Thursday, April 17th, 2014
Keeping with the Cincinnati theme, I’m posting two videos marketing the city. I’ll post these without comment and let you share your thoughts. I’ll be back on the flip side of Easter with a least one more Cincinnati post.
First, “Make Cincy Yours.” I’m not exactly sure who put this one out. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
The next one is from the Chamber of Commerce and is called “Meet Cincinnati USA: We Do What We Love.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
h/t Indy’s We Are City Newsletter for these videos.
Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
Here’s a small gem for you. Remember that $260 million tunnel under the trees in Louisville? It’s part of the boondoggle Ohio River Bridges project. Would you believe the price went up by almost $80 million at the same time Indiana claimed it “saved” $209 million on it through design changes? Of course you would.
In 2010, the state DOTs were saying that the tunnel would cost $260 million. (See “The $260 Million Home.”) Keep in mind, this is back when the project scope called for a six lane freeway in the East End and when the entire project was supposed to cost $4.1 billion. The East End approach that included the tunnel was estimated at $753 million.
Then in 2012 the two states revised the project to reduce the number of lanes in the East End bridge to four among other changes. This reduced the total project scope to $2.6 billion. The Kentucky approach (including the tunnel) was estimated at $795 million (over $100,000 per foot, incidentally), which was actually an increase. Even if we assign 100% of the cost increase in the approach to the tunnel, which would make it $302 million. Keep in mind that media reports continued to describe the tunnel as being in the $255-260 million range.
Yesterday the Courier Journal reported that the actual tunnel was cost $338 million – that’s a $78 million increase over 2010 and a $36 million increase over our max burn scenario in 2012.
Yet the Indiana Department of Transportation is claiming that they saved $209 million on the tunnel. From the C-J article: “Design changes for the tunnels earlier this year cut about $209 million from the initial $547 million estimate made before bids were submitted. The tunnels have been shortened 200 feet, to a total of 1,800 feet. The number of initial lanes to be constructed was reduced in 2012 to a total of four with eight-foot shoulders on both sides, allowing for expansion to the original six lanes if eventually needed.”
I googled “drumanard tunnel 547″ and got 19 hits. There was nothing I could find prior to January 2014 (after the bid was let) with an estimate of $547 million listed for the tunnel cost in this or other searches. Dittos for the $209 million savings. The two figures appear to have come into existence at the exact same time.
Or did INDOT actually know all along this tunnel would be $547 million, but kept the info from the public? Even at the original price, they were under huge pressure about building it because it was so self-evidently ludicrous. For example, the lede in a 2012 investigative story in the Indianapolis Star was “All that stands between Indiana taxpayers and $200 million in savings is 11 acres of woods in Kentucky.” This was not long after the bridges project manager was claiming it would cost money to remove the tunnel. According to the News and Tribune, “[Bridges Project Manager] Sacksteder said removing the tunnel is not an option and would actually cost the project too much time and money.” Can you imagine them actually getting away with building the tunnel if they admitted to the public it was going to cost over half a billion dollars?
At this point I’d have to say it looks like either 1) INDOT created a ludicrously inflated estimate for the tunnel right before construction that was used for the purpose of generating bogus claims of savings, or 2) They were suppressing knowledge that the tunnel was vastly more expensive than they were telling the public. Take your pick.
In any case, only in the world of state DOT land can costs that escalate from $260 million on a six lane road to $338 million on a downscoped four lane road translate into a “savings” of $209 million.
PS: INDOT has been crowing that they saved $228 million during their contracting for the East End bridge. The tunnel was $209 million of that. So 92% of their claimed total savings are bogus right there – costs actually went up. What are the chances the other $20 million are bogus too? I know where I’d place my bet. I noted over six months ago that the amount of money flowing into this project – including increased taxpayer subsidies – indicated that costs were going up, not down. This is just more confirmation. That’s why INDOT has been frantically trying to land the plane by cutting scope and looking for “value engineering” like radically changing the architectural design of the East End bridge. That’s what project managers should be doing, actually. But let’s at least be honest about what’s going on.
Sunday, April 13th, 2014
Thursday I took a look at my “Cincinnati conundrum,” namely how it’s possible for a city that has the greatest collection of civic assets of any city its size in America to underperform demographically and economically. In that piece I called out the sprawl angle. But today I want to take a different look at it by panning back the lens to see Cincinnati as simply one example of the river city.
