Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

More Privatization Good News in Indiana

I’ve written before about how the privatization of the Indiana Toll Road was a grand slam home run for the public (see “Australian and Spanish Investors Hurting, Hoosier Taxpayers Smiling,” “Major Moves is Majorly Great“, and “The Shrewdness of Mitch Daniels.” The Chicago Skyway lease was similarly great). The evidence just keeps rolling in for how great this deal was, this week in the form of a Bloomberg News piece (via the Indianapolis Business Journal) describing how the Toll Road concessionaires are missing financial projections bigtime.

Eleven million trucks. That’s how many 18-wheelers needed to rumble across northern Indiana in 2010 for the state’s 157-mile toll road to break even. Unfortunately, only about half that many did and the road came up $209 million short. This sounds like the beginning of yet another story about recession-ravaged states bleeding cash. And it is, sort of. The twist is that the Indiana Toll Road is managed not by the state, but by a group of corporate investors…Now five years old, the Indiana deal has yet to turn a profit, or break even…..It turned out to be a bargain for the taxpayers of Indiana.

$209 million per year. That’s how far short of original projections the Toll Road is performing. The good news for Indiana taxpayers is that this is not their problem. The state already has the money in the bank. Regardless of income, the concessionaire still has to maintain the road to standards. (In fact, they are in the middle of a lengthy project to reconstruct and widen several miles of the road through Gary). And if the concessionaire goes bankrupt, presumably their lenders will take over and still be on the hook. In any event, if there’s a default on the contract, the state can take the road back. They could even lease it again for even more money.

I don’t see how it would have been physically possible for the state to have gotten this good a deal itself. In effect, the vendor way overpaid at the peak of the bubble. (I wouldn’t worry too much about them – they are big boys who no doubt syndicated away much of the risk and who also have a big portfolio across which to diversity the unexpected wins and losses). Could Indiana have conceivably negotiated even stronger protections? Sure. It could have negotiated in that if the Borman were closed for flooding or something, motorists could drive the Toll Road for free. But even with compensation the state has had to pay in a few borderline cases like this, it is still way, way ahead.

I don’t think it’s possible to get a deal like that today, not with the way the markets have turned. But with massive transport investment deficits looming across the country, finding ways to tap into private capital, management, and operating expertise is still very much something cities and states should be looking to do. These can be risky deals if done poorly. But done right, and with the proper public scrutiny, they hold enormous potential.

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

The Coolest and Best City Videos

I have posted quite a few “city videos” in the course of blogging. These are usually unofficial short pieces, often art projects, and frequently featuring time lapse, tilt shift, or other techniques to produce a very cool “music video” about a particular place. I thought I’d share a compilation of some of the coolest and very best of these today. If you have other suggestions, please post a link as a comment.

A lot of these are high quality uploads that more than justify watching them in full screen mode. Enjoy!

You’ve Got to Love London

This one was an instant classic (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

Le Flâneur (Paris)

Here’s a variant on the time lapse approach (if the video doesn’t display, click here). The creator of this video discussed his techniques over at National Geographic, but alas the post seems to have expired (or I can’t find it).

Little Big Berlin

This is such an incredible video. It doesn’t necessarily beat you over the head with the coolness of the place like the London and Paris videos, but instead gives you slices of everyday life in way that reveals the city to you. Even the classical soundtrack (Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2″) is awesome. (If the video doesn’t display click here).

Le Tour de France Grand Départ 2010 (Rotterdam)

This one actually is a promotional video, shot for the Grand Départ of the 2010 Tour de France. But it’s a great video about cycling and Rotterdam generally. This one I particularly love since the music is a delightful original composition by Erwin Steijlen, featuring vocals by Alma Nieto and Steve Balsamo. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Inter // States (Tokyo)

This video by Samuel Cockedey isn’t as good as the rest of them on the whole, but if you’re a transport geek like me, you’ll definitely like it (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

New York City

The best of the city videos all seem to be from overseas cities (though interestingly the London and Paris ones were made by Americans). Here are a couple of great New York timelapses, however. First, one from James Ogle (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

And one by Mindrelic called “Manhattan in Motion” (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

A Summer Sped Up (Chicago)

Here’s a reader suggestion that I can’t believe I’ve never seen before since I live in Chicago at present. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Hope you enjoyed these.

