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Sunday, February 9th, 2014

In-State vs. Out-of-State Migration

My recent repost of an article on Columbus, Ohio’s brand blew away the all time comment record for this blog, with 271 as of this writing.

One the discussions was around the extent to which Columbus and other Ohio cities draw mostly from the state or from a broader area. Obviously with Ohio State University, Columbus has a massive in-state draw. But what about people from out of state?

To try quantify this, I used the IRS migration data in my Telestrian system to sort out net migration into that which is with the state of Ohio, and that which is with other states. Before the data, a couple caveats. First, this is based on tax return data so probably understates student movements as many (most?) undergrads aren’t filing their own returns. Second, for multi-state metros like Cincinnati, someone moving from Ohio to the Kentucky or Indiana part of the metro area still counts in the total. The metro area is considered a unit. Also, movements within the metro area are ignored. With that, here’s the chart (click to enlarge):

As expected, Columbus has a huge in-state draw. But what surprised me is that Columbus actually has negative migration with the rest of the country. In effect, Columbus gains people from Ohio and exports them to the rest of the country. I’m sure the university has something to do with this, but it’s interesting nevertheless. Cincinnati shows the same pattern, only at a smaller scale. And Cleveland is bleeding people both to Ohio and the rest of the country. Keep in mind with Cleveland that a lot of the in-state outmigration is probably in effect suburban because of the nature of the way Northeast Ohio metros are set up.

To put this in perspective, I ran the same analysis for various other similar sized metros:

This was a shocker to me. Look at Nashville and Charlotte. It’s not so much that they have large net migration from out of state, but that they have very low net migration from inside. Though Nashville is the boomtown of Tennessee, it seems not to be sucking in people from the rest of the state.

Portland is also an interesting case. It appears to be like Nashville and Charlotte, but what this doesn’t show is that overwhelmingly the net migration to Portland is coming from California – 53,000 people worth. If you exclude both Oregon and California, Portland only drew a net of 21,000 people from the rest of the country. Contrary to what you might think, vast quantities of people (on a net basis) are not streaming into Portland from all over the country. It’s a regional draw.

Austin parallels Columbus a bit in that it has a huge in-state draw, possibly again because of the university. It also as a huge migration with California – 30,000 people. If you look at Texas plus California, that’s about half the total. Charlotte has a similar effect with New York and New Jersey migration.

Indianapolis is sort of a control with Columbus. It is primarily an in-state draw but does have a positive balance with the rest of the country. Keep in mind that it will inevitably lose some people to Sunbelt states for retirement. There’s not much you can do about that. But it’s an effect say North Carolina may have less of. The contrast with Columbus in out of state migration could be due to the lack of a major school there. I don’t know for sure.

Looking more closely at the 3C’s, here is their net migration with each other:

And here is the gross migration, which is the total number of people moving back and forth:

And here’s the percentage of metro area population that is living in the state they were born in:

There’s no radical difference. In fact, by my eyeball calculation, the difference between Columbus and Cleveland is almost entirely due to the former’s higher percentage of foreign born residents (again, partially an artifact of OSU). In their domestic population they are similar. Cincinnati is in the corner of the state and a three state metro. It’s easy to see that its born in state of residence figure is lower because of people who crossed a state line while not leaving the region, though I can’t quantify the exact figures.

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Replay: Rebranding Columbus

This post originally ran on August 15, 2010. Some anachronisms have been left in the piece, so keep the original date in mine.

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Columbus, Ohio, one of those under the radar cities that’s a whole lot better than its external brand image would suggest.

That frustrates local civic leaders, who’ve undertaken a major re-branding effort, as discussed in a recent NYT piece, “There May Be ‘No Better Place,’ but There Is a Better Slogan:”

Quick, what do you think about when you hear the words “Columbus, Ohio”? Still waiting…. And that’s the problem that civic leaders here hope to solve. This capital city in the middle of a state better known, fairly or not, for cornfields and rusting factories has a low cost of living, easy traffic and a comparatively robust economy….What Columbus does not have, to the despair of its leaders, is an image. As home to major research centers, it has long outgrown its 1960s self-concept as a cow town, and its distinction as the birthplace of the Wendy’s hamburger chain does not quite do the trick these days. The city lacks a shorthand way to sell itself — a signature like the Big Apple or an intriguing tagline like Austin’s “Live Music Capital of the World.” As a result, those working to attract new companies, top professors, conventions and tourists have a hard time explaining how Columbus differs from dozens of other cities that likewise claim to be livable, progressive and fun.

As I’ve said many times, branding isn’t marketing. It isn’t about tag lines, messaging, or talking points. Yes, there’s an element of that and getting your message out. But branding starts with what’s on the inside not messages to the outside. It’s about who you are, what your values are, what you stand for, what you aspire to be when you grow up. The marketing part just helps communicate that.

I won’t reprise my general prescription on branding, but here are a few pieces you can review if interested:

Despite what the title of the NYT piece might suggest, I think Columbus gets it on this:

How do you stoke the imagination of outsiders and the enthusiasm of residents? Columbus, starting from relative obscurity, has found that you cannot just hire an advertising agency, like New York and Las Vegas did, and come up with a slogan. It needs to find something real and heartfelt to trumpet, a task force of business, educational, political and arts leaders here concluded.

Your brand has to be something that is authentic, that’s true to the place. It has to resonate with the people who are there. That’s not to say it can’t be aspirational. That’s how we grow. But to simply chuck your past and trying to be something completely different is overwhelmingly difficult and often fails. So kudos to Columbus for trying to find something true to the character of their city.

Apparently they’ve been at this a while, and one of the techniques has been involving residents in helping to define the new brand: “But this time, three years into their inner journey, city leaders expect to succeed by drawing the whole population into the process and teasing out shared points of pride.”

When I read something like “drawing the whole population into the process”, alarm bells go off. It’s not PC to say this, but too much public involvement at the wrong stage is a bad idea. Clearly, it’s important that the public buy in and that the results be shared and genuine input solicited without delivering a fait accompli. But design by focus group almost never works. I’ve seen a lot of civic visioning efforts that tried to be maximally inclusive – I even served on the steering committee for one – but I’ve yet to see one that produced compelling results or moved the needle. Think about it. Did Steve Jobs design the iPod by asking people what they thought about music players? No he did not. Apple, and all the best product companies, succeed by giving us the thing we didn’t even know we wanted until they gave it to us.

That’s not to say you ignore market research. There’s certainly an element of archeology and anthropology here. And it certainly has to go beyond simply hiring a fancy pants advertising firm, something Columbus wisely avoided. But community involvement isn’t probably going to get it either. Partially that’s because people who are too close, who are on the inside, probably have difficulty articulating the uniqueness of a place. I don’t have enough personal experience with Columbus to go into depth there. I’d have to get more deeply embedded in the community to really understand the place at a deeper level. But I’m confident that the qualities they are looking for are there to be discovered in Columbus. The city is doing well in a tough region. There have to be reasons why. It’s going to require digging deep though.

The Fallacy of Awareness

I gather from the NYT piece that the people in Columbus think they’ve got a pretty great city, and that if they could only get other people to see how great it is, their standing in the league tables of public estimation would go way up. I believe the first part is true, but not the second.

Wanting to have your city taken seriously is likely wanting to be a member of the cool kids club. How do you get in? Well, it goes without saying that you need to have the qualifications – to be good looking, rich, to suck up to the right people, etc – but is that enough? Sometimes yes, but more often not, particularly for people who don’t score overwhelmingly high.

Think about it, the defining characteristic of a clique is exclusivity. If it was too easy to get in, membership would lose its value. So if you think about cities, the urbanists, media types, academics, activists, etc. who are the arbiters to the public at large about what cities are the coolest and best generally all pick the same ones – cliques also enforce conformity of mindset – and it just so happen that those are the places that contain most of the said taste arbiters. Why would any of them choose to champion Columbus, unless they had some personal connection there?

People who are members of an elite clique generally spend most of the time talking with and about each other, and little time about anyone else, even to put them down. To be ignored is the ultimate penalty of being an outsider. This is true of almost any field.

Here’s a classic example from the blogosphere. There was a minor kerfuffle a while back about Andrew Sullivan using “ghost bloggers.” Fellow Tier One blogger Ann Althouse took extreme umbrage at this in a way I find very revealing about the mindset of members of an exclusive clique:

I seriously believed I was interacting with Sullivan, a writer I have respected for maybe 20 years. I wouldn’t have bothered with Patrick (or Chris). I really don’t care what they think. If they insult me, they are to me like any number of bloggers who insult me and whose bait I don’t take. I would always take Sullivan’s bait, because Sullivan is important. Not to know whether it’s Sullivan or one of them makes a mush out of the whole blog.

Of course when she says Andrew Sullivan is important, what’s she’s really implying that she’s important, and can’t be bothered wasting her time on anyone who isn’t also on the VIP list. To have fooled her into debating mere peons – whose writing she admits she can’t tell from Sullivan’s himself – is treachery of the highest order.