There are four major cities laid out on an east-west corridor along the Ohio River: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis (which is not on the Ohio River, but close enough. I’ll leave Memphis and New Orleans out of it for now). All of these are richly endowed with civic assets like Cincinnati is, having far more than their fair share of great things, yet they’ve all been stagnant to slow growing for decades.
This suggests a broader challenge: if urbanity and quality of life are so determinant of economic success, why aren’t these places juggernauts? It’s not that they are failures by any means, but they are long term under-performers.
Over the Rhine, Cincinnati – one example of the spectacular urban assets of these cities
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but since these cities share many characteristics, I wanted to show what they have in common. Doubtless some of these common threads play a role.
These cities came of age earlier than railroad based cities like Chicago. These are some of the earliest major cities in the region, and they owe their prominence to the era when the river was the major form of transport. They’ve all had a heavy German Catholic influence, hence the legacy of breweries and the importance of private Catholic high schools in these areas even today. They have bridge-oriented transportation traffic patterns and bottlenecks. They’ve got interesting geography with hills and trees and some similar climate patterns.
I find it particularly interesting that they have similar political geographies, despite being in four different states. Three of them are multi-state metros, obviously, because the rivers are state borders. But beyond that they all have hyper-fragmented systems of lots of tiny cities and villages that are fiercely independent. Here’s a map of all the municipalities in St. Louis County, for example:
Image via ArchCityHomes
All of these cities ceased annexing early and got hemmed in. St. Louis famously detached itself from the county completely to become an independent city. Only Louisville with its recently city-county merger grew out of this. But Louisville’s Jefferson County still features numerous sixth class cities and such that were excluded from merger, some of which are only a couple blocks in size. Hamilton County, Ohio and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania are similar.
Inside the cities themselves, there are also many well defined, distinct neighborhoods. These are usually small in size compared to what are called neighborhoods in cities like Chicago. Also, there can be deep divisions between the different sides of town. These are very divided cities. Cincinnati has the East Side-West Side divide. Louisville has the East End, the South End, and the West End. And which one you are from is a huge cultural marker. The North and South Sides of Indianapolis are very different and have some sniping back and forth, yet I don’t see the same visceral suspicion across the sides of town compared to say how Louisville’s South End (mostly working class white) sees the East End (the favored quarter). That helps explain why it took Louisville 40 years to build new Ohio River bridges, and why Cincinnati had to overcome unbelievable obstacles to build a streetcar.
These cities are also provincial and insular in their character. As a transplant to Louisville put it, “Louisville is parochial in all the best and worst ways.” These are cities with rich, unique architectural traditions, and with tremendously distinct local cultures compared to other cities in their region such as Indianapolis or Columbus, which have been largely Genericaized. So Cincinnati has its chili. St. Louis has its pizza. Pittsburgh even has its own yinzer dialect. In at least three of the four of these cities – I don’t know about Pittsburgh – the first question you get asked is “Where did you go to high school?” which tells you almost everything you need to know about them.
While provincialism is almost inherently negative as a term, this has big upsides for these cities too. They have an incredible sense of place and uniqueness. The brick houses of St. Louis are unlike anything else, for example. Again, the feel of these places is very notable in contrast to neighbors like Columbus and Indy, which give off a Sprawlville, USA vibe.
Trailer for film Brick: By Chance and Fortune. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. Please ignore the unfortunate preview image.
This provincialism comes with two associated character traits. One is a degree of solipsism. Solipsism is the philosophical proposition that nothing can be known to exist outside the self. It’s different from egotism. Egotism says you’re better than everybody. Solipsism says there isn’t anybody else. Obviously we’re talking degrees here, not absolutes. But this is key I think to the retention of those local traditions and local character.
I’ll give an example that illustrate this. Cincinnati arts consultant Margy Waller made a comment to me a few years ago that really stuck with me. She said that when people leave Cincinnati and come back, the stuff they did and learned while they were away might as well not have happened. She left and worked for several years in Washington, including in the Clinton White House. I’m not sure exactly what she did there, but if you’re working in the White House, by definition you’re operating at a bigtime level. But that’s barely mentioned in Cincinnati. Few people ever ask how her DC network or experience can inform or support the city.
