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Friday, December 11th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

The Good News

I thought I would lead off a few pieces of very good recent news.

First, Louise Nippert donated $85 million to Cincinnati arts groups. $75 million of this goes to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, making it the largest gift in that institution’s history and one of the largest to any orchestra anywhere.

Also, the Indianapolis Regional Center Design Guidelines won the 2010 National Planning Excellence Award for a Best Practice from the American Planning Association. Columbus, Ohio won in the Best Practice for Implementation category for its University District revitalization. And Chicago won in the Outreach category for its Wicker Park Bucktown Master Plan. The APA web site has the full list of winners.

Ideas For Cities

Back in September at Velocity Grand Rapids, an energetic bunch of urban enthusiasts came up with a collection of ideas for cities. I participated and previously shared some of the thinking this event stimulated in me. Recently, GOOD Magazine started blogging a huge collection of ideas that were captured from that event. It is called Ideas for Cities and is worth checking out. You won’t agree with all of them, I’m sure, but you are sure to find some good things on the list as well.

It’s Not a Race – But What If It Were?

I don’t know the original source of this video but I found it via Human Transit. It shows the progress of rail line construction in various cities over time. On your mark, get set…

If video does not display, click here.

2010 Housing Outlook

Pittsburgh’s Chris Briem pointed me at this Fortune magazine housing outlook for 2010. Pittsburgh happens to be the only market projected positive for 2010, though several markets turn positive in 2011. Here’s the Midwest cities from the list. The rank is in order of best to worst housing markets for the top 100 metros.

  • #1 – Pittsburgh: +0.41%
  • #7 – Kansas City: -1.81%
  • #8 – Louisville: -2.24%
  • #12 – St. Louis: -2.39%
  • #24 – Indianapolis: -3.23%
  • #30 – Milwaukee: -3.92%
  • #34 – Chicago: -4.30%
  • #40 – Minneapolis: -4.99%
  • #50 – Columbus: -6.54%
  • #51 – Cleveland: -6.98%
  • #57 – Cincinnati: -8.30%
  • #65 – Detroit: -9.40%

A Tsunami of Freight

The Cincinnati Enquirer has a great series of articles on increasing truck traffic in the region and insufficient investment in roads to keep up with it. I-75 is now the busiest north-south trucking route in the US, and 47,500 trucks per day pass through Cincinnati.

I know there are a lot of people out there that are anti-highway. But a lot of the arguments around it relate to local land use and development patterns and ignores freight. Clearly, rail freight and intermodal transport are growing at a rapid clip and need investment. But trucking is always going to be a very important part of our national economy and keeping freight moving on a national and regional level is critical. For a big rig, every hour of delay costs about $67 – that adds up quickly.

I support transit development but also believe we need highway investment. With almost every Midwest city and state saying distribution and logistics are going to be a big part of its economy, highway investment is even more critical. If your region has big time congestion and roads with obsolete dimensions, that’s dramatically going to hurt your business climate for transport intensive industries. The cities that figure out how to make this investment are going to distinguish themselves.

One of the things I said I was going to do when I started this blog was call them like I see them, and for this I know I part ways with many. We absolutely need major highway investment in our cities. Do we need transit investment as well? Absolutely. I believe they are actually complementary, not substitutes. Transit works well were highways don’t and vice versa. We need to complement urbanized cores with transit appropriate development patterns with strong regional and national highway networks. It’s a matter of AND not OR.

More from the Enquirer:

World and National Roundup

I want to highlight two long but fascinating and troubling articles about international cities. The first is The Dark Side of Dubai from the Independent (UK). (via @a_me1). It is an incredible peek behind the glittering facade of this Middle Eastern Oz.

The other is a piece in the Observer (UK) on Rio’s drug war. This piece is another example of why the Guardian/Observer is the best newspaper in the world.

Design Boom takes a look at some of the coolest subway designs in the world. Highly recommended. Nothing in the United States featured, of course.

Foreign Policy magazine published their first annual list of the top 100 global thinkers.

Forbes/Kotkin: The World’s Smartest Cities

PD Smith has an opinion piece in Wired UK proposing to use taxation to get people back into cities over there. You wouldn’t have to tax me to get me to move to London! Just offer me a job. It might be my favorite city in the world.

The Guardian: How locals transformed streets into public spaces.

The Atlantic: Mayors vs. Governors. How cities are getting short changed on the stimulus.

Glaeser: What Makes Cities Great

NYT: Entering the super-project void – Bemoaning the lack of transformational infrastructure projects in America.

Essay: Dawn of the Deal Mall (via Kaid Benfield)

A study shows that wind farms don’t harm property value.

CS Monitor: Five cities that will rise in the New Economy (via Houston Strategies)

Reihan Salam: We’re all Michiganders now

Elizabeth Warren: America without a middle class.

David Brooks: An Innovation Agenda

New York Magazine: The Encyclopedia of Counter-Intuitive Thought – a compendium of some of the best works of counter-intuitive thinking from the last decade. Very stimulating. (Via @jwalkersmith)

New Geography: Will New Urbanists Deliver a Home Win with Miami 21?

NYT: Trouble in Philly, Lessons in New York. There’s a backlash against bicycling in Philadelphia after bicyclists killed two pedestrians. It would be tempting to just bash cars more here, but biking advocates need to address the legitimate concerns about how biking affects pedestrians. Clearly there is an element of the biking community, albeit a minority, that rides rudely and hazardously. We need to educate and encourage bikers to share the road with pedestrians just as we do the same with drivers.

Streetsblog New York: MTA Doomsday Redux?

Five days that shook Seattle. A look back at the WTO meeting and riots (via @OtisWhite)

Sizing up a sharp turn at the Denver Art Museum. A look at that institutions progress as 20 year director Lewis Sharp departs.

How two cities revived train stations. The Detroit Free Press examines how Kansas City and Nashville reused their train stations, seeking a model for saving the Michigan Central Depot.

Nashville: Medical Mart chooses convention center home. (via Brewed Fresh Daily)

Kaid Benfield: Texas (!) becomes first state to adopt smart streets rule. I’m not as surprised as he is. With that Texas attitude, when they think they are behind on something, they make a point to catch up, which is why Texas actually bests almost the entire Midwest on most measures of urban progressivism.

Ohio Faces ‘Mobility Crisis’

Urban Cincy highlighted a study that talked about the precipitous decline of transportation option other than automobiles in Ohio. He’s got all the details you should definitely check out, but I wanted to share the maps of non-auto transportation links in Ohio in 1979 vs. 2009.

First 1979:

Now 2009:

Policing Levels

Urban Cincy has a another great piece, this one on police staffing levels in Cincinnati It’s an interesting and provocative analysis in an area in which the discourse is dominated by a political culture in which no one wants to appear soft on crime.

He had a great chart of police officers per capita for Midwest cities. Here is the research, in terms of police per 100,000 residents in the year 2000:

  • Cleveland: 381
  • Milwaukee: 335
  • Pittsburgh: 310
  • Cincinnati: 307 (2010 data pro forma with planned reductions)
  • Kansas City: 284
  • Louisville: 269
  • Columbus: 245
  • Minneapolis: 236
  • Toledo: 220
  • Indianapolis: 207
  • Portland: 190

Names and Identity

The New York Times had a great piece Sunday called “Vancouver Talks Tough to Itself“. That’s Vancouver, Washington. One of the key focus areas of the article is how sharing a name with Vancouver, British Columbia kills their brand recognition. One local even created a shirt saying, “Vancouver (not B.C.), Washington (not D.C.), Clark County (not Nevada), near Portland, Oregon (not Maine)”.

The town is actually considering the step of renaming itself back to its original moniker of Fort Vancouver in an attempt to eliminate the confusion.

This story made me immediately think of Columbus, Ohio. It’s another city that struggles under the weight of a fairly generic name. It’s not that it is overshadowed by a more famous or bigger Columbus, but rather that Columbus is simply a common name for cities in America (Columbus, Indiana; Columbus, Georgia) and that the word Columbus to many people means the Columbus in their own state. Also, until recently Columbus was in the shadow of Cleveland and Cincinnati, so didn’t have longstanding historic recognition. It is probably the biggest city in America where you always have to give the state, not just the city name – Columbus, Ohio. It is probably the largest city out there where a Wikipedia search on its name takes you to a disambiguation page.

It prompts an interesting question: should Columbus change its name? That would be a radical step for sure, one fraught with danger. But also a potential game changer for the city. Just the act of doing so would generate huge press. If I were them I would consider it except that such exercises are inherently so difficult, as most corporate branding initiatives show. I lived through the transition from Andersen Consulting to Accenture. So I know that finding a good name is problematic, and even the best of names sounds stupid when you first hear it. (I think Accenture did one of the better jobs out there). Would anyone pick, for example, Chicago as a city name today? No. The name has meaning because of the history and what it represents. So even the coolest of names would take a long time to “break in” so to speak. If someone really did come up with a great name though, it would be something to debate.

Cincinnati Agenda 360

The Cincinnati Enquirer did a major feature on Agenda 360 last week. Agenda 360 is the region’s strategic plan for the future, focused around raising the number of young people with college degrees, adding jobs, and more.

As the piece notes, however, the goals seem unattainable in the target timeframe, especially with the recession. The Agenda 360 organization is still thinking big, however. According to executive director Myrita Craig, “We wanted to aspire to not just an incremental increase, but to a quantum increase. Love it or hate it, that’s what it is.” The Enquirer suggests that they will be forced to re-evaluate these goals and I agree. I think it is good to set stretch goals and dream big, but if attaining them is patently impossible, it is time for a rethink. Having said that, there is still plenty of good in Agenda 360, and particularly in the process they used.