In fairness to Althouse, she does link to lesser known bloggers (including, once, me). The point is not that she’s evil, which I don’t think, but that this is how the world really works.

If you are the Columbus, Ohio of bloggers, how do you get Ann Althouse, Andrew Sullivan, etc. to care about you? I can actually share a personal story in that regard. The first two and a half years of this blog was almost exclusively about Indianapolis, and I had very wide readership there. But I received very little recognition or acknowledgment in that city. Quite the opposite in fact. As an example, one journalist I assisted with a story told me flat out I wasn’t authoritative enough to quote in the piece. While I hope I’m getting better over time, I don’t think my content was that much less compelling then than it is today. And it was obviously being read. So why the difference? It’s the same dynamic I’m talking about. They might not have known who I was, but they knew who I wasn’t – and that was one of the boys. Quality product and awareness had nothing to do with it. Having experienced that end of the spectrum is one reason I try to be a champion for new voices.

There’s an industry out there that creates the myth or fantasy of the instant or overnight success who achieves fame and glory when their talent is finally seen by the public or the right people. Susan Boyle for example. I’m sure that does happen from time to time. But is that the way it ordinarily happens? And how much staying power does fame and recognition have in those circumstances?

I’d suggest that this sort of thing happens far less than we are generally led to believe. I read a lot of magazine profiles of people and when I hear them talk about how they got their big break, I’m always amazed at how often there are one of two basic tales. The first is, “I was sitting in my office one day wondering how we were going to pay the rent when my phone rang and it was Frank Gehry asking if I could design some lighting fixtures for his new Guggenheim Museum”. The second is, “I just showed up at Vogue and lied that I was sent there by Steven Meisel and they interviewed me and I got the job.” How likely is it that most of these stories are true? Or at least that they are the whole truth?

One of my guilty pleasures is the New York Observer. One of the things I love about it is, that due to the gossipy nature of the publication, they always give you the back story on who the people they are talking about are. That 27 year old chief curator at the top tier museum? Yeah, his mom was an heiress. He wouldn’t advertise that fact in most of those other magazine profiles. I’d bet most of these stories would fare similarly under scrutiny, though perhaps in different ways.

Clearly, awareness, and awareness by the right people, is critical. You really do have to get out there and knock on Vogue’s door – probably getting it slammed in your face the first few times you do it. Everybody needs lucky breaks. I have no doubt that if my personal promotional skills were better, I’d be further along in achieving my own ambitions.

But there’s a lot more too it than that. You want to be a member of the club? You’ve got to break the door down yourself. You’ve got to make it so that they can’t ignore you. If Columbus wants to be taken seriously, it’s going to have to force itself into the conversation. That takes relentless hard work and creating a product so compelling that the urbanist elite has to respond to it and take it seriously. Simply being a great place to raise a family, having a relatively good economy, high quality of life and low costs – a value proposition virtually identical to lots of other cities regardless of what locals might think – is not going to get the job done.

One Columbus official said, “Candidly, we believe we are one of the brightest stars in Ohio’s future.” One of the brightest stars in Ohio? I’m sorry, that’s not going to cut it. It’s like I tell the people in Indy when they get excited about being the “Diamond of the Rust Belt”: that sounds an awful lot like bragging that you won the loser’s bracket in the JV playoffs again this year. There’s nothing wrong with being in Ohio – and Columbus would be ill-advised to try to pretend they are something different from the state. Columbusites can be proud of Ohio and their role in it. But if they want America to pay attention to them, they need a message and reality to match that ambition.

That’s what Portland did. Portland didn’t get to be Portland through superior marketing and talking points about having the lowest costs and quality of life on the west coast with all those natural amenities to boot. They went out and did nothing less than define a new vision of what a small city in America could be. And they delivered on it through relentless hard work and actual execution over the course of decades.

Staking Your Claim

If Columbus wants to raise its profile, then it has to start setting the agenda. That’s not to say they have to try to be the next Portland or anything. But they’ve got to find areas where they can stake their claim and create something that compels the world to pay attention.

I’ll be the first to admit that this section will be unfair to Columbus. I’m going to compare it to its “twin city” of Indianapolis, a place I know far better. So keeping in mind that I just probably know more about what’s going on in Indy, and that I’m clearly a partisan of that city, I’d like to note a few things.

First, Columbus just seems more with it than Indy on a host of matters. In fact, when it comes to things like urban design, density, public transit, and many other matters, Indy is almost worst in class. It’s hard for me to even name one urban infill project that exhibits proper urban design, for example, while in others cities I tend to note that the majority of new developments do. Columbus, by contrast, just seems to get it on most issues, from urbanism, to pedestrian investments, etc. Yet why is Indy much better known?

One reason is that while Columbus does a very good job of ticking all the boxes, I can’t name many areas where it has gone above and beyond the checklist. And therein lies its problem. Columbus is a quality follower and implementer of the right things, but isn’t an urban innovator or a place that has carved out a distinct and compelling offering versus broadly similar peers.

A lot of people from bigger cities don’t care for Indy much. If you want walkable neighborhoods, tons of independent restaurants, etc. it is not your place. But time and again Indy has gone out and pulled things off that many other cities can only dream about, and put themselves in the spotlight.

The NYT notes of Columbus leaders, “One model they have studied is Indianapolis, which raised its profile by describing itself as the amateur athletic capital of America.” The NYT gets it completely wrong. Indy didn’t raise its profile by describing itself as anything. Back in the 1970′s a group of glum city leaders sat around a table wondering what they were going to do about a city best known, if as anything, as “India-no-place.” They hit on the idea of amateur sports. But rather than a marketing program, they instead committed themselves to going out and making it a reality, a process that continues to this day, though not limited to only amateur sports.

Indy built a downtown arena in the 1970′s. They built a domed stadium at the bargain price of only $80 million in 1983 without a team to play in it in an era before widespread pro sports franchise relocations. This let them pick the Colts up in 1984 on the cheap. Yes, that was a lucky break, but one they were ready to exploit. They put the domed stadium next to the convention center, not just to help conventions, but anticipating that major sports events would have ancillary activities that would use the co-located space. They created the first of its kind Indiana Sports Corp. to oversee all aspects of luring and hosting events. They saw the benefits of industry clustering, and recruited sporting sanctioning bodies to town, culminating with the NCAA headquarters. They started off with unglamorous events like the trials for the 1984 Olympics. They took risky bets when opportunity presented itself such as jumping in to host the 1986 Pan Am Games when the original host city backed out. They built state of the art facilities for sports few people gave much though to like swimming and bicycling.

In effect, Indianapolis created the entire industry of using sports events hosting as an economic development platform, and they did it in a holistic, extremely intelligent way that involved putting some major chips on the table for projects with an uncertain outcome. And they are still at it today, 35 years later after, as all successes do, everybody and their brother has tried to get a piece of this pie. The competition is brutal, and Indy has spent big – some say too big – to stay at the front, such as by going full out to host a Super Bowl in 2012. Indianapolis is arguably still the best place in America to host a sporting event.

I’m a believer in all the research that suggests sports investment is a bad idea with a dubious payoff for cities. But Indianapolis is an exception. There’s no doubt this was a major force in transforming the city – and getting its name out there. How much would the city have had to pay for all the de facto advertising impressions they’ve gotten from all this sports investment?

Is Columbus willing to stake a similar claim in another speculative area and put big money behind it, staying with it over the course of decades? Is Columbus ready to pile $3 billion in chips on Red 14 the way Indy did?

Indy also conceived many other similar types of programs that not only add to local quality of life, but also get the city’s name out. Consider the quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, one of the most prestigious such competitions in the world. Why would anyone take seriously a fine arts competition in Indianapolis? Well, they wouldn’t, all things being equal. So when the city did it, they had to come up with an unbeatable package. First, they partnered with the world-renowned Indiana University School of Music to give them musical credibility. And they set up for the winner a year’s loan of a Stradivarius violin, a recital at Carnegie Hall and other places, intense coaching from some of the world’s best violinists, and more. That certainly got people’s attention.

Or consider the Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation. Again, why would anyone think of Indianapolis in this field? They wouldn’t – except that they city anted up and made it the single biggest cash prize in this field in the world and recruited a top international nominating committee and jury.

Or look at the currently in progress Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which is taking over 8 miles of downtown street lanes away from cars and giving them to people. It is a unique project, that includes the highest quality bicycle boulevard I’ve seen, along with an often separate pedestrian walkway, significant green features, and major public art installations. While honestly this has not received the publicity it deserves, it has been covered in Surface, Dwell, Streetsblog, and elsewhere. It’s a totally unique project. From now on anyone who wants to undertake a major downtown urban trail project is going to go to Indianapolis to see what it did. Why? Not because they want to, but because they have to. Because at some point somebody is going to ask the question, did you look at the Indy Cultural Trail? – and if they development team says No, they are going to look pretty stupid.