Similarly Randy Simes is an instructive case. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati planning school, he got a job with a tier one engineering firm in Atlanta. But he also started and ran the blog Urban Cincy, which is a relentlessly positive advocate for the city and maybe its most effective marketing voice to the global urbanist world (the Guardian listed it as among the best urban web sites on the planet). Eager to come back to Cincinnati, he looked for a job there. But he couldn’t find one. Here’s a guy with 1) legitimate professional credentials 2) a top tier firm pedigree 3) the city’s most effective urban advocate 4) non-controversial, positive, and aligned with the political structure of the city and 5) he’s 24-25 years old and so it’s easy to hire him – you don’t need an executive director position or something. Yet no interest. Shortly thereafter he was head hunted by America’s biggest engineering firm to move to Chicago and then was sent on an expat assignment to Korea where he’ll be working on, among other things, one of the world’s most prominent urban developments (one that Cincinnati actually flew people in from Korea to present to them about). Jim Russell had a very similar experience with Pittsburgh.
The relationship of prophets and home towns has been known for some time, so I don’t want to pretend this is a totally unique case. But I can’t help but compare Randy’s case to blogger/advocate Richey Piiparinen in Cleveland, for whom an entire research center was created at Cleveland State (admittedly, he was already local at the time). I just don’t think Randy’s accomplishments outside Cincinnati resonated.
And secondly, these places do sometimes cross over into a sort of hauteur. I think because these were all very large, important cities in their earlier days and because they had so much amazing stuff, it bred a sort of aristocratic mindset perhaps. Having lived in both Louisville and Indianapolis, I clearly see the difference. In Indianapolis cool people will happily tell you how awesome they think St. Louis, Cincinnati or Louisville are. They’ll make visits to say the 21C Hotel or Forecastle Festival in Louisville and write and say great things about it and even how they wish Indy had some of those things.
But people from Louisville would rather bite their tongues out than say nice things about Indianapolis. If forced to, they will, but they do it in the most grudging way. I’ll never forget a travel guide for Louisville called the “Insiders Guide to Louisville” (I believe different than the one currently being sold under that name). In the intro they were bragging about Louisville’s totally legitimate food scene, but they had to throw in a gratuitous insult by saying something along the lines of, “Every city has good restaurants these days – even Indianapolis, we hear – but Louisville’s restaurants are truly special.” When Indianapolis Monthly did its “Chain City, USA” cover on Indy’s restaurants, I had to send it to my friends in Louisville since I knew they’d eat it up gleefully. (If you watched the St. Louis brick film trailer, you’ll also notice someone in it throwing a similar gratuitous dart at the Illinois brick used in Chicago).
Hot off the presses is this travel piece on Indianapolis written by someone in Louisville. As a travel piece, by is going to be positive by the very nature of the genre, but note the way the writer frames up the trip:
I bristle whenever I hear about flyover country – my home of Louisville is smack in the heart of what east and west coasters think is just the space they have to cross to get from one good part of the country to another – so I should be a little more open minded. But maybe because of my fondness for my hometown, it turns out I’ve been harboring a bit of the same snobbery that those fliers do – toward a northern neighbor.
My friend Kristian was bragging to me about Indy’s tech scene one day. I’d just gotten back from Cincinnati where I’d gotten to see their tech scene showcased, tour the Brandery accelerator, etc. So I said, “What about Cincinnati? Looks like they are rocking and rolling.” Kristian was like, “Oh yeah, they’re awesome. I was just down there and they totally get it, there’s some great stuff going on.” Then he made a comment that I think summed it up: “You know what though? They’re in love with their own story.”
That sums it up. These cities are in love with their own stories. That perhaps also explains a bit of it. With so many amazing assets it’s easy to be complacent. It reminds me of the famous quote from the triumphant (and boosterish) Chicago Democrat as Chicago started to pull away from St. Louis as the commercial capital of the Midwest: “St. Louis businessmen wore their pantaloons out sitting and waiting for trade to come to them while Chicago’s wore their shoes out running after it.”
