Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

What I Believe

I just want to encourage all of you again to consider and respond to my call to support the mission of the Urbanophile. This work simply isn’t possible without your support.

To give you more context on my mission, I want to share the “What I Believe” page from the site, for those of you who haven’t read it. This was something I put together when I first created this new blog template about three years ago. (I’d like to note that Mike Doyle helped me in that site development effort). I am running a national not regional blog today, but I retain the Heartland orientation of this statement because it very much describes my own values. I hope you enjoy it.

They will repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations. – Isaiah 61:4

Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell. – Isaiah 58:12

I love cities. They’re magical places.

Perhaps because I grew up in a rural area, I’ve always been fascinated with cities and finding out what makes them tick. Why do some cities succeed while others fail? What works and what doesn’t? When faced with a moment of challenge, why do some cities rise to the occasion and others fall by the wayside?

Because I’m from the Midwest, I’m most engaged by America’s “everyday” cities–the large, medium, and small metropoli in the heartland and beyond that most Americans call home. I’ve spent my personal and professional life learning how cities work and searching for answers to the socioeconomic problems that have beset many of them since the latter half of the last century.

True Urban Sustainability Is Achievable

America’s cities are the the bedrock of the nation’s social, cultural, and economic well-being. They’re also the places most Americans call home. For the good of their regions and the nation as a whole, they must, and can, learn to be sustainable. That means demographically and economically as well as environmentally. By discarding failed stereotypes and strategies from a very different age that no longer work today, and adopting instead progressive principles across an integrated set of domains that reflect today’s realities – including architecture and design, arts and culture, civic branding, economic development, the global economy, historic preservation, land use, education, regionalism, strategic planning, talent attraction, technology, tourism, transportation, urban culture, and sustainability – and which are tailored to the local environment, cities can create unique regional strategies to guide themselves to success.

Painting a New Urban Portrait

I believe in the future of America’s cities because I do not believe in outdated ideas that have long suggested some urban areas such as those in the country’s Midwest heartland to be beyond repair and unworthy of real attention–or affection.

I believe we can get there if we stay true to a set of foundational principles to guide us.

* God has called us to be part of His redemptive work in the world, and commands us to “learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”

* Cities are about people, not just buildings. You can’t love the neighborhood if you hate the neighbors.

* Great cities, like great wines, have to express their terroir. There is no one-size-fits-all model of urban success. Our cities are as diverse as their citizenry. To succeed, they need to express their own essential and unique character.

* It says something powerful about a city when people vote with their feet to move there, to plant their flag, to seek their fortune. There is no more telling statistic about a place than in-migration. It’s important to know if people are moving into or out of a city–and why.

* Moreover, new blood isn’t just nice to have, it’s essential. In an ever-more globalized, rapidly changing, competitive world, a city’s best interests are not served by being populated with people who’ve never lived anywhere else.

* People want to live in a city whose civic aspirations match their personal aspirations. You can’t have a life-sciences industry without life scientists, for example. To attract talented and ambitious people, cities need to have civic goals and aspirations to match.

* Brain-gain (attraction) is far more important than staving off brain-drain (retention). Talent hubs like Silicon Valley and Seattle didn’t get to be that way by retaining their home grown talent. They did it by hoovering up everybody else’s talent. They smartly outsourced the expensive part of producing the brains to other cities.

* But it isn’t just about the best and brightest, either. Attracting the educated is important, but cities are also where the poor come to become middle class, where immigrants come to build a better future for themselves and their families. Their needs must be taken up, too–and equally.

* Design matters. Just as you can tell a lot about someone by the way they maintain their home, you can tell a lot about a city just by looking at it. When a city doesn’t care about itself, it’s evident on the very streets. As the Bard said, “For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”

* A great city needs great suburbs. To pull our cities up, there’s no need to tear our suburbs down. To be successful in the modern era, its important for every part of a metropolitan region to thrive and bring its “A game”.

* “Building on assets” is a trap. The only reason we have any man-made assets in the first place is that previous generations of leaders didn’t follow that strategy. Only building on assets is a strategy about defending the past, not embracing the future. It is the spending down of our urban inheritance. Yes, leverage assets, but also add totally new things to the pot for future generations.

* Don’t try to beat other cities at their game. Instead, make them beat you at yours. Cities are unique – yours included. Instead of fretting about measuring up to the planet’s elite metropoli or trying to emulate them, cities should figure out their unique strengths that other places can’t match.

* To figure out what those unique strengths are, cities ought to look at their problems and challenges from the most unexpected, non-traditional angles. Invert the world. Stand those problems on their head. Yes, look at the facts on the ground, the things you can’t change but that you think are holding you back. Then brainstorm for all you’re worth to identify ground-breaking, unusual, or simply as-yet unconsidered ways to reposition civic weaknesses into substantial strengths.