I’ve also noted how suburban Carmel, Indiana is staking out a claim to be a nationally premier suburb, with 5% of all the modern roundabouts in the United States, the largest deployment of roundabout interchanges in the United States, an ambitious agenda of New Urbanist retrofit, a $150M concert hall, and much more.

You might not know any or all of these, but in their fields, they are known. They are all projects of major ambitions, that attempt to innovate and set the agenda, and which serve a branding function for the city. They were also conceived with a recognition that nobody is going to pay attention to Indianapolis unless the city forces them to. And it has. And it’s not just in the traditional civic sphere. Here’s a point to ponder: with Columbus’ vaunted gay community, why is it Indianapolis that is home to the Bilerico Project, the Huffington Post of the LGBT community?

I could go on and on – best airport in the United States, anyone? – but I think you get the point. Indy isn’t in the club yet, and may never get there – but it has come a long way.

Again, if I knew Columbus better, I’d probably be able to give examples there too. I’m sure Columbus isn’t totally without these types of programs. But my blog has been traditionally Midwest focused. And I’ve tried to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on in all these cities, including Columbus. I read the Dispatch online for over two years and still read Columbus Underground regularly. But I haven’t come across that many truly compelling stories of national relevance – and certainly nowhere near as many as I’d expect for a city that’s rocking and rolling as much as Columbus is.

Maybe the painful truth is that Columbus today just isn’t very different from the other places with which it competes – and that’s what this re-branding should really address.

Columbus has most of the blocking and tackling nailed. It’s a city that gets it. But to break through at the national level, Columbus is going to have to do a lot more than get it. Columbus is going to have to start playing offense, start dictating an ambitious – and let’s face it, risky – agenda around items that are so compelling the world won’t have any choice but to sit up and pay attention. Because it’s unlikely anybody is going to start giving Columbus the props it craves otherwise. It’s just like they told me at my old firm about the secret to making partner – you’ve got to already more than be there.

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

More Fun With Per Capita Incomes

After yesterday’s post, I thought I’d throw up some additional comparisons, this time at the metro level. County and metro per capita incomes only go back to 1969, not 1929, but there are still interesting things to see. I’ll post these without analysis for you to ponder on your own. Again, all data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, with charts via Telestrian.

The five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan=New York County, Brooklyn=Kings County, Staten Island=Richmond County). In the case of Manhattan, it’s worth noting that this is a mean not a median value.

New York vs. Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the exurbs of LA are technically considered a separate metro area (Riverside-San Bernardino) and so aren’t included in the LA metro figures:

Chicago vs. Indianapolis:

Denver vs. the Twin Cities vs. Seattle:

Atlanta vs. Dallas-Ft. Worth vs. Houston:

Memphis vs. Nashville:

Cincinnati vs. Cleveland vs. Columbus:

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

New England vs. Midwest Culture by George Mattei

[ George Mattei is a long time reader and frequent commenter on the blog. I find his comments are very insightful. One in particular really caught my eye and I asked him to turn it into a full blog post. Thankfully he said Yes so here it is - Aaron. ]

How Physical, Cultural and Political Differences Shape Development and Economic Growth

I was recently asked to make a comparison living in New England versus the Midwest-specifically how cultural and political differences impact the economic and physical development framework of the two regions. This is something that I have at least a modest knowledge of, given that I have lived and worked in both areas (Born and raised in Hamden, CT near New Haven, attended college near Boston and now live near Columbus, OH). As a real estate developer and planner specifically I have paid quite a bit of attention to these differences.

I moved to Columbus from Connecticut nearly 15 years ago to attend grad school. I must admit the cultural differences between these two areas were a bit surprising at first. The basic differences were obvious-different land development patterns, different industries and even different landscapes. However, after living in Ohio for several years, I came to understand on a personal level the cultural and political differences and how they have -and continue to- shape and form these regions.

Regional Differences

These differences show up in subtle ways that are also telling. In New England, my experience was that residents have a much more territorial, parochial view of their communities, and are more likely to resist change and development. In contrast, in many Midwest metro areas the residents have a more metro-focused view of their region, and better understand how the different communities interact. This does not mean that they always cooperate, but by nature some of the governmental functions are already done on a regional basis, making it easier to collaborate on certain tasks and be more open to change.

It’s perhaps deceptively simple, yet revealing, to pick a typical resident in a community in each area, ask them a simple question, and read into their response. Let’s pick two fairly standard metro area cities – Hilliard, OH and Attleboro, MA – and compare them on several levels. First some background information.

Hilliard is a suburb about 10 miles northeast of Columbus that was founded as its own small railroad community in the mid 1800’s. It had less than 1,000 people until the 1960’s, when it began to grow exponentially with the construction of the I-270 outerbelt around Columbus. Today it is a middle to upper-middle income community of about 28,000 residents sandwiched between Columbus, other suburban communities and the rural farm fields of western Franklin County.

Attleboro, MA is a city about 10 miles northeast of Providence, just over the border into Massachusetts, and 30 miles southwest of Boston. It was founded in the late 1600’s and steadily grew in population to the nearly 45,000 people it has today, but was a community of about 25,000 people in 1950 prior to the time when it would have been absorbed into the larger metroplex. It is now part of the Providence Metropolitan area, located right on I-95 between Boston and Providence, and is also linked to the two via the MBTA Boston-Providence commuter line. It was once known as the “Jewelry Capital of the World” due to the presence of several jewelry manufacturers in the city in the early 1900’s. Today Attleboro has transitioned from a manufacturing-dominant self-contained city into a quasi-suburban middle income community that has melded into the surrounding metropolis.

Now that we have a background on the two communities, let’s pose our simple question from someone unfamiliar with these areas-“Where are you from?” The answers each give would be subtly different, but telling in how they view their community and its relationship to the surrounding region. From my personal experience, here’s how each resident would answer this question:

Hilliard: “I’m from Columbus Ohio.”

Attleboro: “I’m from Attleboro, MA.” (Sometimes, they will abdicate this and say “I’m from Massachusetts”, but that’s just for convenience so they don’t need to go into a lengthy description of where Attleboro is).

The differing level of detail reveals not only how they view their community, but allows us to look at where these views come from. Clearly the Hilliard resident considers him/herself more a part of the metropolitan area. The Attleboro resident sees him/herself as a resident of the town first, and then the State, with no mention of the metro area.

Why would this be? There are several physical, cultural and political factors that play a role:

1. Municipal Borders. Municipal borders in New England were fixed long ago, well before metro areas became the main economic unit. In much of the rest of the country, including the Columbus area, communities continue to change their boundaries through annexation (more on the legal aspects of this in a moment). The borders of New England cities and towns were fixed hundreds of years ago and have rarely changed since.

2. Proximity of Metro Areas. New England has numerous small (except Boston) metros that bump up against one another. As a result, you get an agglomeration of established communities that sit between metro areas. In the Midwest, communities are spread farther apart. In Ohio, a state with several metro areas, many counties still have a modest sized county seat and a few villages. There is still quite a bit of country between many of the metro areas, and the spacing gets farther as you go west into other states.

In our example, it’s pretty clear that Hilliard would still be a small village of less than 1,000 people if Columbus hadn’t sprawled out to meet it and envelop it within its metro footprint. Many residents probably work in Columbus, and the ones that don’t work in one of the other suburban communities that owe their growth to Columbus, just as Hilliard does. When residents want a night out on the town, Columbus is the only game in town without a long trip.

Attleboro is a different case. It was a small city in its own right before it ever became part of a larger metro area. It sits 10 miles from Providence and 30 from Boston, and probably has many residents that work in both cities, plus in several other suburbs in the area that have the same fractured allegiance to multiple metros. Cultural opportunities abound in both cities, which can result in many visits to both.

3. Small Box Government. Although both regions tend to have a “small-box” governmental structure, it is actually far stronger in New England than in the Midwest. This is codified in the governmental structure of the areas in numerous ways:

a. First, New England “towns” are essentially the equivalent of “townships” in other parts of the country. However, there are significant differences. In Ohio, townships are considered semi-autonomous extensions of the County government. They are not incorporated as their own municipalities. They are run by their own elected officials, but have only limited powers as delegated to them by the Ohio Constitution. In legal-speak, they are not full “home rule” governmental entities. For example, townships can have zoning (if they jump through certain hoops), but they cannot approve subdivisions-that’s a County function. Incorporated municipalities in Ohio are full home-rule entities.

New England towns are also not incorporated. However, this is a virtually meaningless designation. They do have home rule, and function in virtually every way just like an incorporated city. They cannot be annexed by a city. A friend of mine that’s heavily involved in my home town’s local government once said to me, “we looked into incorporating ourselves as a city, but it didn’t mean much and required us to pay higher fees to the State.”

b. Speaking of counties, New England has a fractured form of county government. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont do not have any county governments, only lines on a map. Massachusetts has abolished some counties, while some having merged and other still function independently. Only New Hampshire and Maine have what appear to be fully operational county governments. In areas without counties, each town or city provides most of its own services. For example, in Connecticut, each town has its own elected clerk that just handles document recordation in that town. Only services that absolutely can’t be run on a local level are done regionally, such as the judicial system-however this is run by the State via districts that roughly correspond to the county boundaries.

