Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012
I just got back from the CEOs for Cities spring meeting in Cincinnati. It was the first time I got to spend any time there in a couple of years. But even in that short span of time in a bad economy, downtown Cincinnati and Over the Rhine have really boomed in a way that was beyond even what I expected. Reputedly there are still over 500 vacant buildings in OTR, so everything isn’t great, but I noticed a lot more vitality in the central area than even a short time ago.
Even the local TV news has picked up on this. Here’s a segment WCPO did on what’s happening downtown. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here). It’s a good story, but the way the anchors approach the story tells you a lot about what smaller city downtowns have to put up with.
h/t Randy Simes
Wednesday, March 14th, 2012
It’s about time one of the smaller Midwest cities got a cool timelapse. Here’s a short one of the Cincinnati riverfront. It’s done in an ultra-widescreen format that perfectly symbolizes a river itself. I recommend watching in full screen high definition. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).
Sunday, January 15th, 2012
This post is about the downsides of city-county consolidation. Actually, it might better be described as a discussion of some of the pros and cons of “big box” vs. “small box” municipal government. It is similar to business. It seems like every large business is either doing one of two things: centralizing or decentralizing. There’s a sort of cycle of reincarnation about this. Every model has its flaws, and people tend to gravitate towards the other side of the spectrum from time to time when the problems of the current mode manifest themselves in a particularly severe form. As a prologue to this, you might want to read my previous examination of city-county consolidation post, if you haven’t already.
I haven’t read all the academic literature on city-county consolidations, so won’t make any strong claims about the benefits its promoters have touted. But I will make two observations. One, I’m not aware of any city that has gone through a city-county consolidation that has become a civic failure, or which has a severely under-performing region. Most of the ones I’m familiar with seem to be doing ok or better. Two, if you look at the Midwest region, the metros that are doing well almost all feature a core city that either underwent a consolidation or has managed to maintain its ability to annex new territory. Minneapolis-St. Paul is an exception, but it has regional revenue sharing. (Landlocked and unconsolidated Chicago has a thriving core, but the regional numbers are lagging). So my gut tells me that big box solutions at a minimum don’t hurt and probably have some benefit to a region.
But they do come with downsides, and one of them is that it can make neighborhood redevelopment more difficult. The root of the problem is that with a single city covering a large area, there is only one mayor, one city council, etc. These have a large area to concern themselves with and cannot physically devote significant time and attention to each neighborhood. They inevitably spend most of their time dealing with the biggest and most visible challenges, which often means downtown development issues.
Redevelopment in Indianapolis
Indianapolis is a good example of this principle in action. It underwent a city-county consolidation in 1970. Four smaller municipalities were excluded from merger and so are known as “excluded cities”. So we get here both consolidated neighborhoods and some unconsolidated ones we can compare.
Since 1970, downtown Indianapolis has experienced a major resurgence. And Indy has emerged as what is in many ways the strongest performing Midwest metro area. I happen to believe its consolidation was instrumental in setting the stage for that. Many of its urban neighborhood have seen challenges, however. This includes many reasonably upscale areas, and I’d like to highlight two of them.
The first is an area centered around 71st and Binford Blvd on the northeast side. It was an established suburban area annexed under consolidation that started experiencing problems recently, notably with decay in its commercial developments, a common concern in aging suburbs. The population was also aging and not being renewed. This prompted a local woman to found a new neighborhood group called Binford Redevelopment and Growth (BRAG) to try to change the situation. BRAG wants more urban, mixed use development anchored by a transit stop on a future rail line, infrastructure upgrades to add basics like sidewalks that are missing in the area, and help redeveloping the commercial districts. They’ve had some successes, notably attracting investment in local strip centers, with a new Starbucks, CVS, and Kroger. But there has been little city investment.
The other is Midtown, an area encompassing the historically most desirable urban neighborhoods in the city. It includes the Meridian St. mansion district, Butler University, and Broad Ripple, the city’s main bar district. This area is loaded with gorgeous 1920′s era architecture and many independent shops and restaurants. But this area too started to experience problems, with vacant houses, some struggling commercial nodes, increasing crime, a property tax spike, and deteriorating infrastructure.
A group of neighbors here also formed a group called HARMONI designed to change this. They are also promoting neighborhood infrastructure investment, more urban development, etc. As part of this they purchased copies of Suburban Nation and distributed it to all regional elected officials. They even secured pledges of private funding for some infrastructure improvements. However, there has been little city investment in Midtown either.
But turn to the excluded cities and see a different pattern. Lawrence, the largest, inherited part of a closed military base. They created a commission to repurpose this into a new town center area. This included a multi-million dollar extension of 56th St, which involved building a bridge over a double-tracked rail line. That project also featured high quality streetscape treatments along its length. Former officers quarters on the base were renovated, and many other townhomes and other residences built. And there has been significant new commercial development as well, such that this area appears as nice and thriving as any edge suburb in the region.
As the name suggests, Speedway is the home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It is also an older industrial suburb, with gridiron streets and its own Main St. The town really never leveraged the track outside of race days. The Main St. had businesses but was struggling, and the town was at best stagnant. However, the town council has taken on a major redevelopment program that will involve a major street reconfiguration and significant commercial oriented development designed to turn Speedway into a year round tourist destination and hub of motorsports themed businesses. It’s a $500 million plan, and while not much has happened yet, the town is getting ready to issue bonds to finance millions of dollars in road improvements.
A third of the four excluded cities, Beech Grove, is also improving its town center, and has already spent millions rebuilding its main gateway street, Emerson Ave.
So three of the four Indianapolis excluded cities have active town center renewal programs, while the two annexed neighborhoods, even though more upscale than the excluded cities in many ways, have seen little tangible city investment. Why is that?
The excluded cities have their own city governments. So they have elected officials whose sole focus is their own community. They’ve also got the legal powers, such a the ability to create their own tax increment financing districts, that let them control their own destiny without regards to a higher authority.
The annexed areas, by contrast, only have neighborhood groups. These groups have no power to do anything except lobby the main Indianapolis city government. This city government has to cover a huge area and is besieged with many groups wanting things. The mayor has an incredibly limited ability to deal with individual neighborhood issues. For example, he does a monthly “Mayor’s Night Out” in which he visits each township in turn, a different one each month, to answer citizen questions along with his senior staff. But there are nine townships, each one of which would rank among Indiana’s largest cities by itself. And that doesn’t even get to the neighborhood level.
It should come as no surprise that progress is slow. For example, there’s a proposal in the Midtown area at 49th and College Ave. called (interestingly) “The Uptown”. This would replace an old gas station, another vacant commercial structure, and a few single family homes with a three story, multi-use building featuring 75 apartments and storefront retail. It is exactly what the neighborhood needs. It’s a rare example of approved upzoning for density in Indianapolis. And from an urban design standpoint it is the best designed structure Indianapolis has seen in the modern era. Here’s the present view of the site:
The project needs tax assistance to ever get built, but it is looking like it won’t as the project has been on hold for well over a year. If the Uptown were in one of the excluded cities or in an actual suburb, it is almost inconceivable that it wouldn’t get built. The local government would find a way to make it happen. But Indianapolis has higher priorities. For example, a major civic focus is a project on the near East Side in conjunction with hosting the Superbowl. That’s the sort of major event that consumes management time and attention in a large city.
