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Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Kuala Lumpur Day-Night

I’m back. Well, sort of. I’m actually stranded in Chicago for a few days thanks to the storm. But I am back to blogging, so l thought I’d kick it off with a nice time lapse of Kuala Lumpur. Best viewed full screen and in high definition. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

h/t Urban Omnibus

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Don’t Fly Too Close to the Sun

I was honored to speak at a conference in Milwaukee over the summer called Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Mega-City. Chicago and Milwaukee are about 90 miles apart on I-94. There’s an Amtrak link that makes the journey in about 90 minutes. The two cities have been sprawling such that there’s now more or less continuous development along the lakefront between the two cities. Milwaukee has been a challenged city economically and demographically. Chicago has had its own serious problems, but has seen its already muscular core boom in terms of residents and investment. High end business seems to be doing well in Chicago, and the city gets pretty good press nationally.

If you are Milwaukee, the idea of somehow tapping into Chicago naturally presents itself. Local leaders clearly see Milwaukee’s future as, if not a giant suburb of Chicago, at least a city for which Chicago’s cachet and prosperous zone somehow provides them with a leg up. As Richard Longworth put it, “Once an independent economic power of its own, Milwaukee now belongs to Greater Chicago.”

The notion that proximity to Chicago or another mega-city* represents an unambiguous good seems nearly universal. While the mechanics and value basis of greater collaboration are often illusive, it’s assumed that such value must be present and such collaboration desirable. Not just Milwaukee, but places like South Bend, Indiana and Grand Rapids, Michigan look towards Chicago as an economic engine for them.

But what if it this is actually backwards? What if proximity to Chicago or another mega-city is actually a curse, not a blessing?

My friend Drew down in Indy has a model of this, clearly targeted as his own city but relevant to the discussion. He says that the Midwest is like a solar system with Chicago as the sun. As he see is it, Indianapolis is Earth – it’s the perfect distance from Chicago. A place like Cleveland is too far away – it doesn’t get enough heat and light. But Milwaukee is like Mercury – it’s too close to the sun and gets burned up.

I suggested at the conference that one reason Milwaukee should want to active engage in shaping the interaction between the two regions is that the natural development could actually be negative. I had in mind here Providence, which is in a similar situation. Providence is 50 miles from Boston – that’s closer than Milwaukee is to Chicago, but Boston is also smaller than Chicago. Like Milwaukee, there’s a rail connection between the cities, with commuter service taking a bit over an hour.

Providence, like Milwaukee, has struggled. In fact, it’s struggled far worse. Sticking with solar system thinking, my immediate gut take here has been that Providence is a brown dwarf of a city. Maybe at one time it generated real economic life force, but today is a shell of a metro region in many ways.

Another similar example is New Haven, Connecticut, which is about 80 miles from NYC, and is a notoriously troubled city. And even being in the same state hasn’t helped Springfield, Mass at 90 miles from Boston. It too has struggled.

Is this actually the pattern? Is proximity a negative indicator not a positive one? Does proximity drain vitality instead of creating it? Let’s consider further.

I believe a lot of the thinking that being close is positive comes from the example of two very successful twin cities: Dallas-Ft. Worth and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Two things jump out at me about these, however. One, in both cases the cities are significantly closer than Milwaukee and Providence are to Chicago and Boston. Dallas is about 35 miles from Ft. Worth. Minneapolis and St. Paul actually abut each other, and the downtown-downtown trip by freeway is 14 miles. These actually are part of the same metro area by any standard.

Two, the cities in these cases are reasonably balanced in size. Dallas is bigger than Ft. Worth and Minneapolis bigger than St. Paul, but it doesn’t have the feel of the vast disparity of say a Chicago vs. Milwaukee. Indeed, the difference is clear in how we compare the cities. With a Chicago and Milwaukee, metro area seems the way to go, but with the others municipal population seems a reasonable proxy.

Another positive example might be Washington-Baltimore. The distance here is about 40 miles. These are separate metros, but overlap considerably and could potentially be combined. Also, Washington is only about twice as big as Baltimore, which is pretty hefty in its own right at 2.7 million people. Contrast Chicago at over six times as big as Milwaukee and Boston at almost three times as big as Providence, a number I think is understated since part of Southern Massachusetts that’s in Providence metro arguably has a strong Boston orientation as well. In any case, while the city of Baltimore remains infamous in many ways, the overall metro area has done well.

So the idea that proximity is a positive could have originated in models that aren’t applicable. Being close works: but only if you are really, really close – say about 40 miles or better – and your size ratio is no more than about 2:1.

Or maybe the latter might not even be necessary. There are a few examples of old industrial cities turned into suburbs in Chicago – Aurora (41 miles), Elgin (42 miles), and Joliet (44 miles) being the prime examples. These were once independent cities of sorts, and now are clearly suburbs. They aren’t nirvana yet, but proximity to Chicago has clearly invigorated them to a certain extent. The size ratio vs. the overall Chicago region or even just the city would obviously be huge. So perhaps the only question is whether you could plausibly be a true suburb.

Interestingly, Detroit and Ann Arbor fit this and are only a bit over 40 miles apart, so also follows this rule. It may seem ludicrous to credit Detroit with injecting life into Ann Arbor, but I don’t think it would be as successful if it were isolated in the middle of the state. (Madison, Wisconsin succeeded on its own, but is a bit bigger and also the state capital).