In the Columbus area, each county has a robust governmental structure that provides a number of services that are more easily provided on a regional level, such as courts, auditor and recorder and Sherriff services. In Indiana, their Unigov system merged the City of Indianapolis and Marion County to even further expand the box.

c. In Ohio, Townships can also lose land to municipalities that swallow up territory through annexation. The City of Columbus essentially controlled development in Central Ohio for 50 years through buying up the water and sewer systems and only agreeing to provide service to developers if they annexed to the City or a suburb with which the City had an agreement in place. This was a “big box” approach that was put in place in the 1950’s, and has worked well for Columbus over the years. In New England, the borders were fixed a few hundred years ago, and they don’t change-only “small boxes” available.

4. Population Density. New England is more crowded already than many other parts of the country. This furthers resistance to new developments, resulting in higher real estate prices. This, along with the lack of economic activity that would draw many new residents to the area, means that-outside of Boston- many New Englanders were born and raised there. Not much fresh blood to re-think the way things are done.

5. Local Taxation. The manner in which local taxes were levied in Connecticut is very different than in Ohio. In Ohio, income tax (charged where you work, not live) funds much of the local revenue for cities and townships, with property taxes going to fund school districts which are operated as separate governmental subdivisions. In Connecticut, property taxes support most of the local level spending, so property value is king. In a majority (although not all) of the communities the school district is only semi-autonomous and is funded directly as a line item in the municipal budget.

The impact of this is actually quite dramatic. In Ohio it pays to cram as many jobs as you can into your community. Many communities welcome every office, strip mall and warehouse they can get. In Connecticut, many people tend to react the opposite way-they don’t want these uses. They bring traffic and pollution, which can bring property values down (at least that’s the fear), thereby weakening the municipal coffers. Exclusivity pays when keeping out more intense uses to preserve the bucolic countryside atmosphere leads to wealthy residents building large estates that pay lots of taxes. There is likewise much less of an incentive for local leaders to welcome the newest strip mall into their community, especially when they need to provide more police services and bigger roads. In Ohio, almost every highway exit, even the ones in high-end communities, has several commercial establishments near them. In Connecticut, many exit onto leafy drives that run to quiet residential areas.

6. Terrain. Physical landscape plays a role-if you get 20 feet off the ground in Hilliard, the Columbus skyline is in full view, due to the flat terrain. I guess that it would take a much higher point to be able to see Providence from Attleboro, given the rolling terrain. Out of sight-out of mind.

7. History New England has a very rich history. Pilgrims, founding fathers, settlement in the 1600’s, historic town centers, fishing villages, former industrial powerhouses, Ivy League universities – all of these things contribute to a culture where the past is revered. Here in Columbus, people’s self-worth is in the future. It’s a young, relatively anonymous, but up-and-coming city. It has a history, but most people don’t hang their self-identity hat on it (in fact, I would argue that there is an unhealthy self-angst about Columbus’ past by its residents). Many other Midwest metros also have a slightly older history characterized by the manufacturing boom in the early 20th century-which is still within the memory of many of its residents, and so doesn’t hold the gravitas of New England’s founding fathers.

We can now go back and look at why our two residents answered our question the way they did in the context of the above differences. The Attleboro resident answer Attleboro for two overarching reasons-1) they have more than one metro area with which to identify and 2) the historic, political and physical geography of the area fosters an overreliance on the city/town as the dominant cultural, political and social institution in the region. The Hilliard resident answered Columbus for exactly the opposite reasons-1) Hilliard clearly falls within only the Columbus metro area and 2) there is no dominant physical and cultural reason, and much weaker political reasons, to answer Hilliard to someone else.

Cumulative Effect on Regional Culture

The cumulative result of these cultural, physical and political structures is a significantly different approach to development, both physical and economic. New England has a much stronger resistance to change. Why would a community that prides itself on its historic past want to demolish some of it to build new, modern facilities? They don’t. Even in Boston, the economic powerhouse of the region, many people still deride the skyline as “turning Boston into New York”. Their true pride is placed in the Back Bay, North End, the Commons, Southie, etc.

This also extends to greenfield development. While many areas have residents that resist change, New Englanders have a particularly powerful argument-the history of place. After all, the heritage of the area is small, dense nodes with pastoral, rolling hills in between. A colonial-style home on a 10-acre exurban lot preserves much of that look. A relatively dense subdivision of 4 units an acre does not. Local officials tend to listen to this argument more in New England than in other parts of the country, because their self-worth is strongly tied to their history and their tax base to property values.

Even in a loss, the impact on the local psyche is not as significant. When UPS moved their offices out of southwest Connecticut in the early 90’s, no one felt like the true character of the region was threatened. Sure, jobs were lost, and that was hard, but it didn’t make the region any less proud of itself. Contrast that to many Midwest metros, who keep a scorecard of Fortune 500 companies in their pocket to show outsiders, and who feel real reputational angst whenever a company leaves.

Furthermore, the “small box” view tends to stifle larger economic development goals that would be beneficial to the region as a whole. Today it’s virtually impossible to get an even modest expansion of the obsolete Tweed-New Haven airport, for example, even though it sits in the middle of one of the largest underserved air markets in the nation. It straddles the border of two municipalities that fight over it incessantly (to be fair it is near a number of single-family neighborhoods). Meanwhile many Midwest cities have actively expanded their airports to nurture these crucial links to the external economy.

Without new greenfield development and modern buildings, airports and other facilities, it can be difficult to attract new companies to the area. The communities in New England that do have a number of these newer facilities (such as those off of the fabled Route 128 near Boston) often have them because their sense of history was ripped apart by the momentary fervor for building interstate highways in the area-one which has faded in New England but which still runs strong in the Midwest. Midwestern cities still develop scads of suburban office buildings and shopping centers-often too many- while the relative dearth of development in New England results in some markets being highly overpriced relative to other areas of the country. Surprisingly, although Boston has a very dense core, the area around the I-495 outerbelt (one of the largest outerbelts in the nation) is only very thinly developed in many areas.

Beyond the development aspect, New England has a regional mindset that is from my experiences fairly unique. In some ways the Northeast, with New England as a part of that area, is worldly-a gateway to America, home to several large world-class cities, a history of immigration and a density that make this region feel busy, prosperous and cosmopolitan. It often sets trends that the rest of the world follows.

On the other hand, it is also a region of small boxes, one that lives in the past as much as the future and one that resists change fairly aggressively. The view is not forward-looking in many cases. It’s somewhat inward-looking. The identities are fragmented and parochial. The bottom line is that outside of a few business cluster locations like Cambridge or Wall Street, or a few high-society locations like the Hamptons or Greenwich, the Northeast doesn’t want to necessarily be a trend-setter, even though it often is. It’s not that interested in climbing the ladder to “world class” or the “big time”- partly because it thinks it’s already there, but partly because it would have to sacrifice part of its identity. It’s just fine with its leaf-strewn rolling hills, historic downtowns, fairly moribund economic performance and proximity to world-class New York and Boston.

As a final note-it may sound that I am bashing this mindset. I don’t necessarily think it’s all bad. I do believe that New England could do more to promote more job growth and think regionally about its future. Some forward, big box thinking here would be welcome. On the other hand, not many places in America have the rich history and scenic beauty that New England has, and this is exactly the kind of “authentic brand” of which Aaron Renn has spoken so often of late. Indeed, tourism has become a big part of the New England economy over time as many people recognize this brand and want to experience it for themselves. Artists, authors and creative types, at least the highly successful ones that can afford it, tend to flock to the area to live and work in relative seclusion and anonymity. This lifestyle, in my opinion, should be preserved and nurtured in a nation where so many places do seem like every other place.

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Urbanoscope

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. – Will Wiles

Top Stories

1. Will Wiles: Saint Jane – A reappraisal of Jane Jacobs.

2. Parag Khanna: Beyond City Limits – “The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city. In an age that appears increasingly unmanageable, cities rather than states are becoming the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built. This new world is not — and will not be — one global village, so much as a network of different ones. ”

3. Alan Murray: The End of Management – “Corporations are bureaucracies and managers are bureaucrats. Their fundamental tendency is toward self-perpetuation. They are, almost by definition, resistant to change. They were designed and tasked, not with reinforcing market forces, but with supplanting and even resisting the market.”

4. William Strauss: Is US Manufacturing Disappearing? – “The manufacturing sector remains vibrant and innovative. Manufacturing output has been rising at a solid pace over time. Most of this growth, especially over the past 30 years, has been achieved by improving productivity. Of course, for some workers and towns, this increase in productivity has been a double-edged sword, since highly productive operations can achieve their output goals using fewer workers.”