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Replay: Picture-Perfect Portland?

[ For my American readers, this is Independence Day weekend. I hope you all have a great time. I’ll be back after the holiday – Aaron. ]

Portland is one of the most-praised cities in contemporary America. But is the hype real? To some extent, it actually understates the case.

Portland didn’t invent bicycles, density or light rail — but it understood the future implications of them for America’s smaller cities first, and put that knowledge to use before anyone else. The longest journey begins with a step, but you have to take it. Nobody else did. In an era where most American cities went one direction, Portland went another, either capturing or even creating the zeitgeist of a new age.

In the agro-industrial era, Chicago first understood the true significance of railroads, the skyscraper and even urban planning. It saw what others couldn’t — and acted on that understanding. That made Chicago the greatest city, indeed the orderer, of its age.

In the late 20th century and continuing to the present day, for cities below the first rank, Portland plays that role. Like Chicago, it is remaking much of America after its own fashion. Light rail, bike lanes, reclaimed waterfronts, urban condos and microbreweries are now nearly ubiquitous, if not deployed at scale, across the nation.

Has there ever been a case in American history of a city as relatively small as Portland having the same sort of pervasive impact on the policy and the built environment of America? It is truly remarkable, shocking even, and something I dare to suggest will likely never happen again.

Louisvillian JC Stites lived for a time in Portland and said of it, “Portland is real. It’s not about ad campaigns pushing false benefits, rather it’s about addressing very real issues regarding how cities grow and sustain themselves.” Partially inspired by Portland, Stites co-founded 8664, a grass-roots organization dedicated to tearing down the Interstate 64 riverfront freeway in Louisville that has excited a large part of that city. That’s the influence of Portland half a continent away.

For a moment in time it wasn’t New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco that captured the national imagination, but a small city on the West Coast far from the cultural and economic capitals of the nation. Portland in the 1990s was, in its own way, the equal of Chicago in the 1890s. The city punched far above its weight.

What’s more, Portland’s legacy is a largely positive one. While too many places transplanted Portland’s solutions into foreign and unsuitable soil, it’s undeniable that Portland played a major role in making the nation respect cities again, seeing their potential with fresh eyes.

Portland is, however, unique and impossible to replicate. As with Chicago, even had another city seen the future, it likely could not have acted on it in the same way. Portland is an outlier. It’s geographically at the edge, has a remarkable natural setting, is one of America’s least diverse cities, and has a very different development and social history than most U.S. cities. Like Chicago, Portland was the right city, in the right place, at the right time.

But though Portland can’t be copied, it can be an inspiration. Many of its ideas can and have been adopted elsewhere. Whether most cities succeed in reclaiming their urban cores is not yet known, but it’s a fight worth fighting. Without Portland, we might not be even trying.

A drawback: our economy

However, in one way Portland today is very unlike that younger Chicago: economically. As low-cost haven next to troubled California, with fantastic natural amenities and resources, a burgeoning talent pool, a small underclass, a comparative lack of the legacy problems of other cities and a high degree of civic consensus, Portland should be an economic juggernaut — but isn’t.

Portland’s GDP per capita ($47,811) is comparable to Indianapolis ($46,450) and Milwaukee ($45,591). It trails talent hubs like San Francisco ($60,873) and Boston ($57,916), and even Seattle ($55,982) and Minneapolis ($50,797). Seattle’s metro region is only 50 percent larger than Portland but has produced fabric-of-the-economy companies such as Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon. Portland has not. Nor has Portland established itself as a go-to location for a major sector the way Silicon Valley has for high tech or Miami for Latin American trade. A recent Metro Monitor report from the Brookings Institution placed Portland’s economy in the bottom quintile of performers.