But it may even be worse than this. Back to my provocation a few paragraphs back, is it possible that not only does anything other than true suburban style proximity not help you, it might even hurt you? The examples of Milwaukee, Providence, New Haven, and Springfield suggest it’s at least possible. Now all of these are post-industrial cities that have clearly struggled for reasons other than proximity to a mega-city. Many similarly situated places (or even more badly troubled ones) are not near a much bigger city. But it’s worth considering the point.

I hypothesize about it in terms of attempting to reboot a high value economy. If you are a high value business – say a biotech startup or some such – looking to locate in New England, why would you ever pick Providence over Boston? You wouldn’t – not unless they paid you a ton of money a la 38 Studios (a Curt Schilling backed video game company that went bankrupt after receiving $100 million in loan guarantees from Rhode Island). Not only is Providence itself an expensive place to live and do business, it’s talent and ecosystem disadvantaged. Why subject yourself to that when you can move 50 miles up the road to one of the world’s premier innovation areas? The kicker is that this applies to business ideas in Providence as well. You can launch your business in Boston and still basically stay where you live.

I’m not a believer in the oft-repeated claim that these tier one cities are sucking all the talent out of smaller places. The numbers don’t back it up. Chicago has the second highest college degree attainment among large Midwest cities, but at 34.2% hardly towers over other regional cities, most of which are at least in the 30s, including Milwaukee. And Chicago’s growth in population with degrees is actually in the bottom half of large Midwest metros.

However, perhaps there is a “dead zone” of sorts around mega-cities. This zone extends from the edge of their suburbs to some unknown outer radius. In that zone, perhaps black hole like, high value functions really are sucked into the mega-city. Or perhaps negative aspects of the mega-city like traffic and pollution act like kryptonite on the economy of cities in this zone. I don’t know for sure. It’s just a hypothesis to consider based on a few observations. I would love to see some research done into this. In the meantime, small cities near a very large one shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate their location as boon.

Update: Somebody mentioned Philadelphia in the comments. I’d forgotten that it was only about 90 miles from New York. I think it’s a great example. I do think some of the uptick in the city of Philadelphia can be attributed to its location on the prime NYC-DC axis, and NYC proximity especially with fairly rapid train service has created a sort of sixth borough effect. But, Philadelphia is basically a mega-city in its own right. It has a large, dense, urban core with great transit, etc. I’d argue that given those assets, Philadelphia has really underperformed peers. If you look at other cities like that – New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco – they have all had a massive transformation of their urban environment and economies. Philadelphia has not. I can’t help but wonder if proximity to New York is part of the reason why. If Philadelphia had switched places geographically with Chicago, where it was the capital of a huge region, I can’t help but think the city would have experienced that massive transformation and would be seen in the public mind like a Chicago is. So perhaps in Philly’s case, proximity has both hurt and helped.

* I use the term “mega-city” loosely to refer to a tier one type American city, not specifically as a region with greater than 10 million residents.

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

The Decline of the Family

Joel Kotkin and some associates recently released a study they did for Singapore looking at changes in family dynamics in the modern era. Called “The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” it examines the data around the decline of the family – the nuclear family with children, along with extended kin groups in some societies – as the fundamental ordering principle of society. This is because large numbers of people are not having children or not getting married at all. This trend has potentially profound implications for our future. In addition to the raw study, Joel wrote an article with an overview of the findings.

As Kotkin notes, “For most of human history, the family — defined by parents, children and extended kin — has stood as the central unit of society.” Today, that is increasingly no longer true. The decline of fertility rates has gotten a lot of press in terms of what it means for the aging of society, paying for entitlements, etc. But there’s been much less press on what it means for the structure of society as a whole not to be organized around families. This is an interesting look at some of what’s going on and some of the potential futures.

The statistics are interesting. Now nearly 20% of women aged 40-44 in the US have never had children. This means they likely never will. The percentage of people listing “children” as an important factor for a successful marriage has declined by 37% just since 1990. 30% of German women say they never plan to have children. Almost half of middle-aged German men say you can have a happy life without children. The data are even more stark in East Asia, where some project that a quarter of all women will still be single by age 50 and a third may never have kids. By 2030, a third of all men in Japan may still be unmarried by 1950. These changes, though still representing a minority of people, still represent a huge change from just a generation or two ago.

One primary outcome of this has been the collapse in fertility. Many who view overpopulation as one of the key challenges facing humanity or the global environment may cheer this. But many advanced societies now have total fertility rates in the low 1’s. This is the so called “lowest low” fertility rate that leads to civilizational collapse. It means that natural demographics are halving the population with every generation. As right-wing political commentator Mark Steyn has noted regarding this, the family tree has been turned upside down. Four grandparents have two children who have just one grandchild. Asian countries have been particularly affected by this, including Singapore (with a total fertility rate of just 1.15, hence their interest in the subject), Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. But European countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece are also advanced in fertility declines. Even the developing world – Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East – have seen huge declines in fertility.

What has caused this? Kotkin offers a few answers including a decline in traditional (especially religious) values; equal rights for women, especially in the workplace; and urbanization. These changes have not only had an objective impact in the numbers above, they have also changed society’s expectations around family life, which used to be normative. The unmarried or childless person in the 1950’s was an anomaly, maybe even a freak, and probably assumed to be gay at a time when that was not socially accepted. It was a choice with consequences to not have a family. That’s less true today. As Kotkin notes:

Societal norms, which once almost mandated family formation, have begun to morph. The new norms are reinforced by cultural influences that tend to be concentrated in the very areas — dense urban centres — with the lowest percentages of married people and children. A majority of residences in Manhattan are for singles, while Washington D.C. has one of the highest percentages of women who do not live with children, some 70%. Similar trends can be seen in London, Paris, Tokyo and other cultural capitals.

