Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Reinventing Metro Providence

I was very pleased this week to be a guest on Ted Nesi’s “Executive Suite” talk show on WPRI-TV in Providence. We spent about half an hour talking about the challenges and opportunities facing the region. Here’s the show, without commercial interruption even. We cover a lot of ground, and I think much of the thinking is relevant to many other cities. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

A big point I made was the need to think metro, not Rhode Island. But gosh darnit didn’t I go and talk Rhode Island myself for most of the rest of the piece? I think it just goes to show how difficult it is even for the diligent newcomer to maintain a perspective that’s different from the one that’s basically in the air he breathes.

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Infographic: NFL Fans According to Facebook

Facebook just analyzed its “Likes” of NFL teams to develop a map of NFL fandom spheres of influence. Think of this as similar to the Common Census maps I previously posted. Here’s their main map:

I continue to be amazed at the reality of state borders in these things, despite the artificiality of the lines on the map and the lack of consistency with media markets.

h/t FlowingData

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Chicagoism, Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms by Robert Munson

This photo represents what historians could come to regard as the Chicago Spring. At this moment in May 2011, there were two big breaks with history. First and obvious, the person leading Chicago’s transformation changed from Richard to Rahm. Richie Daley’s two decades made Chicago half-ready as a leader of the Sustainable Century. Making us fully ready depends on fulfilling Rahm’s campaign promise of “fiscal sustainability.” This is his key challenge… and our responsibility, too. This photo also captures the good fortune of Chicagoans to have political genius-follow-genius in the Mayor’s Office.

Seemingly staged to capture a second and larger historical transformation, officials from all levels of government are present: the Vice President (hidden partially by Daley and whom Rahm has just shaken hands with), the Governor and Cook County officials. The photo implies an unspoken acknowledgement that governing cities well requires a Realignment of authorities, one of the 3Rs in the update of Chicagoism.

The second R — Reinventing services — was central to Rahm’s Inaugural. And the third R — Reforming accountability — was symbolized by his first official acts; what I call The Five Ethical Executive Orders, including the Mayor not taking campaign gifts from City contractors.

As a useful way to picture Rahm’s challenges and our transition to a government that can address today’s challenges, let’s quickly introduce how these 3Rs build a framework that generalizes a key problem, suggests how a principle of sustainability can guide solutions (see bubble diagram in Section 2) and summarizes solutions as Sustainability’s 3Rs.

Back to the details of Chicago’s transition under Rahm…. The positives of a new era were apparent quickly. Many Chicagoans also knew we should start girding ourselves to make the tough choices ahead. Details may differ, but many of these decisions are common to America’s cities today. To contrast the difference between talking about Big Changes and actually getting things done, the tale immediately below is instructive.

Compare Occupy Chicago to Chicago Spring

These two simultaneous events tell us a lot about how government will reconnect to its citizens. Occupy Chicago resulted in little more than an inchoate protest. While serving as a resonant response to our deadened federal and state democracy, Occupy Chicago still was three or four stages removed from the practical reforms needed to remake governments so they work again. Some 18 months from starting its talk, the Occupy movement is mostly memory.

While much of the nation was struggling in a democracy-of-irons, Chicago Spring launched our city on a path that can break through democracy’s complications. Chicago Spring accelerated the previous decade’s changes using governing strategies that this series synthesizes as an updated Chicagoism. Consider this practical -ism as a framework to categorize the first two years of changes and, more important, craft the deal needed for sustainable progress.

Rahm’s First 100 Days Opens Horizons to a Deal

During his transition, Emanuel talked straight to the City Council with comments such as “Nothing ahead of us is easy. It’s all hard.” Welcoming frankness and rapid changes, Chicagoans seemed to like what they got. Rahm’s honeymoon was applauded with an astounding approval rate pushing over 80% by Labor Day.

Accompanied by a PR machine producing prodigious press releases announcing an amazing and full range of improvements, here are some samples gleaned from the many 100 Days reviews offered by opinion-makers; most of whom were impressed, but felt it was too early for conclusive results. This condensed list only glimpses at Rahm’s enormously energetic display of remaking municipal government.

* Outlined $75 million in savings in before the Inauguration; realizing $50M before September 2011.

* Expanded the privatization of recycling. Plus, continued re-routing garbage collection.

* Created the city’s first ever interactive budget website at

* Hosted the first Facebook town hall and several other innovative public forums.

* Announced securing 4,000 private sector jobs downtown and some neighborhoods.

On the fraud and abuse front, Rahm even reined in credit card use by City managers.