5. Jay Green: My Quest to Live in Detroit is on the Ropes – This is an eye opening account of the difficulties Green has encountered trying to buy a home in Detroit. FannieMae continues to be a menace. I think this also goes to illustrate the problems of the poor investment climates that dog our urban cores, even in cities that are conventionally viewed as pro-business. Only the absolutely most motivated are willing to put up with this stuff. The vast majority just put urban investment in the “too hard” pile.

Global Cities

Foreign Policy published its 2010 edition of their global cities index. They don’t give an accounting of their methodology, but here’s the list. Their top ten:

  1. New York
  2. London
  3. Tokyo
  4. Paris
  5. Hong Kong
  6. Chicago
  7. Los Angeles
  8. Singapore
  9. Sydney
  10. Seoul

I should note that this list was prepared in part by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Isn’t home cooking delicious? FP also has a nice slide show to accompany the list.

Railigion in Action

Tampa mayor Pam Iorio made a comment that I thought was very revealing of the thought processes around light rail:

Light rail is the only choice for major local transportation corridor improvements, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said Thursday, while acknowledging federal requirements to study alternatives.

“I’m not afraid to say it – bus rapid transit is not acceptable,” Iorio said in an interview with The Tampa Tribune editorial board. “You tell us why Charlotte, N.C., Phoenix, Salt Lake City should have light rail and not Tampa.”

What’s interesting about this?

1. It’s again another small city mayor disparaging bus. You don’t see places like New York or Chicago doing that. In smaller cities without much in the way of transit cultures, citizens don’t have much personal experience or knowledge of transit and thus are vulnerable to demagoguery on the issue.

2. Despite Ms. Iorio’s gender, the penis-envy factor of other cities is clearly in play. Why should other places get one and not us?

3. The answer is preconceived and the alternatives analysis is a sham.

I don’t hate light rail and would support it where it make sense. But this approach of just build light rail, facts be damned only puts ammunition in the weapons of people who aren’t inclined to support any transit in the first place. And it makes you wonder if transit actually has anything at all to do with wanting to build light rail.

World and National Roundup

Rick Harrison: The Year 1959. Rick links to this amazing 1959 video describing sprawl and its problems in America in almost identical terms to those used today. Unfortunately, he did not make it embeddable. It’s from the National Association of Home Builders, so obviously has a PoV, but worth a watch anyway.

Richard Longworth: All Aboard – Talking high speed rail.

Joel Kotkin: Why suburbs, not dense cities, are the future

Tory Gattis keeps everyone up to date on Houston over at his Houston Strategies site. One of his recent pieces talks about Houston’s first official jitney service. And he also notes that Houston was number one for total job growth in America in the last five years.

Crosscut: Seattle is big for new media initiatives

St. Louis Business Journal: Most Arch design teams support removing I-70.

Chicago Tribune: State, feds move to force cleanup of Chicago River for recreation

Gothamist: Anti-Cyclist Scaremongering at a Boiling Point

Cleveland Plain Dealer: High tech carts will tell on Cleveland residents who don’t recycle – and they’ll get fined $100.

Gapers Block: Pittsburgh and the Magic of Failure.

Leaving Indiana

I learned this week that Bil Browning and Jerame Davis, co-founder of the Bilerico Project, are moving to Washington, DC where Davis is taking a job with the Stonewall Democrats. I’m no brain drain believer, but in the Bilerico Project, one of America’s absolute top LGBT sites, Browning and Davis proved themselves among the city’s top internet entrepreneurs and clearly the city’s leading media entrepreneurs. As with Formspring.me, this is a big loss for the city. That’s doubly true given the way the Bilerico Project was able to broadcast a far different view of Indianapolis to the world than the one that is commonly believed out there in the world. Best of luck to Bil and Jerame in their new home.

Columbus Branding Follow-Up

After my recent Columbus branding post, someone pointed me at this Chamber of Commerce video promoting the city. (Click through if the embedded video doesn’t display). I won’t opine on it, but let you decide for yourself what you think of it.

Little Big Berlin

A great tilt-shift video of Berlin, and some of what its people are up to. And a great soundtrack too. (If the video doesn’t show for you, click here).

Post Script

Here’s a very cool 1943 picture of Chicago that was part of a photo series of full color Depression/WW-II era snaps that have been circulating around the web. Check them out on the Denver Post web site.

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

The Index: Michigan and Ohio

Here’s another installment of my periodic postings with archive summaries on various topics. Today, looking at posts about Michigan and Ohio.

Detroit

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.

Cincinnati

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.

Cleveland

It’s a struggling city, and one I’ll admit I don’t know enough about and haven’t cracked the code on yet.

Columbus

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.

Enjoy!

Comments Off

Cities: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Replay: Fantasy Transit Maps

There’s a sort of genre of urbanist creativity out there of fantasy transit maps. These are maps of transit systems that don’t exist and usually aren’t even proposed yet, but rather just express some dream of the creator, often quite epic in scope.

What I find interesting is how much better these often are than actual transit maps or proposals. I noted before how the Cincinnati streetcar people basically don’t even have a decent map of the line [now fixed]. Contrast that with this example that Columbus Underground points us at. If you click the image, you’ll get a high resolution PDF.

Now that’s a pretty slick map. It is, for locals at least, recognizably Columbus. The crisp, modern design, 45 degree angles, and relatively equidistant stations recall the famous London map and others from cities around the world. The idea being to show how Columbus could position itself among these global cities by creating a transit system. You can even buy it as a poster! A nice possible marketing tool.

This map was created by designer Michael Tyznik and is part of his online design portfolio.

People who are pushing actual transit system improvements could learn a lot from these fantasy maps. Coming up with high quality collateral that demonstrates what the end state looks like is important. And if you can make short term progress and update the map to show reality being made, even better. Transit advocates should take note.

Here is a collection of Columbus fantasy transit maps.

And additional fantasy maps some people linked to in the comments of the original post.

Indianapolis:

New Orleans:

Cincinnati (printed on a T-shirt):

St. Louis:

This article originally appeared on December 2, 2009.

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Rebranding Columbus

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Columbus, Ohio, one of those under the radar cities that’s a whole lot better than its external brand image would suggest.

That frustrates local civic leaders, who’ve undertaken a major re-branding effort, as discussed in a recent NYT piece, “There May Be ‘No Better Place,’ but There Is a Better Slogan:”

Quick, what do you think about when you hear the words “Columbus, Ohio”? Still waiting…. And that’s the problem that civic leaders here hope to solve. This capital city in the middle of a state better known, fairly or not, for cornfields and rusting factories has a low cost of living, easy traffic and a comparatively robust economy….What Columbus does not have, to the despair of its leaders, is an image. As home to major research centers, it has long outgrown its 1960s self-concept as a cow town, and its distinction as the birthplace of the Wendy’s hamburger chain does not quite do the trick these days. The city lacks a shorthand way to sell itself — a signature like the Big Apple or an intriguing tagline like Austin’s “Live Music Capital of the World.” As a result, those working to attract new companies, top professors, conventions and tourists have a hard time explaining how Columbus differs from dozens of other cities that likewise claim to be livable, progressive and fun.

As I’ve said many times, branding isn’t marketing. It isn’t about tag lines, messaging, or talking points. Yes, there’s an element of that and getting your message out. But branding starts with what’s on the inside not messages to the outside. It’s about who you are, what your values are, what you stand for, what you aspire to be when you grow up. The marketing part just helps communicate that.

I won’t reprise my general prescription on branding, but here are a few pieces you can review if interested:

Despite what the title of the NYT piece might suggest, I think Columbus gets it on this:

How do you stoke the imagination of outsiders and the enthusiasm of residents? Columbus, starting from relative obscurity, has found that you cannot just hire an advertising agency, like New York and Las Vegas did, and come up with a slogan. It needs to find something real and heartfelt to trumpet, a task force of business, educational, political and arts leaders here concluded.

Your brand has to be something that is authentic, that’s true to the place. It has to resonate with the people who are there. That’s not to say it can’t be aspirational. That’s how we grow. But to simply chuck your past and trying to be something completely different is overwhelmingly difficult and often fails. So kudos to Columbus for trying to find something true to the character of their city.

Apparently they’ve been at this a while, and one of the techniques has been involving residents in helping to define the new brand: “But this time, three years into their inner journey, city leaders expect to succeed by drawing the whole population into the process and teasing out shared points of pride.”

When I read something like “drawing the whole population into the process”, alarm bells go off. It’s not PC to say this, but too much public involvement at the wrong stage is a bad idea. Clearly, it’s important that the public buy in and that the results be shared and genuine input solicited without delivering a fait accompli. But design by focus group almost never works. I’ve seen a lot of civic visioning efforts that tried to be maximally inclusive – I even served on the steering committee for one – but I’ve yet to see one that produced compelling results or moved the needle. Think about it. Did Steve Jobs design the iPod by asking people what they thought about music players? No he did not. Apple, and all the best product companies, succeed by giving us the thing we didn’t even know we wanted until they gave it to us.