I previously took an in-depth look at Agenda 360 back in March.

The Enquirer also shared thoughts from several other people on the plan:

The Cleveland Infrastructure Challenge

A couple of news articles out of Cleveland got me thinking again about the infrastructure challenges facing not just that city, but most of our cities. The first was a piece on the recontruction of the Inner Belt bridge. This nine figure project is going to result in six years of construction and traffic disruption.

The other was about the city seeking $219 million to shore up the Cuyahoga River bank. A section of it is in danger of collapsing, which would disrupt the shipping channel, destroy a major sewer line, and take out a roadway.

When you look at expenses like this – and others such as CSO remediation – it shows again the problem that our core cities are forced to spend huge amounts of money just to replace or repair aging infrastructure. When suburban areas build infrastructure, at least they get the benefit of mostly net new product. But after a lot of these expenditures in our cities, they have more or less the same product. Fixing a decaying bank just holds off problems, but doesn’t add to Cleveland’s competitive advantage. Indeed, to the extent that local funds are used, it only adds to the fiscal burden. In my view this is again where federal assistance could help our cities tremendously.

Also, it is critical to find any way we can to get value add out of these projects. Too often instead we get value engineering that strips these down to the bare minimum to save on budget. The end result is a project that doesn’t move the needle for the city or region, but still costs a fortune.

The Asian Invasion

Illinois recently poisoned the Sanitary and Ship Canal in order to kill off Asian carp, and invasive species working its way north from the Mississippi River. There is a huge fear that these voracious eaters would devastate the ecosystem of the Great Lakes if they managed to make it to Lake Michigan.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to force Chicago to close the Chicago River locks to stop it. She’s even threatening legal action. Subsequent press coverage indicated the Army Corps of Engineers is actively considering a temporary closure.

Let’s face it, Chicago would never have been allowed to reverse the flow of the Chicago River today. Other Great Lakes states have long seethed at this arrangement and the threat to the ecosystem is a foot in the door to re-open the issue of whether Chicago can continue to divert billions of gallons of Lake Michigan water. This could get interesting.

More Midwest

Chicago
Comparing the Modern Wing and the Pritzker Pavillion (Build Blog). The authors reach more or less the same conclusion I did.

Cleveland
Casino, convention center, medical mart and other downtown projects need something else to succeed – more people (Plain Dealer) – via Brewed Fresh Daily
Cleveland’s Euclid corridor has paved way for economic development (Plain Dealer)
RTA’s Euclid Health Line faring well in ridership, innovation (Plain Dealer) – An architecture review of the new BRT line, with video.
Cleveland’s RTA exploring ways to saving on utility costs (Plain Dealer)

Detroit
Grand Cobo Ideas Not So Far Fetched (Free Press)
Population loss costs Michigan $4.3 billion (Detroit News)
Downsize Detroit: Strengthen city by phasing out depleted neighborhoods (John Mogk @ Detroit News)
Hundreds of Michigan road projects slashed (Detroit News)
Rethinking Talent Retention (Generation Y Michigan) – via Burgh Disapora

Indianapolis
Indianapolis displays the art of ‘Sacred Spain’ (AP) – A fantastic review of this exhibition from the Associate Press
Place making in Irvington (A Place of Sense)
New Lease on Life for Old City Hall? (IBJ)
Roadside America gets flair (American Dirt)
Zoning board to vote on I-465 sign request – PLEASE, PLEASE VOTE NO

Louisville
Louisville sidewalks get $7.4 million makeover (C-J)

Milwaukee
Regional Transit Authority caught in a funding tangle (J-S)

Pittsburgh
Regionalism: What Is It Good For? (Politics and Place)
Pittsburgh tuition tax plan spurs student fears (Philadelphia Inquirer)

St. Louis
Renewed Metro (transit) tax campaign will test St. Louis value (Post-Dispatch)

Twin Cities
Minneapols-Duluth rail price tag rises to $1 billion (Star Tribune)
What deficit? Vikings fans rally for new stadium (Star Tribune)

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Columbus: 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. 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 and is reproduced with permission.

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.

Update: Here is a collection of Columbus fantasy transit maps.

Additional fantasy maps some people linked to. Indianapolis:

New Orleans:

Cincinnati (printed on a T-shirt):

St. Louis:

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Pro Sports As Naming Rights Deal

The real question is what these expensive, publicly bankrolled behemoths add to their local economies. The consensus across every, single serious study ever done of the economic impact of sports stadia is ‘absolutely nothing.” As the old song goes, ‘say it again.’” – Richard Florida

Over at Columbus Underground they are discussing a report commissioned by the Columbus Blue Jackets NHL team claiming the team and its arena had a $2 billion economic impact in the region. I’ve no doubt that a lot of money was spent around the team, but if anyone believes that this resulted in net $2 billion in benefits to Columbus, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Every independent study I’ve seen suggests that pro sports and stadiums are a bad deal. But city after city invests in them. If this is so seemingly irrational, why? Some of the arguments include ego, corruption from the influence of rich team owners, the fact that local fat cats will get to enjoy the boxes, etc.

It strikes me, however, that we really ought to take a very different view of pro sports. Rather than seeing this as a direct economic investment with a direct ROI in the way a company models investing in a new plant, we should look at it as a marketing and branding expense. In effect, when cities pay hundreds of millions of dollars to team owners to put a franchise in their town, what they are really buying is naming rights to the team.

Is this rational? I haven’t seen a study that attempts to model it this way, but I think we could evaluate it by comparing what cities pay for naming rights on a team versus what non-public sector actors might pay and comparing the prices on some type of normalized CPM basis. CPM, cost per mille, that is, the cost per thousand impressions, is the way advertising is typically sold in the United States. (Other countries use slightly different albeit conceptually similar models such as cost per gross ratings point). If a city is getting as good a CPM rate as private advertisers or naming rights sponsors, then it could be in at least some sense justified.

Is that standard met? Again, I haven’t run the numbers and don’t have the resources to conduct such a study, but my hypothesis is that cities are getting a very good deal indeed.

Consider the Indianapolis Colts. The city initially paid about $80 million to build the Hoosier Dome, which it used to lure the Colts from Baltimore. But that was in 1984, a different era. To keep the Colts, the city had to build them a new stadium at a cost of $725 million. Plus, the city is foregoing a large chunk of the revenues from the stadium. Let’s assume that when you add up all the lost revenues, factor in interest, etc, you are looking at $1.5 billion over time. That’s just a rough, finger in the wind measure.

Lucas Oil Products, desirous of building a brand for itself, purchased the naming rights on the stadium for $120 million. This is far from the high water mark, by the way. Reliant Energy signed a $300 million deal in Houston.

So Indianapolis paid 12.5x to put its name on the team versus what Lucas Oil paid to put its name on the stadium. This means it needs to draw 12.5 times as many impressions to have paid the same effective rate as a private business that is presumably purely profit motivated. I don’t think it is hard to imagine that the name “Indianapolis” appears or is mentioned on TV with regards to the Colts way more than 12.5 times more than “Lucas Oil Stadium” does.

That puts it in perspective. How much money do advertisers pay to get their names on TV? A 30 second Super Bowl ad is $2.7 million or so. That’s what Budweiser pays to get 30 seconds of air time. But when the Colts were in the Super Bowl, the name “Indianapolis” appeared for a heckuva lot longer than 30 seconds. Think about what you would have to pay the TV networks to put your name on the screen and on the lips of the commentators (even that jerk Chris Collinsworth, who has always hated the Colts) as often as “Indianapolis” appears. The price tag would be staggering.

Beyond just having distinctive names versus a generic one, sports teams and major events are likely the main reason everybody in America knows where you are talking about when you say Indianapolis, Cincinnati, or Cleveland, but “Columbus” does not have the same resonance.

This also helps explain why small cities subsidize sports so much more than big ones. It’s not just about big market vs. small market revenues. Bigger cities aren’t as dependent on pro sports to get their brand message out. That’s why Mayor Daley could afford to take a comparatively tough line with the Bears these things go. There are lots of ways he can market Chicago.

Of course, we can still debate whether or not the investment is wise. Just because the cost is market competitive doesn’t mean you should purchase something. But again, I think about the way companies brand themselves and wonder about the ROI for them too. Think about it. Everyone in America already knows Budweiser and their brand promise intimately. But they still advertise heavily to build the brand, not just for specific promotions. They know they need to stay top of mind with their customer.

My previous employer, which was a business to business concern whose buyers are high end executives, nevertheless spends money on television and outdoor ads. I can’t disclose the amount obviously, but let’s just say it is a lot. Why do this if there is no value? Clearly, when tracking various independent measures of brand equity value, there was a payoff. Also, we built sophisticated modeling tools and utilized a team of math Ph.D’s. to help our clients’ marketing organizations calculate the response curves for various advertising types to help identify the marginal value and optimize outlays for various variables. So while there is still an art to it, there’s a lot of science that could be brought to bear to study this, if indeed someone wanted to do the research.

Now, if you contrast the brand recognition of Indianapolis and Columbus, Indy is far higher. On the other hand, if you compare their demographic and economic performance, they are virtually identical twins despite Indy’s far greater investment in sports. That’s a bit of a cautionary tale. Of course there are a lot of variables involved. That’s why we also shouldn’t be so quick to use some sort of “but for” modeling to claim too many benefits for pro sports – and it is why we needed so many math Ph.D.’s!

From what I’ve seen, a lot of chief marketing officers think they are over-spending on advertising. But clearly there is real value in marketing budgets or highly profit-motivated firms wouldn’t spend so much on it. It strikes me that if you look at pro sports investments and stadiums in this light, there’s a stronger possible rationale for doing them than traditional economic impact analysis would suggest.

