Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Blow Up

It’s not often that transportation related videos pick up over half a million views on You Tube. But this extremely cool video of the Ohio Department of Transportation blowing up the Ft. Steubenville Bridge is one of them. The bridge blows up in the first few seconds, then there’s a slo-mo repeat. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

h/t Rust Wire.

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Generating and Preserving Urban Diversity

My latest blog post is up over at the City Builder Book Club. It is called “Generating and Preserving Diversity.” This site is doing a study on Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities and rolling out a series of two essays on various themes from the book each week. In my contribution, I look at Jane Jacobs take on the generators of diversity, and how we see them in action in the global city.

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Topics: Public Policy

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

What Kodak’s Failure Might Teach Detroit About Success by Rod Stevens

Last month Kodak declared bankruptcy, and this month it quit selling cameras, something it has been doing since 1900. Did Kodak fail because it did not move from film to digital faster, or because it did not stick to what it knew best, laminating film? A close look tells us something about how other places with deep knowledge and fascination with a given
science or technology might find new success in global business.

What Business Are You In?

The Economist titled its article on Kodak’s bankruptcy “Gone In A Flash”, but watching Kodak go down was like watching a ship slowly sink under the waves in clear shallow water. At one time Kodak controlled 90 percent of the film business and 85 percent of camera sales. In the late 1980s it had a workforce of more than 145,000 people. Today it employs about a tenth that much. It’s not gone, but it is a shadow of its former self.

Conventional wisdom would say that Kodak failed because it defined itself as a film rather a photography business. This says that if Kodak had done so, it could have made the shift to digital earlier.

This is the strategy approach taught in almost every major business school, often using a Harvard Business School case study titled “Marketing Myopia” written 52 years ago by Theodore Levitt, when railroads lost traffic to both cars and trucks. Levitt argued that the railroads thought in terms of products rather than needs, that instead of defining themselves as “railroad companies” they should have called themselves “transportation companies”. Had they done so, they might have invested earlier in containers, multi-modal terminals, barge lines and even package services like UPS and FedEx.

It’s a pretty persuasive argument, but there is another, basic question that deals with the identity of companies: if you think of yourself solely in terms of markets, of your customers and the service you provide them, are you bound to limit yourself in what you can do, in who you serve? What if, in evolving to meet your customer’s needs, you leave behind the things you do best, and no longer engage the interests that brought you into business in the first place?

Almost everyone – people, companies, and communities – have “core competencies” or things they do better than others. These are the abilities that define them. Many successful companies are founded on one person’s fascination with a process or technology that they found application for. They gather people around them who share this fascination, and over time this fascination becomes part of the company culture. Weyerhaeuser, for example, isn’t just a wood products company. The people there love growing trees. Weyerhaeuser has gotten out of a lot of its old lines of business, but the company’s core assets remain vast tracts of forest land.

Kodak’s Core Competency and the Challenge of Digital

Back in 1880, when George Eastman founded the company, traveling with a camera meant loading up a pack horse with a huge camera the size of a refrigerator, glass plates the size of printer paper, bottles and bottle of chemicals, and even a tent to prepare everything in. George Eastman found a way of eliminating the fuss, by pre-coating the chemicals, and over time the company pioneered the laying down of chemicals in very thin “films” on substrate. The company’s expertise was physical chemistry, the physics of how atoms bond together and jointly react to light, heat, radiation and other changes around them.

Kodak’s challenge was that shifting from chemical to digital photography involved a different discipline – circuitry and software. Digital cameras are essentially a box with glass on the front and back and a whole lot of wiring, chips and motors in between. Kodak may have understood more about how to coat that glass on the outside than it did about what went on inside. Look at the companies that have done well in digital photography – Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic – which all come out of a long Japanese tradition of precision manufacturing and electronics. Until digital came along, Kodak had mostly sold cheap plastic cameras that had little or no electronics inside. Kodak’s strategy for cameras had been very close to Gillette’s with razors: give away the holder to sell the consumables.

Kodak had stumbled once before in trying to diversify its film business. In 1988, believing that it could apply its core knowledge of chemicals to medicine, it bought Sterling Drug, one of America’s largest pharmaceuticals companies. By the mid 1990s, however, Kodak had divested itself of most of the company. It may have known physical chemistry, but it did not know biology.

How Might Kodak Have Survived?

What if instead of branching into digital and software, Kodak had instead stuck to making film, but found new markets for its knowledge of chemicals and coatings? What if, instead of trying to call itself a “photography” or “image” company (something Xerox did half-successfully), it had redefined and expanded the markets for “film”?

To answer this, consider some of the other “film” inventions of the past 40 years: Post-It Notes from 3M; breathable fabrics and bandages from Goretex; flat panel displays from Samsung; Teflon pots and prosthetics; polarized glasses; and even osmosis filters for creating clean drinking water.

You might argue that if a company doesn’t focus on one or two markets, it cannot know these well enough to meet their needs and follow their evolution. This is true for many companies, but some are so good at something, so driven by a given fascination or competency, that they can pull off new product development across a variety of markets. Sometimes the markets come to them, asking them to adapt their technologies and know-how to new uses. 3M is one of these companies.

Apple is another, albeit with far fewer products. In each case, it has used its core competency in “ease of use” to create a new platform that others build on, in many different markets. Had Apple stuck just to computers, it would today be competing with Dell and HP for low-margin hardware sales. It updated and downsized the Sony Walkman with the iPod, moving into consumer electronics. It filled the iPod with iTunes, taking on the recording industry. It made those downloads portable, with the iPhone, taking on Nokia and Blackberry. It brought audio and visual together with the iPad, taking on Amazon and Netflix. And now, with iCloud, it is taking on Microsoft. There is one consistent quality here: ease-of-use.

The Lessons for Cities

Today whole communities are trying to reinvent themselves in business, turning from their traditional strengths in machinery or glass or steel or wood products to growth industries like biotechnology, social media, financial services and “green technology”. (This last really isn’t an industry. “Green” is just table stakes.) Often it is not clear what special skills or bragging rights these places have to offer in these new fields.

Maybe it is time for these communities to revisit what they do well, the techniques and technologies that have historically defined them, and instead put money and focus into updating their competencies, and finding new markets as well. One of the reverse sides of global trade is that there is now a world of markets out there, and you can be sure that somewhere someone is facing a new problem that is old to us. That’s what being export-driven is all about, thinking beyond traditional geographies and supplier relationships to find new ones. This is what a lot of what economic gardening is about.

Most places, especially in the industrial heartland, have long work traditions that revolve around technology. America’s original military industrial complex was in the Connecticut Valley and the area south to New Haven, which, not surprisingly, gave rise to a robust machine tool industry that was strong until the early 1980s. In places like this, people spoke “machinery” at the dinner table. As the factories of America empty out, we’re losing these skills, but if communities act quickly enough, they can update the skills and find new markets, just as Kodak should have done.

There are a number of examples of places with special skills that do not have biotechnology or software at their core. They may involve software, but the core fascination is something else. Milwaukee, for example, is expert at process control, maybe because it used to make both beer and cars. Grand Rapids is expert at workplace design. Portland, a place that runs, walks and hikes, does all things outdoors. Boston, which teaches, provides educational materials. And Las Vegas, a major tourism center, entertains.