If you’re too in love with your own story, you’re not going to work as hard as you should to take that story to the next level. After all, the story of these cities isn’t finished yet. But there’s a new generation in these places that aren’t wedded to the old ways. They love the story, but have some chapters of their own they want to write. As urban assets they have come back into fashion in the market, it will be interesting to see how they evolve. As the press for Pittsburgh shows, for example, there’s already plenty of signs of an inflection point. And in a region where places tend to flagellate themselves, having some cities with a bit of honest to goodness civic hauteur can actually be a refreshing change.
Thursday, April 10th, 2014
This post originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer on April 8, 2014.
Cincinnati arguably has the greatest collection of assets of any city its size in America. So why has the region been stagnant to slow-growing for so many decades?
When you look at the stunning collection of advantages and assets of Cincinnati – its geography; the amazing dense, historic architecture (great contemporary architecture, too); top-notch cultural institutions; a large corporate presence; and so many pieces of local culture and flavor of a type that has been homogenized away in most places – it’s an embarrassment of riches.
Yet since 1970, while the U.S. has grown by nearly 52 percent in population, the Cincinnati region grew by 26 percent, only half as fast. Other than Dayton, the other surrounding metro areas have also grown about twice as fast or more than Cincinnati. Cincinnati has lagged on jobs, too.
How is this? How can Cincinnati have the best stuff, but be a growth laggard?
Part of it is that all the assets in the world don’t help you if you don’t take advantage of them. Most of these are located in Cincinnati’s delightful urban core. But Cincinnati has to some extent abandoned that core in favor of low-grade sprawl.
The city of Cincinnati has lost a big chunk of population, and its regional share dropped from about 40 percent in 1950 to only 14 percent today. By contrast, New York City is still at 45 percent regional population share today. And while it’s a slow-growing region, too, the city of New York is at an all-time high in population and is booming in many ways, such as its tech and real estate industries.
Even Hamilton County has lost population as a whole, dropping by about 120,000 since 1970. By comparison, Indianapolis’s almost identically sized Marion County gained 135,000 during the same period – this in a place with far fewer obvious assets.
What’s more, unlike its fabulous core, Cincinnati’s sprawl isn’t even that good for the most part. So Cincinnati has chosen to fight its battle where it has few marketplace advantages instead of leveraging its unique and compelling assets.
This has proven a demographically, economically and financially unimpressive strategy. Instead, urban Cincinnati and Hamilton County should align available financial resources to make the most out of the amazing urban environment and assets that exist there.
Meanwhile, the suburbs aren’t going anywhere and will continue to grow, so they should seek to do so on a higher-quality pattern that will be financially sustainable long-term. The problem with sprawl is often less about the environmental impacts than the fact that as they age, older suburbs that weren’t very high-income to begin with become financial albatrosses as they fill up with dead malls, aging and less market-attractive homes, legacy costs and similar issues. And unlike the high-quality classic architecture of the core, they’ve as yet proven less adaptable over the long term.
The wonderful collection of assets Cincinnati has may also have bred complacency. Another name for an asset is “the stuff we did yesterday.” But what are we building for tomorrow? What is our generation’s contribution to the pot?
Cities like Columbus that started out with much less understood in their gut that they needed to go out and create some things. They were hungrier. Cincinnati needs to recover some of that hunger and fire in the belly that motivates other places that are keenly aware of what they lack and are fighting every day to improve.
Cincinnati has also been plagued with deep and counterproductive community divisions. This includes the East Side-West Side split, city vs. suburb, three states, tea partiers vs. liberals, racial divisions, etc. This makes it harder to get things done than it should be because there’s no civic consensus. The streetcar debate makes that very clear.
Cincinnati needs to find a way to heal these wounds and build a durable consensus while leaving room for appropriate debate.
A strategy that works with, not against, the unique qualities and competitive advantages of Cincinnati; a more aggressive, hungry civic attitude; and a way to bridge community divides are three of the things that will help Cincinnati to realize the sustainable growth and prosperity it should have in light of the fantastic place that it is and the incredible assets it has.
Wednesday, April 9th, 2014
I post a lot of city videos. I also write a lot about authenticity in cities and marketing. Last week Indianapolis artist Stuart Hyatt sent me this one that I think manages to be very cool as a video but also provides a very authentic look at the actual experience of Indianapolis.