If there is a study out there that has modeled pro sports in this way, I’d love to see it.

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

California Follow-Up

As a followup to my “What’s Killing California” piece, here are a couple of other takes in the media of late.

Time Magazine staked out an optimistic position on the state in a major cover story called, “Golden State is Thriving, Despite Its Woes“.

John B. Judis takes a more centrist track over at The New Republic in his lengthy “End State“. While he grants Time’s assertion that California is a powerhouse in high tech, biotech, and green industries – but notes that jobs in those sectors continue to decline despite output gains.

Conservative writer William Voegeli had a piece in City Journal taking California to task for its high tax ways. He followed this up with a rebuttal to Time, and also an LA Times op-ed.

Detroit Roundup

My piece on Detroit as an urban laboratory and new American frontier is still going crazy out there on the web. I wouldn’t have expected it when I wrote it, but that is now the all time number one article on my site.

The international press continues to have a field day. The Guardian weighs in again this week, talking about how the Motor City became a ghost town.

Popup City looks at how the car drained Detroit.

Yahoo says Detroit house auction flops for urban wasteland.

Time magazine talks about how private security is booming.

Detroit native James A. Reeves looks back at the city he grew up in.

City Journal’s Steven Malanga looks at feral Detroit.

Daniel Howes expresses outrage at an interesting Detroit practice. Various groups endorse and support candidates based on how much the candidates donates to them. They fund their PAC’s from candidates.

A Detroit city councilor says the city needs a Marshall Plan.

And here’s another Detroit classic from Sweet Juniper.

GOOD Video: Emerging City Innovation

The folks at GOOD put together this interesting video on innovation (if video does not display, click here):

GOOD also has a look at crappy bike lanes in pictures.

High Speed Rail – A Simple Point to Point Service

The Transport Politic has a great piece up on high speed rail corridor market share in Europe. Eurostar has an 85% market share on the London to Paris market, but for trips involving transfers on either end, market share is only 5%. This prompts the author to ask if direct service is the defining element of high speed rail.

This backs up something I said all along about the proposed Midwest high speed rail network. Namely that we should not view Chicago as the hub in the sense of an airline passenger or package sorting hub, which is all about traffic interchange, but rather as being about a series of point to point corridors driven almost entirely by O&D to and from Chicago. This has important implications:

  • If each corridor stands alone, then you don’t need to build the full network to get value. Every corridor you build brings value in its own right. On the flip side, so-called network benefits may not be large as the system is built out.
  • It is not necessary to have a single high speed rail terminal in Chicago. Rather, let each line use its own logic terminal station. This is important because the logical corridor is the IC/Metra Electric for all trains from the south and southeast (St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Louisville). Rather than Union Station, you could have a station at Van Buren St. or Millennium Station.

More HSR:
High speed trains are making China smaller (Newsweek)
FRA preliminary rail plan: no plan at all (Transport Politic)
Spain’s high speed trains out muscle airlines> (Business Week)

The Economic Development Potential of African American Men

Rust Wire pointed us at a study by an organization I’d never heard of called Policy Bridge on African American men in Northeast Ohio. I haven’t read the entire thing in detail yet, but Rust Wire’s take looked interesting and the abstract hit a lot of the points I’ve pounded again and again on this blog:

The loss of African-American male potential is, in fact, a loss of income that is crippling the regional and state economies. Creating economic opportunity for African-American men is, in fact, creating opportunity for Greater Cleveland. By investing in better educating, fully employing, and fairly compensating the African-American male population, the area is investing in its own well-being. The return on investment will come in the form of increased consumer buying power, increased income and property taxes, increased civic engagement, and renewed economic growth.

Before this reward can be realized, however, the community must undergo a change in viewpoint: The African-American male population must no longer be seen as a potential drain on community resources, but as an untapped well of economic potential and a key ingredient to Northeast Ohio’s economic recovery.

Sad Transit Chart From Cleveland

Brewed Fresh Daily ran a great analysis of RTA ridership, which is poised to hit its lowest level ever:

Columbus to Use Conservation Easement to Preserve City Center Site

I previously reported that Columbus wanted to scrape the City Center Mall site and put a park there. I said this might not be a bad temporary use of the land, but that they would be unlikely to create the type of civic gathering place they hoped for. Well, not only is the city moving forward with the park plan, they also want to use a conservation easement to try to make sure it stays a park forever.

This would be a mistake. Not only will this park again likely not achieve the goals set out for it, one legislative body has no right to try to bind what future legislative bodies can do with that land. The world belongs in usufruct to the living. Just as the policies of the past – including many pernicious practices – don’t and should not control us today, we have no right to tell future generations how they ought to run their city.

Previous: City Center Mall to be demolished

Featured Site: American Dirt

I’ve linked to the relatively new blog American Dirt before, but wanted to highlight it again. The blog is written by a landscape architect in Indianapolis who takes a look at public spaces and the design of our cities in a critical and super-in depth way. He just started a major series on the City Market. This guy writes as long as I do on occasion – and that’s saying something – but it is excellent stuff. I actually have him on my National Blogroll because what he writes about is very relevant nationally and not everything is about Indy – he’s done pieces on many other cities. Suggested starting points:

National and International Roundup

The Paris ideal of bike sharing meets reality. Apparently 80% of the initial Velib’ fleet has been destroyed or stolen.

New York was voted the most attractive place for business in the world, according to Japan’s Mori Memorial Foundation (Bloomberg via @jorgeimontalvo). Also in New York, Doing more with buses (Streetsblog).

A talk with Fred Siegal about three ways big cities go bad.

Safety costs chafe railroads (WSJ)

The Economist looks at the Dallas performing arts complex.

More Charlotte schadenfreude: the Washington Post looks at the bust in the boomtown, which, of course, attracted notice in Charlotte.

Atlanta water and sewer rates are among the nation’s highest, according to the Journal-Constitution. Again, Clean Water Act compliance is an incentive to working class people to head to the exurbs. One person had a water bill of over $200. And also in Atlanta, the New York Times reports on how the city’s string of black mayors may be broken.

After generations in the spotlight, Harlem fades as center of black politics (NYT)

Great Mayors: Denver’s John Hickenlooper (Smart City Memphis). Also in Denver, can FasTracks be saved? (Denver Post)

Free parking spots could sprout meters in Arlington (WashPo)

The Southern Piedmont: Where NASCAR Meets NASDAQ (New Geography)

Melbourne predicts a population of 7 million by 2049 (The Age).

Columbus Dispatch: Sprucing up sidewalks seems to pay off for cities.

More Midwest

“When somebody tells you they just moved to Youngstown it probably isn’t helping the town’s image to blurt out, ‘Why?’” – new resident Liz Hill in at vindy.com (via Rust Wire)

Amid the ruin of Flint, seeing hope in a garden (NYT)

Chicago
Big Plans Afoot for Congress Parkway (Chicago Architecture Blog)
New Modern Wing Crosswalk on Monroe (Blair Kamin @ Chicago Tribune)
Environmental Report Gives NWI Another Bad Mark (Gary Post-Tribune)
Railbed Redux (Architect’s Newspaper) – Piece on Bloomingdale Trail

Cincinnati
Can Cincinnati be the Silicon Valley of consumer marketing? (Hard Knox Life)

Indianapolis
The Accidental Mayor (RiShawn Biddle @ The American Spectator) – Note: RiShawn is a former Indianpolis Star columnist.

Kansas City
City’s P&L district subsidy increasing to $20 million/year (BlogKC)

Louisville
Re-writing history in the suburbs (Broken Sidewalk)
21C named best hotel in North America (Broken Sidewalk)

Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Mayor Faces Tests if Re-Elected (NYT)
Churn (Utterly Opinionated) – Via Burgh Diaspora

Twin Cities
Girl, 12, is youngest Minnesotan to kill moose (MPR) – the picture is priceless

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

If any of you are headed to Rail~Volution 2009 in Boston, please be sure to check out the panel discussion I’m part of called “The Rail~Volution Will Not Be Televised”. Others participating will be Pantograph Trolleypole of The Overhead Wire and economist Ryan Avent. We’re discussing the use of social media technology for transit advocacy. You won’t want to miss it! If any of my readers are attending or are in the Boston area, shoot me a note and maybe we can connect while I’m there.

Also, I mentioned that I am upgrading the blog, replacing the design and going to a new domain. I have tentatively scheduled the cutover for this Friday, so be ready for it and stay tuned for further instructions.

African Americans as Economic Development Platform

Smart City Memphis is a great blog for the reader, even if it is pretty locally focused on that city. A recent post suggests the city needs to blow up old myths and start acting on facts. This part caught my eye.

There’s the myth our African-American majority is an economic drag. Because distinctiveness is the basis for competitive advantage, Memphis needs to be a hub of black talent. If that isn’t at the top of our economic development agenda, we’re not really in the economic development business.

Amen. I’ve made that same plea to Midwest cities. As you’ll see in a future post from me, self-styled progressive paragons like Portland have virtually no African Americans. Don’t try to beat other cities at their game, try to make them beat you at yours. Their African American populations are among the key assets of Midwest metros in figuring out how to compete and be relevant in the marketplace today. It’s a shame so few places act like it.

Selling the Suburbs

@PD_Smith points us at an absolutely must watch BBC audio slide show on selling the suburbs. It’s about an exhibit of posters and marketing materials for suburbs in early 20th century London. Key to this era of suburbs of course was the extension of transit lines, since we had yet to enter the auto era, but the description of their marketing program holds extremely valuable lessons for people today trying to sell people on city living. And the graphic design of the pieces is gorgeous.