This is not to criticize the mayor. In fact, people from both BRAG and HARMONI have told me the city is very willing to engage with them and that the mayor has been supportive. The problem is structural. No mayor could physically deal with the demand. It’s inherent in the very nature of a large, big box government. It seems likely to occur in any consolidated government or very large city without sub-city level authorities with real powers.
It was before my time, but reportedly Bill Hudnut, a previous mayor, saw this problem and wanted to create more neighborhood level structures in a system he called Minigov (versus “Unigov”, as the consolidated government is known). But that never happened.
Midtown vs. Bexley
Another interesting comparison is the Midtown area of Indianapolis with the suburb of Bexley in Columbus, Ohio. Bexley is more or less exactly the same as Midtown with the exception that it is a separate municipality, though one that is completely surrounded by the city of Columbus. American Dirt ran very interesting profile of Bexley you might want to check out.
Bexley remains a thriving city, especially in contrast with the surrounding areas of Columbus. Its streets largely have up to date infrastructure, including full sidewalks, which Columbus often doesn’t. It has maintained thriving commercial districts, and has had more intense urban infill as well, as this picture will attest:
Why the difference vs. Midtown Indianapolis? Well, the fact that Bexley gets to have its own city school district while Midtown is part of the stigmatized Indianapolis Public Schools no doubt has something to do with it. This keeps land prices high, which preserves a largely affluent and exclusive resident base. This has pros and cons. Of course it means the city can be kept nicer. But it also denies the experience of that to those who can’t buy in. And the overall regional tax base misses out on one of its most affluent areas. This is the problem of all upscale suburbs. Midtown, Indianapolis, whatever its faults, has many well-off homeowners who pay significant money towards the broader community, including the city schools. And it is a much more mixed income area.
Bexley also has its own municipal authority, while Midtown does not, with the implications discussed above.
But another thing occurs to me. Because Midtown is part of a much larger city, it suffers from the problem of a diffusion of responsibility. That is, it can assume the rest of the city will carry the load in some respects. This manifests itself in a strong anti-development NIMBY contingent that is opposed to urbanization. Any proposed development of any kind is greeted by wailing and teeth-gnashing by opponents, who’ve been known to do things like pull their kids out of school to serve as props at mid-day zoning hearings where commissioners are told neighborhood kids will literally die if new apartments are approved.
I don’t know what the sentiment is in Bexley, but they’ve certainly implemented more actual urbanization than Midtown. I suspect one reason is that Bexley knows it has only its own tax base to rely on. If its residents want to keep quality schools, they can either approve more commercial and intense development, or watch their residential property taxes go up significantly over time. That focuses the mind wonderfully.
So I also hypothesize that in addition to making redevelopment more difficult for reasons of the structure of government, big box government also inculcates an anti-development mindset to a greater degree than small box government.
The Chicago Ward System
So how do you deal with this? Chicago is a big box government that has solved the governance problem with a ward system. There are 50 city council members, who more or less are the gods of their ward as a result of a system called aldermanic privilege. This is where the alderman basically agree they will let each other do whatever they want as long as it is in their own ward. Various city agencies also more or less defer to the alderman on almost any decision to do anything. This results in a system where the mayor deals with the big issues of the city and major developments, while the aldermen deal with neighborhood issues.
The Chicago system has maintained many strong neighborhoods in the city, but it has its downsides. Aldermen have virtually unlimited authority in their wards, making it a sort of elected dictatorship. So it should come as no surprise that corruption has been rampant. In excess of 40 alderman have gone to jail for corruption in the last three decades, an astonishing rate. This also makes things like planning difficult, and creates a climate of great political uncertainty around development that contributes to a terrible business climate for small businesses.
The Chicago system is a de facto one, not based on a city charter or anything like that. It would be interesting to see how it developed. But it does show that you don’t necessarily need constitutional change to effect small box government inside of a big one.
Jane Jacobs and District Governance
Jane Jacobs saw this problem of big box government very clearly and dedicated an entire chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities to it. (Chapter 21, Governing and Planning Districts). This is not one of the chapters that generally gets a lot of attention these days, and that’s a shame. She says:
The historical changes relevant in this case are not only an immense increase in the size of great cities, but also the immensely increased responsibilities….which have been taken on by the governments of great municipalities. New York is not unique in failing to match such profound changes in circumstances with appropriate functional changes in administrative and planning structure.
I can’t do this chapter justice here, but it is a must read. Her basic solution is that all city agencies – police, fire, planning, parks, etc) would be organized around districts (neighborhood groupings), with contiguous borders, with service delivery coordinated between them and with the input of the neighborhood. Chicago’s ward system is similar to this, with the notable exception of having a district dictator. That might be a cautionary tale about what this sort of thing can turn into.
Implication for Small Box Cities
To me this implies that cities which retain a relatively small and governable core along with a plethora of unconsolidated suburbs might be in an advantageous position from a redevelopment perspective. Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh come to mind. Their many separate towns in the core county have the independent power they need to take matters into their own hands if they so desire. And the core city itself should be small enough to enable more fine grained governance from city hall.
On the downside, it seems almost inevitable that many of these unconsolidated suburbs will turn into complete failed cities, often left ignored and forgotten. There are plenty of beyond dysfunctional suburbs in Chicago just like this. I presume it is similar in places like Pittsburgh. I think it is notable that consolidated cities like Indianapolis and Nashville don’t have any truly failed suburbs. Another benefit of the big box city.
Summing it Up
I think the lesson here is that there are always, always trade offs to be made in governance. The trick is to understand the trade-offs you are making and take steps to try to mitigate the inherent problems with the model your city and region operate in.
Based on this and the previous post, we might say at high level that for big box government, the pros are stronger civic consensus and cohesion, generally stronger regional and downtown growth, a fairer tax base, and a general lack of totally failed central cities and suburbs. The cons are a weaker city neighborhoods, redevelopment challenges outside of downtown, weaker urban identity, and lower quality development.
For small box government is is basically the inverse of this. The pros are a strong central city & urban identity, higher quality development, more redevelopment opportunities. The downsides are civic fragmentation and lack of consensus, the potential for a failed central city, some failed suburbs, and possibly weaker downtown growth.
This post originally ran on February 28, 2009.
Tuesday, March 15th, 2011
When I think about my experiences in Cincinnati in the context of the dark hue of my skin and kinkiness of my hair, a reel of uneasy experiences plays through my mind:
“You should have a better sense of humor,” my boss told me once after making a joke about people that are black.
“I’m glad I’m not black, because I like my good hair.” My roommate once informs me while she watches me struggle in the mirror with my locks.
“My brother has never dated a black girl, but he has dated trailer trash.” A coworker laughs. She only gets uncomfortable and confused when I ask her about equating the two.
