’t mean that in the traditional sense of the word when it comes to the environment. I mean that it is simply financially unsustainable. Unlike urban environments, all too many suburbs have proven tragically unable to reinvent themselves. Thus as soon as they get old and lose the advantages of greenfield economics, they are abandoned in favor of new edge development. Plenty of these places are going to be in big trouble when their aging in place residents pass on with no next generation in the wings. The vast tracts of decaying inner ring suburbs across America may prove to be our most vexing “urban” problem of the next few decades.

The current development poses less of a problem in places that are growing strongly like Houston. There we really do need to built a lot of stuff to accommodate the million+ new residents that move there every decade. They are seeing new blood fill in the gaps even as other folks move to the edge. Even in a place like Indianapolis, the region added 230,000 people. Their core is still too weak, but only lost 25,000 people. Thus their suburban “sprawl” cannot be driven primarily by outmigration.

But this is a huge problem in places that are growing slowly or shrinking. Think Chicago (where the region only gained 362,000 people and the city lost 200,000), or Detroit or Cleveland. In these places sprawl is simply sucking the life out of the heart of the region. This was perhaps best shown in Buffalo, which Chuck Banas described as an example of “sprawl in its purest form.” Between 1950 and 2000, the Buffalo region tripled its urban footprint, but added effectively no population.

Plain and simple, this is why we’re broke. As Banas put it, “same number of people, three times as much stuff” (to pay for).

Wonder why Illinois and Chicago are in such a horrible fiscal crisis? Yes, Springfield is dysfunctional. Yes, there are massive unfunded pensions. This is all true and I don’t want to minimize it. But the massive exurbanization of the region while the core (excepting the “core of the core”) declines is a massive drain on the treasury. Huge sums of money are being pumped into serving these areas, whether that be a Metra line extension to Elburn or brand new Ogden Ave. in Oswego. This investment is being made at a time when the existing infrastructure cannot be maintained. And that new urbanized footprint has to be maintained itself and operated in perpetuity. Plus, the rump suburbs and neighborhoods being left behind get turned into de facto wards of the state or federal government, a costly enterprise in its own right. It should be totally unsurprising that we’re in a fiscal mess here.

Michigan and Ohio are even worse. Michigan as a whole lost population. The Detroit region did as well, yet there are still all sorts of highway expansion projects on the books there. In Ohio, the state is widening roads in Cleveland while the population on a regional basis dropped. As Ed Glaeser noted, the problem with shrinking cities is that they have too much infrastructure relative to population, so why build even more infrastructure you have to maintain? During the stimulus, Ohio’s #1 highway project was a $150 million bypass around a town of 5,000. With decisions like these, it is any wonder these states are in trouble?

I guess if we want to pay people to just move around in an area, we can keep doing that. It doesn’t seem very wise to me though. I’m not saying we should ban people from moving to the exurbs in stagnant or declining regions, but at a minimum it should be made very clear to those who do that they have to pay 100% of the freight on their own, and that no state or federal funds are going to be expended in support of that.

This might seem like a political pipe dream, and maybe that’s right. But the fiscal inevitable end result of the current ways of doing business will ultimately force some change. I just hope some things happen before a lot places end up going bust.

This post originally appeared on April 18, 2011.

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Is the Acela Killing America?

Has the finance industry trainjacked America?

By all accounts the Acela has been a success. Thought it is far from perfect and constitutes moderate speed rail for the most part, it seems to have attracted strong ridership. A midday train was totally packed on both the BOS-NYC leg and NYC-DC leg the last time I rode it. I didn’t see an empty seat anywhere. Which is pretty amazing given how much more expensive it is than the regional, and frankly not that much faster. It does seem to have accomplished its mission of more closely linking Boston, New York, and Washington.

The question is, is that actually a good thing? Or has the improved connectivity the Acela brings had unforeseen negative consequences? I believe you can make an argument that the Acela has actually helped birth the stranglehold the finance industry has over federal fiscal and monetary policies, and thus has hurt America.

I don’t have time to fully develop that here, but to anyone who has been following any of the many excellent sites tracking the financial crisis over the last few years, it is obvious.

There is now a near merger between Wall Street and K Street. During the financial crisis, the government and the Fed have kept Wall Street well supplied with bailouts and nearly free access to capital that allows them to literally print risk free profits by recycling in the free loans into interest bearing government debt, all while Main St. businesses and homeowners have borne the full brunt of a credit crunch, state and local governments fiscally starve, and infrastructure funds dry up. Finance industry insiders have now obtained a near lock on the position of Treasury Secretary. When a president like Bush dares to appoint someone with actual industrial experience, Wall Street’s displeasure is made manifest, and it generally succeeds in undermining him. New laws like Dodd-Frank strangle new entrants to the field while enshrining the privileged status of the too big to fail. The fact that it allows government to seize these “systematically important financial institutions” shows not the industry’s weakness but its strength, as big banks de facto function as instrumentalities of the state, but with profits privatized and losses socialized. Not a single major figure in the events causing the financial meltdowns has gone to jail or even been prosecuted (only a collection of ponzi schemers and insider traders who, despite their criminality, had no systematic impact – the crisis blew up their scams, their scams did not cause the crisis). The list goes on.