Stuart is working on a project called the Indy Sound Map designed to create, well, a sonic map of the city. He did this for Washington St. end to end across the city. Rather than stop at that, Jonathan Frey filmed his journey and Forrest Lewinger used the recording to create a soundtrack for the film that’s part of a forthcoming album. You can read more in this Nuvo article about the project.
First the video, then more commentary. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
What I like is that this shows Indianapolis as it really is, not as a fantasy world city of nothing but shiny downtown hipster joints. I also really like that there’s a big focus on actual people. That’s not to say this is a completely 100% portrayal of everything. The bus is overly stressed whereas the auto dominated nature of the city doesn’t come through. But on the whole the feel I think is right.
Obviously this was an art project not a marketing film. But I think it’s easy to see how you could take the basic concept of this and adapt it to marketing. Will that happen? Nope. All civic marketing is inherently ultra-conservative, and as someone rightly pointed out about a recent Cleveland video, the funders who underwrite such ventures expect that the end product will heavily feature them and be consistent with their brand values. But this I think shows that there are ways to show cities other than ultra-slick time lapses that can work.
Friday, April 4th, 2014
Last week the Census Bureau released 2013 population estimates for counties and metro areas. There are three main takeaways I saw: 1) the increasing dominance of large metro areas 2) the continued move to the Sunbelt and 3) deceleration of the exurbanization rate.
For the dominance of large metros, Richard Florida wrote this up over at Atlantic Cities. Here’s his money chart:
Clearly not all large metros are booming. And there are definitely thriving smaller places as well. But in the current economy, there’s a minimum scale you need to really be a viable competitor. I put that at 1-1.5 million in regional population. If you’re smaller than that, as a general rule you need some unique competitive asset such as oil (Fargo), state capital (Des Moines), a major university (Lafayette, IN), or some such. These figures are just more evidence for why aligning state economic development strategies is the right move. Don’t fight the tape.
By the way, some commenters criticized Florida for not including larger size categories and not proving correlation between size and population growth. But I don’t see that as the argument. Rather, it’s about the minimum viable scale issue. There’s a threshold value you need to hit.
The continued regional population shift to the South, and to a somewhat lesser extent the West, was well-highlighted by Wendell Cox. This isn’t popular in urban circles, but just as with the above, we have to start with actual reality. There was some view that the Great Recession would pop a Sunbelt bubble, but it doesn’t seem to have happened. Even a place with no heritage as a business center like Phoenix is growing again.
On the exurban migration change, a lot of core metro counties did better than expected. For example, Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati) is shown as physically adding more people than any other county in the metro area. This is a county that has lost about 120,000 people since it’s peak population. Urban Cincy has the complete roundup.
I generally say that we should operate off of gold standard data (the Census Bureau’s population estimates being one such source) without trying to attack it when it doesn’t say what we like. So I’m going to roll with the headline numbers on county populations for the time being. But I do want to point out that last decade the Census Bureau vastly over-estimated urban populations. (Did the Census miss people in some locations like New York? Undoubtedly. But it’s hard to argue that the Census couldn’t find 25% of the entire population of the city of Atlanta. Outside of a handful of locales like Queens, I think the idea of large scale miscounts is off base). This decade the Census, much like state DOTs and their highway forecasts, has continued to double down on a false trend line. That’s why I say they may be on track for another estimating fiasco.
I would certainly encourage localities to correlate these estimates with other important data sources, especially hard count data for building permits and school enrollment, plus abandoned housing estimates. Can you foot those numbers to other things that are going on in your city?
Here’s a rundown of the statistics. All of these are only looking at metro areas of more than one million people.