Again, so often today we are preached at about the need to live in the city and told how great it is for us, but seldom are we actually sold on it. I’ve yet to see any city with a marketing campaign to lure people to their downtown that compares with the brief few minutes of suburban sales slides from the BBC. Even the graphic design alone blows most cities out of the water.

Here are a couple of relevant samples. These were how public transit was marketed not just as a way for people to move out of the city to the suburbs, but to come back into it to for entertainment. That’s still relevant today.

Apparently these people did not subscribe to the position that people won’t ride buses:

Rail is good too of course:

Touting proximity to entertainment:

Midwest Bike to Work

The Census American Community Survey data is a treasure trove of good stuff. Bike Pittsburgh took a look at the bike to work figures for various cities. They’ve even got an embedded Google spreadsheet with the data for every mode of commuting, so check it out. Portland was #1 in America with 6% biking to work. Here’s how the Midwest central cities stacked up vs. a top 60 city average of 0.98% and median of 0.6%:

  • Minneapolis – 4.3% (#2 in the nation)
  • Milwaukee – 1.1%
  • Chicago – 1.0%
  • Columbus – 0.9%
  • Pittsburgh – 0.8%
  • Cleveland – 0.7%
  • St. Louis – 0.7%
  • Cincinnati – 0.5%
  • Louisville – 0.4%
  • Detroit – 0.3%
  • Indianapolis – 0.3%
  • Kansas City -0.2%

The Detroit Frontier in the News

My post on Detroit as the new American frontier continues to generate a surprisingly large number of hits as people keep discovering it and passing it along to others. Here are a few articles illustrating the theme.

Here’s a great piece on making a difference in Detroit.

The bad stories are easy to find in Detroit. More than a quarter are unemployed. The school district’s graduation rate is dismal. Violent crime is among the highest in the nation. But the good stories are there, and a common thread among many is persistence, pluck and patience in navigating the city’s sometimes cumbersome bureaucracy.

“If you want something done, you often have to do it yourself here,” explained Kate Devlin, who, although she doesn’t own it,boarded up a vacant building herself in North Corktown and is waiting to buy it at the tax foreclosure auction rather than waiting for the city to bring wrecking crews.

It isn’t easy. Sometimes, residents have to get creative.

Here’s another one on a North End activist.

Delores Bennett is known as the Grandmother of the North End for a good reason.

When she sees a problem, she fixes it. And for four decades, that’s meant helping children stay out of trouble….. “I don’t want any money from the city because when you do it on our own there aren’t any limitations,” said Bennett, 76, whose North End Youth Improvement Council provides scholarships and serves as an umbrella group for her other efforts.

And here’s one about a mother trying to run drug dealers out of her neighborhood.

One house remained a drug haven whose users craved privacy, keeping blinds drawn during all hours. “If we could get in there, we could tear those blinds down and that would be that,” Hoerauf said. The duo persuaded an officer to check to make sure the house was empty before they entered and took down the blinds. The drug use stopped.

The common thread a see in all of these is a sort of frontier ethic of self-reliance. In Detroit, everyone knows the city is not going to take care of these problems. If you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself. Life isn’t always pleasant on the frontier – it sure wasn’t in the early days of the American Midwest and West. But often that formative experience builds the foundation, and especially the character and ethos that enables good things to emerge even decades down the line. In Detroit, everyone from Afrocentric educators to artists and urban farmers are staking their claim. If Detroit really does revive, my money is on the solution coming out of this rich grass roots ferment.

Ohio Migration Data

Jim Russell pointed me at this interesting report from Community Research Partners in Columbus, Ohio. They used IRS tax return data, a standard source, to measure migration in Ohio. Here are some graphics I found particularly telling. These show intra-state migration for Ohio’s largest three cities. You can see strong suburban outmigration everywhere. But the telling thing is how Columbus is sucking in people from all over the state, but Cleveland and Cincinnati are not. Both Cleveland and Cincy have virtually no in-migration from the rest of the state and are losing people to Columbus. Their balance of trade with each other appears to be minimal.

Kansas City Transit

Kansas City has had an odd history with efforts to build a rail transit system. They voted for a system that couldn’t legally be constructed. Then they voted down a couple of other efforts. I never followed it that closely, but was always puzzled as to what was going on. A video out of KC this week explains a lot as far as I’m concerned. You’ll have to click the link to watch since it is on a newspaper web site and isn’t embeddable. I strongly encourage you to do so. The video is only two minutes long, and it’s priceless.

Meanwhile, the Jackson County executive unveiled a plan for a regional commuter rail system. This could get interesting.

Louisville Tourism and Relocation Ads

Louisville rolled out some tourism and relocation ads that generated a bit of controversy. They mimic the interminable TV ads out there for erectile dysfunction and depression medications. While I don’t think these ads really showcase the best value proposition or brand promise for Louisville, I thought they were pretty funny.

Taking a swipe at Ohio:

Cool Philly Transit Benches

Keeping with my theme of the importance of design in public transit infrastructure, the Architect’s Newspaper points us at a cool rail station bench in Philadelphia.

This was designed and built by the one stop design and fabrication shop Veyko.

National and International Roundup

The city as an interaction platform (The Mobile City) – via @endlessCities

The United Nations just issued a Global Report on Human Settlements for 2009. According to their research, 200,000 people around the world move to cities every day. Pretty impressive.

Architect Robert Venturi slams Barnes Foundation move (LA Times)

Luring artists to lend life to empty storefronts (NYC) – Hey there, Indy has been doing this for a long time.

San Francisco’s ground breaking parking meter study (Streetsblog)

More Midwest

Site Selection magazine has a great interview on the Midwest with Richard Longworth. (h/t Jim Russell)

Youngstown, Ohio: A young town again (The Economist) – Nice coverage in the international press.

Eyes on the Art Prize (NYT) – Dittos for Grand Rapids, where the Art Prize generated a ton of press.

GOOD interviews Flint Mayor Dayne Walling. For those who missed it, you can see the video I did with him over on You Tube.

Chicago
Dead Reckoning – Chicago Magazine looks at the cemetery relocation at the heart of a dispute over the O’Hare Modernization Program.
Chicago planners pinpoint scaled back locally preferred alternative for Circle Line (Transport Politic)
Block 37 superstation, unfinished and unused (Transport Politic)
CTA fare increases through the years (WBEZ)
High speed rail? (Michigan City News-Dispatch)
Seniors ride free policy nearing its end – good (Greg Hinz @ Crain’s Chicago Business)

Cincinnati
Museum tax will shrink no matter what (Enquirer)
Bringing street vendors to life in Cincinnati (UrbanCincy)
Metro sees 11.25% drop in ridership (Enquirer)

Columbus
Impressario with an iPhone (Dispatch)
Welcome! Don’t mind our blight (Dispatch)

Detroit
Mayor Bing unveils turnaround plan for Detroit (Detroit News)
Detroit’s crisis is nothing new (Laura Berman @ Detroit News)
Chamber wants to make region a logistic hub (Crain’s Detroit Business)
How to lose federal transit funding – again (Free Press)

Indianapolis
From the credit where credit is due department, I should note that I drove up Illinois St. the other day where sidewalks are being replaced, and only one of the sewer inlets I saw appeared to be raised above the sidewalk grade.

Milwaukee
Milwaukee seen as hybrid hub (JS)
The New Face of Downtown Milwaukee (Urban Engagement Weekly) – via @Twoaday

St. Louis
Stimulus stirs work on Eads bridge (Post-Dispatch)

Twin Cities
Southwest light rail line moves ahead (Star Tribune)

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Imperial Columbus and the Principles of Regional Finance

Columbus, Ohio is a very successful city that has benefited from a lot of great policy over the years. But I’m seeing some ominous signs that the city of Columbus is setting itself up for trouble down the road by pursuing revenue from outside its borders at the expense of internal and especially core development. There are lessons here for any city struggling with regional finance, so let’s take a look.

Columbus is by far the strongest big city in Ohio. One reason for this is that city leaders long ago had the foresight to require that anyplace that wanted to get water from the city had to agree to be annexed. Ohio law is very favorable to annexation when a city is supplying utility service. So while geographically small Cleveland and Cincinnati became encircled by suburbs, Columbus was able to keep expanding. Columbus does not have a city-county merger in effect, but has annexed the majority of Franklin County and even parts of several other counties, taking any number of major “suburban” malls and office developments inside its borders.

Now, however, annexation has slowed to a crawl. According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch, the city has only annexed 14 acres this year. As recently as 2002, it annexed 2,123 acres. Suburban development hasn’t stopped. The city has just stopped annexing. Instead, it is pursuing a strategy of allowing surrounding suburbs to annex land, but using the lever of its water utility to get tax sharing and compensation if jobs move to the new development from the city.

In effect, Columbus has decided it is no longer worth directly developing and administering new territory. Instead, it is adopting the strategy of empire. That is, it will allow “colonies” to develop land and manage their own affairs, as long as they agree to send “tribute” back to the imperial capital in the form of tax sharing. Instead of legions of troops, the city is using its water utility as a hammer to secure these deals.

And that’s not all. The city derives significant revenue from an income tax. An incredible 53% of all income taxes collected by Columbus come from non-residents. This shows the extent of the imperial analogy. Columbus is sustained by revenue from outside its borders. It should come as no surprise then that the city turned to an income tax increase – which non-residents who pay it couldn’t vote for or against in the referendum – to bridge a deficit caused by the recession.

To be direct, Columbus appears to have become dangerously dependent on income from non-residents and businesses outside the city limits. While there appear to be good regional relations today, the edifice of regional revenue collection is being built on feet of clay. Eventually people in surrounding cities will get around to questioning these arrangements. They will start asking why they are exporting all this revenue from their residents. The leaders who negotiated revenue sharing agreements in good faith will leave office to be replaced by others who may think their town is getting played as a chump. One of these days the colonies are going to rebel.