* We need to look forward, not backward. There is no more corrosive force than nostalgia. We should know where we’ve come from and what we stand for. But we can’t become imprisoned by a yearning for an imagined past that never really was.

* We need to embrace a 21st century vision of urbanism. Urbanism – Yes, but trying to copy Greenwich Village 1950 is not the answer. To find it, we must boldly re-imagine the possibilities of what a city can be and bravely identify what works today-and what doesn’t.

* We don’t know where this ride is taking us. We’re at a pivotal time in America’s urban history. So much is changing, and more change is yet to come. For our own sake, we should not assume that we’ve arrived where we’re headed, or that we have the answers. If there’s one thing we should take away from the urban planning failures of the past, it is a strong dose of humility

Believing in the Greatness of America’s Everyday Cities…Again

America’s everyday cities have long gotten the short shrift from this nation’s urban thinkers. That’s unfair. During our founding centuries, many of the urban areas that pepper the middle of America were considered at the forefront of economic greatness. There is no reason to believe successful futures are foreclosed for U.S. cities anywhere, of any size.

True, cities are maddening, complex beasts. Large or small, they defy simple explanation or categorization. They are individually as unique and flawed and wonderful as human beings in general. Building them and managing their day-to-day affairs is an art as much as a science. To do it right, you have to understand the rich complexity of and deep interactivity of the people, structures, systems, customs, and history that together make cities what they are.

And one more thing. You have to believe in greatness. Not just in the potential greatness that every medium-sized American society has locked deep inside. But in the greatness that has always been America’s cities. This nation has spent far too much time examining what’s wrong with our most common urban areas.

Let’s start celebrating what’s uncommon about them. That’s the real secret to sustainability. Finding what works right now, what’s unique, what’s wonderful–what’s great–about America’s heartland cities, and using that as the basis for crafting wide-ranging strategies for groundbreaking improvement is the best way forward.

In fact, it’s the only way forward. Helping that happen is what makes me tick. I’m bullish on America and confident in America’s cities, and I know that’s an optimism based in real-world possibility. I think the best days of many of our cities can be ahead of us, not behind. The future of America’s cities has yet to be written.

How great is that?

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Please Support the Mission of the Urbanophile

I don’t often run commercial appeals on the blog. But as we approach the end of the year, I wanted to ask and challenge all of you out there to look for ways you can help support the mission of the Urbanophile financially.

That mission is to help cities find real, sustainable, inclusive success in the 21st century, through serious, in depth, original, independent, non-partisan, and non-dogmatic analysis and discussion of the issues facing America’s cities and regions in the 21st century. I think you’ll agree that I work hard to make that a reality, and do a pretty good job of it on most days, particularly with original and independent thinking. While there are other great folks out there in the field, I don’t think there’s anyone else working the exact same territory I do here.

The blog itself generates no revenue. This is something I do out of passion. If I only wanted to maximize my pay, I’d never have left the technology field.

Nevertheless, this does take a lot of time to do. I can only continue to devote that time to the extent that it’s financially practical to do so. As the newspaper industry’s decline demonstrates, just because people believe something fulfills an import role in our lives doesn’t mean it’s viable. As my friend Carl likes to say, the marketplace doesn’t care what I think. And alas the marketplace is the ultimate judge of what makes it and what does not.

So I’m asking for your support in helping make it possible for the work here to continue. I know many of my readers have very senior (even CEO-level) positions in organizations ranging from moderately to extremely well-funded. It’s you especially I’d like to ask to find a way to participate.

Before telling you how you can do that, I want to take a minute to thank all of you who’ve already encouraged, helped, and hired me, especially those who did it when I had nothing to offer in return or at risk to yourself. It’s always a risk naming names, since I’ll undoubtedly leave someone out by mistake. If so, I’ll apologize in advance. But I want to particularly thank a few people who had milestone impact, including John Beeler, the ULI-Minnesota Chapter, Ron Gifford, Joel Kotkin, Carol Coletta, Jim Russell, Richard Longworth, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Richard Florida, and Kristian Andersen. And I most especially want to note Frank Modruson and Karl Browning, who both put huge amounts of their own personal capital on the line for me. I may not be able to pay anybody back, but I hope to at least be able to pay it forward.

So then, how can you help? There are any number ways I can suggest:

1. Hire me to speak at your event. As you already know, I have very compelling insights to share, and generally also try to address your own event and goals directly, not just give some pre-canned talk that may not be relevant.

2. If you’re a grant-making organization like a foundation, and think you have programs I might qualify for, please contact me about them.