The geographic proximity of New York to Washington, with quick trips back and forth on the Acela, facilitates this. Clearly, you could get back and forth on the shuttle without it, but given the Acela’s popularity, it does seem to have some big benefits in shrinking the distance between New York and DC. I’d argue this has been unhealthy for America. If true high speed rail ever came to the NYC-DC corridor, who knows what might happen?

Perhaps you don’t agree and will feed me to the dogs for this post. But I think it’s very clear that transportation networks have vast impact on the structure of society, not just how people and goods get from Point A to Point B. The interstate highway system is proof of that. Indeed, advocates of high speed rail (and I’ve been a qualified one myself, supporting it clearly in the Northeast Corridor but being skeptical about most others) boast of the positive transformational effects of HSR as one of the reasons to build it. But as with the interstate highway system, we need to be aware of the hidden risks as well.

The Acela is perhaps living proof that high speed rail can reshape America. It is literally helping rewrite the geographic power map of America. Unfortunately, at this point don’t think that’s been a good thing.

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Bicycle Culture by Design

Here’s a talk Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copehagenize gave at TEDxZurich about the holistic nature of designing bicycle culture into the city from the ground up. If the video doesn’t display, click here

If you’d rather read it rather than watch it, Mikael has a transcript posted at Copenhagenize.

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Topics: Transportation

Monday, December 10th, 2012

If You Don’t Understand Urban Political Theory, You Probably Don’t Understand Land Use by Richard Layman

In academia, there are (at least) two competing theories of local politics. 

From sociology comes the “Growth Machine,” which makes the point that despite seeming intra-elite competition, local political and economic elites are for the most part united on a pro-growth agenda focused on intensification of real estate, since local governments are dependent on property taxes (and sales taxes) for the bulk of their revenues.

Harvey Molotch’s paper, City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place, published in 1976, and later expanded into the book Urban Fortunes: Towards a Political Economy of Place, serves as the foundation for this theory.

Political scientists offer the theory of the “Urban Regime,” which came to the fore in 1989, with the publication of Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988 by Clarence Stone (until recently he was a professor at the University of Maryland). A good synthesis of the work is in the paper “The Evolution of Urban Regime Theory: The Challenge of Conceptualization by Mossberger and Stoker (2001).

I don’t think these theories are competing so much as different sides of the same coin. “Growth Machine” theory is best for explaining the motivation and focus of “the land-based elite,” and “urban regime” theory explains in detail how the land-based elite operates and functions.

In the paper, “Now What? The continuing evolution of Urban Regime analysis,” Stone writes:

An urban regime can be preliminarily defined as the informal arrangements through which a locality is governed (Stone 1989). Because governance is about sustained efforts, it is important to think in agenda terms rather than about stand-alone issues. By agenda I mean the set of challenges which policy makers accord priority. A concern with agendas takes us away from focusing on short-term controversies and instead directs attention to continuing efforts and the level of weight they carry in the political life of a community. Rather than treating issues as if they are disconnected, a governance perspective calls for considering how any given issue fits into a flow of decisions and actions. This approach enlarges the scope of what is being analyzed, looking at the forest not a particular tree here or there. [emphasis added, in this paragraph and below] …

By looking closely at the policy role of business leaders and how their position in the civic structure of a community enabled that role, he identified connections between Atlanta’s governing coalition and the resources it brought to bear, and on to the scheme of cooperation that made this informal system work. In his own way, Hunter had identified the key elements in an urban regimegoverning coalition, agenda, resources, and mode of cooperation. These elements could be brought into the next debate about analyzing local politics, a debate about structural determinism.

On the other hand, Urban Fortunes is particularly good on various elements of the land use intensification agenda, from Downtown revitalization to sports stadiums and arenas, conference centers, and in particular, the role of local media–fully dependent of the success of the local region for its own success, being dependent on advertising revenues generated primarily from sales to local businesses–in cementing this agenda.

If someone has keen observational and interpretative skills and delves into the academic literature, you can see how this works.  Of course, good writing on the local Growth Machine always helps.  In DC, the classic book that illustrates these theories, but was written by journalists likely unfamiliar with either, is Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington, DC, which covers the first two administrations of former Mayor, Marion Barry, and chapter 4, on land use and development, in particular.