When that happens, it could get ugly. Eventually the whole affair could become quite poisonous, as it is in Cleveland. It should be noted that in this approach to revenue sharing, Columbus is actually imitating Cleveland. Cleveland used control of the Metropolitan Planning Organization to deny permission to built an interstate interchange in Avon (which was to be paid for by a developer) until Avon agreed to a tax sharing deal. If the Columbus agreements have been less acrimonious, it likely because generally good relations exist today, the disputes are over contiguous territory, and the weapon at Columbus’ disposal is different. The results, however, are the same.

This also creates not just the seeds of regional discord, but also generates big financial incentives for people to figure out how to beat the system. If you are a surrounding town or county, you are likely highly motivated to lure regional jobs to your community, not just because that’s good in its own right, but because you can capture the income taxes that come with them and stop exporting all that revenue to Columbus. It could also promote leapfrog development to discontiguous suburbs who have their own water utilities and aren’t beholden to Columbus.

Indeed, we see a foretaste of things to come in one of these revenue share agreements. Dublin agreed to a revenue share agreement with Columbus in exchange for water service to strengthen its had in connection with an annexation battle over disputed territory with Marysville. Marysville sees Dublin getting all this development, sees Columbus using extra-territorial water service as a lever of power and says, “Why not us?” Marysville has its own water utility and is now extending it outside its borders in order to establish its claim to territory. I expect this is only the beginning of these types of disputes.

While it is busy negotiating these agreements with suburbs, Columbus’ core is weakening. The Toledo Blade did a series on the downtowns of Ohio last years. Their findings on Columbus showed that downtown employment declined by 16% between 2000 and 2005. This decline is true of all major Ohio city downtowns, but is troubling nevertheless. Columbus’ fiscal health may look ok because of all the outside revenue it is managing to capture, but ultimately a city can’t be strong if it doesn’t maintain core vitality.

Clearly the health of the central city and urban core is of concern to the whole region. Yes, central cities often have big legacy liabilities; troubled school districts, a disproportionate share of the region’s poor, and other urban ills; and have to provide roads, police, and other services to large numbers of people who visit or work there but don’t live in the city. Commuter taxes are often seen as a way to equalize this and help keep the central city strong.

I’ve always been a bit down on commuter taxes. Unless you have a one of a kind downtown like Manhattan – which Columbus does not – you basically set up an incentive for not just residential flight, but business flight. Is there a better way?

I’ve been thinking about principles by which cities might best engage in regional revenue raising and sharing. These represent a definite work in progress, but I thought I would share them:

  • Try to make regional taxation truly regional and uniform across the MSA
  • Avoid one way revenue transfers and bi-lateral agreements where possible
  • Use regional revenue sharing to build bridges and bind the city and suburbs together around common interests
  • Regional revenue should imply regional governance
  • Avoid ownership claims to revenue slices where possible

How might this work in practice? I would suggest that a model might be regional taxes to support regional amenities directly. There would appear to be any number of institutions that or types of services that might apply:

  • Stadiums and convention centers
  • Tourism marketing
  • Zoos, museums, or performing arts groups
  • Airports
  • Transit systems
  • Welfare or other social services

The idea would be to transfer responsibility for some of these items to a regional authority with regional tax support and governance. Most of these are heavily concentrated in the central city. So potentially there’s a net flow of tax revenue into the city. But there are clear benefits to the suburbs as well, and they have an ownership stake in the system. (Some services such as welfare, indigent health care, and other social services for the poor might be better simply funded by the state)

There are plenty of great examples of this around the country. Airports, transit agencies, and port authorities are commonly administered this way. MPO’s are by definition regional (though the governance of these is often very bad – the subject of a future blog post).

Of course there are potential downsides as well. Regional agencies are often run by appointed boards and technocrats, creating a democracy deficit and lack of accountability and transparency. Also, people fear losing influence over local affairs since a large and remote organization is in control. Legitimate concerns, but ones that can be addressed. The devil is in the details as always. We’ll never get it perfect and we’ll always have to fine tune and be vigilant.

Whatever the case, I think this model is better than simply expecting other jurisdictions and non-residents to keep shipping tribute back to the imperial capital in perpetuity. If it stays on its current path Columbus may one day find that it got more than it bargained for with these clever deals.

More Columbus

Columbus: The New Midwestern Star
Columbus: Downtown Mall to Be Demolished

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

Recession Job Losses

The Windy Citizen pointed me at coverage of metro area job losses in the recession. Here is how the 12 cities I principally cover in this blog stacked up, sorted in descending order of percentage losses:

  1. Detroit; 139,600 jobs; -7.5%
  2. Milwaukee; 44,800; -5.2%
  3. Cleveland; 54,100; -5.1%
  4. Chicago; 206,200; -4.5%
  5. Indianapolis; 40,200; -4.4%
  6. Cincinnati; 42,200; -4.0%
  7. Louisville; 22,900; -3.7%
  8. Minneapolis-St. Paul; 63,100; -3.5%
  9. St. Louis; 43,900; -3.3%
  10. Pittsburgh; 32,800 – 2.8%
  11. Kansas City; 21,900; -2.1%
  12. Columbus, Ohio; 19,600; -2.1%

A couple things that jump out of me from this are that Chicago and Indianapolis are doing far worse than conventional wisdom views of their overall economic health. Both regions are getting clobbered. The Pittsburgh story gets some additional ammunition, as does my view that Columbus is the next Midwestern star.

Recession Job Recovery

So when will the jobs come back? Nobody knows for sure, but an organization called IHS Global Insight has predicted the year in which employment will match its pre-recession peak in various major US cities (via IBJ News Talk):

  • Kansas City: 2011
  • Columbus: 2012
  • Indianapolis: 2012
  • Louisville: 2013
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul: 2013
  • Pittsburgh: 2013
  • Chicago: 2014
  • Cincinnati: 2014
  • St. Louis: 2014
  • Cleveland: After 2015
  • Detroit: After 2015
  • Milwaukee: After 2015

High Speed Rail Roundup

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser writes for the NYT Economix blog. A few weeks ago he did a four part series on high speed rail. I’d meant to do a post on this but didn’t get around to it. So here are some belated links. I think it is fair to say he’s a skeptic:

Race is on to grab stake in rail effort (WSJ)

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Is America Allergic to High Speed Rail? (WSJ Op-Ed)

Amtrak runs off the rails (New Geography)

The “Prince of Pops” Dead at 74

Erich Kunzel, longstanding pops conductor at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, died recently at aged 74.

The Cincinnati Symphony is a well known national orchestra, but it was as the Cincinnati Pops under Kunzel that they achieved their greatest popular success. Kunzel recorded 85 albums with the Cincinnati Pops, an astonishing 55 of which made it into the top 10 on the Billboard classical charts. They sold over 10 million copies and and earned several grammy awards. Truly a giant has passed.

Indy Cultural Trail Bus Shelters

The Indy Cultural Trail program announced that it will be installing three new bus shelters along the trail designed by local architect Donna Sink:

These shelters will feature the works from local poets, and are also constructed with an eco-friendly design.

Ohio Ambassadors

@AndreaApplegate pointed me at this program the state of Ohio is launching called “Ohio Ambassadors” looking for volunteers who are willing to “tell the Ohio story”. Done correctly, this could be a big win. In fact, it is something I suggested that Indianapolis adopt at variation of, particularly for minorities. Let’s face it, if you are an ethnic professional, gay, etc. and considering a move to the Midwest, the reputation alone could give you pause. But the Midwest is already diverse today. Why not tap into that by getting local volunteers of similar backgrounds to be on “hot standby” to help show a prospective recruit around town and show him or here that there will be a community of people like them, an active social life, access to native culture, etc.? This might actually prove more powerful than any swank dinner or trip to the local sports team’s skybox.

One thing about this program that caught my eye was the concept of the “Ambassador at Large”, which is made up of, “Anybody not living in our state that has had a positive Ohio experience and wants to Share the Ohio Story with others.” Imagine that, looking at people who left as a sort of field sales force and and actual asset.

We’ll see what this program turns out to be since so few details are available. If it is just a marketing mailing list and some freebies, it probably won’t amount to much. But done right, it could have some benefits.

Powering the World With Solar

Here’s an interesting map showing the surface area that would be required to supply the world’s energy needs with solar power. I don’t know if it is accurate, but it is provocative.

Portland Creatives Find Ways to Work Together

GOOD explores the problem of what to do when there are more people who want to live in a city than jobs for them with regards to Portland, Oregon:

Portland, Oregon—the misty evergreen Shangri-La for the young, the creative, and the progressive—has an interesting problem. Its miles of bike lanes, its rock-bottom rents, its deep vats of craft brews are all far too good. Yes, Portland has actually made itself too attractive. According to one study that compared May of 2009 with May of 2008, Oregon’s unemployment has grown faster than any other state in the country, 3 percent. For large metropolitan areas in the country, Portland has one of the highest unemployment rates, which topped out at about 11.8 percent—even higher than Detroit. To blame, some economists believe, are the large numbers of designers and artists who have been moving there without jobs….As I strolled the city from meeting to meeting, I realized that out of necessity, Portland is quickly finding the answers to a much greater issue that’s going to affect an increasingly freelance workforce across the country: Where are all these people going to work?

This interesting piece talks about firms opening up their office space for “co-working”, and interesting things like low cost space in converted motels turning into labs for small business startups.

Paris Metro Augmented Reality Application

One of the super-cool features of the new iPhone 3GS is the so-called “augmented reality”, where you hold up the phone and view a live picture of what is in front of you through the camera lens, with information overlaid on it.