Social norms are set in the cultural capitals. They drive media portrayals of the good life, journalism, think tank research, etc. What these places do matters. Their changes could serve as a vanguard for what others will become soon.

New social norms have major implications for public policy. Among other things, a population of people who don’t have children is less likely to be concerned about the well-being of future generations, and thus unwilling to sacrifice for it. Per Kotkin:

A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future oriented requirements of children. Since older people vote more than younger ones, and children have no say at all, political power could shift towards non- childbearing people, at least in the short and medium term. We could tilt more into a ‘now’ society, geared towards consuming or recreating today, as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.

You may push back on the “now society” mentality by noting the high degree of social consciousness exhibited by single urban dwellers on stewardship issues like the environment. But I reject this because the policy choices represented by items like sustainability don’t represent a sacrifice to the advocates. In fact, those are the exact things they want anyway. The urban bike culture crowd and downtown carless singles aren’t riding bikes or transit out of some sense of duty even though they hate it. They do it because they like it. Similarly, green roofs, recycling, and other things don’t really represent sacrifices as these are lifestyle choices they are happy to make on the merits. When these single, childless urbanites start doing things they hate in order to benefit the future, then I’ll pay it more attention.

I’ve even seen the now society mentality affects people who do have families. The pattern traditionally was that parents sacrificed everything they had to in order to see that their children could have it better than they did, and have the absolute best chance of succeeding in life. Today, that’s less the case. The parents’ own self-gratification carries equal weight. For example, in the past many people moved to the suburbs when their kids reached school age. They moved into the best school district they could afford to give their kids a leg up in life. Today in Chicago, I know people who have decided to stay in the city and send their kids to Chicago Public Schools. As long as they get their kid into a merely adequate school, that’s ok with them. While some want to raise kids in the city for noble reasons like making a stand for turning around failing urban schools or ensuring their children are exposed to diverse populations, most of the people I know who’ve done it are quite open that their decision was made simply because the parents do not want to give up their urban lifestyle. Their own happiness is not something they are willing to sacrifice for their kids.

How this plays out in terms of inter-generational solidarity remains to be seen. If the kids imbibe the same attitude, mom and dad may not be so happy when it comes nursing home time. Also, younger generations may increasingly question why they are paying higher payroll taxes that seniors never had to pay in order to fund retirement benefits.

And for folks like me it may be even more stark. My grandmother was in the hospital last Christmas, and the family was able to come together to be with her. She knows she’ll be taken care of because of her children and grandchildren. But what about me? I’m 42 and don’t have any kids. This could be a scary prospect 20+ years from now. I always hear about people like my grandmother and the family rallying around. But how many older people even today have no one? Almost by definition, their story isn’t told, so we get a skewed sense of the world. When there are large numbers of old people with no kids, it will be a very different world.

Also, the divergent geography of the childless creates further problems in the politically polarized society in which we live. In researching an article I’m writing about Washington, DC, I got Kotkin’s stat on singles in the District. But the region as a whole has a child population percentage almost equal to the US average. Suburban DC counties like Loudoun, VA have some of the highest percentages of people under the age of 18 of any county in America.

As affluent people who choose to remain childless remain in more urban areas, and those who choose to have kids live in suburban ones, we’ll have legitimate matters of interest driving them apart politically. In a piece called “Geographies in Conflict” I noted how different economic geographies in the same physical space is an inherent conflict. Red states and blue states don’t just have different political points of views. They increasingly do different things. If you are Texas and are in the business of energy, chemicals, logistics, and manufacturing, the things that you need to be successful are very different from a Silicon Valley or Manhattan, which specialize in ultra-high end, high value service industries. The conflicts are as much a product of legitimate self-interest as political philosophy.

I think we’ll see similar conflicts between the needs, wants, and desires of the childless urban population and those of the suburban families with kids. It’s kind of nice to do your shopping daily on foot or by bicycle at the local market and such when you don’t have three kids to buy for and haul around with you. Bloomberg’s proposed micro-apartments in New York are an example of a market designed to cater to singles, not families. It’s not a matter of one being good and another bad. It’s merely that singles (or childless married couples) and people with children have very different priorities and concerns in life. To the extent that these are geographically segregated and the worldview of the other parties are increasingly foreign, I think we’ll see increasing political polarization and big sort type logic only grow, and city vs. suburb rhetoric of exactly the same type we are already hearing.

In any case, there’s a lot to ponder as the fundamental basis of society shifts from families to autonomous individuals and looser groupings. It is something that is likely to have a pervasive impact on pretty much everything that makes up our world. Read Kotkin’s report and then think through the issues for yourself.

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Summer Barcelona

Your city video of the week is this nice tilt shift look at this summer in Barcelona. It’s a great city that deserves a nice profile like this. Best viewed in full screen high def. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

h/t Likecool

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Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture
Cities: Barcelona
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Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

The Broken Nature of Civic Leadership by Alex Ihnen

[ This is a topic I plan to return to in the blog, but I'm frequently surprised by the naivete of urbanists who assume that civic plans must be fundamentally rooted in a desire to make the city better, when in reality many of them are plain and simple cronyism and corruption. There's been a vast decline in civic leadership culture in recent years that has really torn of the veneer that used to cover up some of this. Alex Ihnen gives us a perfect example of the way things really work in cities in this piece that originally ran in nextStL. Sadly, this sort of thing is hardly limited to St. Louis or notorious corruption hotbeds like Chicago. It's standard operating procedure in way too many places - Aaron. ]

museum_delmar

Post-Dispatch reporters Stephen Deere and David Hunn have a must read article about corruption in St. Louis. Though it's not where you might expect to find it, the story lays bare the incestuous nature of the city's politics, "civic leaders" and cultural institutions they govern.