Not only does the media not report the back story, they’re part of it

One fault of journalism is that it is published every day and isn’t focused on explanation of systems so much as it is reporting the facts of the latest events and exploits and ribbon cuttings.

In any case, the real story is the Growth Machine/Urban Regime and how it operates.

So articles about local corruption tend to miss the point because they look at is as one-off behavior for the most part (cf. Chicago and Illinois generally, Tammany Hall history, Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker on Robert Moses, and the Starz network tv show, “The Boss”). 

It’s all about sustained efforts, operating over multi-decade time frames, and intimate interconnections between political and economic elites.  Although just like regime change in foreign countries (e.g., Libya, Tunisia, China, Egypt, Syria) there are winners and losers (e.g., “D.C. won’t renew Chartered Health Plan contract” from the Post) when the leaders change, and a new crew comes in, even though the general “mode of cooperation” functions identically, just some of the positions have been moved around.

Left: sign up sheet at the Walmart booth at the H Street Festival in September.

I think that’s why Walmart continues to do community organizing with regard to their entry into DC as their biggest supporters have left or are leaving the stage–Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. is in jail, Council Chairman Kwame Brown has resigned, and Mayor Gray is under a cloud due to campaign finance violations and isn’t likely to run again, even if no charges are filed against him–and they want to maintain their presence and visibility, even though for the most part, zoning regulations allow their entry without significant public involvement.

The blog entry “The Missouri History Museum, Freeman Bosley, Jr. and the Broken Nature of Civic Leadership” from the NextSTL (St. Louis) blog discusses a series of articles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on overly intimate financial dealings between local nonprofits and business and political leaders in need of various bailouts.  It’s got outrage, but misses the deeper point.

Although maybe 8 years ago or so, the Richmond Times-Dispatch did an amazing profile of Richmond’s power structure and power brokers, with a spider map showing the various interconnections.  This was a surprise, because the Bryan family, owners of the paper, are a part of that structure.

The Washington Post reports on the various corrupt and ethical failings of local politicians (the latest being “Report: Councilman Graham’s actions contrary to Metro ethics rules” and the editorials “Jim Graham’s breach of duty” and “Jim Graham investigation to test the D.C. Council’s ethics stance” on Councilman Jim Graham’s likely misuse of his dual position as DC City Councilmember and member of the board of the local transit authority and interference in contracts and deals involving parties with business before both) without ever disclosing its role as one of the initial organizers of what Clarence Stone would call the local governing coalition, the Federal City Council.

 But this is hardly new.  In San Diego, the local newspaper is now owned by a real estate developer.  The Los Angeles Times was owned by a key landowning family for decades.  DC’s Examiner is owned by the same group that owns Anschutz Entertainment Group, a major player in arenas, concert promotion, and entertainment across the globe.  Gaylord Entertainment (the company that owns National Harbor and Grand Ole Opry, and is being acquired by Marriott) grew out of the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman newspaper.

Although local alternative papers can be good sources of information on Growth Machine politics. The original Washington City Paper Loose Lips columnist (Ken Cummings) and the City Desk news pieces were legendary for providing deep back story on such issues.

Without knowing the back story, too often you fly blind

I’m not sure that knowing the theories helps advocates transform the system, but it does allow you to understand what’s happening, and how and why, and it gives you some insights into how to shape the system to function better, in part by introducing citizens as a force for civic engagement, action, and ethics, and also by trying to improve the various processes of “the system.”

For example, my writings on community benefits-proffer processes make the point that without clear definition, likely deliberate, the process is designed more to limit the financial impact on developers, and less to monetize some of the economic value created by variances, density bonuses, and other special changes to planning, zoning, and building regulations that would otherwise limit the economic value of projects.  See “What community benefits are supposed to be versus what people think they are about.”

Similarly, many advocates don’t understand that government employees aren’t usually independent actors, but are very much constrained by their bosses, who ultimately, are the elected officials. 

So it is essential to have checks and balances built into the system, in this case the right planning regulations in place, to provide residents with more control and ability to shape the built environment in their communities, be it having “big box” ordinances, a parks master plan, a robust transportation vision plan, neighborhood and sector planning processes that produce neighborhood and/or sector plans, planning and/or transportation commissions, robust capital improvement planning, etc.–none of which, by the way, are present in DC–although transportation and parks master plans are in the process of being developed.

See “Lessons from Walmart’s foray into Washington, DC” and “More on DC ethics and corruption: intrinsic vs. extrinsic behavior,” among others. 

This post originally appeared in Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space on October 17, 2012.

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

What Are You Doing For Your City?

What are you doing to make your city a better place to live? I mean it, what are you actually doing?

It’s tempting to think that if we read (or even, like me, write) an urban blog, vote, or write the occasional letter of protest that we are doing our part. But while words, protest, and lobbying are important, they are not nearly enough.