“You’re a shoe-in. They need more black people to represent them on the other side of town.”
“The University of Cincinnati doesn’t graduate one out of three of their incoming freshman of African descent.” A counselor urged black freshman to use tutors to even the alleged graduation gap.
“She calls black people nigger all the time, Tifanei. Like it’s nothing! I don’t know what to do.” A friend (not from Cincinnati) told me about a native Cincinnatian that she roomed with.
“Tifanei, the GM is racist, everyone knows it. There is no way he’s going to let them hire you unless you want to be a ‘busboy’ or a bouncer.” A friend whispers to me at the door at a popular establishment downtown. “He wouldn’t even serve the UC football players until I promised him they were athletes.”
“During the riots my friend was just walking downtown and black people beat him up; he was just minding his own business!” A friend tried to explain the stemming of racial tensions to me.
“Why would you date a white man? Are you tired of black men? Did someone do something to you?” A black colleague confronts me after I introduce him to a boyfriend of the time.
I can’t say I’m a native to Cincinnati. I lived there for four years (18-22) and it’s honestly the longest I have lived in any one city. But while I lived there I never met anyone who denied Cincinnati’s pride and just the same, not a single person denied the segregationist structure that many prideful(!) Cincinnati communities embody.
Even with the substantial African-American Cincinnati history, it’s in my humblest opinion that the segregated communities noticeably affect the consciousness of race related issues and identity.
People will tell me that the “racism” I experienced was just ignorance and not in any way a representation of Cincinnati. But that’s just not true. When you grow up in a community where integrating with people who don’t look like you is not valued, then it affects how you identify and interact with others as an adult.
For a long time I felt that Cincinnati didn’t want to be “burdened” by any anecdote of race. But I started to realize, as I engaged more conversation, many people in Cincinnati don’t feel like they have a safe place to discuss race among a diverse group of people.
As I started to learn more about black history in America, it became my nature to probe people around me for their opinions. I had probing conversations with a lot of Cincinnatians who identified as being white. They would tell me they never discuss race to address social problems or economic-barriers because it wasn’t an obvious reality to them. It was a trend for people to tell me that they felt manipulated by the ‘race card’.
I met a lot of people who identified as black, that only wanted to cross racial community lines when they needed a job or wanted to start a career. I witnessed many of same people, myself including, silently struggling with their identity, because they were trying to understand the difference between “success and failure” versus “suburbs and urban areas” versus “white and ‘other’”. These are not easy conclusions to come to when homogeneous communities with clear socio-economic distinctions are what’s accepted. Cincinnati is where I began to understand how the notion of beauty is affected by having so much pride in a homogenous community, especially when one community is considered more successful and educated than the other.
I know I’m mostly a nomad at heart, but I fell in love with Cincinnati for many reasons – those reasons had nothing to do with race. The heartbreaking lack of racial-consciousness in Cincinnati will change, it has to, but it will take more than just hope. In my opinion it’s going to need a shift in values towards heterogeneous community building and a collective effort to address an individual responsibility that defies race. All hues of human color have to accept responsibility for the reality that we maintain by just “going about our business”.
It’s very, very hard to sum up a large and somewhat ambiguous topic, like being black. But, if I have to, I want to end by saying two things: 1)These are my very personal experiences, I am not Cincinnati, but my experiences are real. I don’t blame people I met for anyone’s struggle with beauty or success. I don’t think that one neighborhood is right or wrong about their interpretation of race and what it really means for someone’s livelihood. 2) I have lived in a lot of different cities around world. Cincinnati’s segregation is unique in a lot of ways, but it’s not unexpected in the framework of the U.S. There are many cities that claim to be successful, but are disturbingly segregated at the expense of their youth and social growth. I know all of the powerful minds behind UrbanCincy are influencing the changes of that.
This article originally appeared in UrbanCincy. Reprinted with permission.
Friday, January 28th, 2011
[ As a follow-up to my Cost of Clout piece I am re-running this 2008 post demonstrating the important of social structures and culture to urban success. ]
There seems to be a popular belief that what it takes to create an industry cluster in bioscience or whatever is to pair research with commerce. That is, to find an academic institution doing cutting edge research, and connect it with venture capital and entrepreneurs to start companies to commercialize it. Soon enough, you have a “cluster” of businesses that takes off like a rocket. This is the perceived Silicon Valley model, and no company epitomizes it more than Google, which was started by two Stanford students to commercialize their graduate research.
But is this true? There are many top flight research universities in this country, but few major startup clusters. When major research institutions fail to generate commercial spinoffs, this is often blamed on a lack of venture capital. But is that really the case, or is something else at work?
Anyone interested in this matter simply must read AnnaLee Saxenian’s seminal book, “Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128“. A social scientist at UC Berkeley, Saxenian lived and worked in both Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 technology corridor. She wondered why Route 128, which started out with far more of a technology business and economic base than Silicon Valley, eventually lost ground to become a clear number two. She sees this resulting from the different social structures that exist in the various areas.
According to Saxenian, Route 128 suffered from a culture that was oriented towards a traditional maturing industry, not a rapidly changing one like technology. This included more deliberative decision making; vertical integration and self-sufficiency; hierarchical, centralized command structures; focus on economies of scale; a high friction job market; geographically dispersed locations; and low levels of cooperation and sparse networks between firms in the region. In other words, all the standard traits of a typical large corporation. While she doesn’t dwell on this point, it also comes across that Boston, probably due to its New England locale with all the history there, was a much more closed society. The social network and hierarchy was more fixed (the phrase never appeared in the book, but I couldn’t help but think Boston Brahmin) and the process of establishing trust and credibility much slower than California. While famous as one of the bluest states, Massachusetts is socially conservative in many ways, and highly risk averse. This is the land of the suit and tie, and the difference between that environment and California casual was more than just a surface thing.
Silicon Valley, of course, was just the opposite. It adopted social structures that were very focused around innovation and time to market. It was open, with rapid, decentralized decision making. Firms quickly specialized, focusing on their core competency, and established close links with suppliers to fill in the rest of the value chain. These links were often such that it was not clear where one company ended and the other began. The clearly functioned on high degrees of trust. Even direct competitors often talk to exchange ideas and help each other solve problems. Here’s a quote:
Competitors consulted one another with a frequency unheard of in other areas of the country. According to one executive: ‘I have people call me quite frequently and say, “Hey, have you ever run into this one?” and you say “Yeah, about seven or eight years ago. Why don’t you try this, that or the other thing.” We all get calls like that.’ (33)
Clearly this is quite unique. I’m not even sure if it’s all legal, but hey, it works for them.
The job market in Silicon Valley is extremely fluid, with people constantly changing jobs, starting companies, etc. It is expected that you won’t stay that long with any given employer. Route 128 operated on the “company man” model and to leave was to show disloyalty, often resulting in ostracism. Since Silicon Valley was a new country with almost all immigrants of one type or another, family history and credentials meant little. What mattered was whether you could perform.