Further Acts of Accountability

To show his intent to cleanup the bigger money, he also tried to resolve Daley’s primary blemish by creating a task force to recommend reforms to Tax Increment Financing. In an assertive effort to avoid future TIF scandals and to minimize the ever-present appearances of impropriety in the particularly murky world of real estate deals, Rahm had the Task Force deliver proposals quickly by late August.

Accepted by most mainstream observers as a genuine effort at reform, the TIF report and the five Executive Orders served to give many Chicagoans pause to ponder that the “city that works” might actually do so in a reasonably ethical manner.

As a hindsight summary, consider Rahm’s first 100 Days as a political triumph because it made possible the changes that were to follow.

With its honeymoon faded, the Emanuel Administration’s rapid progress slowed as 2011 ended. Running out of low-hanging fruit to harvest, the Administration also had to contend with the dissatisfactions bred by budget cuts.

While big statement changes — such as the Five Ethical Executive Orders — were less frequent and the PR machine made more muted music, Rahm’s Administration still made solid progress during 2012. If you need more convincing, make a quick revisit to “The Urbanophile” September 2012 post, “Fixing Chicago: Rahm’s Work In Progress.”

In part, progress continued when the governed started sensing a new reality: Rahm’s strategy ameliorated small sacrifices by making things better in multiple ways.

How A Multi-Benefit Strategy Works for “The City That Works” and Can Work for Your City, Too

Compare Chicago’s 2012 results to those of Uncle Sam or Illinois. What level of government is creating “the new order of things” and which levels are preventing it?

While every government’s dilemmas are different, Rahm’s strategy produces progress because it markets multiple benefits: one change helps citizens in multiple ways. For example, Rahm tells the administration to publish the City’s data and let the private sector profit by adding value. Characteristic of how sustainable strategies produce multiple benefits, Rahm’s strategy has three wins.

First, sharing data makes possible greater accountability, a break from Daley’s secretive years.

Second, greater information flow can boost Rahm’s present problem: making services more efficient. Emerging when Daley was Mayor, the biggest example is BusTracker because it reduces waiting time and increases ridership and revenue. Other innovations also are creating the incremental use of data that, in total, makes noticeable progress.

Third, this governing strategy also stimulates local startups in the information economy by developing micro-applications. This last area could prime the pump to grow an industry that helps update Chicago’s role as a global center. While industrial Chicago took raw materials and added value to consumer products, an information-based Chicago today can convert more data into sustainable practices.

(If all this multi-benefits stuff sounds familiar, it should. It is a verbal rendition of the same dynamic describing the bubble diagram in Section 2.)

While we have too few results to judge how well Rahm’s overall tech strategy is working, it helped carry him over bumps during 2012. And for a few risks and pitfalls that may become apparent, go to the end of “The Urbanophile” post “Thoughts On Chicago’s Tech Scene.”

Whether or not Rahm’s tech emphasis is a triumph for economic growth, his information strategy helps two of the three “R” principles emerging in the 21st Century Chicagoism: Reinventing services and Reforming accountability. While seeking the Synergy “thing” certainly helps give the impression of progress, we explore two key examples of what we hope is lasting progress in the next installment.

Chicagoism Series Index
Part 1: Lessons from the 20th Century
Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability
Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms (this post)
Part 4: How Chicagoism Works Again
Part 5: Where Do We Go From Here?

Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Replay: The New Industrial City

[ This one is a bit old, but in honor of the Brookings Race to the Shop proposal, I’m dusting it off for you. Just to stress, I’m all in favor of knowledge industries, but they can be the totality of the economic development effort – Aaron.]

Most American urban economic development and revitalization initiatives seek to position communities to attract high wage jobs in the knowledge economy. This usually involves programs to attract and retain the college educated, and efforts to lure corporate headquarters or target industries such as life sciences, high tech, or cutting edge green industries. Almost everything, whether it be recreational trails, public art programs, stadiums and convention centers, or corporate incentives, is justified by reference to this goal, often with phrases like “stopping brain drain” and “luring the creative class”.

The future vision underpinning this is a decidedly post-industrial one. This city of tomorrow is made up of people living upscale in town houses and condos, riding a light rail line to work at a smartly designed modern office, and spending enormous sums – with the requisite sales tax benefits – entertaining themselves in cafes, restaurants, swanky shops, or artistic events.

In contrast the factory has no place in this future city. Indeed industry is considered a blight that needs to be eliminated or repurposed. What were once working docks are to be converted to recreational waterfront parkland. Warehouses and small factories become the site for developing lofts, studios, or boutiques. This urban economy is based almost solely around intellectual work and services, not physical production.