The details from the Post-Dispatch are bad enough: the Missouri History Museum purchased a failed barbecue restaurant at 5863 Delmar Boulevard from former city mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. for $875,000 in 2006. A search of the city's property database shows the site to be the only property owned by the museum other than their home in Forest Park and the library and research center on Skinker Boulevard. The museum also paid $101,000 in legal fees for the purchase, as well as $16,000 in unpaid taxes and then paid to demolish the failed restaurant. That's a total of $992,000+ for one acre. Bosely Jr. and a business partner bought the then 1.65 acre lot and vacant McDonald's in 1999 for $150,000. The lot was divided and homes were built facing Enright Avenue. Bosely Jr. acquired $730,000 in loans, including $255,000 from the city from 1999-2004. If you're keeping track, that's $880,000 total.

The sale occured without a professional appraisal and without the property ever being listed for sale. As reported by the P-D, the chair of the museum board stated that members of the board were real estate professionals and so no appraisal was needed. Specifically, Realtor Elizabeth Robb is on the museum board. She claims that the property is worth more than $800,000 today. The lot is adjacent to the old Delmar High School purchased by Blueberry Hill owner and Loop Trolley developer Joe Edwards in 2004 for $333,000. That building will serve as a trolley car storage and maintenance facility.

You should read Deere and Hunn's P-D story. And you should definitely read Bill McClellan's absolutely brutal take on the issue. He propsoses that Robb and Archibald buy the property from the museum for $850,000 – "no need for an appraisal" he says.

Now that you know the details, you should know that this isn't an isolated incidient, a one-off, not-meant-to-be-reported issue. The list of names that govern St. Louis, the city, the county, its cultural institutions and civic efforts, is frighteningly small. Are we to believe that these are the only people capable of getting things done? That there's simply no other way? That the city and region would stagnate and wallow in its current state if these community luminaries didn't serve us by cutting million dollar deals for vacant lots on Delmar?

It's simply beyond frustrating that our civic institutions are governed by people who continue to show that they can't govern. Perhaps it's not unique to St. Louis that the same names pop up again and again on park boards, school boards, museum boards, non-profits and other civic efforts (think Edward Jones Dome, the effort to remake the Arch grounds and the coming campaign for more local tax money). Perhaps it's not a unique civic failure, but it is our failure.

Corrupt transactions like this make it difficult to support local institutions. Just last year, the P-D reported that the Science Center paid executives more than $260,000 in bonues. It employed nine vice-presidents. Each of the institutions included in the publicly funded zoo-museum taxing district (St. Louis City and County) paid their executive directors between $440-640K in salary, while often adding free housing and vehicle allowances of up to $1,000 per month. These are large institutions and require experienced professionals to run them and they should be well compensated. But it's clear that in more than one instance, the individuals sitting on the boards of these institutons have willfully neglected their responsiblity to the public.

Oh, and if you're not particularly happy about the history museum land deal, the issue at the science center, or the Ram's lease, or the Arch grounds, or… well, sorry. The next time you turn around and see that the city, or one of its cultural institutions is embarking on some bold new endeavor, you will see the same cast of civic actors on stage, the same backroom, off-the-books deals will have already been made, and St. Louis will continue to suffer as a result.

This post originally appeared in nextStL on September 18, 2012.

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Improving Chicago’s Business Climate

This article is part of the State of Chicago.

Chicago is a tale of two cities when it comes to the business climate. If you are a high profile Loop business, things are great. The city will move mountains for you, permits won’t be an issue, and a healthy heaping portion of TIF dollars might even be coming your way. If you are a small business or someone without connections, it’s a different story. Improving business conditions, especially for small business and especially in the neighborhoods, is critical to the city’s economic future. I’ll outline here a few thoughts on how to do this.

1. No more kryptonite. What I’m talking about here are things that may not matter much on substance, but send a high profile message that Chicago is not friendly to business. Fighting to keep Wal-Mart out for so long. Having Gov. Quinn walk the picket line at the Congress Hotel. Alderman Moreno and Mayor Emanuel saying Chick-Fil-A isn’t welcome in Chicago. Alderman Burke speculating on using eminent domain to seize mortgages from banks. All of these send a very powerful message to prospective investors: you are only welcome in Chicago if you do what we tell you to – don’t forget who your masters are. Who wants to put up with that level of political risk?

2. Curtail aldermanic privilege. Speaking of political risk, everything from zoning to sidewalk cafe permits to garbage collection are under the control of the alderman. Having someone responsible for service coordination in a ward isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Jane Jacobs suggested something similar – but when routine permits needed to operate can be denied at the whim of the alderman, that’s a problem. It’s also a clear recipe for corruption, which is why so many alderman have gone to jail. And even for those who don’t engage in quid pro quo, you can believe many small businesses consider political donations to the alderman and the ward Democratic organization a wise insurance policy. Whenever a developer comes in and wants a zoning change, either a) it happens under the radar so fast nobody knows what’s up or b) the neighbors go ballistic and the whole thing is only resolved by negotiations by all parties with the alderman. When getting things done in the ward requires a sit down with the alderman, that’s bad. The city really needs to figure out how to make most permitting decisions via a transparent, predictable administrative process. Not, as is the case now, by having the alderman introduce a one-off ordinance at the City Council. Not only is this bad for business, it’s bad for the city as the City Council shouldn’t be spending over 95% of its business on so-called “ward housekeeping” tasks – but it does, per a Chicago Reader investigation.