That’s not to say you ignore market research. There’s certainly an element of archeology and anthropology here. And it certainly has to go beyond simply hiring a fancy pants advertising firm, something Columbus wisely avoided. But community involvement isn’t probably going to get it either. Partially that’s because people who are too close, who are on the inside, probably have difficulty articulating the uniqueness of a place. I don’t have enough personal experience with Columbus to go into depth there. I’d have to get more deeply embedded in the community to really understand the place at a deeper level. But I’m confident that the qualities they are looking for are there to be discovered in Columbus. The city is doing well in a tough region. There have to be reasons why. It’s going to require digging deep though.

The Fallacy of Awareness

I gather from the NYT piece that the people in Columbus think they’ve got a pretty great city, and that if they could only get other people to see how great it is, their standing in the league tables of public estimation would go way up. I believe the first part is true, but not the second.

Wanting to have your city taken seriously is likely wanting to be a member of the cool kids club. How do you get in? Well, it goes without saying that you need to have the qualifications – to be good looking, rich, to suck up to the right people, etc – but is that enough? Sometimes yes, but more often not, particularly for people who don’t score overwhelmingly high.

Think about it, the defining characteristic of a clique is exclusivity. If it was too easy to get in, membership would lose its value. So if you think about cities, the urbanists, media types, academics, activists, etc. who are the arbiters to the public at large about what cities are the coolest and best generally all pick the same ones – cliques also enforce conformity of mindset – and it just so happen that those are the places that contain most of the said taste arbiters. Why would any of them choose to champion Columbus, unless they had some personal connection there?

People who are members of an elite clique generally spend most of the time talking with and about each other, and little time about anyone else, even to put them down. To be ignored is the ultimate penalty of being an outsider. This is true of almost any field.

Here’s a classic example from the blogosphere. There was a minor kerfuffle a while back about Andrew Sullivan using “ghost bloggers.” Fellow Tier One blogger Ann Althouse took extreme umbrage at this in a way I find very revealing about the mindset of members of an exclusive clique:

I seriously believed I was interacting with Sullivan, a writer I have respected for maybe 20 years. I wouldn’t have bothered with Patrick (or Chris). I really don’t care what they think. If they insult me, they are to me like any number of bloggers who insult me and whose bait I don’t take. I would always take Sullivan’s bait, because Sullivan is important. Not to know whether it’s Sullivan or one of them makes a mush out of the whole blog.

Of course when she says Andrew Sullivan is important, what’s she’s really implying that she’s important, and can’t be bothered wasting her time on anyone who isn’t also on the VIP list. To have fooled her into debating mere peons – whose writing she admits she can’t tell from Sullivan’s himself – is treachery of the highest order.

In fairness to Althouse, she does link to lesser known bloggers (including, once, me). The point is not that she’s evil, which I don’t think, but that this is how the world really works.

If you are the Columbus, Ohio of bloggers, how do you get Ann Althouse, Andrew Sullivan, etc. to care about you? I can actually share a personal story in that regard. The first two and a half years of this blog was almost exclusively about Indianapolis, and I had very wide readership there. But I received very little recognition or acknowledgment in that city. Quite the opposite in fact. As an example, one journalist I assisted with a story told me flat out I wasn’t authoritative enough to quote in the piece. While I hope I’m getting better over time, I don’t think my content was that much less compelling then than it is today. And it was obviously being read. So why the difference? It’s the same dynamic I’m talking about. They might not have known who I was, but they knew who I wasn’t – and that was one of the boys. Quality product and awareness had nothing to do with it. Having experienced that end of the spectrum is one reason I try to be a champion for new voices.

There’s an industry out there that creates the myth or fantasy of the instant or overnight success who achieves fame and glory when their talent is finally seen by the public or the right people. Susan Boyle for example. I’m sure that does happen from time to time. But is that the way it ordinarily happens? And how much staying power does fame and recognition have in those circumstances?

I’d suggest that this sort of thing happens far less than we are generally led to believe. I read a lot of magazine profiles of people and when I hear them talk about how they got their big break, I’m always amazed at how often there are one of two basic tales. The first is, “I was sitting in my office one day wondering how we were going to pay the rent when my phone rang and it was Frank Gehry asking if I could design some lighting fixtures for his new Guggenheim Museum”. The second is, “I just showed up at Vogue and lied that I was sent there by Steven Meisel and they interviewed me and I got the job.” How likely is it that most of these stories are true? Or at least that they are the whole truth?

One of my guilty pleasures is the New York Observer. One of the things I love about it is, that due to the gossipy nature of the publication, they always give you the back story on who the people they are talking about are. That 27 year old chief curator at the top tier museum? Yeah, his mom was an heiress. He wouldn’t advertise that fact in most of those other magazine profiles. I’d bet most of these stories would fare similarly under scrutiny, though perhaps in different ways.

Clearly, awareness, and awareness by the right people, is critical. You really do have to get out there and knock on Vogue’s door – probably getting it slammed in your face the first few times you do it. Everybody needs lucky breaks. I have no doubt that if my personal promotional skills were better, I’d be further along in achieving my own ambitions.

But there’s a lot more too it than that. You want to be a member of the club? You’ve got to break the door down yourself. You’ve got to make it so that they can’t ignore you. If Columbus wants to be taken seriously, it’s going to have to force itself into the conversation. That takes relentless hard work and creating a product so compelling that the urbanist elite has to respond to it and take it seriously. Simply being a great place to raise a family, having a relatively good economy, high quality of life and low costs – a value proposition virtually identical to lots of other cities regardless of what locals might think – is not going to get the job done.

One Columbus official said, “Candidly, we believe we are one of the brightest stars in Ohio’s future.” One of the brightest stars in Ohio? I’m sorry, that’s not going to cut it. It’s like I tell the people in Indy when they get excited about being the “Diamond of the Rust Belt”: that sounds an awful lot like bragging that you won the loser’s bracket in the JV playoffs again this year. There’s nothing wrong with being in Ohio – and Columbus would be ill-advised to try to pretend they are something different from the state. Columbusites can be proud of Ohio and their role in it. But if they want America to pay attention to them, they need a message and reality to match that ambition.

That’s what Portland did. Portland didn’t get to be Portland through superior marketing and talking points about having the lowest costs and quality of life on the west coast with all those natural amenities to boot. They went out and did nothing less than define a new vision of what a small city in America could be. And they delivered on it through relentless hard work and actual execution over the course of decades.

Staking Your Claim

If Columbus wants to raise its profile, then it has to start setting the agenda. That’s not to say they have to try to be the next Portland or anything. But they’ve got to find areas where they can stake their claim and create something that compels the world to pay attention.

I’ll be the first to admit that this section will be unfair to Columbus. I’m going to compare it to its “twin city” of Indianapolis, a place I know far better. So keeping in mind that I just probably know more about what’s going on in Indy, and that I’m clearly a partisan of that city, I’d like to note a few things.

First, Columbus just seems more with it than Indy on a host of matters. In fact, when it comes to things like urban design, density, public transit, and many other matters, Indy is almost worst in class. It’s hard for me to even name one urban infill project that exhibits proper urban design, for example, while in others cities I tend to note that the majority of new developments do. Columbus, by contrast, just seems to get it on most issues, from urbanism, to pedestrian investments, etc. Yet why is Indy much better known?

One reason is that while Columbus does a very good job of ticking all the boxes, I can’t name many areas where it has gone above and beyond the checklist. And therein lies its problem. Columbus is a quality follower and implementer of the right things, but isn’t an urban innovator or a place that has carved out a distinct and compelling offering versus broadly similar peers.

A lot of people from bigger cities don’t care for Indy much. If you want walkable neighborhoods, tons of independent restaurants, etc. it is not your place. But time and again Indy has gone out and pulled things off that many other cities can only dream about, and put themselves in the spotlight.

The NYT notes of Columbus leaders, “One model they have studied is Indianapolis, which raised its profile by describing itself as the amateur athletic capital of America.” The NYT gets it completely wrong. Indy didn’t raise its profile by describing itself as anything. Back in the 1970′s a group of glum city leaders sat around a table wondering what they were going to do about a city best known, if as anything, as “India-no-place.” They hit on the idea of amateur sports. But rather than a marketing program, they instead committed themselves to going out and making it a reality, a process that continues to this day, though not limited to only amateur sports.

Indy built a downtown arena in the 1970′s. They built a domed stadium at the bargain price of only $80 million in 1983 without a team to play in it in an era before widespread pro sports franchise relocations. This let them pick the Colts up in 1984 on the cheap. Yes, that was a lucky break, but one they were ready to exploit. They put the domed stadium next to the convention center, not just to help conventions, but anticipating that major sports events would have ancillary activities that would use the co-located space. They created the first of its kind Indiana Sports Corp. to oversee all aspects of luring and hosting events. They saw the benefits of industry clustering, and recruited sporting sanctioning bodies to town, culminating with the NCAA headquarters. They started off with unglamorous events like the trials for the 1984 Olympics. They took risky bets when opportunity presented itself such as jumping in to host the 1986 Pan Am Games when the original host city backed out. They built state of the art facilities for sports few people gave much though to like swimming and bicycling.