The first app out there taking advantage of this is the Paris metro system. You activate the map, hold up your phone, and you see a picture of the street with big signs where the metro is. Pretty cool. Of course naturally they also include advertising as well. You can search for McDonald’s and Starbucks. I don’t know about you, but the sight of all those huge American logos on the streetscapes of Paris is pretty creepy.

Here’s a video demonstration. It’s in French, but even if you don’t speak the language, the pictures are worth a thousand words. So enjoy a little “réalité augmentée”

National and International Roundup

Joel Kotkin looks at world capitals of the future.

There is more tension and fallout from demographic change resulting from the surging white population of the city of Atlanta, as the CS Monitor reports how a “Memo about a ‘black agenda’ in mayor’s race roils Atlanta“. Interestingly, as a city that has long been known as a great place for blacks to live, we may be looking at the first major city in America to flip from majority white to majority black and back again. The dynamics resulting from this will be important for others to study, particularly as central cities regain attraction to many of the people who originally fled them for the suburbs, and their children. See also: “After 35 years, next Atlanta mayor may be white“.

Florida Exodus: Rising Taxes Drive Out Residents (Time Magazine via Yahoo)

Planetizen looks at toolkits and design design manuals.

A look at the power of flowers to improve urban streetscapes (via @GenslerOnCities)

Is making right turns easier always a good thing? Interesting thoughts from American Dirt.

Forbes looks at very smart cities in South Korea.

More Midwest

Chicago
The Industrial Wonders of Northwest Indiana (Chicago Sojourn) – Great pictures. Related is “The Magic of Marktown” at the Chicagoist.
Celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the street addressing system (Tribune)
West Loop park infuses Chicago with green space (Inhabit)
O’Hare to get competition? (DC Velocity)
CTA to share bus tracker code with outside developers (CTA Tattler)

Cincinnati
UofC Student Government Votes to Oppose Issue 9 (Urban Cincy)
Jobs aren’t coming back (Enquirer)

Detroit
A lesson in municipal finance (Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space)
Southeast Michigan faces $35 billion deficit in road revenue (Detroit News)
Tolls may not cover Mackinac bridge upkeep (Detroit News)
Meijer sees a chance to prosper in Detroit (Daniel Howes @ Detroit News)
Michigan Subsidies Fail (WSJ op-ed) – study referenced comes from a right wing think tank

Indianapolis
Indiana leads the nation – in coal ash ponds (C-J)
Surprise in Indiana: A deli worth the trip (The Atlantic) – Props for the Goose; h/t UrbanIndy
Arkansas Innovation: Stunning Southern Architecture (Web Urbanist) – awesome photos of the work of Marlon Blackwell, who is the architect of the visitor’s center at the forthcoming IMA Art and Nature Park.
NIMBY’s Gone Wild (Indy Star) – My title

Louisville
Tyler Allen to enter mayor’s race (C-J) – Co-Founder of 8664
Neighbors want meat plant out of Butchertown (C-J) – Ironic headline of the day. I hope Louisville keeps in mind the need to preserve manufacturing in the city.
New sectors will heat up in Louisville’s economic recovery (C-J)

Memphis
Aerotropolis Redux (Smart City Memphis)

Milwaukee
Study fingers state for Milwaukee’s financial woes (J-S)
Zoo interchange delays could cost drivers millions (J-S)
Doyle renews push for transit plan (J-S)

St. Louis
CVS store design rejected (StlUrbanWorkshop) – Attributed to “recently arrived neighbors passionate about urban design”

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

High Speed Rail and Transit Roundup

America 2050 has a national high speed rail proposal that is featured in Newsweek. Click the image below for a full sized map:

A group of eight Midwest states have signed a pact to collaborate on high speed rail. The amount of money flowing to HSR is really getting people’s attention.

Wisconsin is ordering Talgo rail cars capable of 200 MPH operation. These will be placed in service on the Amtrak Hiawatha line for now. This seems to be an effort to build HSR support in Wisconsin, boost its chances of federal funding, and to secure the US manufacturing site for the trainsets.

A mix of federal and state funding is finally getting the CREATE program off the ground in Chicago. This is designed to both dramatically reduce freight rail congestion in Chicago, and also to boost passenger service (Metra and HSR) by building several overpasses.

The CTA “Max” car experiment on the Brown Line came to a halt. This was where seats were removed to make more room for standees and expand capacity. Apparently passengers hated them. That’s why you do a trial. And I think this was definitely a good experiment to try. Kudos to the CTA for first doing it, then being willing to back track when it didn’t get the passenger response they hoped for.

The Tribune has a great story on the private rail car that runs on Metra’s UP-North line.

John McCarron writes in favor of investment in metro transit over high speed rail. (Thanks Robert Munson)

Here’s an awesome op-ed on rational public transit policy from a director of the Bay Area’s BART system. (Hat tip Human Transit)

Governing magazine article on the high cost of paratranist service (hat tip Metropolis on a Hill).

Best Cities for Singles

Forbes has another one of their controversial lists out, this one their annual “Best Cities for Singles“:

  • #3 – Chicago
  • #9 – Milwaukee
  • #14 – Cleveland
  • #19 – Minneapolis
  • #23 – St. Louis
  • #24 – Pittsburgh
  • #28 – Columbus
  • #31 – Indianapolis
  • #34 – Detroit
  • #37 – Kansas City
  • #38 – Cincinnati

Given the Midwest bashing of most Forbes surveys, it’s good to see at least some places here get some love.

Newspapers and Urban Culture

There was a mini-furor in online communities in Columbus about this article about dining in Columbus. The Dispatch apparently runs these type of “Where I Eat” articles profiling various locals. In this version, a woman talks about Applebee’s being her favorite restaurant, as well as saying that’s where she would take someone new to Columbus.

Now, nothing against this woman personally. In fact, I’d have to second her endorsement of Potbelly’s, chain though it might be. But there is a legitimate concern about what type of message this is sending about Columbus. I’m not saying newspapers need to be civic boosters, but what is the journalism value in something like this? And how was this person selected?

Clearly, stories like this only allow people from larger cities to have a laugh and reinforces the prejudice against smaller Midwest cities that exists out there in the world. Editors should take care to consider not just how articles will be perceived locally, but also nationally and internationally in the age of the internet. I’m sure there are many fine local restaurants in Columbus, and to cherry pick someone who says Applebee’s is their favorite place does the city a disservice.

8664 Update

The Louisville Metro council has to approve the creation of a new tolling authority to pay for the Ohio River Bridges Project. Some councilors who wanted to have more debate and hearings introduced an ordinance for that which was shot down. However, the recitations section had an amazing collection of facts worth noting. Here is an excerpt (hat tip Broken Sidewalk):

WHEREAS, the Ohio River Bridges Project (ORBP) is now estimated to cost $4.1 Billion; and

WHEREAS, State of Kentucky traffic counts indicate that traffic in Spaghetti Junction did not increase from 1992 to 2007; and

WHEREAS, in 2008 traffic volumes declined by more than 11% on the Kennedy Bridge and by more than 5% in Spaghetti Junction; and

WHEREAS, according to the Texas Transportation Institute 2009 Urban Mobility Report, congestion in Louisville “stayed relatively constant” over the decade from 1997 to 2007; and

WHEREAS, according to INRIX National Traffic Scorecard, in 2008 traffic congestion in Louisville decreased by 39%; and

WHEREAS, six years of actual traffic counts are now available to compare to the assumptions in the ORBP 2003 Environmental Impact Study; and

WHEREAS, a November 2008 study conducted by Wilbur Smith and Associates for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) determined that an alternative which included only an East End Bridge provided the same “system wide performance” as the Ohio River Bridges Project;

There’s a lot more, but I found these particularly compelling. Broken Sidewalk also has even more great 8664 coverage. And a hot off the presses series of pictures that will either make you cry or drool depending on your perspective.

Migration Blowback

There’s plenty of talk of brain drain and people being sucked up into global cities. But a counter-trend is starting to attract notice as some become disenchanted with high costs and other hassles. And it is affecting surprising places, such as Scranton, PA, which is now growing in population again.

There’s a distinctly white-collar movement behind Scranton’s comeback. A return of college-educated natives from cities like New York and Philadelphia is fueling a population rise and a civic makeover. Bringing them back are the very small-town qualities many once wanted to escape: the likelihood of meeting acquaintances and relatives on the streets. The embrace here of modest ambition. The deeply held belief — only heightened by ridicule from the outside world — that Scranton matters.

For six decades Scranton lost an average of a thousand residents a year, many bound for college. The return of even a fraction of them — along with their families — could confer substantial economic benefits. “There was a diaspora of Scrantonians, and now we’re inviting them back,” says the Chamber’s Mr. Burke. The group has a campaign called Rediscovering Scranton, which includes a Web site with testimonials from returning natives.

A population rise of about 3,000 in the last two years, to about 75,000, has given hope that the long exodus is over. School enrollment is up to 10,000 from 8,500 seven years ago. And downtown is buzzing with the sounds of construction. A Radisson hotel is in the city’s old train station. Other recently vacant buildings now house advertising agencies, architectural firms and financial offices, many started by professionals who have returned.

Cities like Scranton lack a lot of urban amenities. While those are to some extent needed to attract people, they can also be a lagging indicator. The amenities are built in response to people moving in, and its feeds on itself. Here’s another perspective from NPR. Definitely something to watch, though to early to call a major trend. More like “green shoots”.