3. Red tape reduction. I talked about this in my City Journal piece, so won’t go into details. But what has struck me about the reports of red tape problems experienced by businesses like Day Frog, Logan Square Kitchen, and Scooter’s Frozen Custard is that these are high end business catering to Chicago’s “creative class” – they are right down the rails of the upscale global city Chicago wants to be. Yet even they get caught in a quagmire of regulation. If these folks struggle, I can only imagine what a Latino entrepreneur on the Southwest Side must go through. Mayor Emanuel already announced some reductions in permitting, which is excellent. But this is something that needs major focus. If you want to get just a small taste of what it’s like to be a small business in Chicago, read this article on awnings. Among the reforms I’d make is looking at minimum parking requirements – which has led to the strip malling of Chicago – and radically reducing the scope in which you are required to get a Public Place of Amusement license. (This should apply to only very large venues). Also, the health code needs revising to be more rational. Elotes stands shouldn’t be illegal. Neither should limited use of home kitchens.

4. Bureaucratic Efficiency. Even during the depths of the housing crash, it still took two months to get a zoning meeting with city officials. It apparently now takes two years to process a foreclosure in Cook County. Friends who have done work on their homes have told me about having to hire “permit expediters” to get a building permit. Even if you assume this isn’t about corruption (which I wouldn’t assume, btw), the fact that there are people making a living doing this is crazy. There shouldn’t be a job for permit expediters in Chicago or any other city. The administrative machinery of the city needs to function effectively.

5. One Stop Shop Permitting. Wouldn’t it be nice if a business could go to one office and get all the permits they needed to operate? Maybe that’s too much to ask in the short term. However, some sort of an office where you could get a written statement from the city on the exact list of permits you need to operate would be a good start. If you comply with this list in good faith, then you should have safe harbor protection against citations for not having a permit if it wasn’t on that list the city gave you.

6. Permit Pricing Rationalization. Permit fees should be set equal to the cost of administration. Fines should be equal to the cost of enforcement plus reasonable deterrence. (If there is a scarce resource involved, then pricing should be set to allocate capacity according to value). Permits and fines for businesses shouldn’t be used for revenue raising purposes. The city sticker/parking ticket model is a bad one.

7. Deferred Licensing. Most small businesses fail. A lot of them don’t make it a year. Why make it harder and more risky by making people pay for expensive licenses and permits up front? How about making license fees and permits free for the first year? If you’re still in business at that point, then you start paying. Let’s lower the barriers to getting new businesses off the ground.

Obviously items like crime and schools matter to business as well. Business doesn’t thrive in unsafe areas or where the workforce isn’t educated. But I wanted to focus in on more business-specific items. Many of these are under the effective control of the mayor. Unlike say pension reform, they don’t require a lot of outside help. Thus these problems are in theory addressable.

While Chicago has a lot of barriers for small businesses, there’s also good news: New York City is even worse, and California is world-famous for its business hostile regulatory environment. Chicago is actually positioned to be a leader in business friendliness here.

In my piece “Detroit as Urban Laboratory and New American Frontier,” I noted how the collapse in city government effectiveness led to an environment where creative people can actually make things happen. Imagine if a place that has more effectively delivered services made a deliberate choice to nevertheless make it easy to do things. That could be a game changer.

Rather than internalizing the vices as virtues rhetoric of the global city (i.e, high costs and regulatory burdens are signs of health because it shows how in demand our city is that people are willing to put up with this stuff), instead seek to make Chicago the global type city where it is easier to do something new and creative than any other comparable city. Bring the pro-business mode of Houston to the urban environment of Chicago and you could create something really special.

The specifics I mentioned are some ideas. There are certainly more. But what’s really need to change is the overall attitude to business – again, especially small businesses in the neighborhoods. Instead of “Here’s what you’ve got to do if you want to do business in our town” there should be a big neon sign out saying “Welcome businesses – and what can we do to help?”

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Chicago: The Midwest’s Global Gateway

This article is part of the State of Chicago series.

Chicago is a city that has been ignoring its traditional role as capital of the Midwest in order to focus on ambitions to be a global city. But as this series has illustrated, Chicago has not thrived recently with this approach. Much of its economy remains tied to the region and to manufacturing, and with those sectors having struggled, Chicago has likewise struggled. Also, global city Chicago, powerful as it might be, is simply much too small to carry the region on its own. A broader plan is needed.

As part of that, I’ve advocated that Chicago re-embrace its role as capital of the Midwest. As I noted, Rahm Emanuel had a shift in rhetoric earlier this year when he described Chicago as the capital of the Midwest to the Guardian newspaper in the UK. I thought this was a great move.

The question then becomes, how do you do that? That’s a difficult one. As I noted in my “Mega-Skepticism” post, it’s not exactly obvious what it is we are actually supposed to do when it comes to cross-regional collaboration, even when we think it’s a good thing.

But some things require no special efforts. Chicago is already the cultural center and business services center of the Midwest. No program required. Some ideas I’ve already explored elsewhere. The brand repositioning I discussed in a previous installment could be seen as part of this. Also, about three years ago I wrote a four part series called “Reconnecting the Hinterland” in which I explored ways Chicago could reconnect with the Midwest. I won’t reprise that here, but you can read it for yourself in Part 1A, Part 1B, Part 2A, and Part 2B.