In effect, Indianapolis created the entire industry of using sports events hosting as an economic development platform, and they did it in a holistic, extremely intelligent way that involved putting some major chips on the table for projects with an uncertain outcome. And they are still at it today, 35 years later after, as all successes do, everybody and their brother has tried to get a piece of this pie. The competition is brutal, and Indy has spent big – some say too big – to stay at the front, such as by going full out to host a Super Bowl in 2012. Indianapolis is arguably still the best place in America to host a sporting event.

I’m a believer in all the research that suggests sports investment is a bad idea with a dubious payoff for cities. But Indianapolis is an exception. There’s no doubt this was a major force in transforming the city – and getting its name out there. How much would the city have had to pay for all the de facto advertising impressions they’ve gotten from all this sports investment?

Is Columbus willing to stake a similar claim in another speculative area and put big money behind it, staying with it over the course of decades? Is Columbus ready to pile $3 billion in chips on Red 14 the way Indy did?

Indy also conceived many other similar types of programs that not only add to local quality of life, but also get the city’s name out. Consider the quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, one of the most prestigious such competitions in the world. Why would anyone take seriously a fine arts competition in Indianapolis? Well, they wouldn’t, all things being equal. So when the city did it, they had to come up with an unbeatable package. First, they partnered with the world-renowned Indiana University School of Music to give them musical credibility. And they set up for the winner a year’s loan of a Stradivarius violin, a recital at Carnegie Hall and other places, intense coaching from some of the world’s best violinists, and more. That certainly got people’s attention.

Or consider the Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation. Again, why would anyone think of Indianapolis in this field? They wouldn’t – except that they city anted up and made it the single biggest cash prize in this field in the world and recruited a top international nominating committee and jury.

Or look at the currently in progress Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which is taking over 8 miles of downtown street lanes away from cars and giving them to people. It is a unique project, that includes the highest quality bicycle boulevard I’ve seen, along with an often separate pedestrian walkway, significant green features, and major public art installations. While honestly this has not received the publicity it deserves, it has been covered in Surface, Dwell, Streetsblog, and elsewhere. It’s a totally unique project. From now on anyone who wants to undertake a major downtown urban trail project is going to go to Indianapolis to see what it did. Why? Not because they want to, but because they have to. Because at some point somebody is going to ask the question, did you look at the Indy Cultural Trail? – and if they development team says No, they are going to look pretty stupid.

I’ve also noted how suburban Carmel, Indiana is staking out a claim to be a nationally premier suburb, with 5% of all the modern roundabouts in the United States, the largest deployment of roundabout interchanges in the United States, an ambitious agenda of New Urbanist retrofit, a $150M concert hall, and much more.

You might not know any or all of these, but in their fields, they are known. They are all projects of major ambitions, that attempt to innovate and set the agenda, and which serve a branding function for the city. They were also conceived with a recognition that nobody is going to pay attention to Indianapolis unless the city forces them to. And it has. And it’s not just in the traditional civic sphere. Here’s a point to ponder: with Columbus’ vaunted gay community, why is it Indianapolis that is home to the Bilerico Project, the Huffington Post of the LGBT community?

I could go on and on – best airport in the United States, anyone? – but I think you get the point. Indy isn’t in the club yet, and may never get there – but it has come a long way.

Again, if I knew Columbus better, I’d probably be able to give examples there too. I’m sure Columbus isn’t totally without these types of programs. But my blog has been traditionally Midwest focused. And I’ve tried to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on in all these cities, including Columbus. I read the Dispatch online for over two years and still read Columbus Underground regularly. But I haven’t come across that many truly compelling stories of national relevance – and certainly nowhere near as many as I’d expect for a city that’s rocking and rolling as much as Columbus is.

Maybe the painful truth is that Columbus today just isn’t very different from the other places with which it competes – and that’s what this re-branding should really address.

Columbus has most of the blocking and tackling nailed. It’s a city that gets it. But to break through at the national level, Columbus is going to have to do a lot more than get it. Columbus is going to have to start playing offense, start dictating an ambitious – and let’s face it, risky – agenda around items that are so compelling the world won’t have any choice but to sit up and pay attention. Because it’s unlikely anybody is going to start giving Columbus the props it craves otherwise. It’s just like they told me at my old firm about the secret to making partner – you’ve got to already more than be there.

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Replay: Columbus – The New Midwestern Star

[ I recently wrote about Columbus, Indiana, but I haven't forgotten about Columbus, Ohio. That city is undertaking a major rebranding effort I'll comment on in the next week or so. But before getting to that, I'll share again my overview of this under the radar and under-appreciated city that is coming on strong - Aaron. ]

Columbus, Ohio is by far the best performing city in Ohio. In a state that has become a byword for the challenges and pain of de-industrialization, Columbus is a clear standout, with strong economic and population growth.

A lot of the analysis of what makes Columbus different from Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Youngstown, and even Cincinnati often starts out by noting all the advantages Columbus had. It is the state capital. Ohio State University is there. It was not a traditional heavy manufacturing center (less true than you might think), and so did not have that legacy to overcome.

But what strikes me about Columbus is not all the advantages it has, but rather the handicaps it has when compared to other Midwestern standouts like the Twin Cities:

  • The Columbus metro area has only 15% of the state’s population, and thus does not form a significant voting block in the state house. Compare to say the Twin Cities or Chicago.
  • It is one of three major cities in Ohio (Cleveland and Cincinnati being the others), and is the smallest of them. There are also a number of mid-sized cities like Toledo, Youngstown, and Dayton. This makes Ohio an urban-friendly state, but also makes the competition for state resources intense. There is no other Midwestern state with anything like this.
  • Cincinnati and Cleveland both came of age early and were giants of their ages, which endowed them with an incredible built environment legacy and many absolute top quality high culture institutions. Since Columbus lagged, and since Ohio already had these things through Cincy and Cleveland, Columbus is comparatively lacking in both regards. It is especially notable that Columbus’ high culture institutions are very weak compared to most Midwestern cities.
  • Columbus does not have any of the top three professional sports team, again, probably because of the Cincy/Cleveland factor. People who think pro sports are overly key to urban success have to be able to explain away the Columbus example. It does have NHL and MLS franchises.
  • Columbus has a comparatively weak central business district. It has the typical office buildings and such to be sure. But its downtown mall, City Center, is closed and will be demolished. It is not a major convention destination. Nor is downtown a major entertainment district for the city.

So you can see that there are a number of structural weaknesses working against Columbus. But the one that I really think is the kicker is the name “Columbus” itself. It is just very generic and has no brand recognition. Columbus is probably the biggest city in America where the state is almost always given along with the city, i.e., “Columbus, Ohio” versus “Cincinnati”. Say Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, St. Louis and by themselves people know where you are talking about at at least something about it. But say Columbus and people probably think of a town named Columbus in their own state, like Columbus, Indiana or Columbus, Georgia. This is one area the lack of pro sports probably hurts the city badly, since cities with major league franchises are constantly getting their name on TV. (I have long endorsed viewing pro sports subsidies as basically a naming rights sponsorship, where the city pays to put its name on the team for marketing exposure. How much would it cost to buy all those TV impressions? A lot more than the cost of the team.) Heck, type “Columbus” into Wikipedia and you get back a disambiguation page.

In addition to just having a generic name shared with cities in various states, there is really nothing that would put Columbus on the mental map of the world. Louisville has the Kentucky Derby. No matter what else people may or may not know about Louisville, everyone knows the Derby and that it is in Louisville. It’s a similar story for the Indianapolis 500. But Columbus? Nothing.

I caused some pain for myself on a Columbus message board by suggesting that outside the United States, especially in Europe, Columbus, Indiana probably has better brand recognition than Columbus, Ohio and that among a certain social set if you just said, “Columbus”, the Indiana town is what would come to mind. This is because Columbus, Indiana has one of the world’s most important collections of modernist architecture by a who’s who of key architects. (It is an absolute must visit, incidentally, and be sure to sign up for the bus tour at the visitor’s center). It has an international reputation for this.