Now of course it was almost entirely men, originally white men, who set this up. The tech industry is famous for being one of the most gender imbalanced. What I found particularly interesting was that many of the founders had Midwestern roots. Again quoting:
This collective identity was strengthened by the homogeneity of Silicon Valley’s founders. Virtually all were white men; most were in their early 20′s. Many had studied engineering at Stanford or MIT, and most had no industrial experience. None had roots in the region; a surprising number of the community’s major figures had grown up in small towns in the Midwest and shared a distrust for established East Coast institutions and attitudes. They repeatedly expressed their opposition to ‘established’ or ‘old-line’ industry, and the ‘Eastern establishment.’ (30, emphasis added)
The many examples of engineers with humble origins who became millionaires by starting successful companies had no parallel in the more stable social structures of the East. Jerry Sanders, founder of Advanced Micros Devices … grew up in south Chicago, the son of a traffic light repairman. (38, emphasis added)
To digress for a moment, remember how I said the contrarian, ornery Hoosier/Midwestern attitude is, in the right context, a huge strength, not a weakness. This shows that in action. These guys didn’t toe the conventional wisdom line. Instead they created a whole new business model. I’ve got to believe the Midwest mindset played a huge role in making this possible. The unfortunate thing is that they had to leave the Midwest to do it. Imagine if they’d stayed home and made it happen around one of the great engineering schools there? Alas, to this day Midwesterners often have to leave to turn things into reality. Famously, Marc Andreessen had to leave Illinois to start Netscape, and in fact had U of I actively hampering him all the way. If the Midwest cracks the code on this piece alone, it would be a huge step in the right direction.
(By the way, for a wonderful look at how these Midwesterners invented Silicon Valley and the “elder days” of semiconductor business, see Tom Wolfe’s 1983 Esquire essay, “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce“.)
These extremely fluid job markets, open social institutions, high trust customer and supplier interactions, and competitor information exchange create an environment of so-called “dense networks”. In a period of rapid change and innovation, these networks, by efficiently distributing information and dispersing risk, create an environment with very rapid speed to market and high levels of adaptability. A traditional Route 128 do it all yourself model simply can’t keep up with the power of this vast network.
It was this network, more than anything, that created the Silicon Valley we know today. The “cluster” we see in Silicon Valley is not an artifact of spatial co-location. It comes from the network. According to Saxenian:
Spatial clustering alone does not create mutually beneficial interdependencies. An industrial system many be geographically agglomerated and yet have limited capacity for adaptation. This is overwhelmingly a function of organizational structure, not of technology or firm size … The current difficulties of Route 128 are to a great extent a product of its history. The region’s technology firms inherited a business model and social and institutional setting from an earlier industrial area. (161-162).
Sound familiar? It describes the Midwest perfectly. What I find interesting is how Saxenian illustrates her thesis not using a struggling Midwestern burg as a case study, but rather Boston’s Route 128, the second largest technology hub in America, home to possibly the greatest collection of universities in the country, with massive access to capital, etc. If this town had its problems, how much more so places without those advantages? It certainly shows the scale of the challenge in building industry clusters.
Obviously, changing the social structure, culture, and institutions of a region is difficult to do. Even positive articles highlight the scale of the challenge. I’ll refer a recent article on Milwaukee startups that I linked that quotes a local businessman saying, with some pride I gather, “Milwaukee is a one-strike-you’re-out town.” That’s not a good thing. Silicon Valley shows that failure and risk taking are good. The way to innovate is to figure out how to try lots of things and to fail quickly and cheaply. If you are overly concerned that you’ll be permanently ruined if your business goes bankrupt, you’re not that likely to take a chance.
It reminds me of a discussion I once had with a friend from Germany. He told me, “We’re the children of the people who stayed” and bemoaned the highly conservative outlook of his countrymen. He noted the extreme reluctance to take risks because in Germany, if you go bankrupt, you’re stigmatized for life. Obvious some of that carried over to heavily German Milwaukee.
I should note that one should not over-internalize Saxenian’s case studies into some sort of cookbook solution. Every city and region needs to find its own unique path to success based on its own culture, institutions, history, etc.
I would be remiss I did not point out a few areas where I was skeptical of the Silicon Valley model. One intriguing factoid from the book was that in 1962 federal government purchases, principally defense related, accounted for over half of Route 128′s sales. Indeed, the area got its start in technology through defense related research during World War II. Could it be that dependency on government contracts is really what caused the dysfunctional culture there? Government largesse encourages rent seeking behavior at the expense of building a competitive business.
Also, Saxenian highlights how the non-business social networks in Boston substitute for the type of technology networks in Silicon Valley. But is this a bad thing? The books paints a portrait of Silicon Valley as a bunch of geeky guys who toil away long hours on tech projects and even talk about technology at the bar when they do go out. It’s like a community of idiot savants. Some might say “get a life!”
What’s more, there is some research that suggests dense networks themselves aren’t a recipe for success. In an thought provoking paper called “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown” Sean Safford contrasts the experiences of Youngstown and Allentown, both small steelmaking cities. Despite similar dense networks, Youngstown failed while Allentown fared much better. His conclusion that was the dense networks in Youngstown only reinforced an already closed leadership circle who were economically aligned, while Allentown’s served to bridge otherwise non-overlapping groups.
Perhaps to a great extent, the key attribute is less the networks themselves, than the ability of outsiders and new thinking to penetrate them. Silicon Valley’s social structure was open, Route 128′s wasn’t exactly closed, but there were barriers to entry. In a globalized world of ever faster change, the ability to respond and adapt, to process new ideas and react to rapidly shifting global forces, is critical. This puts a bit premium on dense social networks that are also open and flexible.
This is somewhat the thesis also of Richard Florida. He has a somewhat different spin, saying that the economy is now powered by the creative class, and they want to live in places that are open, tolerant, etc. This is his “three T’s” model: talent, technology, and tolerance. The last appears not to be so much valuable in its own right, but for what it says about the openness of social networks. Thus a large number of gays in a community isn’t what drives economic growth per se. Rather, a thriving gay community is a signaling mechanism that lets people know that diverse ideas and people are welcome.
I think we all know places where the social network is impenetrable. This isn’t necessarily a function of size, prosperity level, etc. I mentioned the Boston old money, social register concept. In any number of southern cities, who your daddy is, or what sorority you went to in college is a huge determinant of your place in a social hierarchy. If you don’t come from the right family, the right schools, etc., you can forget it.
Perhaps this explains my Cincinnati conundrum. Here’s a city with better assets than almost any in America, but it is one of the all time relative decline stories in US history and to this day is on a moderately stagnant, slow growth path. Why is that? There was an intriguing study I saw recently called Who Rules Cincinnati? [dead link] This is by an independent researcher named Dan La Botz, who I get the impression is some sort of hard core left activist, so keep that in mind. Nevertheless, he uses a similar approach to the Garden Club study to track social networks in the city, coming to the conclusion that officers of seven major corporations basically run Cincinnati, mostly to that city’s detriment. Another person I know offered the interesting insight that when he meets someone in a bar in Cincinnati, the first question they ask him is where he went to high school. This both indicates a highly inbred culture as evidenced by the assumption one must have gone to high school in Cincinnati, and shows that the school you attended is an important social marker. (It perhaps also shows a lack of regard for higher education).