But there is a problem with this equation. In almost any city, the bulk of the people do not have college degrees. According to Brookings, the average adult college degree attainment rate for the top 100 metro areas is only 30.6% In the many years it will take to raise this, what are the rest of the people supposed to do for a living? Younger cohorts are better educated than their grandparents, so this will improve over time. But better educated for what? Not everyone is cut out, or wants to be a stock-trader or media consultant. We have to think about those who would rather work with their hands.

The vision touted by too many urban boosters is that of an explicitly two-tier society. There are elite, well paid knowledge workers in industries like finance, law, and technology, and then there is everybody else. Programs designed to boost knowledge industries turn out to be subsidies to cater to the most privileged stratum of society. The public is called on to pay for urban amenities for the favored quarter of the intelligentsia, with the benefit to the rest of the people assumed.

But little thought is given as to how everyone else will get by, other than working in low wage service occupations catering to the privileged. In the Victorian era, they called this going “into service”. Today we might think of them better as globalization’s coolie class.

Beyond this, can we as a country prosper if we don’t actually make things anymore? Some of the fear of manufacturing decline is overblown. Despite large scale job losses in the manufacturing sector, the US has continued to set industrial production records outside of recessions. However, as the chart below from the Federal Reserve shows, industrial production growth flattened significantly in the late 1990s.

Sadly, manufacturing has been hammered in this Great Recession. There will certainly be a cyclical upturn in output, but restructuring in the automobile industry portends a permanent reduction in domestic output in that sector among others. Unless carefully handled, increasing regulation of carbon emissions, along with the associated energy price rises, will encourage further offshoring to countries with few climate change obligations, such as China, India, Brazil and other developing nations.

Yet to remain both a prosperous and fair society, the United States must remain a manufacturing power. Manufacturing still provides the traditional route to middle class wages for those without college degrees. It also alone employs 25 percent of scientists and related technicians and 40 percent of engineers and engineering technicians.

Of course, the next wave of manufacturing will differ greatly from the past. Improvements in productivity and global competition mean a bleak future for large scale, low value-added, routinized production. The era where an assembly plant provided thousands of good jobs at good wages is a thing of the past other than for the lucky few. And where there are new factories, they are often in greenfield locations like the new Honda plant in Greensburg, Indiana – halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati – not urban centers. Polluting heavy industry like primary metals and refining really are incompatible with neighborhoods. So what is to be done?

One answer is to build a new industrial city focusing on small scale craft and specialty manufacturing with high value added. We’re seeing a precursor to this in the rise of organic farming and artisanal products of all kinds. TV shows featuring hip young carpenters renovating homes or gearheads tricking out cars and motorcycles make these professions seem glamorous. Magazines targeted at the global elite like Monocle scour the world in favor of the finest handcrafted products from old school workshops, building demand for these products. The New York Times Magazine recently did an article making the case for working with your hands, and also noted how digitally oriented designers are rediscovering the use of their hands. Perhaps it is no surprise that sociologist Richard Sennett turned his attention to the idea of the craftsman. In short, making things, craftsmanship, and quality are back in fashion.

The challenge for urban economies is to develop this and put it on a sound industrial and economic footing. One key might be to inspire people to start these craft oriented businesses by tapping into people’s desire to purchase ethical and sustainable products. We increasingly see with foods and other items that people want to understand their provenance, to know who made them, how, with what, and under what conditions. Often today businesses catering to this desire are small scale “Mom and Pop” type operations, but there is no reason they can’t be done at greater scale, or expanded into areas like organic food processing, not just organic farming. American Apparel has done just that by manufacturing low cost, stylish clothing “Made in Downtown Los Angeles. Sweatshop Free.” at scale, for example.

Beyond craft products, reinvigorating small scale, specialty fabrication and other businesses, to rebuild an American version of Germany’s Mittlesand, creates another, often ignored option for urban economies. Quality, flexibility, responsiveness, and a willingness to do small runs are keys. These businesses can also underpin product companies higher in the value chain. They start building an ecosystem of local companies and expertise that can be useful for related or spin-off businesses. Jane Jacobs, and before her the great French historian Fernand Braudel, noted how cities could incubate many new enterprises because all the diverse products and services they needed were available locally. If you need to scour the globe looking for custom parts and services, it can quickly overwhelm a small business. That’s one reason American Apparel started in Los Angeles, which already had a network of garment producing firms and expertise to draw on. What’s more, these firms might be ideal candidates to take over empty strip mall or other space in decaying inner ring suburbs, helping to solve the “graybox” problem. Even Main St. locations could potentially benefit from businesses beyond traditional boutiques.