Let’s take the last example for a minute. With its huge base of gambling casinos, shows and showy buildings, Las Vegas knows how to capture people’s attention and take money out of their pockets. The gambling machine companies that supply Las Vegas with its slot machines have learned how to use the adrenaline-inducing effects of video games like Grand Theft Auto to keep people sitting down. Perhaps Las Vegas can teach the video gaming industry something it has learned on the casino floor or with lounge acts. This seems like a far better business opportunity, long term, than selling health care to desert retirees.

Or how about Detroit, the “Motor City”? Detroit has been expert in motors and engines for more than 120 years, since before Henry Ford. A key shipping point in the Great Lakes, Detroit used to build both boats and the engines that powered them. Later, as the auto industry evolved, this expertise in motors and machinery found its way into windshield wipers, electric windows and air conditioners. Today nearby Ann Arbor is one of the engineering and technology capitals of the world. Combining new and old, Ann Arbor could anchor the new (Nano) Motor City.

Did Kodak prove Harvard wrong? Maybe it is more important to hold on to do what you do well and find new customers for this, than to hold slavishly to markets but lose yourself in the process. Kodak didn’t have to die on the back shelves of Wal-Mart. It could have stayed in the film business, making water filters for Africa. For America’s expert cities, maybe it is time not to reinvent themselves, but to reinvent their customers, and how and where they apply their expertise.

More by Rod Stevens
The Software of Placemaking
The 31 Flavors of Urban Redevelopment

Rod Stevens of Spinnaker Strategies is a business development specialist and change agent who pioneers new sources of revenue. He has worked with entrepreneurs, investors, Fortune 500 companies, universities and municipalities on projects that change how we live, work, learn and play.

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

The Return of the Monkish Virtues

“[The author of Leviticus] posits the existence of one supreme God who contends neither with a higher realm nor with competing peers. The world of demons is abolished; there is no struggle with autonomous foes, because there are none. With the demise of the demons, only one creature remains with ‘demonic’ power – the human being. Endowed with free will, human power is greater than any attributed to humans by pagan society. Not only can one defy God but, in Priestly language, one can drive God out of his sanctuary. In this respect, humans have replaced demons…..[The author of Leviticus] also posits that the pollution of the sanctuary leads to YHWH’s abandonment of Israel and its ejection from the land….Israel pollutes the land; the land becomes infertile; Israel is forced to leave.” – Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus

“Pollution ideas are the product of an ongoing political debate about the ideal society. All mysterious pollutions are dangerous, but to focus on the physical danger and to deride the reasoning that attaches it to particular transgressions is to miss the lesson for ourselves….Pollution beliefs trace causal chains from from actions to disasters…Pollution beliefs uphold conceptual categories dividing the moral from the immoral and so sustain the vision of the good society.” – Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices.” – David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

The era of the 100 watt incandescent light bulb came to an end in America on January 1st. Lower wattages will soon join them in a phaseout over time. As I noted previously, this will mean factory shutdowns in the United States and the migration of the light bulb manufacturing industry to China. The most common replacement type bulbs, compact fluorescents, are not “instant on,” generally fail to provide a proper light spectrum, contain poisonous mercury, and burn out sooner than advertised. CFL boosters claim none of these are real problems and that CFLs are a slam dunk for benefit/cost reasons, but the cold reality is that despite significant promotion, they never received widespread consumer adoption voluntarily. Given how eagerly consumers slurp up even bona fide more expensive products like Apple computers when they are perceived to be superior, I’m inclined to think the consumers are on to something. I’ve tried out CFLs myself and thought they basically sucked.

The supposed rationale for imposing an inferior product that did not receive the desired traction in the the marketplace is to prevent climate change. I went searching to try to find exactly what the impact of light bulbs on greenhouse gas emissions was and have found it quite difficult to obtain. The various sites touting CFLs all note the high output of CO2 from electricity generation generally, how much CO2 changing this or that bulb will save, etc, but as for what a wholesale elimination of light bulbs would achieve, that’s harder to find.

According to the EPA, residential electricity accounted for 784.6 million metric tons of CO2 in 2009, or 11.8% of total US human greenhouse gas emissions. How much of that is from light bulbs? It’s not broken out in the EPA’s report (even the detailed version), but I’ll attempt an estimate of aggregate CO2 savings. (If someone has a direct link to this information, please let me know).

The Guardian reported that an Australian incandescent ban would save that country 800K tons of CO2 emitted per year and a UK ban would save 2-3 million tons. It also reported that China could save 48 million tons per year by banning incandescents.

The US is bigger than Australia and the UK, but similarly advanced developmentally. China is a bigger emitter than the US, has far more people, is less advanced developmentally, and is a bigger user of coal for electricity generation. However, all three countries project similar per capita emissions reductions from incandescent elimination. If the US savings were at the upper end of their range, it would have CO2 savings of around 15 million tons a year. That’s only 0.2% of total US greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the US saved the same 48 million tons as China, it’s only 0.7%. I’d be skeptical of anyone claiming the US would save a lot more CO2 per capita than these. Some maybe, a lot, no.

In short, swapping out incandescent light bulbs is not going to be a major contributor to solving the problem of climate change. I’m not aware of anyone claiming it is. So why pass a law that is unpopular in many quarters and cram CFLs and other type of bulbs consumers haven’t chosen to buy on their own down their throats? It seems to be a purely provocative move of a mostly symbolic nature with little real substance that is sure to only harden opposition to the real changes we need to make to actually make material reductions in GHG emissions. (One might say the same of other items like mandatory recycling or banning plastic grocery bags).

The answer is that the symbolism is the substance.

The sad reality is that rather than make policy cases based on benefit/cost or other technical considerations, for political or personal reasons sustainability advocates have decided to model their cause on the template of religion. In it we have an Edenic state of nature in a fallen state because of man’s sin (pollution) for which we will experience a coming apocalyptic judgement (damage from climate change). Thus avoiding the consequences becomes fundamentally a problem of sin management. The proposed sin management solution is again taken from traditional Christianity: confession and repentance, followed by penance, restoration to right standing with God (nature), and committing to a holier life.

There are two basic problems with this. The first is that while the religion template taps in to a deep psychological vein in the human spirit – some have suggested humanity may even carry a so-called “God gene” – most people already have a religion and aren’t likely to convert to a new one without a major outreach effort.

But more importantly, the notion of penance, and perhaps of asceticism more generally, has never sold with the public, even in more religious eras. David Hume (a vigorous religious skeptic it should be noted) referred to the values resulting from this lifestyle as the “monkish virtues” and noted that they have “everywhere rejected by men of sense.” Or as Carol Coletta put it more recently, people don’t want to be told to “eat their spinach.”

It strikes me that while perhaps environmentalists don’t really want to force a particular lifestyle on people, there is a fundamental desire to see people engage in some sort of public penance for our environmental sins. I believe this to be the root logic underlying a lot of feel-good (or perhaps more accurately, “feel-bad”) initiatives like getting rid of incandescent light bulbs. It is a form of penance and embrace of the monkish virtues.