3. Buy a subscription to my Telestrian data system. At only $49 per year, it’s practically a no-brainer and well within the purchasing authority of anyone who has a bona fide use for it in an organization. This is what powers the bulk of my own data analysis and maps and it’s a huge time saver for me.

4. I’m available for strategic consulting on a variety of topics. I think you get from my blog that I bring a keen analytical approach to issues, am data oriented, am very focused on strategic context and competitive advantage, and have truly unique insights and points of view on issues that you might not be able to get anywhere else no matter how much you paid.

My email address is, which is the best way to reach me with inquiries.

Again, please think about ways you and your organization can help enable this site to continue. Your support and readership are greatly appreciated.

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Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Time Lapse San Francisco

Here’s a gorgeous time lapse of San Francisco. The only thing I would have changed is the music, since they used the same track as the incredibly awesome Le Flâneur (Intro by The XX). In any event, definitely full screen for this one. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

If you still want more, here’s a San Francisco installment from the “Empty America” series. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Regarding Smart Cities

I was in Barcelona a couple weeks ago for the Smart City Expo and World Congress, where I moderated a session on the impact of smart city technologies on cities. Not only is Barcelona an amazing city itself, it was great to get to see European urbanists we don’t always run across in the US, like Charles Landry and Ricky Burdett. As is often the case, I think we here in America (myself included) end up trapped in a US-centric bubble in our thinking. So it’s good to break out of it.

My session brought out a number of interesting points in thinking about smart city technology. Peter Hirsberg gave the keynote that was frankly what I thought was the best presentation I saw in the conference. Unfortunately I don’t believe it will be online.

One thing he noted was that when we develop new technological solutions, we have a tendency to build highly centralized “command and control” type operations initially. The paradigmatic example of this in smart cities today is IBM’s command center in Rio, which has been frequently highlighted in urbanists circles as pretty cool tech.

Hirshberg in a pretty mind blowing way showed how this was typical of how technology has been deployed, and showed how the Rio center in concept was nearly identical to IBM’s SAGE system for air defense in the 1950s and 60s. In fact, he played IBM’s own promotional videos for the two systems that, despite being separated in time by several decades, were nearly identical in what they said.

He wasn’t necessarily critical of these centralized systems, noting the immense utility they provide. But ultimately technology transcends this to enable more decentralized modes of operations as well. This set up a few tensions that we explored further, including:

  • Centralized vs. decentralized systems
  • Proprietary vs. open technology
  • Technology driven by government (e.g., efficiency) or society as a whole (e.g., environmental) goals versus value delivery or life enhancements for citizens and consumers.

These are definitely items that should be thought about when trying to get a handle around all the things that go into what we think of as “smart cities.” I think a lot of what we conceive of as smart cities today consists in vendor led automation/efficiency solutions. These are important, particularly in an era of fiscal constraints in which business as usual is no longer tenable. These types of systems might actually have significant citizen benefits as well, such as the Rio center or even something like CompStat.

But as Hirshberg also noted, that puts too narrow a lens on it. And it may be that the ultimately the most important smart city company isn’t or won’t be something we think of as smart cities at all today. He highlighted Airbnb, Uber and many others in this regard, and especially noted how some of these firms came to the fore during Hurricane Sandy, with better information about conditions on the ground, and a better way to help people (such as by using Airbnb to find a place to stay) on a completely decentralized basis than through official channels. Some of these private efforts ended up de facto deputized and adopted by the authorities. I believe these sorts of decentralized, private networks will play a key role in urban resiliency in coming years.

My own view falls somewhat in line with this. While the centralized model is important, we will only see an explosion in value to the extent that we are able to create platforms on which the public and entrepreneurs can themselves innovate.

To me it is similar to the evolution of tech to the present internet age. It used to be you needed a mainframe system to be in the computer business. That was expensive and only big companies could do it. Then we had minicomputers, client/server, desktops, etc. These lowered the cost but it still remained a “professional” endeavor. Even during the dotcom era, to start a company you needed to raise millions of dollars to buy Sun servers and Oracle licenses, plus to build out a ton of software architecture to underpin what you wanted to do.

Today, we’ve reached a place where a very new paradigm exists. The emergence of two things – open source development frameworks and the cloud – has created an environment on which even lone developers can innovate. Everyone with a certain basic knowledge of development is now capable of creating and releasing applications, and even starting companies, with next to no money. You can literally do it from your bedroom. Yet, most apps may end up as junk, but so much amazing stuff is being created too. We now have an incredible environment for technical creativity out there.

I think this is where cities should be aiming for: to build “the open source cloud” for smart cities, whereby it isn’t up to only the city or high priced contractors to deliver value, but the marketplace and even citizens will have that ability to innovate on top of the platform such that they’ll generate value we never imagined possible – and at no cost to the public. And it will generate amazing positive side effects like improved urban resiliency.