Today these types of specialty firms are often found in America’s largest cities, so they stand to benefit most from this. Smaller cities also need to figure out how to build this ecosystem. The culture needs to change too. Particularly in the Midwest/Rust Belt area, industrial labor has tended towards low skill, repetitive work in larger scale mass production industries. Retraining will be needed for these newer types of businesses, but this is vocational or skill training, not necessarily a college degree. It is a much more tractable problem.

Not only could this new manufacturing base be a source of urban middle class jobs for the non-college degreed, it would do something arguably more important. It links the fortunes of the new upscale urban residents, the people who are both the customers for many of these products and potentially also the entrepreneurs making them, with that of their less educated neighbors. For many owners, managers, and workers, it might bring into daily contact people who might not otherwise ever interact if one group worked in an office and another in a warehouse. Rebuilding that sense of community and commonwealth, that we are neighbors, fellow citizens, and all in this together, is critical to building a truly sustainable, well-functioning and broadly prosperous society.

This post originally appeared in New Geography on August 17, 2009.

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Why Republicans Need Cities

In my latest post over at New Geography I make a rare foray into political writing to call the Republican party to task for failing to compete for the urban vote. It’s called “Why Republicans Need Cities” and is a call to arms for Republicans to take cities seriously again. Here’s an excerpt:

Republicans have largely abandoned the urban playing field, preferring to condemn the cities as cesspools of Democratic corruption, high taxes, and decay. The Republican party today is largely driven by exurban and rural leaders, as well as populist movements like the Tea Party, with values that are not widely shared by urban dwellers. This has not only cost the party votes, but, critically, it has left it on the outside looking in on many debates, as culture is shaped in large urban centers where Republicans have little voice.

It’s well past time for Republicans to take cities seriously again. This starts with valuing urban environments, and respecting (or at least taking time to understand) the values of the people who live there. For example, urban dwellers expect and indeed require a higher level of public services than many suburban residents. The suburbs might not need quality street lighting, for example, but cities do. The rural area I grew up in can rely on people passing by in pickup trucks with chain saws to clear away trees that fall on the road. Cities can’t. Thus, Tea Party-type policy prescriptions in which basically everything the government does is considered bad, and in which cutting taxes is the main political value, aren’t likely to sell. Urban dwellers actually want to know how you are going to deliver services more effectively. Similarly, just bashing transit as a waste of money, lashing out against location-appropriate density, opposing all environmental initiatives, and shrill anti-immigrant rhetoric only turn urban dwellers off.
Republicans have a huge opportunity in the enormous income and wealth gap in inner cities, which Democratic policies, focused on things like greening the city, have done little to address. Indeed, all too much urbanism amounts to a sort of trickle down economics of the left, in which a “favored quarter” of artists, high end businesses, and the intelligentsia are plied with favors and subsidies while precious little ever makes it to those at the bottom rungs of society. A key lever to end this is to cut away at the massive regulatory burden that stifles small scale entrepreneurs, particularly minorities and immigrants. Regulatory relief is right up the Republicans’ alley.

Ed Glaeser has a related piece in the current issue of City Journal called “The GOP and the City.” The American Enterprise Institute says “the GOP can’t be an urban myth.” By contrast, the American Conservative says, Republicans won’t compete in cities. Too bad for the GOP if they don’t.

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Creating a “Race to the Shop” Competition for Advanced Manufacturing by Bruce Katz and Peter Hamp

[ The Brookings Institution is out with an interesting proposal to create a federal competition they call “Race to the Shop” for manufacturing similar to Race to the Top for education. The idea is to use the carrot of federal money to promote innovative reform of traditional programs for boosting manufacturing industries. Given the clear need for reform in workforce development and modest amounts of money this proposal would involve, it sounds like a good idea at first look to me. Here’s their overview and you can read an 11-page proposal paper on it as well – Aaron. ]

A “Race to the Shop” competition for advanced manufacturing should be initiated in order to expedite the transition toward a more innovative, productive, inclusive, and globally competitive American economy. The competition would challenge U.S. states and metropolitan areas to align their policies and investments to meet the distinct labor demands of their primary advanced manufacturing sectors and clusters. Winning applicants would not only receive resources for planning and implementation, but also increased flexibility in the use of existing federal workforce development and skills training funds.

Race to the Shop responds to one of the major barriers threatening the resurgence of U.S. manufacturing: the lack of educated workers with the skills necessary for today’s advanced industry.