What I’d like to highlight today is something that reconciles global city Chicago with being the capital of the Midwest, namely a self-conscious positioning of Chicago as the Midwest’s global gateway.

Much of the Midwest doesn’t seem to know much about globalization except that it flattened their towns, and as a result they don’t like it very much. But while there’s some blowback of sorts against it, it doesn’t seem realistic to think that we are going back to the status quo ante.

This leaves most cities with a problem: they aren’t very connected to the global economy or the global idea flow. Even successful places seem to more or less ignore the global angle, something I brought up in a previous post. Globalization is curiously absent from the radar. That may be in part because they don’t see how they can relate to it. Chicago may talk about global conferences and global talent attraction and global non-stop flights, but only a handful of other Midwest places can aspire to this type of “direct globalization,” at least right now.

Yet I think many people get it that the global angle is important. This is where there could possible be collaboration with Chicago to global benefit. How could Chicago position itself as the on-ramp to globalization for Midwest cities? The analogy here would be something like an airline hub. People from most Midwest cities don’t have non-stop flights to many if any international destinations. So they are able to connect through O’Hare to get that access.

Now, the analogy breaks down a bit when we consider that it isn’t necessary to use O’Hare as your international gateway. You can connect through Atlanta or lots of other places. And this probably applies to lots of knowledge networks too. The global system isn’t hub and spoke necessarily. It’s more of a mesh network.

But it still seems that intuitively there’s a natural role Chicago could play. For example, most foreign consulates are in Chicago, so that’s where you look to if you need a visa or something. International speakers and leaders are frequently in Chicago. Why not look to jointly sponsor something where either delegations from other Midwest cities are invited to Chicago to be part of that, or where there are multiple Midwest stops on a regional tour of sorts?

A focus on being the Midwest’s global gateway doesn’t mean Chicago has to abandon standalone global city functions like the futures exchanges. It can keep what it has and opportunistically build there as well. But the global gateway role seems like something that would be both aligned with its global ambitions, and helping to revive the region it depends on for its own economic health.

This regional capital role is one that I’ll admit I don’t have an entirely ready made answer for. So clearly work needs to be done. Atlanta and the New South is probably the best example to look at. Atlanta clearly blossomed as a result of its own ambitions and transformation, but also its embraced of its role as a Southern city and the turnaround in fortunes in much of the region. Boston’s role in New England might be somewhat similar, but it’s less useful since New England could almost be seen as simply metro Boston writ large, and outside of the core region of Boston, much of New England is no better off than the Midwest (arguably worse, in fact).

What Chicago doesn’t need to do is take a parasitical view of its Midwest capital role. Unfortunately, Rahm’s rhetoric suggests this is what he may mean by the term. For example, in announcing Google’s move of the former Motorola Mobility operation to downtown, he said, “This is going to be a mecca for drawing people from the greater Midwest.” Google executive Dennis Woodside echoed this, saying, “We have the opportunity to really pull from the universities across the entire Midwest.”

True or not, these words will only tell anyone in another Midwest town that Chicago plans to try to steal their best and brightest, something they already agonize over anyway. Actually, Chicago’s talent flows aren’t that great, as the OECD study and others show, and a number of Midwest cities are more than holding their own in talent attraction. But in this case words speak louder than actions. It’s like border cities in Indiana trying to build regional collaboration initiatives when the state’s biggest economic development strategy is poaching business from adjacent states. It just doesn’t work.

Especially when you are the big dog, words matter and are paid attention to. I’m not sure what Rahm actually thinks. I hope he doesn’t just see the rest of the Midwest as a place he can strip mine to build Chicago. But regardless, he should be careful with rhetoric that might be seen as inflammatory by surrounding places.

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Paris: Allo, Allo

This video is a little different from the type of slick time lapse I normally post, but is very fun. It’s a film a couple of American tourists made of their trip to Paris that gives an interesting window into that city. I hope you enjoy. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

h/t Likecool

Here’s another short fun one called Paris vs. New York that playfully shows the contrasts between the two cities. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

More Paris videos:

Le Flâneur
Paris in Motion (Part One)
Paris in Motion (Part Two)

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

The Meatspace City by Drew Austin

[ I was privileged to get to run a few pieces written by Drew Austin that originally appeared in the Where blog. Drew is back, now with his own blog called Kneeling Bus. I highly recommended it as his observations and conclusions are often of a type you can't find in your typical urban blog. Drew can make you think. Here's a piece he wrote recently to give you a sample. I'm including this one because of a recent debate in the comments about bricks and mortar versus online retail - Aaron. ]

One of the more interesting recent developments in the urban planning sphere has been Tony Hsieh’s multimillion-dollar investment in revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh, the CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos, wants to redevelop the city’s core with his company’s offices as the anchor, creating a dense and vibrant environment where his creative class employees can live, work, and otherwise thrive. The plan reflects a corporate philosophy that applies Jane Jacobs’ urbanist principles to office environments, an approach explained well by Malcolm Gladwell, but Hsieh’s scheme is unique in that it won’t be confined to the Zappos headquarters: Hsieh wants to remake downtown Las Vegas as a whole. In both cases, a more innovative workplace culture is the ultimate goal, but Hsieh seems interested in creating something with positive externalities.