I won’t pretend to know what this will look like, just as I couldn’t have predicted our current environment even five years ago. But to me the future is in marketplace and citizen innovation, with vendors and cities providing a big part of the critical platform infrastructure to enable it.

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

No Reservations Cleveland by Richey Piiparinen

There is a new video out marketing Cleveland and a new slogan: “Downtown Cleveland: It’s here”. Now, I struggle with critiquing it. One the one hand, I get its energy and optimism: the energy in Downtown is palpable, real—there is a bit of a youth movement to the core—and hence the compilation of images, sounds, and narratives that are trying to capitalize and communicate what is going down.

On the other hand, I see it as another missed opportunity. The message reads blasé. Tastes like a spoon of new car smell. In fact it could be about anywhere—Nashville, Cincinnati, Tampa, etc.; that is, instead of exposing what Cleveland really is and what’s unique about it, it’s distinctiveness as an attraction is buried in amenity-driven microphone-ing that screams we have sports teams and a casino and restaurants and the yet-spoiled exuberance of the young. But when you think about Cleveland—I mean honestly think about Cleveland: about its guts and soul and heart and people—is this the kind of stuff that comes to mind?

Of course not. So why do it?

Firstly, it speaks to a larger method of city revitalization that has been running America for some time. Here, the creative classification method entails imposing a rather homogenous, universal cool over a given city topography. Glitz, glamor, glass condos, and sports heroes. Bike paths and food trucks. Millennium Park Jr.’s. Etc. But with this whitewashing comes the chipping away at Cleveland’s Rust Belt soul. And it is this soul, mind you, that is a real attraction. After all, what is so hot about going everywhere when you can go somewhere?

And yes: Cleveland is a somewhere and has a something. This thing is part cultural, part aesthetic, part historical, and part a consequence of having to go on in the face of adversity. It is part wit, part ironic, part self-deprecating, but also part stand your ground in the defense of where you came from. And it’s all real, not ephemeral: our distinctiveness arising less from donning another city’s success than stripping naked and showing our nuts and bolts. Our warts. Our knuckles and heart.

Secondly, and this speaks to the marketing machine in general, but outfits that produce messaging at this level just cannot get beyond the culture of the boardroom from which the message emerges. Corporatism repels risk. And this not only relates to branding professionals but also to the customers seeking the brand. It’s like everyone knows their audience and their audience is everyone. It’s all about that one type we want, they say, and we want thousands of them. It is a safe strategy, riskless. But Cleveland doesn’t need safe. Playing it conservative has just kept us secure in our knowledge that we are always revitalizing. Instead, step outside, show your face to the world, as branding is and always has been about differentiation. But to do that you need to be aware and secure in knowing what makes you different.

It is alright. People will like you. And if they don’t, so be it. The coolest will. Said Anthony Bourdain in his “No Reservations: Cleveland” trip:

I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will “attract business”, always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a “normal” city — or a “perfect” or “safe” one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy — and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don’t arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philharmonic.

Update: A friend commented to me that authenticity and grit can’t be marketed. Well, check this new video out from Memphis. They got it. I get a feel for who they are. And it makes me want to check the city out.

This post originally appeared in Rust Belt Chic on November 1, 2012.

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Goodbye, Chicago

This is the last post in my State of Chicago series.

Odd as it may seem for someone known as The Urbanophile, I actually grew up in the countryside. I spent most of my childhood on a country road about four miles outside the town of Laconia, Indiana, population 50. I always used to get confused when John Cougar sang about living in a small town, because I knew he was from Seymour, and with over 15,000 people that seemed a big town in my book.

Today I still laugh at these urbanites who brag about their green ways like having “rain barrels” to catch reclaimed rainwater from the roof for watering their yard. For many years that’s what I drank growing up, as we didn’t have city water supplies and had to rely on our cistern.

After graduating high school I went to Indiana University. Then armed with my bachelors it was on to Chicago, the result of an accident: that’s where my job offer came from. I had no strong feelings on where to live other than that I didn’t want to go back to my home town. In Chicago I ended up, like many young professionals, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the North Side. Though this too was pretty much an accident. I had relatives who lived there and invited me to stay with them when looking for an apartment.

For many people from small town or suburban environments, going to college is a time of tremendous personal transformation and growth. I didn’t have that experience. For me, the great transformation came from moving to Chicago. Exiting the L in the Loop on my first day going to work, wearing a suit, surrounded by tall buildings and crowds of people, I felt like I was on the set of a movie. It was an almost surreal experience.

Though urban life was new to me, I fell in love with it. And I was transformed by the experience. I knew nothing about culture, food, fashion, architecture, actually relating to people with different backgrounds from me, traveling, or how to get around in anything other than a car. Beyond merely learning how to go to work every day, living in Chicago provided a non-stop stream of stimulating and educational experiences that helped me grow as a person.