It could be that the Midwestern cities that have the best potential for future growth are those with the most open social networks, as well as exhibiting other of the characteristics Saxenian cites. I think this would be fertile ground for social science research. It also makes me wonder if perhaps that goes part of the way to explaining the relative success of the Midwest’s larger state capitals. State capitals constantly have people traveling and doing business there from all corners of the state. This flow in and out might potentially prevent a social structure from completely congealing into a small, impenetrable elite. I sense another potential dissertation topic here.
The key takeaway is not to focus on purely the institutional infrastructure (universities, venture capital funds, labor force, etc.) when trying to set out an economic strategy. The local culture, norms, and social practices, and in particular the density and openness of the social networks is critical. Clearly, as anyone who has found themselves mired in a corporate or governmental bureaucratic organization, changing a culture is an extremely difficult thing to do. But it is something that clearly warrants an examination.
This post originally ran on July 13, 2008.
Friday, January 7th, 2011
I’m going to be on Chicago Public Radio’s 848 Monday at 9am talking transportation as part of their “Mayor Monday” series. They might even be taking listener calls, so check it out if you’re in Chicago.
Also, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on quality of place and product at an event on Building Prosperity in the Greater Akron Region on January 18th, sponsored by Greater Ohio and the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce. There will be a lot of great speakers including Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities, Julia Taylor of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, along with many state and local leaders. If you’re in the region and want more information, click here.
How’s this for an offer? The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago is looking for people to host house party gatherings to discuss issues about the next mayoral race. If you’ve got a group who would be interested, let them know and they’ll supply staff and resources. If you support CNT and their policy recommendations, they’ll actually do the work in educating your friends on them.
The National Film Board of Canada created an interactive site called Out My Window showing panoramic views from residential high rises and such with 13 families living in them in various cities around the world.
1. Ben Schmitt: Broken windows in the Motor City: A Detroit exit journal. A reporter talks about giving up on his plan to stake a claim in Detroit’s revival, and moving to Pittsburgh. This is a really tough story. “Those people who helped me that night, as we waited more than two hours for the cops to arrive, illustrate the fight inside many residents desperate to turn Detroit around. For a while I believed in that fight. I purchased a home in one of the city’s stable neighborhoods nine years earlier because it felt real. I scoffed at other colleagues and editors who drove to work on the freeways and never spent a minute in the city they covered. But when I heard my daughters’ screams that evening, I knew I was gone. No more compromises.”
2. Gov. Ed Rendell: The NFL Thinks We’re a Nation of Wussies – Not urban related per se, but I liked this piece. – “To call off this game because of snow is further evidence of the ‘wussification’ of America. We seem to have lost our boldness, our courage, our sense of adventure and that frontier spirit that made this country the greatest nation in the world. A little snow, a potential traffic tie-up, a long trip home caused us to cancel a football game? Will Bunch, a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, said that if football were played in China, 60,000 Chinese would have walked through the snow to the stadium doing advanced calculus as they did so. He’s probably right, and it’s no secret why the Chinese are dominating on the world stage.”
3. Ed Glaeser: America’s Revival Begins in Its Cities
4. Demography Matters pointed me at a very interesting blog called Spike Japan that talks about a side of Japan we rarely see, a side falling into Rust Belt ruin – “It may come as a shock to almost all of you living outside of Japan, and to some of you living in the center of its big cities, that as we approach the summer of 2009, swathes of the country are in ruins. It came as a shock to me, too, I have to confess, having lived for almost all of the last decade in the bubble of central Tokyo and only venturing outside occasionally to get to the airport, nearby beaches, and old friends in the mountains.”
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
The trailer for a forthcoming documentary about the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, which was designed by starchitect Minoru Yamasaki – architect of the World Trade Center – and demolished in 1972. The trailer looks very interesting, so I’ll look forward to seeing the whole thing. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).
World and National Roundup
Miller-McCune: A road less traveled – Have we reached “peak travel” in the industrialized world?
Human Transit: Do roads pay for themselves? – Jarrett Walker looks at a recent study on the matter by the liberal non-profit US PIRG.
Daily Mail: Eco-light bulb cost to triple as ban on old style bulbs kicks in – well surprise, surprise.
Jim Russell: The End of Migration
The Atlantic: Dire States – more bad news about state finances
Alex Marshall: Distinctiveness: A Big Secret to Cities’ Success
Tim Campbell: Cities on the Prowl
Ed Glaeser: Behind the population shift – He credits it to housing regulation.
Business Insider: The 11 State Pension Funds That Will Run Out of Money – No surprise Illinois is #1, but Indiana is #3, and it also scores poorly in many other pension rankings though the pension situation does not even seem to be on the radar in the state. Odd.
New Geography: Washington opens the virtual office door
Next American City: Interview with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe
LA Times: In a region that imports water, much goes to waste – A discussion of how rain that does fall in LA is basically just channeled off into the ocean instead of captured and reused.
Richard Longworth: A New Year for the Midwest
Chicago Tribune: Chicago’s transportation infrastructure weakening.
Chicago Tribune: Will Chicago think big after Daley?
Chicago Reporter: Loopholes – Despite the huge investment in TIF money, central Chicago actually lost jobs.
Megan Cottrell: Did public housing destroy Chicago’s black voter base? – I’m convinced there’s a Pulitzer for the person who tracks down where the former residents of Chicago’s demolished public housing projects went. A have a friend who is a cop in Gary who says there has been a big influx of ex-CHA residents there. Dittos a friend in Danville, Illinois. And I’ve heard similar reports out of Iowa. It immediately raises the question, was demolition of the projects less about helping the people who lived there than about a deliberate deracination program?
Indy Star: New projects could boost city’s entertainment districts – Quotes Yours Truly plus Kevin Kastner of Urban Indy.
Indianapolis Business Journal: Indianapolis startup scene gains momentum
Cleveland Plain Dealer: In hard times, Cleveland blacks’ views about immigrants shifting
Audrey Russo: Immigration and In-Migration in Pittsburgh
Pittsblog: The New Pittsburgh
Detroit Free Press: Risky best cost Detroit pension funds $480 million and Where the Detroit pension funds went wrong
Welcome to Cleveburgh
Chris Briem had a great op-ed piece in the Post-Gazette this week touting a super-regional “Cleveburgh” corridor running from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. If a true mega-regional concept is ever really going to take off, the first step is probably this sort of cross-metro collaboration between neighbors. Here’s Briem’s Cleveburgh map:
Will the Boondoggles Never Cease?
UrbanCincy reports that in it’s latest five year construction plan, the Ohio Department of Transportation, an agency that doesn’t have enough funds to maintain the roads it has in a state in the middle of an acute economic and fiscal crisis, has allocated $809M to extend I-74 through Hamilton County.