So I think in looking at Columbus, you need to be able to see its success in terms of the big headwinds the city faces in some respects. This renders its performance all the more impressive. Consider:

  • The Columbus metro population is growing at a rate of 1.1% per year, which exceeds the national average. It is the second fastest growing large city in the Midwest after Indianapolis. What’s more, its growth held steady last year in a time when most cities suffered declining performance. Indy’s growth rate has eroded the last two years running, so if trends continue, Columbus will be #1 in short order. The Columbus region is adding people at a healthy run rate of 200,000 per decade.
  • Columbus has net in-migration, including the rarity of domestic in-migration.
  • Columbus has been adding jobs at one of the strongest rates in the Midwest. While its economy has taken a hit recently like all others, it has held up much better than the Midwest. Its unemployment rate of 8.1% compares favorably to other traditionally strong Midwest economies like Indianapolis (8.7%), Minneapolis (8.4%) and Kansas City (8.2%)

Columbus’ economy is powered by many of the same things that have led other Midwest peer cities. Columbus has a very low cost of living, an increasing array of urban amenities, and very high quality of life with regards to such measures as traffic congestion. It does also have the benefit of Ohio State University, the largest university campus in the country, which has the effect of almost making Columbus America’s biggest college town. Normally a school wouldn’t make as big a splash in a city this size, but OSU is so huge, it does. This has many positive impacts such as skewing the population younger, driving international migration, increasing college degree attainment rates, and enabling research oriented spinoffs. (It probably does act as a drag on labor force as a percentage of population, however).

Columbus also seems to have benefited from longstanding enlightened leadership. Back in the 1950′s or so, one of their mayors made a key decision. He refused to extend water service to places that did not agree to be annexed. Thus Columbus was able to expand geographically where most Midwestern cities got hemmed in. So while it does not have a city-county merger in effect, Columbus takes up a huge amount of the county, with a population in the city proper of over 700,000 people. Ohio has very favorable annexation laws for cities that control utilities. If you get utility service from a city, you can’t stop them from annexing you – and you can annex across county lines, something that Columbus has already done. While it now does have cities like Dublin ringing it in some respects, there seems to be a recognition that there needs to be room for the city to continue to grow, and from what I’ve seen, annexation boundary agreements with suburbs continue to provide more or less unlimited possibilities for Columbus to continue expanding.

The corporate community is robust and engaged. Columbus seems to have a very strong economic development mindset, and a pro-business attitude. The local corporate community has been very active in things like the development of the Arena District, and has pumped a lot of money into the downtown. There can be complaints, probably with some degree of legitimacy, that development policies are overly corporate driven, but this is true everywhere. Columbus has also notably maintained a large white collar work force.

The government and citizen base seems to be supportive of fairly progressive public policies. I noted recently how citizens of the city have routinely voted for bond levies to fund various civic improvements. Even in this recession, there was just a vote for a levy that is partially to maintain operations, but also partially to expand the parks. Like many cities, Columbus has a lot of overgrown country roads that haven’t been upgraded, but it is trying. Last year Columbus spend $50 million on adding new sidewalks, for example. There have been other bond issues and many of them are focused on things like sidewalks and other projects to improve the quality of the overall city’s general infrastructure, not a handful of splashy mega-projects. As I’ve long said, the mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Every small town in America makes its Main Street look nice. But the ordinary street is much more important. Columbus seems to get that.

The one thing that has failed in Columbus is light rail. It was voted down. Actually, I think that’s probably a good thing since while improved transit is certainly needed there, a very expensive light rail system probably isn’t a fit for Columbus.

Columbus, like most cities, has an urban core that has many challenges. There are a lot of areas of the old city of Columbus that are as decayed as any other place. But Columbus also has a lot of urban gems in its central city as well. German Village is one of the top historic districts in the United States. It is truly incredible and a must visit. While the downtown isn’t that exciting, areas like the Short North and the entire continuous strip of urbanized development north along High St. through the University campus up to Worthington is impressive. There are a number of smaller Franklin County suburbs that are super-cool “old school old money” type places in their appearnce. Newer places like Dublin are starting to turn it on.

So what does Columbus need to do moving forward?

1. It needs to strengthen its brand. I wrote a lot about strengthening the brand of Indianapolis in this blog, but that city is one I know intimately. I don’t know Columbus well enough to judge what its essential character might be yet, but ultimately a real brand image needs to spring from the native soil. Columbus can’t be a world class city unless it is a world class Columbus. Great cities, like great wines, have to express their terroir. Trying to graft coolness onto a place apart from its essential character only looks pathetic. I think Columbus is still stuck in a insecure phase where it is engaging in braggadocio to make itself seem like it is one of the cool upperclassmen. The best example here is the city calling itself “The Indie Arts Capital of the World”. There is actually some goodness in this. I noted the city’s relatively weak high culture institutions, so focusing on indie arts makes sense. But is this brand likely to play in Chicago? I don’t think so. Nor do I think it works as a aspirational statement since it seems at odds with local character and difficult to achieve. This won’t be easy. The name Columbus itself is a bit of a millstone as I noted. But I think it can be done. It’s going to take a lot of digging deep and working hard, and finding an inner confidence in what Columbus is as a city.

2. Infrastructure is a problem. Columbus is growing and needs to expand its infrastructure to keep up and also improve and maintain its legacy infrastructure. The problem is that key portions of Columbus’ legacy infrastructure require very expensive upgrades that will likely suck up all available funds. This will hurt it if something creative isn’t found. For example, ODOT is going to spend over a billion dollars reconstructing part of the inner loop downtown. That is desperately needed since the road is unsafe, but is unlikely to add to Columbus’ competitive advantage as a city. And that’s a billion that can’t be spent on other things. Some locals want to put caps on the freeway to mitigate the “noose effect” it has on downtown. These are very expensive and have been considered too costly to include. This ought to be reconsidered. Yes, it won’t be cheap. But cutting out every “value added” element from a project to keep the cost down means you could ultimately end up with still an ultra-expensive project, but one that has little real boost for the city. If you’ve got lemons, you need to make lemonade. If you’re going to hold your nose and fix a problem like this, you might as well pinch a little harder and do the job right so that you get some actual value out of it.

3. Improve the quality of urban design. Columbus isn’t bad, but its built environment is rather generic. It needs to improve the quality of its architecture and public space, and what’s more use design as a way of expressing its brand. This is a huge opportunity area for cities like Columbus to create a differentiated physical environment at modest incremental cost. It seems to be something that doesn’t register with people, however. Indianapolis, as I’ve noted, has some simply superb examples of design in a handful of locations – but refuses to do anything with them. I am utterly befuddled by this. Even Chicago is backsliding on this front. It’s a big opportunity area for Columbus.

4. Tune-up the economic development engine. Columbus is doing well here – it’s hard to argue with the results. But I think a pro-active scan to find some specific niches where Columbus can create sustainable competitive advantage and get the benefits of being a first mover are would be good to do. I think the future is about micro-clusters made up of many small and medium sized businesses that in aggregate will add up to what say a single major HQ or factory might have had. Only looking at general mega-clustures like life sciences is not enough. Also, OSU brings huge numbers of outsiders to the area for four years. They probably had a great time. How can the city turn the OSU university alumni network into an urban alumni network?

On the whole, I think Columbus is rocking and rolling. Because of its weak name recognition and the fact that it is in Ohio, I think it flies almost completely under the radar. But this an impressive city and one that is arguably the best positioned of any Midwestern metro to really prosper in the 21st century economy. For those of you who haven’t been to Columbus, I strongly suggest a visit. This is not a Cincinnati or Chicago like place where you will be immediately wowed by the coolness of the built environment. But I think it will surprise you nevertheless. Before you go, drop by Columbus Underground and let the crew there tell you what you ought to see and do.

I don’t have pictures of all of the cool areas of Columbus, but here are a few samples for you.

Some scenes from German Village.

Here are some shots from the core of downtown. First the Ohio State House. Yup, no dome.

City Hall (I think)

Moving a bit north to the Arena District. I like to call this Columbus’ “Downtown 2.0″. They got it wrong bigtime the first time around by trying to spread major projects like City Center Mall around in order to act as anchors. The right approach is clustering multiple types of uses in a single district, which the city did right in the Arena District.

The downtown arena is named for Nationwide Insurance, which is the prime mover behind much of the downtown redevelopment.

The Columbus Convention Center. I’m not sold on the architecture, frankly, though they made an effort to do something other than the standard box.

Restaurants in the vicinity.

The Hyatt Regency Hotel. I’ve always thought buildings like this have a bit of an Orwellian aura about them. It looks like some Eastern Bloc country’s defense department.

Moving along to the north, we get to to a neighborhood called the Short North. The one photo I have of it in my archives doesn’t do it justice. Lots of arts related businesses here.

One of those old moneyesque suburbs I mentioned is Worthington in northern Franklin County. Here are a couple snaps.

The main street in north suburban Delaware, the eponymous county seat of the fast growing county in Ohio.

Here are thoughts on branding from Indianapolis that are relevant to Columbus, as well as a concept brand positioning for Louisville:

The Brand Promise of Indianapolis
Our Product is Better Than Our Brand
Louisville: Vice City

Thoughts on Urban Design that are relevant to Columbus:

15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis

This post originally ran on May 17, 2009.

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Downsides of Consolidation #1: Neighborhood Redevelopment

This is the first in a short series of posts on 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:


Photo courtesy Jung Won Kim.

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.

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.

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

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