Top 10 regions for net domestic migration:
|1||Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX||39,208||55,466||32,641||127,315|
|2||Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX||22,547||38,789||55,620||116,956|
|3||Austin-Round Rock, TX||30,240||31,041||25,908||87,189|
|6||San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX||19,491||21,508||22,392||63,391|
|10||Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL||26,849||5,960||12,262||45,071|
Top 10 Regions for Net International Migration:
|1||New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA||119,836||124,773||128,042||372,651|
|2||Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL||48,925||51,367||52,706||152,998|
|3||Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA||47,305||47,998||49,798||145,101|
|5||Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX||24,597||24,716||25,504||74,817|
|8||San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA||22,073||22,903||23,534||68,510|
|9||Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX||19,033||18,869||19,501||57,403|
Here is a list of all large metro areas, ranked by percentage population change since July 1, 2010. Total population change is also included:
|Rank||Metro Area||2010||2013||Total Change||Pct Change|
|1||Austin-Round Rock, TX||1,727,784||1,883,051||155,267||8.99%|
|3||Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX||5,948,689||6,313,158||364,469||6.13%|
|5||San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX||2,153,288||2,277,550||124,262||5.77%|
|7||Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX||6,452,758||6,810,913||358,155||5.55%|
|10||Oklahoma City, OK||1,257,883||1,319,677||61,794||4.91%|
|14||Salt Lake City, UT||1,091,452||1,140,483||49,031||4.49%|
|15||Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL||5,581,524||5,828,191||246,667||4.42%|
|16||San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA||1,842,076||1,919,641||77,565||4.21%|
|17||Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA||5,304,197||5,522,942||218,745||4.12%|
|18||San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA||4,344,584||4,516,276||171,692||3.95%|
|19||Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV||1,953,106||2,027,868||74,762||3.83%|
|20||New Orleans-Metairie, LA||1,195,757||1,240,977||45,220||3.78%|
|22||San Diego-Carlsbad, CA||3,104,182||3,211,252||107,070||3.45%|
|25||Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA||4,244,089||4,380,878||136,789||3.22%|
|27||Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI||3,355,167||3,459,146||103,979||3.10%|
|29||Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL||2,788,961||2,870,569||81,608||2.93%|
|31||Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI||989,196||1,016,603||27,407||2.77%|
|33||Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA||12,844,070||13,131,431||287,361||2.24%|
|35||Kansas City, MO-KS||2,013,691||2,054,473||40,782||2.03%|
|36||Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN||1,237,851||1,262,261||24,410||1.97%|
|37||New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA||19,596,183||19,949,502||353,319||1.80%|
|38||Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC||1,680,120||1,707,369||27,249||1.62%|
|43||Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI||1,556,549||1,569,659||13,110||0.84%|
|45||St. Louis, MO-IL||2,789,893||2,801,056||11,163||0.40%|
|49||Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT||1,214,014||1,215,211||1,197||0.10%|
|51||Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY||1,135,314||1,134,115||-1,199||-0.11%|
Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014
Remember the Cleveland video from last week? Well, the Cleveland folks already yanked it and replaced it with an edit that’s more usual suspects and less Cleveland authenticity. It’s still an advance, just not as far. The fact that they couldn’t even stand behind their video for a week and yanked it even after people were linking to it and even saying nice things about it speaks volumes how far Cleveland still has to go. You can go back and check out the new video if you’d like.
This week it’s back to time lapses. This one is, as the title implies, a short tilt shift of Sydney. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. Enjoy. h/t Likecool
See also: Miniature Melbourne.
As a bonus, here’s a Danish advert that’s gone viral. It encourages Danish couples to take vacations (I believe the sponsor is a travel agency, so this appears to be a purely money making scheme) to have sex that will hopefully result in pregnancies to boost Denmark’s flagging birth rates. Prove you got pregnant about the time of your vacation and be entered to win amazing prizes. Actually, Denmark’s fertility rate of 1.75 isn’t bad, especially by European standards, but it shows that despite all the nominal livability of the continent, the environment there hasn’t proven to be very pro-natal. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
The Guardian has more on this.
Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014
Daniel Hertz is back with another one of his great Chicago map posts and piece of data analysis. This time he looks at the decline of Chicago’s middle class in favor of the rich and poor in a post called “Watch Chicago’s Middle Class Vanish Before Your Very Eyes.” I will let you read it on his site but will include the animated graphic. Pay particular attention to the gray, which is middle class neighborhoods.
Sunday, March 30th, 2014
This post originally ran on November 1, 2012
Felix Baumgartner’s record setting jump from 120,000 feet. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Last month I attended a supper club event in Indianapolis were the topic was urban design in the city. We started the conversation by having people give their personal pick for best and worst urban design. My choice for worst design decision was changing the zoning to allow skyscrapers. I believe that for many years Indy restricted building heights such that nothing could be taller than the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, similar to other restrictions in DC, Paris, or Philadelphia.