Las Vegas City Hall (Source: Brandon Wiegand)

Hsieh’s plan for Las Vegas is idealistic, ambitious, and controversial, but most of all it rests upon a great irony: Zappos has perfected a business model that undermines physical retail and thus helps to erode the vitality of many American downtowns. The clearest example of this is Amazon’s impact on bookstores. If you live in New York or San Francisco you might not understand how much a Borders could matter to a city’s downtown, but many smaller cities with fewer cultural assets depend more on whatever they’ve got. In many cases, “what they’ve got” has been a chain bookstore like Borders (which can remain vacant for years after the tenant goes away—I’ve seen it happen). While Zappos has not affected shoe stores as drastically as Amazon has affected bookstores, the company has certainly captured plenty of revenue that shoppers previously spent in their own city’s commercial districts. The basic economic reality that Zappos represents and Hsieh’s high-profile, symbolic intervention in downtown Las Vegas are seemingly at odds: the latter putting a band-aid on a wound the former is currently making worse.

Bookstores and a few other niches aside, we haven’t really begun to see the full impact of online shopping on urban retail. E-commerce has become much more sophisticated in the last few years, with Amazon Prime offering a level of convenience that rivals a trip to the CVS on the corner, and it would not be surprising to see many other types of stores fall by the wayside as their online competition surpasses them in convenience. The logical conclusion of those developments is the (admittedly extreme) prediction made by Stephen Gordon: In the future everything will be a coffee shop. That is, the only spaces we’ll need for working, shopping, and learning are comfortable places where we can get on the internet together.


The future of everything (Source: blakethompson.net)

If everything will eventually be a coffee shop, then Tony Hsieh’s business and his Las Vegas plan start to seem more consistent. They’re both manifestations of what I’m going to call the Meatspace City: the fully wired urban condition. Even when online shopping becomes entirely frictionless, a lot of shopping will still happen in meatspace because of its tactile nature. Shoe shopping, for example, generally requires trying the shoes on. Book shopping is much less tactile, which is why the internet absorbed it so easily. Shopping is slowly bifurcating into a component easily handled online (price comparison, item selection, payment) and a component best accomplished in a physical store (trying things on, picking them up). Increasingly, stores will be showrooms where we decide what we want and then order it online (see: Bonobos). Urban commerce will be increasingly based upon the purely physical: food, drink, showrooms, and coffee shops. Brooklyn feels like it’s getting there. Everything the internet can’t do better, and only those things. The Meatspace City.

This post originally appeared in Kneeling Bus on September 20, 2012.

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Film Review: Detropia


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

I was lucky to get to see Detropia, a buzz-laden documentary about Detroit, at the UMass-Boston film series, where Heidi Ewing, one of the film makers, was present for a post-screening discussion. Ewing, incidentally, grew up in suburban Detroit.

The title is an interesting word play. It’s a portmanteau of ambiguous meaning. It could be a combination of “Detroit” with either “utopia” or “dystopia,” though as the bleak civic outlook suggests, the latter is far more appropriate. The film provides a look into the lives of various Detroiters. There’s no real story here, no narrative, just a look as if through a window into a portion of the civic experience. The lack of any real relatedness between the characters fuels the sense of disconnectedness in the film. Though billed as a sort of cautionary tale about America, and explicitly intended to provoke political discussion per Ewing, it isn’t exactly clear what conclusions we are supposed to draw from it, or how it would inform any real debates or decision making as the core conflicts and issues are not addressed in sufficient depth to enable that.

The story focuses on three black principals: Tommy Stevens (the backbone character of the film), owner of a blue-colar blues bar called the Raven Lounge; George MacGregor, president of a UAW local; and Crystal Starr, a barista and video blogger. They are all thoughtful and likeable characters. A corresponding trio of white minor character groupings fill out most of the rest of the cast: an newly arrived artist couple, a group of metal scrappers, and the Michigan Opera Theater (admittedly shown in a multicultural way, but I think representing a stereotypically white endeavor and with a healthy dose of white faces).

The film has gotten good reviews, and most of them have heavily focused on the expert and stylish film making. It’s well done on many levels. I won’t repeat all those other reviews here, but suffice it to say that the film is worth seeing on an aesthetic basis alone.

However, being beautiful is only part of a film. The story you are actually telling is important too, particularly in a documentary work. Detropia, while it has some very strong points, also has a number of weaknesses that have been overlooked by the critics.

The biggest win for the film was its prescient prediction of the failure of the Chevy Volt. Stevens’ bar, the Raven Lounge, is only a few blocks from a shuttered GM plant. The plant closure naturally hurt his business. When he hears that the new electric Chevy Volt will be built there, he’s excited at the prospects. However, on checking out the Volt at the auto show, he notices serious problems, notably the short distance it can travel on a charge, and the high price tag, particularly in comparison to new Chinese competitors. He’s very clear that he thinks that dog won’t hunt – and he’s right.

Ewing uses that to great effect to show the hope springs eternal nature of Detroit’s civic thinking, in which the Big Three are perpetually just one new hit car away from being “back.” Not only is this “next big thing” thinking a failure in its own right, but the hits never quite come. That a bar owner can instantly see this while GM’s executives apparently could not is telling.

Similarly, as some New York Times commenters noted, the young men who raid abandoned buildings for scrap metal seem to have a much firmer grip on economic reality than auto company executives. They know the current market prices for their goods, and even understand how their work fits into the global supply chain. Presumably they also make a profit.