Instead, I’ve tried to challenge myself to try to find ways to actually do something tangible, physical that contributes to civic improvement. Something beyond just my words. I was a long time free software contributor, and am glad to have been able to participate that way. I also helped drive the creation of the Indianapolis neighborhood map and online architectural tours. But that’s frankly not a whole lot.

On the other hand, if everybody challenged themselves to take on at least one personal project, whatever or however small it might be, our cities would be much better places. Many neighborhoods could benefit from just having someone committed to keeping their own block free of trash. Or may a guerrilla gardening project at some lonely, pathetic stretch of dirt on a city right of way. There are a million things that are within our grasp to actually do ourselves to make an improvement. We aren’t always dependent on somebody else to make things better. We can make a start in our own back yard.

So I’d like to challenge all of you to do that. What’s your project for improving your city? And I’ll also challenge me, as I don’t have much going on at present and haven’t made much of an impact since I moved. As we come to the end of the year, let’s all plan to make a tangible difference of some sort where we live.

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Transforming Bogotá

Lots of folks have heard of the positive changes in transport in Bogotá, Colombia, including things like the Transmilenio BRT system, bike lanes, and the ciclovia. But I don’t think most folks are familiar with all that happened and the journey to get there.

A 2009 Danish documentary called “Bogotá Change” does a good job of telling the story. I’ve only been able to find it online in a seven part You Tube series, which I’m presenting here. It’s an hour long documentary, but strongly recommended for anyone thinking about how to transform their city, especially how to transform the culture, expectations, and norms of behavior.

Most Americans probably think first of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa as the poster child for this transformation. And we see a lot of him in the film. But less well known is another mayor who played arguably a more crucial role in setting the stage, particularly for the cultural change. That was Antanas Mockus. Mockus is even more colorful than Peñalosa, if that’s possible.

To give you an incentive to watch this, I’ll share two brief anecdotes from the film. The first is that Mockus came to fame because he publicly mooned people who were heckling him. The second is that Mockus disbanded the entire notoriously corrupt traffic squad of the police department and replaced them with mimes that shamed drivers into better behaviors. I’m not making this up. So like I said, watch the film.

Part One. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Two. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Three. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Four. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Five. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Six. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Part Seven. If it doesn’t display, click here.

Thanks to Henry Lanham for sharing this video with me originally.

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

The State of Chicago Index

Although less ambitious than I originally intended, my State of Chicago series still ended up taking 20 installments spread out over several months. For those of you who did not see it all, I’m presenting here a complete index of the articles in the series.

The Second-Rate City? (published in City Journal)

Part One: Civic Conditions
The Decline and Rise – Chicago’s Rust Belt malaise of the 70s and 80s followed by the boom years of the 90s.
New Century Struggles – Chicago takes a hard fall in the 2000s
New Century Strengths – Things that remain right with Chicago
Chicago, Summer Crime, and the Slide Towards Detroit – Mark Bergen writes an aside on Chicago’s recent crime problems, and it’s affect on the city
Explaining the 1990s vs. the 2000s – A look at why, if the structural problems I will outline in subsequent posts were always there, did Chicago’s performance diverge so much between these two decades
The Risks of Recovery – Don’t let an uptick lull you into a false sense of security

Part Two: Framing the Problems
Lacking a Calling Card Industry – How Chicago’s lack of a signature industry that can drive superior wealth generation and economic output hampers the city
What Is a Global City? – Some general thoughts on what a global citi s
Chicago As a Global City – Chicago’s weakness as a global city
Hog Butcher No More, But Service Purveyor to Same? – Chicago Fed Economist Bill Testa shows that Chicago’s economy is still linked to the greater Midwest and the manufacturing cycle as a whole
Gaps in Chicago’s Global City Fabric – Chicago’s weaknesses as a global city in areas like media and fashion.

Part Three: Fixing Chicago
Rahm’s Work in Progress – Things Mayor Rahm Emanuel is already doing to address Chicago’s challenges.
Rethinking Brand Chicago – It’s time for Chicago to stop branding itself as global city goo and give the world a punch in the face with a little old school Chicago.
Some Additional Chicago Fixes – A roundup of items I’ve already covered in depth elsewhere, and so won’t repost as part of this series.
Thought’s on Chicago’s Tech Scene – Chicago tech is strong – stronger than I anticipated it would be. But a few tweaks would help.
The Midwest’s Global Gateway – Aligning Chicago’s global ambitions with being the regional capital of the Midwest
Improving Chicago’s Business Climate – A number of specific recommendations for improving the business climate of the city, particularly in the neighborhoods and for small businesses.
Chicago’s Northwest Indiana Advantage

Goodbye, Chicago – Thoughts on leaving Chicago.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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