I can’t help but notice that even Christianity itself has moved away from promoting the monkish virtues. While things humility are of course still preached and expected to be modeled, modern Christianity mostly rejects the notion of an ascetic life. Most Evangelical churches actually preach that God wants humans to be happy. The idea is of a God who wants us to be unselfish, but not unhappy. A not insignificant number of churches actually preach the so-called “prosperity gospel” in which God will provide earthly blessings to His followers. In the Catholic tradition, monasticism itself has been in decline for some time. (I liken the reports of upticks in interest in joining monasteries as similar to the perennial “return of the suit” articles in fashion magazines).

Whether these theological points are accurate or not is beside the point of this article. They appear to be attractional. For example, well-known prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen runs the largest church in the United States, with over 40,000 attending weekly.

What might the environmental movement have looked like based on a different template? I’ll refer again to the work of Bruce Mau. If you’ve ever seen him present on this topic, he likes to start by noting that if we brought the entire world up to US standards of living, it would take four Earth’s worth of resources given our current technologies and approaches to make it happen. He thinks that’s a good thing, because the patent impossibility of that “takes that option off the table.” He then goes on to talk about all the super-cool new stuff we are going to have to invent and scale up to address the challenges of the future. If you haven’t, I might suggest getting his book Massive Change, which I reviewed a while back. It’s difficult to come away from one of Mau’s books or lectures without being excited about the possibilities of the future.

I don’t think Mau has any different view of the fundamentals of climate change than your typical orthodox environmentalist. But his approaches to solutions (which are admittedly not always short term practical action plans) and the sales job on them is very different. As a designer, he knows he needs to create something that’s aspirational and attractional in order to get people to want it. It’s a shame too few people have followed that lead.

The monkish virtues are just never going to sell. Perhaps you can get a room full of the sustainability in-crowd to buy into it, or even focus on top level political success as with the bulb ban. But ultimately I think this is self-defeating.

In the short term I’d suggest ending any efforts to impose direct consumer mandates. I don’t think that’s where the money is, so to speak, in GHG reductions. Instead, let’s focus on the producer side of the equation in ways that are largely transparent to consumers and don’t involve significant costs. More fuel efficient vehicles might be one. Replacing coal with natural gas is another possibility. (The EPA report I linked earlier cited this as a big contributor the decline in GHG emissions in recent years). New technologies are clearly needed and should perhaps be invested in even though as we know this will lead to many failures along the way.

As the financial crisis in Greece and elsewhere shows, people rarely confront structural problems, no matter how serious, until the crisis actually comes. At least if “austerity” (a monkish virtue if ever there was one) is the major part of the proposed solution.

If an environmental equivalent of austerity is required to save the planet, then I’m afraid we should prepare for the deluge. I personally don’t think we’re at that point, given that we’ve had huge gains in energy efficiency for many decades now while our lifestyles have actually improved. More of that, not the promotion of monkish solutions like CFL lightbulbs, is what it will really take to drive further environmental improvements.

PS: If you don’t think people are really promoting or embracing monkish lifestyles in support of environmentalism, read this article from the Guardian about people giving up on daily showers. Or think about the people trying to completely go “off the grid.” Even if CFLs don’t fit for you, clearly there are plenty of examples. I pick CFLs because they are an institutionalization of monkish virtues, not just the passion of the small minority, which has always been the case.

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Transport Devolution Won’t Stop Boondoggles

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser wrote a Bloomberg column with his prescription for US transportation. Among his recommendations is to de-federalize transportation spending, saying:

Most forms of transport infrastructure overwhelmingly serve the residents of a single state. Yet the federal government has played an outsized role in funding transportation for 50 years. Whenever the person paying isn’t the person who benefits, there will always be a push for more largesse and little check on spending efficiency. Would Detroit’s People Mover have ever been built if the people of Detroit had to pay for it? We should move toward a system in which states and localities take more responsibility for the infrastructure that serves their citizens.

Yonah Freemark responded to this and others commentators voicing similar views on his blog. He has a contrary take:

The argument goes something like this: The federal government, because of its national power and ability to collect revenues from the fuel taxes it administers, is a wasteful spender and it chooses to invest in projects that are inappropriate enough that they wouldn’t be financed by local governments if they were in charge.
Here’s the thing: The large majority of decisions on transportation spending with federal dollars is already made at the state and local levels. And state and local governments already contribute huge sums to the operation, maintenance, and expansion of their transportation programs.

I’d like to examine one aspect of this, namely the idea of whether or not devolving transportation spending to the state level would reduce wasteful spending on boondoggles. I see no reason to believe that it would.

We see one example of this in Indiana. Indiana leased its Toll Road for $3.9 billion to financing a highway construction program called Major Moves. While this has made use of federal dollars, a huge pot of locally raised funds in the form of this lease was put to work.

So how did the state spend the money? When Gov. Daniels took office, he blew the whistle on the past practice of the state transport department to promise projects that had no chance of being delivered because the state didn’t have the money. The result was the toll road lease that would actually pay for most of the projects the state had on the books.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: despite an extensive project prioritization process, INDOT and Daniels didn’t cancel any major project that was sitting in INDOT’s list. I-69? Check. US 231? Check. Ohio River Bridges? Check. Hoosier Heartland Corridor? Check. US 31 upgrades? Check. I-465 widenings? Check.

I’m not going to claim these are all boondoggles or pick on any particular project. But I do find it interesting that not one big project was judged not worth doing. (There was an outer beltway proposal for Indianapolis that Daniels withdrew, but this wasn’t a pre-existing project. It was effectively a trial balloon Daniels proposed and then withdrew after some local opposition). Is there really nothing on INDOT’s list that should have just plain bitten the dust? I find this particularly remarkable in light of Daniels fiscal conservatism bona fides. He’s a genuine lean government guy, not just a talker.

This leads me to my general view on proposed highway projects: There is no highway boondoggle big enough that even the most fiscally conservative governor is willing to kill it on cost efficiency grounds.

I’m not aware of any highway example analogous to Gov. Chris Christie’s ARC transit tunnel cancellation. I’ve heard of projects collapsing because of public opposition. But never because a governor simply judged it was too financially imprudent, as Christie did with the ARC tunnel.

Given that most states seems to suffer from the same problem as the federal government – namely that they are collections of disparate regions that have a huge incentive to try to maximize their take from the overall spending pie – it seems unlikely that by devolving to the state level we would make any material dent in boondoggle spending. Maybe the worst of the worst – say the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska – may die, but those would be exceptions.

If we devolved to the local/regional level, things might be better. But unfortunately localities do not have the legal powers necessary to take are of their own business in most cases, and states seem very unlikely to give it to them. Also, localities do pay for things like stadiums and convention centers mostly out of their own pocket. We all knows these type of investments have been judged poor by virtually every independent academic study. Glaeser himself has criticized them. So even devolving to the local level probably wouldn’t solve anything.