But it wasn’t just me who was being transformed. The urban renaissance of Chicago was underway by the time I arrived in 1992, but it was very early in the process. I recall recruiters for the company I worked for bragging about how Chicago was now an outpost of that uber-hip coffee chain Starbucks. The gentrified areas were still largely confined to a narrow strip along the north Lakefront. Many of the places that later became yuppie playgrounds were then ethnic enclaves or undeveloped. Some were still close to slums. On the outer reaches of Lincoln Park itself, streetwalkers openly plied their trade along North Ave.

The 90s were heady a heady decade for Chicago. The city, like select other major urban metros around the country, exploded with new growth and attracted many new migrants. Chicago experienced perhaps the largest urban condo building boom in America, transforming huge tracts of the city. The quality on offer improved radically. The population increased, and the city even added more jobs than Houston. It was a great time to be a Chicagoan, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

But come the 2000s, the condo boom continued but an economic and political malaise had clearly set in. Even new mayor Rahm Emanuel has labeled it a lost decade. As the decade ended, I had increasingly made up my mind to leave the city, now the place where I’d spend nearly as many years as my native Indiana. Early this year, I left Chicago behind.

What made me decide to leave? There are a few factors, some more personal than others.

The first is that I simply had done Chicago. The Chicago experience had been transformational when I got there, but after nearly 20 years it was getting stale. It was just more of the same. It was time for new challenges.

I was also motivated by the bleak economy. I owned a condo, an anchor that left me at great risk of getting marooned in the city, a phenomenon recently written about by Crain’s Chicago Business. I was willing to sell near the bottom of the market to avoid the risk of getting stranded. When I sold, there was no clear sense of an imminent major turnaround. There are huge unfunded liabilities at all levels of government in the region and state. The city’s economy seems to have lost a clear raison d’etre. No longer the “city of big shoulders”, it is losing out to urban areas with stronger economic identities — New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and, even emerging cities like Houston. So in the end I decided it was worth paying a “breakup penalty” to get out. Interestingly, no one, not even my alderman, suggested I was wrong in this. Contrary to what some have suggested, my views towards Chicago have not been poisoned by my condo sale.

Lastly, I no longer saw Chicago as a good platform for my personal ambitions. The city likes to see itself as occupying a “sweet spot” as a legitimate urban oriented big city with a lower price tag and higher quality of life. Yet for me Chicago was a “sour spot” that offered neither the opportunities of say a New York, Washington, or San Francisco, but still came with a high price tag. I would rather live in a small city that’s dirt cheap where I can have more impact, or in a place like New York where the cost of living might be greater, but the opportunities are matchless.

That is ultimately where the city will stand or fall. I’m but one example, but it’s a decision repeated with various results day after day: is this where I’ll plant my flag, seek my fortune and dreams, raise my family, or build my business? Chicago has to be seen as a success platform for both people and businesses. The demographic and economic results of the 2000s suggest it is losing that battle for the moment, though given the 90s results, it is certainly possible to think that might change again tomorrow.

As for me, there are a couple of identities I carry with me. One is that I’m a Hoosier and always will be, despite a sometimes love-hate relationship with the state. But I’m also unequivocally a Chicagoan – a label I proudly claim even though I no longer live there. Chicago will always hold a special place in my heart and I’ll treasure my experiences there. It’s a city in which I could definitely seem myself happily living in again some day. If I sometimes seem harsh on it, it is only out of a passionate desire to see it succeed and be the best it can be.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. Thanks for your readership.

A version of this post originally appeared on April 25, 2012 at New Geography.

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Providence Knows Nothing?

Sage Journals gave away a month of all their journal articles free in October. Thanks to a ping from Richard Layman, I got in near the end and downloaded some good stuff from Urban Studies. One of them was a paper called “Knowledge in Cities” by Jaison Abel, Adrienne Ross, and Kevin Stolarick. (A free copy is still available at the New York Fed web site).

The researches set out to measure the “knowledge traits” of regions by trying to find out what it is that the people in that region really know, and not just rely on generic indicators like college degree attainment. They did this by looking at the government occupational data, then a survey of workers that’s part of it that ask them what knowledge is important to doing their job, and how important it is. From that they sort of reduced it down until they reached 11 different knowledge clusters. The full methodology is in the study.

The various knowledge clusters were given names like “Thinking Region” or “Making Region.” Each of these has specific knowledge domains where they have higher knowledge, and others with lower knowledge.