In the years preceding the Great Recession, the United States pursued a post-industrial economic growth model, prioritizing consumption and real estate speculation over investments in innovation and production—the true engines of economic competitiveness and wealth generation in America. Among the few positive developments drawn from the Great Recession is that the U.S. economy is now undergoing a slow, painful transition toward a “next economy,” one where the U.S. exports more and wastes less, innovates in what matters, produces more of what it invents, and ensures that the economy actually works for working families.

Reviving America’s advanced manufacturing sector is obviously a critical component of building a more productive, sustainable, and inclusive economy. U.S. manufacturing is an important source of quality well-paying jobs that offer a significant wage premium—nearly 20 percent higher average weekly earnings than non-manufacturing jobs—and are more likely to provide health care and retirement benefits. The sector also accounts for the lion’s share of the country’s R&D and innovation activity. While manufacturing provides only 9 percent of all U.S. jobs and 11 percent of total GDP, it employs 35 percent of all engineers, represents 68 percent of the spending on R&D that is performed by U.S. companies, and produces 90 percent of all patents developed in the United States. Further, manufactured goods comprise about 65 percent of all U.S. trade (both imports and exports), making it a crucial component of any strategy to reduce America’s growing trade deficit. In short, a strong manufacturing sector is necessary for America to compete in the global economy.


The Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings proposes an annual $150 million Race to the Shop competition to reform and modernize federal investments in workforce education and skills training for advanced manufacturing in the United States.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition in the educational arena offers a model for Race to the Shop. Race to the Top is a clear example of how the carrot of a relatively small amount of federal spending can reinvent how states (and metros) carry out a critical role of government, as states undertake systemic reforms and develop new, innovative approaches to education in hopes of qualifying for federal education grants.

A Race to the Shop competition would challenge states and metropolitan areas to develop long-term plans, investment strategies, and regulatory and administrative reforms in support of their top advanced manufacturing sectors, particularly in the area of skills training and workforce development. The competition would require a cross-section of leaders from the public, university, non-profit, and private manufacturing sector in states and metro areas to organize a task force (perhaps led at the state level by the governor’s office and at the metro level by a consortium of elected officials or a leading non-profit or manufacturing intermediary) that would be charged with designing and submitting a proposal to address the manufacturing workforce and skills challenges within their state or region. The proposals would:

– Articulate a bold economic vision for the state or metro that builds on their special assets and strengths in advanced manufacturing

– Identify and prioritize key weaknesses or barriers (e.g., lack of strong vocational education or skills training system, absence of customized training for existing industrial firms and sectors, etc.) to successfully implementing the state or metro plan

– Design strategies that carry out the plan through tangible projects and investments, with deep and sustainable involvement of manufacturing companies

– Leverage other federal funds in support of these strategies

– Reform state and/or local policies and governance in support of these strategies

– Hold themselves accountable on a regular basis through a set of transparent performance measures

Read the Entire “Race to the Shop” Paper

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Toronto: City Rising

This week’s video is from Toronto and is called “City Rising.” This is another one best viewed in full screen high definition. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Chicagoism, Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability by Robert Munson

You can also read part one of this series by Robert Munson.

Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT pictured above) symbolizes how Mayor Daley positioned Chicago as a national model for green design and experimentation. But because it only advanced environmental sustainability, CCGT also shows the limits of progress when only focusing on one of what has now emerged as the three main categories of sustainability (environmental balance, stable economic growth and fiscal sustainability).

As a clearinghouse for green ideas and practices, CCGT’s challenge today is to encourage economic growth that supports environmental balance. CCGT’s weakness here is easy to see. It sits within a square mile of mostly abandoned industrial buildings served by two rail lines. Along with many vacant lots, these sites are ideal for an economic evolution. But…..where are the business incubators for alternative energy, water management and all the other new industries required to “green” the metropolis?

On the simplest level, where are the companies that employ the nearby low-skilled youth to manufacture rain barrels and hook them up so Chicago’s one million households can live-up to our ordinance — ignored for two decades — to disconnect downspouts so they don’t overflow aged sewers? And for a related synergy… wouldn’t free stormwater make it easy to sell to the public as an alternative to the water/sewer bills that must double in the next five years so we can pay for the system’s update?

Possibly responding to Daley’s boosterism of Chicago being the “greenest”, many cities are actively experimenting in this arena. Consider how this abstract bubble diagram below might guide your city to learn from Chicago’s early efforts. The concept is this: each category of sustainability needs to build synergy with the other two. Therefore, environmental progress needs to grow the nexus of where economic growth generates revenue to pay city services (or cuts their costs.) In that triple nexus, infrastructure serves the public best. As you can see below, CCGT’s first decade — while an achievement — had minimal impact on the synergy sustainability needs to grow. CCGT needs to get into the green intersect that matters more.