There may be good reasons for devolving transport funding from the federal to the state or local level, but eliminating boondoggles isn’t one of them.

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Don’t Brand Your City

Insight Labs is a sort of virtual think tank for non-profit innovation that “lures the smartest, most creative, most influential people out of boardrooms and darkened auditoriums to get them engaged in designing a better world.” I was greatly privileged to be part of one of their invigorating sessions recently. Back in November of last year, Insight Labs Jeff Leitner and Howell J. Malham appeared on Chicago Public Radio’s 848 to talk about branding the Great Lakes regions. They have a lot of interesting things to say on the topic of civic branding, among them that you should think twice about doing a branding campaign for your city. This segment is well worth a listen if you are interested in the topic. (If you are on Google Reader or a similar platform, the embedded audio won’t display, so click here to listen).

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

The Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline by Pete Saunders

My hometown of Detroit has been studied obsessively for years by writers and researchers of all types to gain insight into the Motor City’s decline. Indeed, it seems to have become a favorite pastime for urbanists of all stripes. How could such an economic powerhouse, a uniquely American city, so utterly collapse?

Most analysis tends to focus on the economic, social and political reasons for the downfall. One of my favorite treatises on Detroit is The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, who argues that housing and racial discrimination practices put in place after World War II played a primary role in the decline of Motown. I’d argue that it’s closest to the truth of an explanation for Detroit today, but not quite there.

Everyone seems to know the shorthand narrative for Detroit’s fall. Industrial output declines; racial tensions rise. White residents leave; an unapologetic black leadership assumes control. And there’s quite a bit of truth to that narrative. Yes, the auto industry faced stiff competition, moved jobs to the suburbs, moved jobs down south, and later moved jobs out of the country. And all that happened with fewer jobs at each stop. Yes, Detroit does have a regrettably complex racial history and the legacy of two perception-forming riots since World War II (in 1943 and 1967). Yes, Detroit has had its share of political corruption, often tied to the tumultuous mayoral administrations of Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick.

But here’s the thing. Buffalo and Cleveland have suffered the same kind of economic loss, but have not (quite) fallen to the same depths as Detroit. In fact, Pittsburgh suffered as much economically as Detroit, and is now poised for an amazing Rust Belt comeback. Any number of cities has had as troubled a racial legacy as Detroit, without being as adversely impacted. And Detroit certainly hasn’t cornered the market on political corruption, as long as Chicago exists.

So why has Detroit suffered unlike any other major city? Planning, or the lack thereof for more than a century, is why Detroit stands out. While cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles (don’t laugh – Detroit and LA essentially boomed at the same time) put a premium on creating pleasant built environments for their residents, Detroit was unique in putting all its eggs in the corporate caretaker basket. Once the auto industry became established in Detroit, political and business leaders abdicated their responsibility on sound urban planning and design, and elected to let the booming economy do the work for them.

Detroit’s decline has been going on far longer than most people realize, because of the city’s lack of attention to creating a pleasant built environment. Evidence? A Time Magazine article entitled “Decline in Detroit” from 1961 – yes, 1961 – had the following to say in its opening paragraph:

If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit. It was not pretty. It was, in fact, a combination of the grey and the garish: its downtown area was a warren of dingy, twisting streets; the used-car lots along Livernois Avenue raised an aurora of neon. But Detroit cared less about how it looked than about what it did—and it did plenty.

Emphasis added.

So what exactly did Detroit get wrong on the planning side of things? I outline nine direct and indirect planning and land use reasons for the Motor City’s current state. Here they are below.

1. Poor neighborhood identification. Ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, and they will likely give you a neighborhood name – Wrigleyville, Jefferson Park, Chatham. The same is true in other neighborhood-oriented cities like New York, Boston, even Washington, D.C. However, ask a Detroiter where they’re from, and they will likely tell you East Side or West Side; if pressed, they might note a key intersection. While the Motor City does have its share of traditional enclaves (Indian Village and English Village) and emerging hot spots (Midtown), Detroit is notable among large U.S. cities for having very poorly defined neighborhoods.

Neighborhood identification is important because ideally residents live in a neighborhood context. Schools, convenience shopping, social activities and recreational uses, all connected and shared by locals in a defined area, can provide a sense of community ownership. An argument can be made that’s been lacking in Detroit for decades.

2. Poor housing stock. Detroit may be well-known for its so-called ruins, but much of the city is relentlessly covered with small, Cape Cod-style, 3-bedroom and one-bath single family homes on slabs that are not in keeping with contemporary standards for size and quality.

The general national perception of Detroit’s housing might be of a city that resembles the South Bronx in the late 1970’s – long stretches of dense but abandoned walk-up apartment buildings with a smattering of deteriorated single-family homes. The truth, however, is that Detroit may have one of the greatest concentrations of post-World War II tract housing of any major U.S. city. Two random images from Google Earth effectively demonstrate this. Detroit’s residential areas look pretty much like this, from the city’s northeast side:

Or like this, from the northwest side:

Note that these images come from the more intact parts of the city, not the “returning-to-prairie” areas that have brought the city notoriety. True, Detroit has more than its share of abandoned ruins that negatively impact housing prices. But it also has many more homes that simply don’t generate the demand that higher quality housing would. That is a major contributor to the city’s abundance of very cheap housing.

3. A poor public realm. Detroit’s streetscape is unbearable in many places. Major corridors have long stretches of anonymous single-story commercial buildings, with few trees or other landscaping. Signs, banners, awnings and decorative lighting are noticeably lacking. Overhead electrical wires extend for miles, and streets have been rigidly engineered with road signs and markings. The city’s corridors are hardly pedestrian friendly. Again, images from Google Earth can demonstrate this. Here is an area just blocks from where I grew up:

And another corridor a short distance away:

And yet another from the opposite side of town:

Even in a strong economic environment with fully occupied structures the visual appeal would be jarring. But this is Detroit, a city that has lost so much of the income and tax base needed to support the commercial areas and supporting infrastructure. That means empty buildings, broken sidewalks, poor street conditions, and a continuing spiral of decline.

4. A downtown that was allowed to become weak. Detroit did not always have a relatively weak downtown. The city’s core was a strong retail and commercial center through much of the 20th century, with the advertising, legal and financial offices that supported the auto industry. At some point, Detroit’s downtown became secondary as an employment center to the factory locations scattered throughout the city and metro area. Just like homeowners, offices began relocating to the suburbs. By the ‘60s more and more people saw downtown as a retail center as opposed to an office center, and one that could not compete with suburban malls.

5. Freeway expansion. This is something a little more familiar to planners when explaining the decline of central cities, but it’s acutely relevant in Detroit. I have no documentation to support it, but I suspect Detroit has more freeway miles per land area than most cities in the nation. The auto-dominated economy wanted a landscape that supported its values.

6. Lack of/loss of a transit network. Detroit had an elaborate streetcar network that was in existence until the 1950’s, but was largely replaced by buses. The auto industry took special interest in the conversion of the streetcar network to buses. General Motors lobbied the city’s Department of Street Railways (DSR) throughout much of the ‘50s, stressing that diesel-fueled buses were an effective lower-cost alternative to streetcars (no more rail maintenance costs!) and could provide much greater flexibility to meet shifting travel demands. Coincidentally, GM produced exactly the kind of buses that would easily facilitate the transition. By 1953, the DSR began a three-year effort to convert streetcars to buses, and the last streetcar route was completed in April 1956.