Huh? I can’t believe anyone would put this high on a needs list, if indeed it is needed at all. I certainly don’t think so. Hamilton County actually has fewer people today than it did in 1970s, the region is growing more slowly than the national average, and it may already have more miles of six-eight lane freeway than any peer city in America.
Here’s a great chance for new Gov. Kasich to show his conservative bona fides. He cancelled the less expensive 3C rail project as something that state couldn’t afford. (I was also not a fan of that project). Here’s another one he can kill.
I’m a big believer in building infrastructure, and yes, even in building more roads where appropriate. But even among nominally fiscal conservative governors, it’s tough to find any highway boondoggle big enough that they are willing to cancel it. Here’s a perfect opportunity for Kasich to distinguish himself and step up to the plate.
Chicago Lakefront Trail
I think Copenhagen’s bike infrastructure is great, but it’s always great to get nice videos that come from other places too. Here’s one that Joe Peterangelo put together of the Chicago lakefront trail. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).
Here’s another amazing early film, this done in 1897 by Thomas Edison of the intersection of State and Madison in Chicago. Hat tip How to Be a Retronaut. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).
Tuesday, August 24th, 2010
Here’s another installment of my periodic postings with archive summaries on various topics. Today, looking at posts about Michigan and Ohio.
I’ve done quite a few piece on Detroit that have proven extremely popular for whatever reason. I’d love to claim it’s because they’re brilliant, but there’s just something about Detroit that resonates with people.
- The Other Side of Detroit – So much of what is written about Detroit focuses only on the bad – and there’s plenty of that there. But there’s another side to the story, and I tell it here.
- Urban Laboratory and New American Frontier – The most read Urbanophile post ever.
- Solitary Man – A post not by me, but by Detroitblogger John who runs Detroitblog, which is magnificent. This will give you an example of why.
- Embracing the Ruins – Taking another view of Detroit’s decaying relics.
- A Plan for Detroit – A look at my take on what the structure of a serious plan for Detroit would look like.
- Do the Collapse – My take on Detroit from before the auto-industry bailout, in which I predict General Motors bankruptcy and discuss other matters
- Not the Future of the American City – Taking on the claim by some that Detroit is the canary in the coalmine for America
Cincinnati is a very under-appreciated place. It’s got its quirks, faults, and challenges to be sure – which for some people add to its charm – but also the greatest collection of assets of any city its size in America in my opinion.
- A Midwest Conundrum – I talk about all those great assets, and ask why they haven’t powered the region to better performance.
- The Neighborhoods of Cincinnati – A photo tour showing off some of the fantastic neighborhoods and architecture in the city. It can really shock people who aren’t ready for it.
- Dramatic Riverfront Revitalization Nearly Complete – Randy Simes looks Cincinnati’s riverfront transformation.
- Agenda 360 – My look at Cincinnati’s regional strategic plan.
It’s a struggling city, and one I’ll admit I don’t know enough about and haven’t cracked the code on yet.
- What’s Wrong? – I ask what happened to make Cleveland suffer so, when unlike Detroit there is no easy narrative such as the auto industry collapse and extreme racial segregation.
- Reactions to What’s Wrong – The post above spawned more comments than any in Urbanophile history. I summarize some of the best of them here.
- Will a Dying City Finally Turn to Immigrants? – Richard Herman’s plea for Cleveland to embrace immigration.
- “James Drain” Hit Cleveland – What LeBron’s departure means for the city.
This capital city is one of the Midwest’s standouts in terms of demographic and economic performance. It’s a city to watch in the future. I’m putting it at the bottom since you probably saw most of these recently.
- The New Midwestern Star – My overview post on this little known but strong performing metro.
- Rebranding Columbus – A look at the city’s recent re-branding initiative.
- Downtown Mall to Be Demolished – My take on plans to replace the failed City Center Mall with a park.
Tuesday, July 13th, 2010
[ I don't know how much money Cincinnati has spent promoting itself, but in my book nobody has done more to get the positive message out about what is going on in central Cincinnati than Randy Simes and his site UrbanCincy without one dime of city support. Continuing in my series of writers giving us positive stories in what's going on in their Midwest towns, Randy fills us in on Cincinnati's riverfront transformation. Growing up as a Reds fan in the 70's and 80's, I spend my share of time in Riverfront Stadium and its bleak environs, and so know this story is real - Aaron. ]
Several decades ago Cincinnati leaders embarked on a plan to dramatically change the face of the city’s central riverfront. Aging industrial uses and a congested series of highway ramps was to be replaced by two new professional sports venues, six new city blocks of mixed-use development, a new museum, a central riverfront park, and parking garages that would lift the development out of the Ohio River’s 100-year flood plain.
Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, was one of the first pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. The $455 million football stadium kept the Bengals in Cincinnati and has since received national praise for its architectural design while also entertaining sold-out crowds.
Downtown Cincinnati in the 1980′s
The next piece to fall into place was the reconstruction of Fort Washington Way which consolidated the stretch of highway and opened up land critical for the construction of yet another stadium and the mixed-use development which became known as The Banks. The 40% reduction in size was not the only accomplishment though. The reconstruction project also included the Riverfront Transit Center designed to one day house light rail connections and a sunken highway that could be capped with additional development or park space.
Following the reconstruction of Fort Washington Way, Riverfront Stadium was then partially demolished to make room for the construction of the $290 million Great American Ball Park. Once complete, Great American Ball Park began entertaining baseball fans at 81 home games each year and at a new Reds Hall of Fame & Museum. The new venue eliminated any need for Riverfront Stadium and thus led to its implosion in 2002.
The removal of Riverfront Stadium then freed up room for the construction of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center atop the first piece of a two-deck parking garage intended to both lift the new riverfront development out of the flood plain, and provide enough automobile parking to replace what was previously there in the form of surface lots and satisfy new parking demands created by the development.
The most recent piece of the puzzle has been the development of the initial phases of both the Cincinnati Riverfront Park and The Banks. The two separate projects are developing in complimentary fashion and are on similar time tables, and are both developing east to west from Great American Ball Park to Paul Brown Stadium. Recent news will add a modern streetcar line running through The Banks development that will transport people from the transformed riverfront into the Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine and beyond to Uptown.
The 45-acre, $120 million Cincinnati Riverfront Park is expected to become the crown jewel of an already nationally acclaimed Cincinnati Park System. The Banks meanwhile will bring thousands of new residents, workers and visitors to Cincinnati’s center city. The initial phase of both projects is expected to be complete in spring 2011 and will include 300 new residences, 80,000 square feet of retail space, Moerlein Lager House, Commuter Bike Facility, additional components of the two-deck parking garage, and the first elements of the park.
The transformation of Cincinnati’s central riverfront from aging industrial space to a mixed-use extension of downtown that includes residential, office, retail, and entertainment options is not complete, but the two decade old, $3 billion vision is finally nearing reality. And with that, one of the remaining traces of Cincinnati’s industrial past will be replaced by a new vision for a 21st Century city and economy.