Even among cities conventionally viewed as talent hubs, global cities, knowledge economies, or however you want to think of it, there’s a lot of variation. New York City is classified as a “Thinking Region.” San Jose is an “Engineering Region.” Boston, San Francisco and Washington are “Innovating Regions.” Los Angeles and Chicago are “Enterprising Regions.”

A lot of manufacturing regions like Detroit fell into the “Making Region” category, with high knowledge of manufacturing, obviously. There are others like Farming Region and Teaching Region with other high and low points.

The one I found interesting the authors termed a “Working Region.” In a Working Region, the authors actually found no areas of high knowledge. None. These regions did have areas of particularly low knowledge, however, including of IT and commerce.

Flipping to the list of regions, it was mostly smaller cities of a post-industrial bent: South Bend, Dayton, and Scranton, with some ones I found more odd like Lafayette Indiana and Lansing, Michigan.

There was only one US metro with more than a million people classified as a Working Region: Providence. In effect, the study is saying that Providence, and the rest of the cities on this list, don’t really know anything at a particularly high level.

Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the findings, but if that’s true, it augurs poorly for these regions. I’ve heard people in Providence say that the region should seek to build up its design industry because of the presence of the renowned Rhode Island School of Design. Yet this study actually listed Design as a regional area of low knowledge. Dittos for Computers, Electronics, and Telecommunications, which does not suggest the next startup hub either.

I wouldn’t read too much into a single study of this type, but I think the concept behind it is sound. That is, try to figure out what it is your region really has knowledge and expertise in at a granular level. Then you can look to rebuild economically around that.

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Cincinnati 2012

Your time lapse of the week features Cincinnati this time. This one is called Cincinnati 2012. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

And since we’re on the subject of Cincinnati time lapses, here’s another. This one is called Paths and Nodes. If this one doesn’t display, you can click here.

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Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Cincinnati

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Detroit – America’s Whipping Boy by Pete Saunders

[ Pete Saunders has another great article for us on Detroit. Don’t forget to check out his blog – Aaron. ]

The “Detroit” we’ve all come to love — and expect

Every so often, Detroit seems to pop up in our popular consciousness in a negative way.  Ever since the ’67 riots, a steady stream of bad press has altered the national perception of the Motor City.  Right now the city’s efforts to prevent state takeover because of its fiscal problems seems to shape discussion about Detroit.  The most recent demonstration of this is the State of Michigan’s proposal to make Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, the jewel of the city’s park system, into a state park through an extended lease agreement. 

But I’ve had a rather counterintuitive thought for some time – Detroit is our nation’s urban “boogeyman”, our poster child for urban decline, and we are the ones who prevent the city’s revitalization because we won’t let that image go.  America needs Detroit to be our national whipping boy. 

Whipping boys came into prevalence in 15th Century England.  I think Wikipedia’s entry on the subject captures it well:

They were created because of the idea of the divine right of kings, which stated that kings were appointed by God, and implied that no one but the king was worthy of punishing the king’s son. Since the king was rarely around to punish his son when necessary, tutors to the young prince found it extremely difficult to enforce rules or learning.

Whipping boys were generally of high status, and were educated with the prince from birth. Because the prince and whipping boy grew up together they usually formed a strong emotional bond, especially since the prince usually did not have playmates as other children would have had. The strong bond that developed between a prince and his whipping boy dramatically increased the effectiveness of using a whipping boy as a form of punishment for a prince. The idea of
the whipping boys was that seeing a friend being whipped or beaten for
something that he had done wrong would be likely to ensure that the prince
would not make the same mistake again
(emphasis added).

If that doesn’t accurately describe Detroit’s position in our nation’s collective conscience, I don’t know what does.

I grew up in Detroit.  Like so many others, I’ve long since moved away (been gone for 30 years), but I occasionally come back to visit family.  I left the city as a teen, but I remain an avid fan of the city’s sports teams.  I regularly read about events and happenings in the city via the Internet.  And, if given a chance, I could still navigate pretty easily throughout the city.  I heartily root for the city’s revitalization.

I sincerely believe that growing up in 1970s Detroit contributed to my ultimate career path.  As a kid, I remember news reports of people leaving the city for the suburbs or any number of Sun Belt cities – Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix.  I remember reports of arson fires to abandoned buildings.  I remember Mayor Coleman Young taking such a defiant political stance on most issues that he may have urged (if not necessarily directly so) continued “white flight” and suburban expansion.  And, of course, I remember the tag that dug deep – “Murder Capital of the World”.  That kind of environment might prompt – did prompt – many people to just give up on cities in general and Detroit in particular, but I always had the vague notion that someone should stick around and try to make the city better.  I was first exposed to the field of urban planning during an eighth-grade career fair, and I later made it my career choice.

It was clear, however, that most people did not react to Detroit’s decline as I did.  The city’s decline allowed it to be pushed into the recesses of the American mindscape.  It was only to be recalled as a foreboding reminder of the evils of cities.