The kind of lobbying (coercion?) exhibited by GM happened in many other cities across the country. However, Detroit had no other alternative in place, like subways and elevated systems, in the way that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or Boston did. Also, Detroit had no history of commuter rail reaching from the outer portions of the metro area to the downtown core, also like the afore-mentioned cities. And lastly, as demonstrated earlier downtown Detroit was already beginning its decline and was unable to be the kind of “pull” that would have supported alternative transportation uses there.

7. Local government organization. Another unique, if indirectly related facet of Detroit is its current local government organization. Like most major American cities of the late 19th century, Detroit elected city council members from districts or wards across the city. And like most of those cities, Detroit experienced its share of graft and corruption in the political arena. But the Progressive Movement that pursued local government reform throughout the nation had perhaps its greatest achievement in Detroit. In 1918, a new city charter was established that led to the reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by wards. This governance system has been in place ever since, but is slated to end with the establishment of a new charter in 2013 that will now elect council members from seven districts and two at-large spots.

This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government. I believe this led to two significant impacts. First, it allowed the influence of the auto industry to travel unfettered within local government through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, without the countervailing influence of local residents. Second, without representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other major cities. They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the city.

The seven reasons outlined above would be enough to hurt the future development prospects of most cities. However, the last two reasons I cite, which look at land use actions and policy decisions from more than 100 years ago, are what distinguishes Detroit from any other city in America.

8. An industrial landscape that constrained the city’s core. A unique aspect of land use in Detroit that’s often discussed but rarely explored fully is the huge amount of industrial and manufacturing land in the city. It’s not surprising, really, since the city did give itself over to the industrial gods. Detroit was not only the home of the auto industry, but all the suppliers that made assembly there viable – producing everything from windshields to exhaust pipes.

Most cities across the nation, even most other Rust Belt cities, concentrated industrial lands in certain districts or corridors, often in just one part of a city. Usually the industrial lands followed waterfronts or rail corridors and connected with downtowns, and other parts of the city were spared the negative externalities of industrial use. But Detroit circa 1905 was faced with a critical decision – how could the city expand its industrial lands to capitalize on its emerging role as the Automobile Capital of the World?

To see how Detroit arrived at its solution one must understand the primary transportation system for manufacturing at the time – the railroads. By 1900 a dense network of rail lines had developed around Detroit. The principal lines that moved products in and out of Detroit, the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western, entered the city from the southwest and exited to the northeast, all just beyond the growing city’s limits. While numerous other lines existed throughout the city, the MC and Grand Trunk lines were critical because they connected Detroit with the rest of the nation. An article I found from the Railway Age Gazette, from June 1914, stated that:

The unusually rapid growth in the number and size of industrial plants along the main lines of the railways entering the city has caused serious congestion in practically all of the area within the city limits suitable for such development. (M)any railway and business men who had given the subject careful consideration were of the opinion that the only permanent relief was to be secured by building a complete outer belt line outside of the city limits.

This is pretty well illustrated in the map below, with the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western lines highlighted in red. The city’s boundaries prior to 1915 are highlighted in green (please forgive my simple graphics):

Source: website

Several railroad interests came together, including the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk lines, to address the issue of industrial expansion and congestion in Detroit. They elected to establish a new railroad – the Detroit Terminal Railroad. It was indeed an “outer belt line” that connected the Michigan Central Line with the Grand Trunk Western, arcing from the southwest side to the northeast, but also created a spur on the east side that would link to the Detroit River and allow for the development of additional industrial land. The DTR was constructed between 1904 and 1911. The line is illustrated on the following map with a dotted black line:

Source: website

The land use dynamic changed when Henry Ford constructed his Highland Park assembly plant, which opened in 1908. In 1906 he bought 160 acres of land along Woodward Avenue in the small village north of Detroit, next to the crossing of the DTR at Woodward Avenue (the main roadway that extends through Highland Park in the above image). He was well aware of already-underway efforts to construct the “outer belt line” that industrialists had called for, and Ford put himself in position to benefit from it. Shortly after the opening of his new factory, an almost unbroken arc of industrial land lined the DTR – occasionally split by major arterial roadways that connected the city to its hinterlands, but largely occupied by the industrial supply and small assembly businesses that would serve each other. The DTR encircled and constrained the city’s dense urban core.

While it could not have been envisioned at the time, this led directly to another planning reason for the city’s decline:

9. Ill-timed and unfulfilled annexation policy. The two maps above show (in green) the city’s boundaries as of 1915. Bear in mind that Detroit’s population exploded from 205,000 in 1890 to almost 1 million by 1920, but not much new territory was added to the city during that time. In fact, between 1892 and 1905, the city did not annex any new land, all while rapid growth was happening. With the DTR now wrapped around the city with a wall of industrial land, city leaders began looking for new lands to annex to support the expanding population.

Huge annexations began occurring in the late 1910’s but accelerated during the ‘20s. This is purely my own speculation here, but my guess is that Detroit city leaders wanted to annex areas beyond the DTR arc to establish new neighborhoods for residents working in those very factories. That, I’m sure, was the plan.

Then the Great Depression and World War II hit.

Suddenly all the farmland that was supposed to be developed into new Detroit neighborhoods in the ‘30s and ‘40s was deferred by as much as twenty years. No new neighborhoods meant that the city core that existed in 1915 was essentially the same core that existed in 1945. Sure, a very strong demand for housing developed during that 30-year period, but tensions – race, management vs. union, among others – likely grew at an even faster pace.

The industrial wall and annexation policy had four impacts on Detroit. First, it created the push for suburbanization in Detroit, as residents sought to move away from the noisy, smelly and smoky factories that dotted the landscape. Secondly, the pressure to rapidly meet the pent-up housing demand in the ‘40s and ‘50s led to the vast spread of homes that today lack contemporary appeal. Thirdly, once industrial decline occurred it contributed mightily to the blight of the city as factories became abandoned – that’s largely how the city got its famed “ruins”. A pattern was established – industrial abandonment begat adjacent residential abandonment, which begat commercial abandonment, and begat even more residential abandonment. I would argue that the vast majority of vacant, “return-to-prairie” lands in Detroit are within a two-mile radius of the DTR. And lastly, the sheer amount of industrial land, with all associated cleanup concerns, made the decommission and consolidation of industrial land for other uses extremely difficult. Not that Detroit demonstrated the will to do so. There likely was a period during the ‘70s and ‘80s when the city could have effectively redeveloped industrial land to other uses, but again Detroit doubled down on the prospect of industrial jobs.

There’s an old saying that when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail. Granted, I am a planner, and I see planning problems as key to Detroit’s demise. While this point of view hasn’t been clearly articulated before, it’s clear that given this planning and land use legacy, it’s readily apparent how Detroit got to where it is today. Detroit’s problems began precisely with the rise of the auto industry during the 1900s and 1910s, not from the beginnings of its decline 50 years later or from ill-fated attempts to resuscitate it since. The seeds of Detroit’s decline had been sown long before suburbanization accelerated in the ‘50s, or racial tensions exploded in the ‘60s.