My argument was that skyscrapers function very poorly in smaller, auto oriented cities. This is because skyscrapers require huge parking pedestals or attached garages to put all the cars. Each skyscraper thus ends up taking up pretty much an entire city block, which produces horrible urbanism and isn’t even very dense. The perfect example in Indy here is the American United Life Building. It consumes an entire city block, the building is set back from the street on all four sides and sits dead center on the block, and it is surrounded by many surface parking lots. The planned Block 400 project I heavily criticized is converting one of these blocks – into a big parking garage with nothing at street level. These buildings basically create huge dead zones, especially after 5pm when the buildings empty.
This past weekend I was with my friend Kristian, who organizes the supper club events, and he asked me why I’d said that. I explained my rationale. He countered by asking whether there wasn’t value in the overwhelming power of an urban skyline to announce a city.
This reminded me of a post I previously ran called “Saint Jane” by Will Wiles. He makes a similar argument saying:
The Nurbanist vision of carving up the city in this way is as diagrammatic and retrograde as Moses’ planning – and, similarly, it’s an assault on the complexity of the city, the city’s ability to generate its own fabulously complicated internal patterns that defy cursory inspection. The emphasis on little neighbourhoods, the stoop, local shops and walking distances, the “human scale” only tells part of the story of the city – after all, these things can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole. Elevated highways, crowds, tall buildings, interconnection and confusion – these things can be to some people dismaying and unpleasant, but the awe they strike is the overture of accepting the condition of living in a city. The Tube roundel is vaguely holy to Londoners – intensely reassuring – because it is a sign of connection with a system of vast complexity and importance.
Kristian and Will haven’t convinced me that skyscrapers in auto oriented cities are a good thing. European cities like Paris and Barcelona have proven that you can build real cities and great density without them.
But there is something to this idea that cities need to contain structures, systems, and symbols of overwhelming dominance and power, shock and awe. It’s notable that from earliest days, cities were set around immense temples and palaces that served this very functions. Skyscrapers can do this well, but so can stadiums, massive airport complexes, rail yards or ports, vast flyover interchange complexes, or huge industrial parks or buildings.
In our quest to humanize every element of the city, we have in a sense dehumanized it, by robbing it of the primal human longing for the transcendent, to be part of something larger than or outside ourselves, to find the limits of existence and go beyond them. Our obsession with Mars landings or Felix Baumgartner’s jump shows this uniquely human quest in action.
Creating a link to the transcendent is one of the most important things cities do, and perhaps more than anything else what separates them from a town. I believe this is at some level the fuel that powers so much else that happens there, why they are the locus of innovation, etc.
Part of this is by creating structures and systems that not only overwhelm, but at some level cannot be understood or grasped. It is one of the under-recognized virtues of megacities like New York, Sao Paulo, and Mumbai that it is impossible for any single human being to comprehend them.
In a secular age, the idea of the transcendent has little currency. Most people lack even the awareness to engage with the concept. Yet engage we must. To sever a city or society of its link to the transcendent by “humanizing” it or applying overly rigorous cost/benefit analysis to everything is perhaps to drain it of its lifeblood. The extravagant, incredible, overwhelming, and almost seemly pointless and impractical gesture may in fact be the most practical of all.
Thursday, March 27th, 2014
I recently sat down to talk for about half an hour with Louisville, Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer. We had a wide ranging discussion that ventured from branding to globalization, regionalism, talent attraction, legacy, and more. If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.
Mayor Greg Fischer. Image via Wikipedia.
Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.
On an economic development partnership between Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky’s second largest city:
[Globaization] is central to who we are as a city. We have a very high export ratio here. We out export, we punch above our weight if you will, as a city. My background is one as an international business guy and we’ve spent a lot of time growing a broader regional economy. The city of Lexington and Louisville have a joint economic development plan that we did with the Brookings Institution called BEAM, Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. And a central thrust of that is growing exports throughout the region. We have people that go out and help businesses understand that’s the way of the future.
As a business guy, I’ve been more of a small, medium sized business person, 500 employees and below, so frequently I would compete with large, multinational corporations. When you start your career, you’re like, “My gosh, how can I compete against this firm that’s got manufacturing plants or offices all over the world and 10,000 employees?” What you find is as a small company, you have a lot of advantages that the big company doesn’t have. You’re closer to the customer. You’re nimbler. You can speak for the company.