In my mind, four films from the last fifteen years seem to capture the general national image of Detroit and continue to shape our perceptions.  The 1997 film Gridlock’d features Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth as heroin addicts traversing a bleak urban environment, trying without success to get the help they need to drop the habit.  The much more celebrated 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile takes place in the same stark physical environment and details the visceral world of MC battling.  The 2005 film Four Brothers covers yet again the same desolate setting as four adopted young men seek to avenge the senseless murder of their mother.  And 2008’s Gran Torino, featuring Clint Eastwood, put a different spin on the meme by putting an elderly white widower into the same gritty landscape, full of resentment toward the people around him who represent the city’s demise. 

Of course, we don’t need films to tell us what to think about Detroit.  Journalists, business leaders, artists, and others are more than happy to report on a physical environment that is a gray and gritty, post-industrial collection of smokestacks, abandoned buildings.  Everyone knows that Detroit is a city with huge swaths of vacant land and substandard housing.   Time Magazine famously purchased a house in Detroit to provide a launching pad for reporters to chronicle the city’s collapse.  On more than one occasion I’ve heard people suggest that Detroit is undergoing a “slow-motion Hurricane Katrina”.  The image of the city’s people is one of, at best, ordinary blue-collar, hockey-loving, working-class slugs, holding on but facing inevitable economic obsolescence because of an inability to compete in today’s bottom-line global economy.  At worst, they are poorly educated and isolated miscreants who relish burning buildings every October 30th (“Devil’s Night”), and causing mayhem when one of the local sports teams actually wins a championship.

There are aspects of this in virtually every large city in America.  You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia.  You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville.  You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix.  You can find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland.  And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.  You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme ™ in every major city in the country.  Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.

Why is Detroit our national whipping boy?

The image of Detroit serves as a constant reminder to cities of what not to become. This is the real Boogeyman syndrome right here.  City leaders around the nation can always refer to Detroit as the quintessential urban dystopia, invoking images of crime and crumbling
infrastructure.  By doing this they can garner support for (or just as likely, against) a local project, because if this project does or doesn’t happen, you know what could happen to our fair city?  We could become like Detroit!

The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation’s cities to avoid facing their own issues – urban and suburban. As long as Detroit’s negative image remains prominent in people’s minds, they can forget about trying to improve what may be just as bad, or even worse, in their own communities.  I remember visiting Las Vegas about twelve years ago, and was astounded by the amount of homelessness I saw, away from the Strip.  No one immediately associates homelessness with Las Vegas, but such an issue would be completely understandable for discussion to the average guy when talking about Detroit.  Cities like Miami and New Orleans have long histories of high crime rates, but that perception rarely registers like Detroit’s because they have other assets like South Beaches and French Quarters to mitigate it.  Cities like Memphis and Baltimore have a violent crime profile similar to Detroit’s, but they fail to excite in the way Detroit does.

The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation to maintain a smug arrogance and sense of superiority. I imagine a nation pointing its collective finger at Detroit and saying its situation is the result of its own bad decisions.  Shame on Detroit, they say, for going all in on auto manufacturing.  Shame on Detroit for aligning itself so closely with labor unions.  Or the Big Three.  Shame on Detroit for not dealing with its racial matters.  Shame on Detroit for its political failures and corruption.  And I imagine this being said without the slightest bit of irony by the American people.  We are not you, they say, because we made better choices.  But the truth is dozens of cities made the same choices but escaped a similar impact, or had other physical or economic assets that could conceal the negatives.  This is a conceit that prevents not only Detroit’s revitalization, but that of former industrial cities around the nation.

Detroit needs a reprieve.  It needs a second chance.  Motown needs our nation to let go of its past and allow it to move on into the future.  There are millions of people who have had troubled lives in the past, but do we continually hold that against them?  There are corporations that betray the public trust, but we go back to buying their products.  There are Hollywood actors who make atrocious movies, but we go back to see their latest flick.  There are politicians who’ve been disgraced out of office, and even they are able to come back.  Detroit needs to be allowed to move into its next act.

More importantly, we must recognize that Detroit’s story is not unique.  It is the story of every American former industrial city, just writ large.  America is the land of second chances – we need to let go of our “at-least-we’re-not-Detroit” smugness and support this city.  Detroit has paid its dues, and it is long past time for the city to cash in.

By allowing Detroit to move on, we’ll find that it will free up other communities across the nation to actually focus on their own problems.  There’s a checklist of activities that require urban leadership.  Dealing with foreclosures.   Crushing income inequality and economic disparities.  Mind-numbing traffic congestion on our roads.  Crumbling infrastructure.  Unsustainable sprawl development.  The impact of global climate change on water availability in the Sun Belt.  That represents just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, other cities certainly have their fair share of problems.