Part of the challenge is effectively deploying its talent. Portland’s unemployment rate exceeds the national average. The problem of underemployment among the many high-talent people who moved to Portland for its amenities also has been extensively written about. This is notable given that Portland’s population growth rate, while healthy, is half that of talent hubs such as Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C. But those cities added many more jobs than Portland. From the first quarter of 2001 to the first quarter of 2009, Austin created 79,000 jobs (11.8 percent growth) and Raleigh 55,000 (12.8 percent), while Portland created just 10,000 (1.1 percent).

Lack of dynamic conflict

Portland’s performance isn’t bad, but given all of its advantages and low degree of difficulty, it should be a lot better.

Why is this? Perhaps Portland is actually a bit too livable. As urban scholar Joel Kotkin put it, “Portland is to today’s generation what San Francisco was to mine: a hip, not too expensive place for young slackers to go.”

People move to New York City to test their mettle in America’s ultimate arena. They move to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in high tech. But they move to Portland for values and lifestyle; for personal more than professional reasons; to consume as much as to produce. People move to Portland to move to Portland.

Portland may also lack the diversity needed to be a truly dynamic city. It is one of America’s least racially diverse cities and lacks a single non-white city or county elected official. Portland may also have excessive civic consensus. People I interviewed who left Portland were uniform in their praise. They also noted with approval the lack of negativity about the city in contrast with other places they had lived, and the high degree of shared values among its residents.

But civic dynamism fundamentally derives from conflict and dissatisfaction. London architect Sam Jacob once said, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.” Portland perhaps has too few conflicts of vision, with too few incompatible demands.

Why change?

For the future then, where does Portland want to go? Continue to innovate and remain the driver of what it means to be a successful small city in America? Maintain and enjoy the sustainable, high quality of life the region has built (for those fortunate enough to find a job there, at least)? Seek to become a center of greater commercial ambition?

To create a truly dynamic city and realize its potential as one of America’s top small city talent hubs, Portland needs to embrace a more aggressive mind-set toward job creation and look to attract a more diverse resident base.

One might ask: Because Portlanders are happy with their city, why change? There are values in life beyond commercial ones and the pursuit of growth. True, but that’s a choice with consequences. As the people who’ve had to leave Portland because they couldn’t find real employment there can attest, in order to take advantage of its justly famous high quality, sustainable lifestyle, you first need a job. It’s not livable if you can’t live there.

This column originally appeared in the Portland Oregonian on January 17, 2010.

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Did INDOT Cancel the Remainder of the Northeast Corridor Project?

I hope you’ll indulge me a “throwback” post in the style of the early days of the blog, when I was more or less covering Indianapolis in detail.

I was looking at INDOT’s web site for the I-465 northeast corridor expansion project and noticed that there was an updated schedule graphic posted that deleted any parts of the project post-2012, including the reconstruction of the I-465/I-69 interchange:

Notice that they added a huge box for something called “Operation Indy Commute”, but this is a separate tactical and much smaller project. (Looks like a distraction tactic to me). According to the FAQ, the work that’s been dropped from the schedule is now postponed until after Operation Indy Commute. That is, until post-2015, after Major Moves expires and there’s no more money for major capital expenses.

Possibly this was covered previously, but I certainly didn’t hear anything about this major deferral on the real project in the area when INDOT was rolling out Operation Indy Commute. Instead, I recall it touted in a manner that implied it was net new spending. (See this article for example among some other coverage I went back and looked at).

I tried to email the listed contact for this project to get an official response but the email bounced.

I also took a quick look at the 2012-2015 Indianapolis Regional Transportation Improvement Program and there’s no money for construction on the deleted segments. (You should at least glance at that document for some comic relief).

As a general rule, when agencies put out a plan to do something, they trumpet it to the heavens, call the papers, etc. When they kill something you half the time only find out by reading obscure documents no one’s ever heard about. Or by engaging in some Clintonian parsing of what the agency tells you. I’m not saying they for sure did that here, but it certainly warrants investigation. Keep in mind, in Indiana, projects are almost never actually officially killed, they just keep getting indefinitely deferred.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if “Operation Indy Commute” was never anything more than a smoke screen for canceling a project INDOT ran out of money on. I think there’s a pretty good chance you can color this one dead. The local media should be asking themselves if they got snookered on this one.