While these questions and bubbles are simplistic, they reveal today’s key challenge for cities: current policies are too inflexible and misaligned to create economic synergies for green technology to thrive and, possibly, solve social problems. If its public policies created more synergy, Chicago’s leadership role in transitioning into the sustainable economy would be stronger.

Environmental sustainability is developing a core consensus. But today, we see progress is restrained by persisting slow economic growth and fiscal crises. (Rahm’s more comprehensive strategy emerges in the fourth post.) While Daley’s three innovations are listed below, they got only partially done; distracted mostly by budget deficits.

1. “Being green” was a first step in finding synergy between Chicago’s transportation dominance and entrepreneurial zeal. Beautifying the urban core, protecting our public lakefront as key assets, cleaning up the River. and other quality of life improvements flowed consistently from Daley’s leadership. This took on a critical mass as Chicagoans started reshaping public spaces and streetscapes, particularly in neighborhoods. But while “green” created fine visuals for residents and tourists alike, Daley did not “green” Chicagoans’ pocketbooks. While energy retrofits, bike paths and improved transit ridership create household savings, green economic benefits are less apparent.

Relative to other metro areas, Chicago’s slow economic growth has been a theme of the recent series in “The Urbanophile” where you can read his analysis on how much Chicago’s new job creation and economic growth lagged most American top ten cities. Built around 2010 Census data, this analysis shows Chicago and Chicagoland losing economic advantage relative to other metro areas. The Urbanophile post on the lack of a calling card industry offers strategic insight into the Daley-era limits and Rahm’s fixes.

While Daley tried ways to encourage enterprise and supported it by initiating infrastructure improvements in freight handling and the CTA, Rahm has to do the heavy lifting to achieve economic synergy.

2) Transforming Chicago into a global center tightened the metropolis, making the realignment of authority politically more likely. City-suburb tension has been reversed. There are now significant areas of collaboration. Daley’s leadership here should be heralded. Chicago’s renaissance strengthened it as a global center and this increased business opportunities in the suburbs. As in the first half of the 20th Century, the city started the 21st Century, seemingly, as leading metropolitan growth.

The most obvious example of Chicago’s new leverage and suburban political collaboration manifested itself in the unanimous acceptance by CMAP’s Board of Chicagoland’s new 2040 regional plan. Two-thirds of CMAP’s Board represents suburbs. The “Go To 2040” Plan (released in late 2010) emphasized, in CMAP’s words, “a sustained prosperity.” A hopeful mind can read this as the underpinnings of metropolitan economic collaboration. But the unspoken deal in the CMAP plan was that land use would remain firmly under municipal control. Thus, provincial politics vastly limits the profitable synergy offered by regional economic collaboration.

3) Reinventing services emerged as pre-requisite to fiscal balance. 2007 saw the peak of public service costs. Since the public sector bubble burst, politicians’ scenarios for stability are not believable; especially when you recognize our chronic fiscal crunches are caused by the unhappy confluence of these three factors:

* greater demand for public services in a low-growth economy;

* bureaucracies and labor contracts that restrict efficiency improvements; and,

* fed-up taxpayers.

Daley further distinguishes himself as an early Democrat to break the traditional mold and say, in effect, “taxpayers won’t pay more.” If we combine this with his attempts to make many services consumer-friendly and efficient, we see another part of how Daley’s genius started changing government’s role. While many departments underwent some changes from 1989 to 2008, results still were middling. When cutbacks in 2009 followed, perception started ebbing back that we were getting less value and less service.

Today’s perpetual fiscal crises need a comprehensive strategy

Regrettably, the two hangovers from the 20th Century worsened.

1. Illinois’ corruption morphed into insolvency and breached the social contract. Politicians didn’t tell the truth in the 2010 election: that our fiscal pit requires both service cuts and tax increases. Not squaring with voters results in having to trick them into higher taxes, such as nearly doubling Illinois’ income tax in January 2011. (A similar tax increase scenario awaits us in 2013; coupled dangerously with an inability to tackle costs.)

Compounding these lies, local politicians also don’t seem to understand that the resistance is really derived from taxpayers being fed up with their money being wasted by inefficient programs and bureaucracies that, by their frequently monopolistic practices, run against the grain of basic American values.

Local services can’t shrink enough to repay their debts and can’t get new capital; making government definitionally bankrupt. As we treat the private sector, government must restructure its business and relations with customers…in this case, citizens and taxpayers. This actually is a unique opportunity to create the social contract for the sustainable century which, this series argues, should be regionally based. This requires realignment.