But I look at Detroit like this.  To paraphrase Frank Sinatra in his song “New York, New York” – if it can be fixed there, it can be fixed anywhere.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on October 16, 2012.

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Chicago’s Northwest Indiana Advantage

This article is part of the State of Chicago.

Chicago is in effect a tri-state area consisting of parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The lion’s share of the population is in Illinois. Also, the city is by far the largest municipality in the area – it’s bigger than a lot of states. This leads to a very Illinois-centric and Chicago-centric civic leadership and view of the world. Perhaps rightly so.

However, Chicago, looking for advantages where ever it can, should seek to find them in collaboration with the other states. Today I’ll examine the case of Northwest Indiana. The four county area that is technically part of Chicagoland – the Gary, IN Metropolitan Division – has over 700,000 people in it, which is pretty sizeable in its own right. It is also very culturally and aligned with Chicago, with significant Eastern European, Black, and Latino populations.

One advantage the area has is that Indiana’s entire approach to governance and economic development is very different from Illinois. Indiana has been implemented a “bare bones” model focusing on fiscal conservatism and seeking to be tax and regulation advantaged relative to the Midwest. Illinois has been grossly financially irresponsible, but has also been willing to invest in building a base in high-end and knowledge economy businesses, global connections, etc.

The types of high end firms that are in the Chicago Loop simply aren’t going to move to Indiana, likely not even to an Indianapolis. I never took seriously the CME’s threat to leave, for example. Northwest Indiana is also not likely to develop the type of entrepreneurial high tech cluster that Chicago has.

On the other hand, there are lots of businesses that wouldn’t touch Illinois with a ten foot pole. Some of these might be willing to locate in Indiana, however. My idea here is that Northwest Indiana should seek to find businesses for which proximity to Chicago and a Midwest is an advantage, but for which Illinois is particularly hostile in a legal/regulatory way, or in which Indiana has particular advantages.

Not only does Northwest Indiana need the investment and jobs itself, so do the South Suburbs of Chicago. And they are in easy proximity to NWI. Also, these suburbs, being outside of Chicago’s favored quarter type areas, are not well positioned to thrive from the Illinois strategy. Indiana jobs might benefit their residents quite a bit.

Additionally, Northwest Indiana has one of the largest heavy industrial zones in America. Despite the decay of Gary, plenty of steel is still made in the region. I believe Indiana is still America’s #1 steel producing state. I can’t imagine America will ever build many if any more areas like this. But we still have heavy industrial needs. So Northwest Indiana is one of the few places to put them.

A perfect example is BP’s $3 billion upgrade of its Whiting refinery. A lot of environmentalists opposed this. Unfortunately, America still runs on gasoline for now and we have to refine oil until we can replace it with something else effectively. Given the disappointing sales of electric cars to date, we’re not there yet. Transit is also not a realistic replacement at this time. If you are Northwest Indiana, why not work to build up this base? It won’t happen in Illinois. There’s a good reason there aren’t steel plants there any more. And the city and state would fight the development of any heavy industrial developments that did want in.

Gary would also be a logical place to put a third Chicago regional airport, though I’m not naive enough to believe that this will ever happen. Which highlights the benefits of the ideas above: Northwest Indiana doesn’t need cooperation from Illinois to make them happen. Yet, unless it involves cross-state poaching, Illinois would actually benefit. I do think some poaching is inevitable, but even here it might not be all bad. Some of the businesses that leave Illinois for Indiana might be ones that would be departing the metro entirely if they didn’t have the NWI alternative.

The key is to specialize and differentiate, taking advantage of your complementarity to be able to have a larger addressable market than if all parts of the region tried to be the same. This is easier to pull off when, as in this case, you’ve got multiple states who can have different fiscal and regulatory approaches.

Of course, for Indiana to take advantage of this it needs to have its act together. It’s the most politically fragmented part of the state of Indiana, and the various municipalities and counties have rarely worked to together. Congressman Pete Visclosky, who represents the area, has tried to use his regional mandate as a platform for bringing parts of the region together. This is especially admirable given that local governance is not part of his remit.

Other problem in the area is its heritage of corruption, as with Chicago. Sadly, rather than try to differentiate away from Chicago, NWI too often imitated it.

Northwest Indiana is also a Democratic political monoculture. Whenever you don’t have competitive elections, that is bad given the lack of real accountability to the voters. I’d say the same of various monolithically Republican suburbs.

Still, I believe that, despite serious challenges, especially with the decayed northern part of Lake County, there are plenty of economic opportunities to be had.

Oh, and Northwest Indiana is also home to America’s best brewery.

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

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