So when you take a look at the challenges of a state like Kentucky, we’re not one of the biggest states. We’re certainly not one of the smallest, either. So what we’ve got to do is be excellent at partnering with each other internal to the state so that we can use that as a competitive advantage when we compete with other countries or other states for economic development. Louisville and Lexington combined metro region, including Southern Indiana, is about two and a half million people or so, more scale than just us at 1.3 million and certainly, more scale than just Lexington.
On regional cooperation with Southern Indiana:
When people move to Southern Indiana, they identify as moving to the Louisville area, typically. Our restaurants over here, our housing options over here are complementary to what’s in Southern Indiana so if a company is going to say, “Okay. I’m going to be in Southern Indiana or I’m going be in Missouri,” I want them in Southern Indiana.
Southern Indiana’s got some advantages that we don’t have. We don’t have that much open land left in Jefferson County. River Ridge, which is just opening across the river, is going to be helped by these bridges going in right now, these megaprojects, the Ohio River Bridges Project. It will be where a lot of these businesses are going to locate. I’d rather they locate there again than in some other state. So we win as a region because people live regionally. We’re happy to cooperate and brainstorm with Southern Indiana.
On how Louisville’s relationship with the state of Kentucky is evolving:
Evolving is the right term. Louisville produces about $2.4 billion a year of taxes and we get back $1.2 billion. Kentucky has been cited as the fourth most centrally controlled economy in the country in terms of states. In other words, sending taxes to our capital and redistributing them throughout the state. So it’s a challenge for us. I’m working right now to get the state constitution changed so that all cities and counties have the right to levy a local option sales tax where their citizens have the right to vote on specific capital projects, paid for in a specific way with that temporary sales tax sunsetting. Part of that is so local cities, whether it’s Louisville or Pikeville or anywhere in the state, could have more specific control over their built environment. So, that’s one way to address it.
Long term, we need some type of overall state tax reform. But in any state, you’re going to have an economic engine like we are here in Kentucky that contributes more to the balance of the state than what it is they generate. Our rural legislators are very good at teamwork, if you will, and our metropolitan legislators are not so good at teamwork. So they can be our own worst enemy in terms of directing more funds back to where they were originally generated – in this case, Louisville.
On the local food scene:
It’s been an interesting way to see how the rural parts of the state and the metropolitan areas really appreciate the partnership that we have with our local food movement. Like many places around the country but particularly here, when you go into restaurants, you’ll see the origin of the food in terms of the farmers that they came from. We were the first city in the world that we know of to do a demand analysis for local food, how much local food do people want to consume here. We did that deliberately to help our partners in the rural areas of the state, the farmers, so that they can understand that they’ve got a big, growing market in the biggest city in Kentucky.
When we did this survey, no matter what somebody’s socio-economic background was, everybody supported local food. They said, a), it’s healthier and b), we want to help local businesses. So, it kind of busted this myth that local food, farmers markets, all this was just yuppie kind of thing. Everybody appreciates good local food.
On why a 2014 college grad would choose Louisville over other cities such as Cincinnati or Nashville:
One, you want to take a look at the culture of the city. Are you going to be able to fit in? Are you going to be able to make a difference? You know, not every city is perfect for every student. So, is there a connection? Do you like our art scene? Do you like our local food scene here? What about the innovation we’re doing with the makerspace, for instance? Because I think we’re among the best in the country in that regard.
Take a look at the economic development clusters that are important to a city. In our case, are you into lifelong wellness and aging care, or food and beverage, or logistics and e-commerce, or business services, advanced manufacturing? Where is that fit for you? I can guarantee if you’re going to live here, you’re going to have a good quality of life and enjoy yourself, but are you going to be able to be employed in a meaningful way?
Any city that says they’re everything for everybody is being disingenuous. It’s just like a company. When you look at the city, find a place whose values mirror yours and whose opportunities mirror your interests at the same time. Make sure it’s got a beautiful, natural environment like we have here that’s full of nice people, and then you’ll have a good place to live – and it would be nice if it was Louisville.
There’s a lot more where this came from so listen to the whole thing or read the complete transcript.
Some may be wondering about the Ohio River Bridges Project. There were no restrictions on what topics I could ask about, and I haven’t changed my opinion on it. But I felt the discussion time would be productively spent elsewhere so did not ask about it.