2. Misaligned authority restricts service improvements. While Chicago is hamstrung by Illinois, service improvements are also difficult in the 240+ separate suburbs; many lacking the economies of scale to be efficient. Illinois’ power restricts alternative service delivery methods. Daley’s last decade explored new models such as contracting-out services, public-private partnerships and sub-regional collaboration. But given that most infrastructure updates have a two-decade backlog, new models first should be tried to compensate for lost time.

Sustainable public services are necessary for growth. We can’t get those because Illinois’ debts and inefficiencies are an unaffordable weight around the neck of every taxpayer, household and corporation treading water in a low-growth, debt-burdened economy.

In the next posting, we explore our transition from just “being green” to the Emanuel strategies for a more comprehensive sustainability, including economic and fiscal sustainability. These new dimensions offer promise in Chicago; so there should be lessons for your city as well.

Chicagoism Series Index
Part 1: Lessons from the 20th Century
Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability (this post)
Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms
Part 4: How Chicagoism Works Again
Part 5: Where Do We Go From Here?

Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

The Strategic Case for Mass Transit in Indianapolis

Andrea Neal had a column in the Indianapolis Star last week called “Mass transit just isn’t a good fit for Indy.” This piece argues, basically, that because Indianapolis is low density, transit won’t work there.

Let me first say that I agree Indy is low density and transit is not something that’s needed to address a serious, near term transport issue, save for the embarrassing state of the basic bus network.

However, for a place like Indianapolis, the real case for transit is strategic. In a nutshell, the urban core of Indianapolis is collapsing because it offers an “urban lite” environment that is almost entirely automobile oriented and thus in direct competition with suburbs that are newer, of higher quality contemporary designs that meet the market demand of today, and which have better public services and lower taxes to boot.

That’s not a winning combination, and I made the argument a few years ago that if something was not done to change this, Indianapolis might simply implode.

Let’s take a look at the stark reality. Indianapolis has long boasted of having one of the best downtowns for a city its size in America – and with justification. From nothing, Downtown Indy has been successfully revitalized as a world class events and entertainment center, something all Hoosiers can be immensely proud of.

But the successful side of revitalization has hidden the less pleasant truth that downtown Indianapolis has been losing large numbers of private sector jobs and has been a national laggard when it comes to attracting residents. More troublingly, the larger urban core is in an advanced state of collapse.

After nearly two decades in which attracting residents and employment have been key goals of nearly every civic initiative, it is time to face the fact that these efforts have not worked. Without a change in direction, there is no reason to believe that they will succeed in the future either. Given the decline that has started to affect the township areas of outer Marion County, reversing urban core collapse is imperative if local leaders wish to avoid the real risk that Indianapolis becomes a failed city.

Unigov has disguised the degree to which the old city of Indianapolis has experienced a collapse in population and investment similar to some of America’s most notorious cities.

Data is no longer reported for the pre-Unigov city limits, but Center Township offers a reasonable proxy. When compared to non-Unigov municipalities elsewhere in the Midwest, Center Township’s population loss in the last decade was worse than St. Louis and comparable to Cleveland. One has to look at a Gary or Detroit to find a city with significantly worse core population loss.

These other declining cities all suffered from being in regions with almost no population growth, or even population decline. But metro Indy grew very strongly, which makes its large urban core losses even worse.

Even downtown Indy – defined as the area inside the inner loop and White River – has far fewer residents than is generally advertised. There are less than 10,000 downtown residents after the jail population is subtracted. This in what is, at 5 ½ square miles, one of America’s geographically biggest downtowns.

And despite frequent press accounts of residential construction, downtown added less than 1,000 total people in the last decade. This anemic population growth badly trailed regional peer cities – even Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Downtown Indianapolis (zip codes 46202 and 46204) has also struggled to retain its job base, losing 15% of its private sector jobs in the last ten years. And Marion County as a whole lost a large number of jobs as well:

Other cities have also experienced downtown private sector job losses, but that is cold comfort for Indianapolis.

It is difficult to look at these numbers after the extensive efforts – including large amount of public investment – put into the downtown and urban core and conclude otherwise but that these have not yet delivered on their goal of reversing population and job declines, except for population in the core of downtown – and even that has failed on a competitive basis.

The key problem, as I noted at the beginning of this post, is strategic. When you offer an older, inferior version of the same basic auto-oriented product as the suburbs, but with higher taxes, don’t expect many takers.

It’s likely that population losses will abate as Center Township runs out of choice consumers who can leave. But rebuilding to any material degree is going to require different policies.