Detroit circa 1890 was a moderately-sized Great Lakes port whose economy revolved around shipbuilding and carriage-building. It was eerily similar in size, scale and character to Milwaukee at that time. But the work of Henry Ford, William C. Durant and the Dodge brothers altered that forever.

The rise of the automobile enriched the corporations and created the template for the expansion of the middle class around the country, but it transformed the city, to its astounding detriment. Left untreated, any improvement in Detroit’s economic, social or political fortunes would still leave the city with a troubled planning legacy.

Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who current works as an urban planner in Chicago.

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Replay: Louisville – Vice City

[ This one from the archives is the final installment in my Louisville trilogy this week. It’s a concept brand positioning idea for the city. Keep in mind, this is supposed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, while being realistically rooted in the city and showing how places should be thinking about themselves in a crowded, competitive marketplace – Aaron. ]

I am a believer that in a modern era that has witnessed the fragmentation of the great American common culture, and the relatively small in number but broad in reach institutions that served it, it is important for cities that are not blessed with natural amenities or killer low costs to increase their strategic differentiation. They should try to find market segments they can target more effectively than others. And they should try to build a unique local environment rooted in their history and character, but which is also forward looking, that creates a distinct, unique flavor of urbanity.

I’ve also suggested that Louisville should focus on quality over quantity. It already has fantastic neighborhoods many cities would kill for. Strengthening those, making targeted investments in its downtown, riverfront, and other well-chosen areas, and focusing on strengthening its unique assets are the actions I would take.

I’d like to throw out today a further concept positioning strategy for Louisville that I call “Vice City”. It’s not exactly that, but I couldn’t think of a better name for it. It’s not necessarily a serious proposal, and I strongly doubt there would be any local interest in it, but I do think that by studying the idea, it can hopefully generate some interesting thoughts about the city and what it could be. Please view this as a speculative proposal or thought experiment.

In a nutshell, this idea positions Louisville as “New Orleans North”. I can’t help but noticing a few parallels between the two cities.

  • New Orleans is a river city – Louisville is a river city
  • New Orleans has a French heritage – Louisville is named after a French king at least, and has adopted a lot of French symbology
  • New Orleans has great restaurants – Louisville has great restaurants
  • New Orleans has Southern, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions – Louisville also has Southern influenced, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions.
  • New Orleans has a huge reputation as a haven of vice and partying – Louisville used to have that reputation.

That last bit is interesting. River towns were always rough places. Louisville’s riverside docks were, like waterfronts the world over, rough and rowdy havens of drunkenness and debauchery. “Lively Shively” was historically home to distilleries and strip clubs. Until quite recently Louisville had any number of blue establishments downtown. Reputedly the reason Green St. was renamed Liberty St. long ago was to help eradicate the reputation Green St. had acquired far and wide as a home of the burlesque. Think about Louisville and Kentucky and what comes to mind? Horse racing (gambling), bourbon (drinking), tobacco (smoking), and coal. We’re talking about a place whose history and brand are already heavily associated with vice.

New Orleans had a similar heritage. The big difference is that New Orleans, probably for cultural reasons, was always proud of its seamy side. Like Las Vegas, it recognized that in a country which is dominated by a strong moral sensitivity, there was an opportunity to carve out a niche – and a highly successful one – catering to, shall we say, a more lax standard. And the party pit in the French Quarter and downtown casinos largely have no ill effect on New Orleans’ neighborhoods, many of which still look like they are fresh from the pages of an Anne Rice novel. Now New Orleans may not be a truly successful metro area for many reasons, but try to imagine it without the tourist industry.

Louisville, by contrast, has long tried to stamp out vice in that city. And today it has largely succeeded. Where long ago you could once have a good time in a burlesque joint on Green St., today your choices in downtown entertainment tend to the extremely generic, such as the heavily subsidized 4th St. Live complex. By stamping out vice, Louisville to a great extent stamped out fun and character from much of its downtown.

One way to envision a successful, unique strategy for Louisville is to do something similar to what New Orleans did, namely creating a great combination out of the best of Mobile and Las Vegas. From Mobile you take the laid back southern charm, aristocratic traditions, gentility, and high culture. From Vegas you take vice, fun, and a certain joie de vivre.

By the way, does this sound familiar? It should, because it is an almost perfect description of the Kentucky Derby. You’ve got the tradition at the pinnacle of horse racing as a sport combined with gambling. You’ve got the fancy dress, fancy hats, and mint juleps of Millionaire’s Row combined with the raucous debauchery of the infield and people sneaking in booze by stuffing vodka down their trousers double-bagged in ziplocks (not that I’ve ever done such a thing…..). A great and winning combination.

Extending this to the city as a whole, we start with the fundamental aristocratic character of the civic culture. I’m not going to say this is unique to Louisville. For some reason, it seems to permeate many of the river cities I’ve studied. Talking to someone about Louisville, he offered this insight, “Louisville is provincial, in all the best and worst ways. Louisville likes itself, is proud of itself, hangs on to its institutions, loves its (private, Catholic) high schools in ways I’ve never seen elsewhere”. This is clearly an example of aristocratic thinking, which is about self-regard, rooted in history and the land. This attitude also shows through in the particular contempt Louisville shows for newer cities, as well as the extreme prickliness of Louisvillians when it comes to outside criticism. In a democratic social state like America, aristocracy has a bit of a bad reputation, and it certainly has its downsides. But it also has its good points. Firstly, it generates a bit of unique local character all its own. Secondly, it gives people the cultural fortitude to say no to trends and hold onto local ways and to embrace an agenda that is different from what other people are doing. (I’m also describing Cincinnati here, you might notice).

From that, we take away the fierce pride in unique neighborhoods and historic traditions. We can also take the embrace of certain aspects of high culture, including fine dining (of which Louisville has a great tradition), mint juleps and the bourbon culture, the arts, etc. I definitely think this should be looked at as rooted in a very Southern approach. Again, this distinguishes Louisville. Most Southern cities seem to want to ape Atlanta as the next mega-growth story. This leaves the field clear to a major city that wants to adopt a Charleston/Savannah/Mobile type point of view.

One piece of this that must be rejected, however, is the racial baggage that comes with it. Also in common with New Orleans, Louiville has a marginalized African American community. Southern aristocratic culture is rooted in plantation culture, which has its Not Good points to say the least. As with other cities, it is a clear imperative for Louisville to improve race relations and to make sure that its minority communities share in its success.