Another standout, and moving, scene was that of MacGregor’s UAW local receiving news of American Axle’s new wage proposals, ones that include big pay cuts for people who are barely earning a living wage as it is. Some workers would have seen pay drop from $14.35/hr to $11/hr. $14.35 is only about $30,000 a year – hardly the wage of a labor aristocrat. Imagine trying to support a family – housing, transportation, food, etc – on only $11/hr. Here we see the destruction of the American middle class as a real life work in progress. This a type of scene that’s been replayed far too often across America. (The UAW rejected the proposal outright and the plant closed).

However, the labor scenes also show the weakness of the film. There was a clearly one sided presentation of the facts designed to elicit maximum labor sympathy. Detropia mentions a Cadillac plant that closed and was, according to the UAW rep, moved to Mexico. However, GM also built a new state of the art Cadillac plant in Lansing in recent years that makes the CTS we see MacGregor driving. That wasn’t mentioned. The film notes the large pay cuts new UAW workers are expected to take, without showing how existing workers emerged from the bankruptcies with far less damage than other stakeholders. Delphi’s union retirees, for example, got a special pension top up from a bankrupt GM to keep them 100% whole while non-union retirees were out of luck and saw their pensions slashed 70%. The UAW came away owning a good slug of GM, and the hourly wages discussed in the American Axle example don’t fairly represent what Big Three assembly workers enjoy. The presentation was so one-sided and with an obvious political ax to grind it’s no wonder no company representatives would agree to be interviewed by these film makers.

In the Q&A, UMass-Boston film curator Chico Colvard keyed in on the role of the artists in the film (and a pair of briefly-featured Swiss tourists in town to check out “decay”) as ambivalent figures. On the one hand, they represent new blood for a city that desperately needs it. On the other, they are seen as interlopers or even parasitical, making their art and career from the wreckage of other people’s cities.

I thought this was very effectively communicated visually. The artists treat Detroit like a gigantic stage set. They seem oblivious to and disconnected from the experience of Detroit, except inasmuch as it provides them with low-rent opportunities to experiment. The scenes of them in gold gas masks, used heavily in promotional materials, reveal them as an almost literal alien presence in the city, invaders from outer space.

Ewing enthusiastically endorsed this analysis. She said that hearing the term “blank slate” used in reference to Detroit “pisses me off” as Detroit is a richly historic city. She also railed against NYT style romanticizing of the city’s new artistic arrivals.

Alas, Colvard failed to ask the obvious follow-up: What makes Ewing any different? How is her film different from the rest of the ruin porn review? She gave no indication that she’d ever considered this question.

Indeed, Ewing and co-director Rachel Grady are exactly like that young artist couple, except that those artists actually live in Detroit. They are using the raw material of that city and its residents to make their art and reputations. Colvard described Detropia as the “hottest film on the indie circuit,” so this seems to be working out for them. If their film seems less creepy than avant-garde street performances in gas masks, it’s only because they have more flair and a stronger commercial orientation.

I’m not necessarily saying that Ewing and Grady deserve to be castigated for making this film. But based on this discussion, Ewing at least seems oblivious to being a part of the very system she seems to view with ambivalence if not outright negativity.

There’s a lot of ambiguity and potential conflict in telling the stories of Detroit, to say nothing of actually turning it around. This was explored in the film but is something that deserved more attention, as solving it is the key to moving the city forward.

Ewing’s own reaction to the blank slate meme, and some of her subjects’ reaction to the idea of shrinking Detroit, bring out the “It’s our city” attitude that so many people have towards Detroit. Young upscale white knowledge workers and not-from-Michigan artists are seen as invaders. The shrinkage plan is seen as a way to turn over large tracts of the city to white investors. And there’s an element of truth in these.

Yet, unless someone from the outside sees in Detroit an opportunity for themselves, either personally or as an investor, how will the city ever come back? Ewing decries the paternalism that left the city dependent on the fortunes and good will of three major employers. But what to replace it with? Without that indigenous paternalism, it seems impossible that Detroit will ever see the investment needed to start a turn-around without a new group of stakeholders who have their own ideas about the city and what it should be. People are not just going to mail Detroit checks.

This will be a very bitter pill to swallow for many people who have stuck it out in Detroit through the decline, only to see opportunists swoop in. The high profile and racially charged debates over the Cobo Hall renovations, a state receivership, and a state takeover of Belle Isle all illustrate this. Successfully navigating this will be an enormous challenge, but is clearly of huge importance to the future of the city. Detroit needs new blood and new investors. But where is the benefit to the city if the people who live there are excluded? Cities are, after all, about people, not buildings. The people of Detroit are not wholly innocent in the matter of their city’s decline. Yet as with a Greek tragedy, the punishment is excessively disproportionate to the transgression.

Speaking of which, Ewing attempted to encourage the crowd with what to me was a startling statement. She said, “Young people in their 20s are talking about the heydays of Detroit as if they lived them. I can’t think of any city with a stronger sense of nostalgia.” She intended this as a positive but it is clearly one of the reasons the city has gone down the tubes. Nostalgia to any degree of excess is a profoundly corrosive force. It locates the apex of a civilization in an imagined past that never really was, and often inspires bitterness at the supposed forces that destroyed it. The decline of manufacturing would have been an enormous challenge to the Midwest in any event. But when it is populated with people who cling stubbornly to any lost threads of a disappearing past rather than turning forward to make a new future – and the “next hit car” and “it’s our city” ideas are both part of this – that makes success nearly impossible, as Detropia makes that all too clear for the Motor City.

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

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