“Starchitecture” in Action

If you needed any more indication that starchitecture as currently practiced is past its sell-by date, check out this piece in the Las Vegas Weekly about this Frank Gehry building:

A Lesson in Skepticism

A group of people put out a hoax proposal to turn Central Park into an airport. Here’s their proposed map of the site:

This came complete with a realistic web site, as well as Facebook pages and a Twitter account.

I don’t think this really fooled anyone, but what I find interesting is just how similar to almost every real proposal the rhetoric was. For example:

New York City is the cultural and financial capital of the world. It is also our nation’s most densely populated urban area. Yet surprisingly, New York City has no viable airport. JFK, La Guardia and Newark may work for people who live in certain outer boroughs. But they are not an acceptable option for the majority of New Yorkers, requiring travel through some of the most congested traffic arteries in the nation. A journey which by train takes nearly two hours and by automobile can take up to three hours. For a place which purports itself to be the greatest city in the world, this is not a workable model.

Or this from their FAQ:

I own an apartment alongside Central Park. What will Manhattan Airport do to my property value?

History has proven that bringing a transportation amenity to an underserved region elevates the perception and economic well-being of the area. In the past, these types of transformative public works projects have created an influx of interest and new investment in the neighborhoods in which they have been built. There may be some who resist the progress. But as neighborhood residents, small business owners and local civic organizations begin to experience the economic “trickle-down” effect these types of large scale redevelopment projects have precipitated time and time again; Manhattan Airport will be embraced.

What about the environmental impact of building Manhattan Airport?

Research shows that single-passenger car-service and taxi trips between Manhattan and JFK/EWR/LGA account for up to 9% of automobile-created carbon-based emissions in the region. Reducing our environmental impact is a major concern for all of us and preliminary findings indicate that building Manhattan Airport can be a critical first step as we strive to live up to our long-neglected environmental responsibility

I think we’ve all got to admit that the arguments in favor of most projects don’t sound much more impressive than this. They are plausible stories about what would happen, backed up by research that it is difficult to independently evaluate. History has shown that our cities have built way more than their fair share of “Manhattan Airports” based on this exact type of faulty reasoning, many of which had to be ripped out later at significant cost. Of course, not everything will work out as planned and any entrepreneurial venture has high risk of failure, but we should at least look at these things with clear eyed realism. That includes, of course, even the things I’ve spoken in favor of.

Economic Development Roundup

Unconventional Thinking” A counter-argument to convention center led economic development strategies.

Failure is not an option; it’s essential“. Thoughts on the culture of innovation.

Failure to invest in new power transmission lines endangers the wind power revolution.

A Ball State University study says city-county mergers don’t help economies.

National and International Roundup

President Obama launches his Office of Urban Affairs.

The NYT Magazine profiles President Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett.

The NYT had a great article on cities that are uncovering long buried waterways, focusing on Seoul. In previous years it was not uncommon to bury urban streams into underground channels that doubled as sewers. Now cities are turning these back into surface streams as recreational and neighborhood amenities.

Let the water wars commence. A landmark federal ruling says Atlanta can no longer draw water from Lake Lanier unless it reaches a water sharing agreement with surrounding states. It has three years to do so. This is big, big news so stay tuned to this one.

Apparently highway spending isn’t the stimulus it was envisioned to be.

Everything went smooth when Vancouver converted a highway lane to pedestrian and bike use on a major bridge crossing. (via @gosner)

The Where Blog has the best collection of High Line photos I’ve seen yet.

The New York Times is exploring whether they can implement a foundation model for news.

The latest from Brookings I’ve yet to digest: “The New Geography of United States Immigration

Oh, and those Marxists in Toronto (they describe themselves this way, btw) who hate Richard Flordia? They now have their own web site.

More Midwest

Chicago
O’Hare’s New Runway Improves Arrival Times at Airport and Unclogs US Airways (WSJ) – The title says it all. Keep it coming!
Chicago, City That Works? (Tribune op-ed)
Bid to raze Western Ave. overpass takes shape (Tribune) – Hmm – I don’t think I support this one. Traffic on Belmont is already a nightmare.

Cleveland
Changing strategy direction in Cleveland (Ed Morrison @ BFD)
Proposal for new form of Cuyahoga County government gets on November ballot (Plain Dealer)
Plain Dealer Wants to Profile from Cleveland’s Carcass (Roldo Bartimole @ Cleveland Leader)

Detroit
Quicken sets mid-2013 target for new Detroit home (Detroit News) – Quicken to move HQ downtown, bring 2,200 jobs. A big win for Detroit.
Is right-sizing the right fix (Free Press) – via @GreatLakesGuy

Louisville
Stretch of Eastern Parkway Going On ‘Road Diet’ (Broken Sidewalk)
Two major PGA events coming to Valhalla (C-J)

Milwaukee
Is it time for Milwaukee to Consider a Combined City-County Government (Urban Milwaukee)
Is it time to dissolve Milwaukee County government? (Milwaukee Talkie)

Pittsburgh
City of Steel (and other stuff) to Get Its Turn on the World Economic Stage (NYT) – G20 meeting to be held in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Scrubs Up for Visit From the G20 (WSJ)

St. Louis
2009 Eleven Most Endangered Places (St. Louis Landmarks Association) – via @sethteel)

Twin Cities
Cray supercomputers to bring 225 employees to downtown St. Paul (Minnesota Public Radio)

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeroes. If you want to make it happen, do it fast.” – Jaime Lerner, architect and former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil and father of that city’s world famous bus system.

Brookings Institution Report on Metropolitan Performance

There has been quite a bit of buzz about the Brookings study that was just released tracking the economic performance of the nation’s metro areas. Out of the top 100 metro areas in size, here is how the ones I track measured up on various metrics:

Employment Change from Peak:

  • #20 – Kansas City (-1.5%)
  • #25 – Columbus (-1.7%)
  • #38 – St. Louis (-2.3%)
  • #50 – Cincinnati (-2.8%)
  • #54 – Minneapolis (-3.0%)
  • #56 – Louisville (-3.1%)
  • #59 – Chicago (-3.1%)
  • #61 – Indianapolis (-3.3%)
  • #67 – Milwaukee (-3.4%)
  • #78 – Cleveland (-4.7%)
  • #98 – Detroit (-12.3%)

Change in Gross Metropolitan Product from Peak:

  • #21 – Indianapolis (-1.9%)
  • #49 – Minneapolis (-3.1%)
  • #67 – Milwaukee (-3.7%)
  • #73 – Chicago (-4.2%)
  • #78 – Cincinnati (-4.4%)
  • #79 – St. Louis (-4.6%)
  • #80 – Columbus (-4.8%)
  • #86 – Louisville (-5.2%)
  • #87 – Kansas City (-5.3%)
  • #95 – Cleveland (-6.2%)
  • #100 – Detroit (-10.1%)

Columbus, Ohio was overall ranked the best performing Midwest metro, with Indianapolis and Kansas City next to it in a narrow band.

I find the divergence between employment and GMP interesting. While a better analysis would probably look at hours worked, for a place like Indianapolis where employment dropped much more than GMP, it could be indicative of productivity gains. On the other hand, in cities like Kansas City and Louisville where we see the opposite, is productivity eroding? Employment growth and GMP per capita growth are two of my key indicators of regional economic health.

Check out the study for yourself – it’s easy reading and there are plenty of nice maps.

Top Midwest Twitter Cities

TwitterGrader has its top locations for Twittering. Here is where the Midwest cities ranked. Keep in mind, this is a global rank, not a US rank.

  • #3 – Chicago (Yes, #3 in the world)
  • #21 – Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • #31 – Columbus, Ohio
  • #39 – Indianapolis
  • #44 – Cincinnati
  • #47 – Cleveland
  • #50 – Milwaukee

I find it so interesting that so many different measures tend to over and over again put the same handful of Midwest metros at the top. The “big four” are the Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Twin Cities, with Chicago thrown in depending on what you are looking at (it is either really high or really low, often). KC is absent on this list, but look at the top four.

As a reminder, you can follow me on Twitter at @urbanophile.

On Municipal Finance

I noticed in this Q&A from Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman justifying his call for an income tax increase that 42% of income tax payers and 53% of income tax revenue comes from people who reside outside the city limits. That’s a very interesting stat. It is probably helped by the fact that Columbus has annexed heavily and thus has many “suburban” commercial zones like Polaris inside the city limits. I would credit this as a factor for Columbus’ relative success. It isn’t supporting a huge base of poor people, non-profits, non-taxpaying government institutions, and regional attractions on purely its own tax base.

Regional Economic Development

There was an interesting article in the Indianapolis Business Journal this week about the impact of the new Honda assembly plant in Greensburg, Indiana. This bit at the end caught my attention:

[Businessman Steve] Freeman said the company’s white-collar employees have settled in Shelbyville or Indianapolis.

That’s a typical pattern for factory expansions, [economist Morton] Marcus said. The reason is that potential home buyers usually are working couples. They’ll settle where both spouses can find a job.

Marcus said Greensburg may be like Kokomo. When Delphi and Chrysler expanded, professionals settled in Hamilton County.

How you look at this depends on your point of view. You could look at it as Indianapolis skimming off the highest paid workers. Or you could look at it as access to the Indianapolis labor and housing market enabling Honda to locate in Greensburg in the first place. I take the latter view. It’s the same for the plant generally. Indy didn’t lose out on the Honda plant because Greensburg got it. It was never a realistic competitor for that deal. Companies like Honda aren’t locating plants in places like Indianapolis these days. It’s similar for the people. Top professionals want to live in or near big cities, not small cities or towns way out.

What we see here is symbiosis. It’s a win-win relationship. Indiana, Indianapolis, and Greensburg all benefit. The labor force attractiveness of Indianapolis (and in this case, Cincinnati too) creates enough of a management labor pool for Honda to choose to locate the plant in Greensburg, which is great for that town and the whole region. The future of large scale manufacturing growth in Indianapolis is likely in places like Greensburg.