On the other side, how can Louisville recapture the fun outside of Derby? There are some ways we might imagine. Again, instead of creating a “climate action plan” just like every other city, or banning smoking just like every other city, why not roll with the fact that Kentucky is a major tobacco producer and has the highest percentage of people who smoke to be the most smoking friendly city in America? You’ve got gambling at Churchill Downs, and already across the river at Caesars/Horseshoe, so why not put a couple of casinos downtown? I normally think this is a disaster of a downtown development approach, but if you are organizing around forbidden fun, why not? Loosen up on liquor licenses to create party zones, and also do something to make sure that the best transportation options for people who have been drinking are available so people can get home safely. Figure out how to become the micro-distillery capital of the United States. There are already great local breweries like New Albanian and BBC, try to make sure there are many, many more. Do whatever you can to make Louisville party central, and create a fun, unique environment you can’t get elsewhere. By the way, much like Vegas and New Orleans, this is also good for conventions if that is a business you really want to be a player in.

Louisville is surrounded by hundreds of miles of mostly not very exciting places in the lower Midwest and upper South, places that are very conservative in many respects. Why should someone have to fly to New Orleans or Vegas or where ever to have a good time partying when they can just drive or take a short hop to Louisville?

Here’s a short promo video that sums it up beautifully:

Of course, there is a problem with this. No one in Louisville is likely to want to do it. And the negative consequences might outweigh the positives, I’ll admit. Fortunately, as a blogger, I can put crazy ideas on the table to make people think though. And I think Louisville needs to be thinking indeed about what niche it should carve out for itself. Downtown condos, generic bars, a smallish convention center, sports facilities, etc. are not going to distinguish Louisville from peer competitive cities. Particularly when it is facing the headwinds of being regionally smaller and having low educational attainment.

At a minimum, I do think Louisville ought to be thinking about this notion of Southern aristocratic culture and how it can leverage it to best effect locally. That seems to be a no brainer since there are already extensive elements of it present.

This post originally ran on March 15, 2009.

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Humor: Somebody Really Hates Bicycle Helmet Laws

I’m guessing that by now everybody has seen at least one of the “Hitler Reacts” parodies. In this one, Hitler reacts to the news that Australia has an all-ages mandatory bicycle helmet law:

If the video doesn’t display, click here. H/t Copenhagenize

Not So Pure Michigan

Somebody sent me a link to a video from parody site “Not So Pure Michigan.” This one is a spoof ad for Michigan that brutalizes Wisconsin and Ohio. I should warn you that it contains profanity and might be offensive to some – particularly people from Wisconsin and Ohio!.

If the video doesn’t display, click here.

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Louisville: A Tale of One City by Rollin Stanley

[ One of the Louisville sites I do still read religiously is Broken Sidewalk. Last month I saw there the article below which originally appeared on the blog of Rollin Stanley, Planning Director of Montgomery County, MD. If you’d like to know more about him, check out his blog, or read this piece from Greater Greater Washington called, The Quotable Rollin Stanley. This Louisville piece is very insightful and I am grateful he gave permission to repost it here – Aaron. ]

Downtown Louisville. (Branden Klayko)
Downtown Louisville. (Branden Klayko)

[Note from Branden Klayko, Editor of Broken Sidewalk: Rollin Stanley is the Planning Director at the Montgomery County, Maryland Planning Department. I first met him nearly a decade ago shortly after he was named Executive Director of the St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency while I was in college. He understands how cities work implicitly and is an outspoken advocate of good urban design and transit-oriented development. Stanley writes the Director’s Blog at Montgomery Planning on which this post was originally published.]

For Thanksgiving in 2011, my wife and I drove 900 miles to visit friends and family in St. Louis, Missouri. We drove an extra 50 miles to go the southern route via I-64 past Charleston, West Virginia and Lexington, Kentucky, before stopping over in Louisville for the evening. Despite the rain, it was a great opportunity to visit the city for the first time.

The cities of the Midwest are poised for resurgence. Filled with creative, energetic people and with a low cost of living, a new generation of artists, entrepreneurs and immigrants are seeking to establish themselves. In fact, recent surveys show cities like St. Louis are experiencing a more than 80 percent increase in young residents.

Initial impressions

First impressions are always important when you are pulling into a strange city after dark and in the rain. Louisville is no exception. The Google directions bringing us along the rain soaked I-64 along the Ohio River to our exit on South 9th Street didn’t show off the city’s best side. To a person unfamiliar with center core cities in the U.S., it could feel a bit like Chevy Chase traveling across America in the “Family Truckster” and reinforce the stereotypes held by many people about inner-city America.

This clip from the movie, Vacation, is funny, yet reflects the image of inner cities that many people have. The entry points to our cities are critical to bringing people to the inner core. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

The great scourge of industrial cities is the race to create as much parking as possible. Some civic leaders see demolition and paving as a sign of progress and Louisville along with Kansas City, is a prime example. William Whyte in his book City: Rediscovering the Center, says “If you tear down enough of your downtown for parking, pretty soon there won’t be any reason to go there and park.”

Fourth Street Live. (Rollin Stanley)
Fourth Street Live. (Rollin Stanley)

Sure enough, downtown Louisville has plenty of examples intended to prove this proverb. They have the waterfront development and “Fourth Street Live,” the Cordish downtown entertainment district similar to Kansas City. These developments are intended to draw people back downtown, the place they left kind of because, well, lots of stuff was torn down for parking lots.

And guess what? Nobody parks on those surface parking lots because they are too far away from Fourth Street Live for anyone to park there. And if someone did, they would not feel safe walking across all the vacant lots to get to the entertainment center.

Fourth Street Live mirrors similar downtown developments by the Baltimore-based developer Cordish. While it has many of the chains we are familiar with around the country, there are standouts like the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and places with great names like “Howl at the Moon.” However, this two-block stretch of South 4th Street is disconnected from the river by several government buildings and the too often repeated downtown convention center.

Parking in Downtown Louisville. Red is surface parking, purple is single-use garages. (Erik Weber)
This aerial of the Louisville Central Business District south of the river highlights the vast areas taken up by surface parking (red) and single-use garages (purple). And then there is the big chunk in the middle, taken up by the convention center, another streetscape paralyzer. (Montage by Erik Weber)

The Louisville parking landscaping really hampers the potential to create depth to the downtown. As you move south away from the river along 4th Avenue, going over one or two blocks to the east or west you arrive at a sea of surface parking. Those parking lots spawn the decline of adjacent properties, the very places the surface parking was intended to help. The lots are vacant at night, so the places next to them begin to decline.

This is a great video from Rochester in 1964 touting the virtues of the city based upon the ease of parking. Wow, just makes you want to jump in and drive to Rochester. If the video doesn’t display, click here


Louisville is clearly a place of contrast, just like so many other cities in the Midwest. Pockets of success separated by surface parking lots and questionable decisions about frontages, highlight some of the toughest challenges with the core of the city. The challenge of creating “depth” to the success, linking the positive nodes, is so difficult when growth is first limited, then competing with the unlimited sprawl of the burbs.

Neon sign on Chestnut Street.
The neon sign is a historic resource that captures the history of urban decline. While the sign should be in a museum, the use is a sad reminder of how far the resurgence of Louisville has to go. One block away from some great businesses on South 4th Street, the beginning of the “surface parking district” extends many blocks to the east.

Louisville has some tremendous assets. But it has lost tremendous assets as well.