To their credit, the civic leadership has stepped up with a number of initiatives designed not to just spend money propping things up, but to try to change the game on both the product definition (moving away from a purely auto-centric, urban-lite environment), and quality of services. Some of these, such as the Mayor’s charter schools or the Cultural Trail are already implemented. But major transformative efforts, such as reforming IPS, remain outstanding.

Transit is one of those outstanding items. I certainly wouldn’t rate a major investment in transit as the most pressing need. But it is something that is a key facilitator of things that need to happen in order to differentiate the urban core residential and commercial product so that it is not just in direct competition with the auto-oriented suburbs. That direct competition, as I noted, is doomed to fail. Only producing a distinctive product that you can’t get in the suburbs and that people are willing to buy on its own merits, will change these numbers.

Andrea Neal and other transit critics might have an idea of what to do here. If so, I’d enjoy hearing their take. But simply criticizing transit without offering an alternative set of proposals to reverse urban core decline isn’t credible.

And neither is acting like the urban core doesn’t matter. Neal’s point of view is that the battle’s over and the suburbs won. But just ask places like Cleveland and Detroit if you can have a thriving metro area once your core goes down the tubes. Metro growth will certainly not continue on pace as the #1 metro in the Midwest without improvement in the urban core. Indeed, there are already indications that the metro area as a whole is starting to stumble a bit, with troubling stats like labor force declines.

The simple case for transit is that it is a key piece of the puzzle in creating the differentiated product it needs to compete for residents. It’s not the only piece, but it is a piece. (Certainly a lot more courageous change is required). As a regional system, the IndyConnect transit proposal also facilitates regional travel to the central business district, and links inner city residents who need jobs but may not have cars with employers in the suburbs who need workers. That business impact is one reason the business community is so keen on transit.

I should also note that I’ve been a critic of rail transit in Indy. That’s why I am pleased to see that the IndyConnect transit proposal has very little rail, only one line to the northeast that’s clearly a political fillip to Fishers and Noblesville. The rest of the system is much more cost effective bus, which is a big plus for it. This is not a massive investment in fixed guideway capital, but a lower cost service that can be deployed incrementally and is flexible enough to be adjusted if market conditions change.

Pace Andrea Neal, the General Assembly should step up to the plate and give local residents a chance to decide for themselves whether or not they want to invest their own money in a transit system.

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Rust Belt Chic, Providence Style

I had an interesting conversation the other week with some folks here in Providence. I happen to live in a converted mill building in a somewhat dowdy outlying area. Chatting with some folks at a swank bar/art gallery in downtown Providence, folks suggested that for the same rent, I could live downtown and enjoy all that is on offer there, such as said swank bar and many other similar type cultural amenities.

I can appreciate this point of view. I certainly highly value being able to take advantage of those things. But for me, if I wanted to enjoy swank bars, art galleries, coffee shops, vegan restaurants, cutesy boutiques, etc., I’d never have left Chicago. Chicago already has a vastly greater array of such places than Providence could ever aspire to, and is a legitimate transit oriented metropolis to boot.

On the other hand, I couldn’t live in a converted mill of the type I live in now in Chicago no matter how much money I was willing to pay. This type of architecture only exists to any great degree in Rhode Island and select other New England locales. This is something unique here that you can’t get anywhere else, and if I’m going to be living here, that’s what I’d prefer to take advantage of for now.

The cold reality is that Providence is never going to be competitive in talent attraction by trying to out-appeal Boston, NYC, DC, Portland, Seattle, etc., etc., etc. on creative class type amenities. It’s just not going to happen. You are competing with other places at their strongest point and will fail.

That’s not to say these types of things aren’t critically important. If there weren’t some critical mass of that type of attraction, if I couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee, meal, beer, or have some cultural stimulation, I’d probably blow my brains out. Or more likely take the next train out of town. Those types of things remove “knockout criteria” that would keep someone from even considering your town. But they won’t close the deal.

What closes the deal is some type of unique attractional characteristic. It could be as simple as family or being your original home. It could be a unique career opportunity. Or it could be something about the local place or the local culture that isn’t on offer in every other town in America, something that makes your town a truly unique and authentic experience.

For Rhode Island, the birthplace of the industrial revolution in America, the old mills and such are a part of that. They are part of our Rust Belt heritage, just like the “Pittsburgh potty” is in that town. They fact that so many of these old places are decrepit and rundown only adds to the charm in some respect. What a place with real history and character? This place has got it.

That’s what it will ultimately take to turnaround a Providence or other Rust Belt city. It won’t be chasing the same dreams as everybody else. It will be charting a unique path rooted in local history, culture, and geography, repositioned for the 21st century.

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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