So often there is a disconnect between cities and smaller places that surround them. They either fail to recognize the mutual dependency that they have, or look at it as a zero-sum game instead of win-win.

I have made the case that Indiana (and other states too) need to take a new regional approach to economic development, one rooted in the centrality of large cities in the modern economy. It isn’t just a metro area economy, it’s a bigger economic solar system, with networks between these nodes extending throughout the world.

It is imperative in my view that leadership in these cities create a compelling case for why cooperation is important and sell it to the people all the time, not just when there is something – usually a central city regional asset like a stadium – that people want to regionally fund. Again, I believe the central city, as the big dog, has to lead by getting out and really trying to be of help and service to outlying communities, and make sure it is noticed. Not in a “now you owe me” sort of way, but in an “isn’t this cool” sort of way. I’m sure some of this happens today, but it isn’t well known.

Regions that figure this out are going to outperform in my view. And it is the best way to start helping outlying industrial areas that are really hurting.

Urban Contextualism and Incrementalism

There are some interesting words of wisdom in this blog post from Politics and Place:

I suppose I’ve started thinking about New Urbanism in much the same way I think about Christianity. It’s all about a question of letter vs. spirit of the law. Sure, St. Jane/St. Paul said x, y or z, but I believe both New Urbanism and Christianity suffer from a literal interpretation. We can’t be expected to follow Jacobs’ book to the letter in Duluth or San Antonio any more than we should stone our adulterers. In either case, the dangers of fundamentalism are obvious.

I believe that incremental steps away from McMansion developments should be celebrated. The majority of America’s population has been living in the suburbs for almost 60 years, it’s foolhardy to believe that they will be ready for Greenwich Village tomorrow. Changing peoples’ views about the built environment takes time and incremental steps. So while Stapleton might not be the New Urban utopia, I think it would be unfair to label it as sprawl.

I agree with this. We can’t try to transplant “school solutions” into a foreign context. We’ve got to let ideas like transit take root in the native soil. A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir.

Also, it’s true we are not going to turn the dial all the way immediately. Also, turning it all the way to hard core urban probably isn’t the right answer. It will take a while to change people’s living habits, attitudes, and beliefs.

Regarding New Urbanism, I think the problem is that the principles of the Charter of New Urbanism have become associated with greenfield sprawl developments, giving it a bad name in some quarters. But the “spirit of the law” as the poster said, is pretty good.

Location Still Matters

@Urbanverse pointed me at this great New York Times piece on why location still matters.

In a business world linked by electronic networks and cheap, nearly instantaneous communications, physical location shouldn’t matter.

But it does.

Aspiring editors still move to New York, home to a huge share of the nation’s trade publishers. Many musicians still pack their bags for Nashville. Would-be entrepreneurs still flock to Silicon Valley, and for those who don’t make the move, leading venture capital firms often come to them, by setting up offices in tech centers around the world to be closer to new sources of talent.

Read the whole thing.

A big challenge for the Midwest city trying to reinvent itself around industries with cluster economics is that the logic of clustering favors a handful, even as few as one, winners. The article cites the example of Facebook moving from Boston (America’s second largest tech hub) to Silicon Valley. There appear to be many financial centers around the world, but as Saskia Sassen demonstrated, these cities compete with each other far less than one would expect. Rather, they are specialized in sub-niches.

I think the points the way. Targeting a broad cluster like “high tech” is probably not going to work. Sure, there will always be some companies since this is a growth area and a rising tide lifts all boats. But you won’t become Silicon Valley. Instead, look for sub-niches you can dominate or whitespace to take over with first mover advantage.

Collaboration and Networks

Ed Morrison has another great post over at Brewed Fresh Daily. (As an aside, I hope I’m not the only one who doesn’t read Brewed Fresh Daily when I read “BFD Learning Moment”. Time for a rebrand?). He was talking about a strategic doing workshop he held in Detroit:

Collaboration is a deeper commitment than most of our participants appreciated. Collaboration is not “knowing” or “connecting” or “networking”. It is not surface. it is not simplistic. It is not easy. It is not an event.

Collaboration is a civic habit. A set of overlapping networks, quickly shared. A pattern of behavior that builds trust and mutual respect. A commitment to transparency and truthfulness. A relentless focus on experimentation, action and learning “What works”.

These features do not simply appear. They must be cultivated. They grow with time.

My impressions — taken from 60 people across the state in just one day — suggest that Michigan has a way to go. There is more grieving to do.

But more important, Michigan needs a break from its past. It’s a truism in economic development that a community or region’s civic life mirrors its underlying economic structure.

In Michigan’s case, both government and civic action are unnecessarily constrained by hierarchical thinking that no longer serves the needs of a younger generation. The sooner Michigan expands the experiments in open collaboration, the better.

This could have been written about anywhere in the Midwest, I think. Something to think about.

Burnham 100

Chicago is kicking off the official 100th anniversary celebration of the Plan of Chicago. Design Applause has a great series of plates from the original document, as well as renderings of the two temporary Burnham Pavillions that are now, I believe, open to the public. Or at least the one by UNStudio is. The Zaha Hadid pavillion is late, I hear. A must see for the pictures.

A couple of samples:

Cincinnati’s New Logo

Drew-O-Rama points us at Cincinnati’s new city logo. Here it is:

Local chatter seems to suggest it is unpopular, and I’d have to agree. This is a pretty weak logo. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. The biggest problem is that it has absolutely nothing to do with Cincinnati. This seems to be a local mental block, as I noticed the same thing with their Agenda 360 plan and Mike Doyle noticed it with their CincinnatiUSA branding. Cincinnati acts like it is embarrassed about what it is. But Cincinnati’s a great city with so much incredible stuff most people don’t even know about. Yes, change is needed there just like everyplace else, but there’s a lot to be proud of and embraced, not rejected or swept under the rug.

Worst of all, the logo was paid for with a $75,000 donation from Macy’s. Somebody paid $75,000 for this!?!? All I can say is, wow. Nice work if you can get it. It certainly demonstrates the public spirit of Macy’s, however.

Lots of good comments on the logo here.

Must Watch Video on Curitiba Bus System

Streetfilms has an awesome seven and a half minute video on the Curitiba bus system. This is an absolute must for any city to study as it explodes the myths around the necessities of rail. It also deals directly with some limitations of the system, namely the fact that it was not designed with bicycles in mind. (Bogota learned from this). Among the lessons are 1) do it fast and cheap (see the quote at the top of this post and 2) it takes a network of services to make it work, not just major spoke lines and 3) do it incrementally. They started with one line and 25,000 daily passengers. Today they’ve got a network with 2.3 million daily rides, way more than the volume of Chicago’s CTA network, which includes extensive heavy rail.

If you don’t see the embedded video, click here. For some reason, streetsfilm videos don’t seem to work when embedded in feeds.

Yes, Curitiba is supposedly now building a subway line. This doesn’t invalidate the bus. Rather, it shows that after 40 years of work, they’ve developed an entire urban infrastructure and lifestyle that supports building subways. It also shows that, even as the poster child for busways, they aren’t dogmatic about that system, but are open to looking for the right solution in the right place at the right time.

National Roundup

The nation’s cities are not getting their fair share of the stimulus.

And, no surprise, the federal DOT’s standards on high speed rail say 110MPH counts. What a joke. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this in certain instances, or that you shouldn’t pay for it out of high speed rail funds. But calling this “high speed rail” is setting an incorrect expectation with the public and could ruin the high speed rail brand in the US. That article has a picture of Sec. LaHood leaning out the window of a French TGV train. But the US system will be nothing like the French one if these standards are to be believed. Setting the pubic expectations bar at true high speed rail in the European sense then delivering “Amtrak on steroids” will, I believe, do irreparable harm to the cause of high speed rail at home.

The New York Times examines the case for working with your hands. And a related piece on digital designers rediscovering their hands.

Lessons from Sweden’s early 90′s economic crisis (via @OtisWhite)

Monocle Magazine’s latest quality of life survey (warning: FT subscription alert). In the US, Minneapolis and Portland got dropped out of the global top 25. (Via NullSpace)

The south is much maligned, so it is useful to see what it is they are actually doing down there. Here’s an interesting interview with Don Koski, a former planner from the Twin Cities, who has been hired to oversee an ambitious multi-modal infrastructure redesign in Ft. Worth.

Featured Site: Archizoo

Archizoo is a great urbanism/design site out of Detroit. Jim Meredith is a former principal at Gensler who now runs his own practice. His blog (and his Twitter feed) is a stream of good stuff around design, sustainability, innovation, Detroit, urban policy, and much more. Definitely check it out.

More Midwest

Why Don’t Ohio’s College Grads Want to Stay? (Rust Wire)

Chicago
A look at the CTA’s rail system (Tribune)

Cleveland
Re-imagining Cleveland: Audacious…or Realistic? (Brewed Fresh Daily)

Columbus
Condo Kaboom (The Other Paper) – downtown condo market collapse
Ohio grads take diplomas and run (Dispatch)

Detroit
Feds give $2B more for Michigan recovery (Detroit News)
Rural Michigan counties turn failing roads to gravel (WWMT)

Louisville
Broader bridges bill is backed by Clark (C-J)

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Columbus: The New Midwestern Star

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, 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 parks 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 might well be the best historic district 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, 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.

My take on more Midwest cities:

Chicago: A Declaration of Independence
Cincinnati: A Midwest Conundrum
Cleveland: What’s Wrong?
Detroit: Do the Collapse
Louisville: An Identity Crisis

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

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