1. Louisville torn down a lot of stuff.

Downtown Louisville is an old architect’s dream, what remains is shaped like a T square. There are lots of buildings that parallel the waterfront, some good and some bad, and then there is the South 4th Street corridor stretching at right angles back from the river, forming the spine of activity, the “straight edge” of the T square. I love South 4th Street, but only the area south of the convention center.

So many cities tried to revitalize their downtowns by bringing in convention centers. While convention centers bring people into hotels and to patronize local business, almost all create sterile street frontages that mimic big box stores.

From any angle the Kentucky International Convention Center is not a friend of the streetscape of the downtown. It forms a physical barrier between the successful nodes of Louisville Live and the riverfront. It is just like a big box store or a mall. People stay inside, the walls are large, blank spaces, and it produces little pedestrian traffic, the key to the success of any inner city.

Government buildings are also a challenge, creating long expanses of inactivity that work against creating a vibrant neighborhood. They are like parks after dark. Nobody wants to walk past them. I learned a great lesson from an urban pioneer by the name of Joe Edwards in St. Louis. He singlehandedly revitalized the “loop” neighborhood, including bringing trolley lines back to the commercial district.

As Joe rehabbed commercial buildings, he would work to lease space to a variety of retailers. Too many restaurants would mean little happening during the day. Too many shops would leave the street vacant past after 9 p.m. So he would mix the uses, creating variety along the street. Both the convention centers and government buildings work against this principle.

Fourth Street.
This shot taken on S. 4th Street moving farther away from the central core, shows how many cities tore down buildings like those on the left, and replaced them with long blank frontages of nothing, like on the right. While retail is struggling on the left, there are small pockets of success which will spread to fill the gaps between them. Who knows, maybe the building on the right will be torn down in a few decades and be replaced with buildings with active frontages like those on the right. That would be irony.

2. Historic assets

Much of downtown Louisville is gone forever. There are pockets of underutilized historic resources where only the ground floor is being used. This is a real shame. These small pockets offer the potential for affordable redevelopment through the use of historic tax credits and other financing tools. With all the creative forces in the city, one has to believe there is a solid constituency for these spaces with rents being offset through the tax credit restoration.

Whiskey Row on Main Street.
While downtown Louisville has lost much of its historic fabric and lacks a cohesive historic commercial core, it has small pockets of great buildings which largely go unused. While the ground floor the buildings are leased, the upper floors go largely unused, missing a real opportunity to attract young urban pioneers.

Louisville Slugger Museum.
The Louisville Slugger Museum is a destination that brings lots of people into an area of the downtown. It could act as a catalyst through restoration and small-scale modern new construction on the parking lots to the south.

The Louisville slugger museum would not be the same if that big bat was leaning against some run-of-the-mill, recently constructed building? Could the small strip of historic buildings nearby has the bones for a terrific neighborhood, where people walk dogs, eat breakfast at the local eatery on Saturday morning, alongside tourists visiting the Slugger Museum or the Muhammad Ali Center just to the north along the river.

Louisville is not alone. In Atlanta, where I did some consulting work about eight years ago, I was shocked that city officials were not using historic tax credits to help revitalize. In St. Louis, we created over 4,000 new units of loft housing in the core of downtown historic tax credits and the like. Building the local capacity in the developer, legal and government sectors to make these things happen is critical.

The old Ohio Theater on Fourth Street.
While it probably would have been great to have the entire historic building left, this is a fun example of how a cool feature has been created on S. 4th Street. And it masks the parking garage located behind, although it is not a bad parking garage.

3. One-Way Streets

Other than saying they serve horse meat, nothing kills a restaurant faster than locating on a one-way street. One-way streets serve one purpose and one purpose only: getting people in and out of the core area as fast as possible. A driver needs to travel 25 mph or less to make eye contact with a pedestrian. So if you are trying to create vibrant pedestrian streets, how does a one way street that pushes cars through as fast as possible work toward that goal?

There are few places on the planet where retail succeeds on a one-way street. And these places have density, something Louisville does not have. Is there really a need for four lane roads running one way in front of the Louisville Slugger Museum?

Show me a city without congestion and I bet it is not a place where people go and members of Gen X and Y live. We want people to slow down, look out the window at the retail environment and have street parking to liven up the sidewalk.

Seelbach Hotel.
A historic postcard of the downtown Seelbach Hotel on S. 4th Street. It does not look too different today. A wonderful adventure into the past and a real asset to the core. If you stay, get a corner room looking up 4th Street.

Bright spots

In Louisville, I saw pockets of amazing creativity and resiliency. Take the grand old hotels. Louisville has some great ones like the Seelbach (we stayed here) and the Brown. I understand the wedding sequence from the Great Gatsby is modeled after the former. It has a great long wood bar with some real tradition.

And to contrast these great old hotels, there is the fabulous Museum Hotel over by the Slugger Museum. The restaurant/hotel is themed as an art museum and is one of the coolest concepts in North America. A terrific example of the creative energy in this city and the Midwest. Fun, unusual and full of energy, these are the spots that are the nucleus for change. This hotel and museum is the focal point to transform this neighborhood.

21c Museum Hotel.
The 21c Museum Hotel on West Main St. is one of the great finds in the city. Apart from the red penguins adorning the exterior, the building appears nondescript, yet step inside to find an amazing experience combining food, lodging, and art. These are the experiences that make a city interesting and attracts the potential to build new opportunities for revitalization.

The scale of the streets is another asset. Most are narrow, and where the buildings remain, framed right up to the sidewalk, giving a real urban feel. There are good examples of architecture from many eras and this is really noticeable when you stand along the waterfront and look back towards the downtown. And where the city has invested in those streets, they have created some great urban furniture and property owners created some great small urban spaces.

Street art.
There are some cool bike racks in the city. Sculpture that really enhances the public spaces. And look behind the lamp pole in the right photo to see one of the entry markers into this part of S. 4th Street. And then there is just some cool sculpture, mixed with the bins on garbage day.

Walking through any city, it is fun to look to discover hidden spaces that really open the potential of a commercial district, creating the intimate spaces that attract people to an area. With sidewalks, these are really the “public spaces” in an urban area that are most frequented.

Public spaces.
Two examples of “public space” in the core of the city. The wide open plaza may cater to office workers on a nice warm lunch break, but remains vacant otherwise. The small intimate restaurant courtyard offers a different experience and probably gets more use. Neither space is public in the true sense of the word, but both function as such.

Downtown Louisville is a case study on urban America. It can become one of the cooler places in the Midwest. It has a lot of assets: the obvious creative spirit of so many residents, the great bourbon selections in so many establishments. But it will require baby steps, moving forward one small area at a time. Ignore the quick fix ideas that require more buildings to come down, closing a street, or sterilizing the street activity through long blank walls. If a bank or pharmacy wants in, make them open up the facades, no walls that don’t have doors every 50 or 60 feet.

Explore the myriad of incentives that make downtown projects economically viable and attractive to everyone. Work with property owners and find new ones who have the energy and vision to make these projects work.

And, please, get rid of the one-way streets.

This post originally appeared in the Montgomery County Planning Director Blog on December 9, 2011.

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