Randy A. Simes is an award-winning Urban Planner, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s nationally acclaimed School of Planning in 2009. Mr. Simes currently works for CH2M HILL as a Community Development Planner and specializes in public policy and local government management. He writes regularly about public policy and urban development for UrbanCincy.com and Soapbox Cincinnati, and his work has also appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier and the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Sunday, June 6th, 2010
Cincinnati can be incredibly surprising to people who don’t know much about it. Cincinnati was the Queen City of the Midwest when Chicago was a small village. And it has an incredible legacy from that day. Cincinnati simply has the greatest collection of assets of any city its size in America. It’s an embarrassment of riches. Yet Cincinnati has not been a strong economic performer in some time. It’s not doing poorly, but it isn’t great either. I examined Cincinnati in one of my signature overview posts a couple years ago called “A Midwest Conundrum” that goes into detail on Cincy’s assets and challenges. I highly recommend it if you haven’t already read it.
This is a follow-up of sorts. My last article didn’t give nearly enough photos to do justice to Cincinnati’s neighborhoods. I was there for a presentation recently, and was fortunate enough to have UrbanCincy’s Randy Simes give me a tour. The result is this photo-centric post. You can view all of the photos in this post as a Flickr set. I also have another Flick set with even more Cincinnati photos that didn’t make the post. With that, let’s kick off our neighborhood tour.
Over the Rhine
Wendell Cox said Over the Rhine “may be the nation’s most important historical district” awaiting redevelopment.
OTR is a near-downtown neighborhood located north of what was once a small canal (dubbed “the Rhine” by Cincinnati’s heavily German inhabitants), now filled in with abandoned tunnels from a never opened subway and six lane Central Parkway. It is exceptionally dense, with tons of incredible architecture that leans heavily to the Italianate style.
Here’s a shot looking down Vine St., which, along with Main St., is one of the two principal north-south corridors through the area.
The south end of OTR was recently named the Gateway Quarter, to signify it as a focus of redevelopment efforts by a corporate led group with the awkward name of 3CDC. In the bottom left of the photo above is Park and Vine, an upscale green general store in the area. There’s also a swanky and delicious restaurant called Senate that I was fortunate enough to eat at. And there are many condo developments in the area.
As with most similar sized cities, these are at fairly high price points and the aggregate number of new residents is still fairly low (probably the low hundreds).
Also like many such districts around the country, the city has targeted this as an arts district. Here’s one theater:
Redevelopment in OTR has not been without its tensions and setbacks. This was touted as an up and coming neighborhood in the 90′s, when its identity was as an entertainment district. As with Cleveland’s Flats, it basically crashed. Also, OTR has been heavily black for quite some time, and city-sponsored redevelopment in the area has created some tensions. In 2001, a police killing of an unarmed black youth touched off four days of riots centered in OTR, earning Cincinnati the dubious distinction of having the most significant racial disturbance in the US after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. However, race relations in OTR seem much improved this time around.
One reason is that there are still such an incredible number of vacant and boarded up buildings that few development projects have resulted in displacement.
The number of buildings like this in OTR and Cincinnati generally is depressingly large. Here’s another one, complete with 3CDC signage. The facade appears to have had work done on it.
And still more. I think you get the gist of why Cox described OTR this way. The potential in these vacant structures is incredible.
Nearby is Findlay Market, the oldest continuously operating public market in Ohio.
It doesn’t look like it in this picture, but the place was doing decent business on the Thursday afternoon I took this. And reputedly the place is mobbed on weekends.
But it’s time to move on. Cincinnati residents are justifiably proud of OTR, but almost to a point where you might think it is the only thing they’ve got going on. It’s a constant chorus of “Over the Rhine, Over the Rhine, Over the Rhine…..” But there are at least 10-15 other neighborhoods in Cincinnati that most cities would kill to have.
Northside is the neighborhood Greg Meckstroth called the “gayborhood minus the gays.” It’s one of Cincy’s premier hipster districts.
I was there early Friday morning before the stores opened, which explains some of the empty streets. Here’s a mural by Shepard Fairey:
Here’s a crazy one. As you can see, someone at the city cared enough to make this Taco Bell/KFC combo front the street and also mandated brick construction – but allowed (required?) them to have a gigantic parking lot and a drive through. A clearly subpar development that didn’t have to be like this in a reasonably prosperous district.
Clifton might be the most complete neighborhood commercial district in the city. It has not only coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, but also a grocery store, a drug store, and as you can see here, even a library branch. It pretty much has everything you need to take care of your daily needs.
Here are a couple of restaurants:
There is even an old movie theater still showing films:
If “Mother” is the recent Korean version by Joon-ho Bong, it even shows good films, Iron Man 2 notwithstanding.
University of Cincinnati
Clifton is basically where the University of Cincinnati is located. One interesting thing about the campus recently is that they hired a number of well-known contemporary architects to design their new buildings. Here’s one by UC alum Michael Graves:
Somewhat oddly, UC spent untold millions on fabulous buildings, then put this sign at their main entrance:
There has to be a better answer than this.
DeSales Corner was once a rival to downtown Cincinnati, as the major buildings there will attest. It isn’t often that you see seven story buildings in neighborhood commercial districts. This is like some of Chicago’s more intense districts, like Uptown or Wicker Park.
Like OTR, despite the excellent architecture, many of the buildings in this shot are vacant, albeit in reasonable condition:
There is still new development, however:
Hyde Park Square
When I visited this place, only one word came to mind: money.
It’s a bit difficult to photograph, because there is a huge park in the median of the street, giving an almost courthouse square effect, hence the name:
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour. Even though this is a long post already, there is a lot more where this came from. Be sure to check out the rest of the photos online. And I’d recommend a visit to Cincinnati for yourself to see in person what it has to offer and what is going on there. It is a city that really exceeds expectations, often in dramatic form.
More on Cincinnati
A Midwest Conundrum
Cincinnati Is Cool – by Mike Doyle at his blog CHICAGO CARLESS
Agenda 360 – a review of Cincinnati’s regional strategy
Water Works and the Commonwealth – a look at Cincinnati’s proposed water works transaction
Sunday, May 2nd, 2010
This post is not about policies per se, but about how they are marketed. Progressive urban policies such as improved transit, density, quality of space, excellence in design, and green friendliness often run into significant resistance in cities where there is not a long history of urbanism. This is because too often they are poorly positioned, packaged, and sold to the public. Advocates for these policies attempt to lift and drop a solution such as a Portland-style streetcar into a very different environment. Getting a transit line approved in Portland is like shooting a layup – degree of difficulty low. Getting one approved in the Heartland is a very different matter. Advocates have generally ignored the salient facts on the ground in their cities and failed to make a robust case for forward looking policies beyond a narrow base. Let’s look at some examples.
Cincinnati narrowly beat back a citizen-led ballot initiative to derail a streetcar system last fall, but it remains controversial and unfunded. The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published a skeptical editorial and the project is far from guaranteed.
While proponents have upped their game a bit lately, they were doing a generally poor case of selling the streetcar to Cincinnati, using arguments that among other things made a case based on a narrow appeal to gentrification. Here’s a video the city released featuring the mayor and city manager discussing the streetcar (if the video doesn’t appear, click here):
At 1:00 into the video, here is how the mayor describes the economic development benefit of the streetcar:
If you make the investment of putting rails in the ground, and people know there’s going to be a train, we’re talking a about a modern train that comes every day, developers and investors now look at the streetcar line and say, “Well there’s a vacant building. I’m going to buy that building. I’m going to put a Starbucks in the first floor and I’m going to put condos above it.” [emphasis added]
Starbucks and condos. I wonder if the mayor has ever considered this key figure: the median household income in the city of Cincinnati is $33,524. Keep in mind, that’s household income, and by definition half of all households earn less than that amount. Think they care about whether Cincinnati has a few more Starbucks or condos? Or do they have other bread and butter concerns that might weigh more heavily?
Too many urban advocates have an impoverished vision of city life that amounts to little more than “Starbucks urbanism.” I believe we need reinvestment in our cities. I believe we need to attract “choice” consumers, people who have options about where to live. Focusing exclusively on helping the poor only ensures your city will stay poor as everybody else wises up that they are the chumps serving as the city’s ATM machine and head for the hills. But we’ve got to make sure projects are conceived and marketed in ways that appeal to the broader community, not in ways that might actually seem threatening to them. This example is particularly unfortunate since it wasn’t necessary. The mayor could easily have said put a “store” on the ground floor and “residences” or “apartments” above.
Imagine Kansas City
Here’s another example, this one from Kansas City. It’s a video that was run as part of a public television series on the future on Kansas City. I’ve actually highlighted this video several times as an example of good transit advocacy. One of the most important things you need to do in pushing for something new and different is to create a vision of how life in the city will be better and different when the plan is carried out. This video does a great job of that. (If it doesn’t display, click here).
Good as this video is, it has the major weakness that it too is selling transit as a generator of Starbucks urbanism. Did you notice the types of businesses? Coffee shops, fitness clubs, sushi bars in what appears to be an upscale neighborhood. Also, considering our obsessively politically correct climate (far too politically correct in my view), it is notable that the people in this video were almost entirely white and upscale.
Again, consider who this is being marketed to. In cities like Chicago or New York where working class and poor neighborhoods have reasonable quality transit and at least semi-walkable neighborhoods, selling them on investments in urbanism is generally not a challenge. Indeed, the usual debate is around them clamoring for more transit type investments and demanding equity in spending on them. But in places like Kansas City, where bus service for the poor has often lagged and the city isn’t nearly as walkable, marketing to yuppies misses the broader audience. Perhaps that’s why it was voted down last time.
It should come as no surprised that poor and minority communities who are stuck with pathetic bus systems that don’t meet their needs today are often skeptical of rail transit that appears to be for rich people. It isn’t just anti-tax people who often fight it. The NAACP in Cincinnati opposes the streetcar. And a organizations representing a majority black neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota are very skeptical of a light rail plan there, which they are afraid will only lead to displacement in their community. (Here’s a related article which shows that proponents didn’t do their homework).
The person who created this video – which again I think is among the best in many ways – made some changes for his next iteration for Indianapolis that created an even more effective story in my view by addressing some of these points.
What About Everybody Else?
My other favorite example besides transit and neighborhood redevelopment is talent attraction. It’s accepted by virtually everyone that having a critical mass of the right talent is key to success in the 21st century economy. Boosting college degree attainment is critical. But in most states the majority of adults don’t have college degrees. So why would they be interested in this? Trying to make the case for investments in luring the college degreed can seem like investing in people who are already privileged. People seldom explain why it is good for the average person in the community.
I addressed this matter in a recent blog post excerpting my keynote address at the IndyPartnership annual meeting, so I’ll include a clip here again:
There’s one other narrative that needs to be created. This one is for local consumption and it is one that almost every city overlooks. Since the benefits of attracting the college degreed are so high, cities tend to focus on that. But what about the people without degrees? Less than 20% of adults in Indiana have a college degree. What about the other 80%? What’s it in for them in these progressive urban policies? Many of them are hurting right now, and I think they have a right to be skeptical about policies that seem to be focused on the most privileged in society. So we have to show the benefit to them and answer the questions.
Why should we be investing millions of dollars in Conexus and Biocrossroads? Why does it matter that corporate executives can have a steak dinner and a good time downtown? Why should we be investing millions of dollars in pharmacy education at Butler and Purdue, to produce graduates who will earn six figures the minute they walk out the door? Well, if you are a single mother in Clinton County with a high school diploma who can get a good job as a technician at Medco [a mail order pharmacy company] it matters to you, that’s why.
That’s the type of story we need to be able to tell. To make it real to people why these forward looking policies are good for all Hoosiers. These stories have to be told, told loudly, and told often.
What stories are you telling about how investments in talent and the new economy boost everyone?
A Broader Urban Vision
When I was part of a panel at Rail~Volution with Ryan Avent, he made a really great observation that we used to have this notion in an era of urban abandonment that riding the bus, or other hallmarks of urban living, were a second class choice, something you did if you didn’t have better options. Now now we’ve gone to the other extreme where that’s considered the luxury option. But we forgot that there’s this entire spectrum in the middle where we can have more middle class oriented urbanism.
Designing for and marketing to people outside of the Starbucks urbanism crowd requires taking the time to understand their lives, aspirations, and point of view, and making sure you take their perspective seriously. Legendary leftist radical Saul Alinksy made this point clearly back in 1971:
To bring out this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 percent of American families – more than seventy million people – whose incomes range from $5,000-$10,000 per year. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat.
Many of the lower middle classes are members of labor unions, churches, fraternal, service and nationality organizations. They are organizations and people that must be worked with as one with work with any other part of our population – with respect, understanding, and sympathy. To reject them is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can’t switch channels and get rid of them. This is what you have been doing in your radicalized dream but they are here and will be.
Doing It Right: John Robert Smith and Reconnecting America
We have to go beyond Starbucks urbanism. We have to find a way to build broad coalitions for forward looking policies. We have to get serious and start marking the case in a better and much more effective way by making sure to reach out to the whole community.
To see one great example of how to get it right, watch the video below I shot with John Robert Smith, CEO of Reconnecting America, at Rail~Volution in Boston. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).
(FYI: I’d like to stress that I shot that video myself with a Flip camera during a busy conference – it’s not an official video. A real marketing video would of course have real production behind it)
Smith is running an organization that is heavily pushing transit oriented development, but understands the importance of both bi-partisanship and building bridges to smaller towns and rural communities about creating a transportation bill that works for everybody. People should take lessons from this approach. John Robert Smith gets it.
The sales job on better urban policies has frankly been wanting. For those who don’t live in low degree of difficulty communities, it’s time to seriously raise the game on the marketing plan and execution.
I’ll have another installment in my “Failure to Communicate” series at a future date.