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Job Migration from the Suburbs to Downtown

I think a look at the numbers would show that employment in our metro areas continues to decentralize. Brookings has labeled this phenomenon “job sprawl.” Yet America’s downtowns, particularly for its most thriving tier one cities, aren’t done yet. In fact, we’re seeing intriguing evidence that for at least certain types of employment, the downtown is again coming back into favor.

In a story titled Corporate campuses in twilight, Crain’s Chicago Business examines how companies that once decamped from the Loop in order to built large, self-contained campuses in the far flung suburbs are now reconsidering their decision:

Like the disco ball, the regional shopping mall and the McMansion, the suburban corporate headquarters campus is losing its charm.

All reflect changes in the corporate mindset that spawned the campuses dotting outer suburbia. Empire-building CEOs from the 1970s through the 1990s craved not only cheap real estate but total control of their environments. They created self-contained corporate villages that cut off employees from outside influences.

As the 21st century enters its second decade, many companies are discovering the drawbacks of the isolation they sought. Hard-to-get-to headquarters limit the talent pool a company can draw on and feed a “not-invented-here” insularity that ignores major shifts in industries and markets.

Companies seeking to tap a broader talent pool and get into the flow of innovation are looking back to the urban core. Sara Lee is only the latest suburban company to seek a new headquarters in downtown Chicago. United Airlines made the move in the past decade, as did Navteq Corp. and Allscripts Healthcare Solutions Inc. Some of the most successful local companies of recent years, like Morningstar Inc. and Accretive Health Inc., never left the city.

“The whole corporate campus seems a little dated,” says Joe Mansueto, chairman and CEO of Morningstar, who moved the company’s 1,100 headquarters workers across the Loop to a new office tower at 22 W. Washington St. two years ago without even considering a move to the suburbs. “We’ve always liked being in Chicago. It helps keep employees on the pulse of what’s happening in our society. It keeps them current with cultural trends and possibly technological ones.”

There’s a lot more to the article which I encourage you to read. Subsequent to publication, United Airlines announced it was relocating another 1,500 jobs downtown without any subsidies. This is in addition to another 1,000 new GE Capital jobs recently announced, also without subsidy.

Part of this simply reflects what I previously labeled “the big city CBD advantage.” In these large, sprawling, congested regions with good transit access to the CBD from all parts of the region, being downtown gives you access to the greatest potential labor pool, which can be very important when sourcing for specialized skills. Others are attributing this to lifestyle preferences of younger workers. Whatever the case, businesses wouldn’t be choosing to relocate these workers without a good business reason. And in these cases subsidies aren’t the reason.

Chicago isn’t the only place this is happening, incidentally. The NYT wrote about who UBS is thinking about moving back from Stamford, CT to Manhattan.

I’m not going to suggest these anecdotes undercut the job sprawl narrative, but they show that employment markets and business location markets continue to evolve, and that there’s a lot of nuance under the headline numbers. We’ll see to what extent this is the start of a serious trend.

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

The Cleveland Comeback: Version 5.0 by Richey Piiparinen

[ Here’s a piece that originally ran on the great blog Rust Wire. I’m pleased to be able to bring you occasional selections from their great Rust Belt coverage – Aaron. ]

Every decade or so in Cleveland the headlines reappear like locusts—a Renaissance, a Rebirth. In fact the city has been remade in the visions of its leaders over and over. But today, we are still poor, still municipally cash-strapped, more vacant, and shrunk.

Today is 2011, and the reality is not what was envisioned in the late 80′s and 90′s—or that Cleveland heyday of being high on the renaissance hog. After all, the leaders had been building new stuff: the Galleria (’87), Key Tower (’91), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (’95), the Great Lakes Science Center (’96), Jacob’s Field (’94), Gund Arena (’94), and Tower City (’91). And new stuff means things will inevitably get better, a comeback for the “Comeback City” yo.

At least that was the belief being fermented by the civic booster of the time, the New Cleveland Campaign. And the belief eventually made its way into the PD with headlines like: “Cool! Cleveland’s hot — they like us! they really like us! City basks in the glow of national admiration” (1995). And national admiration there was: “The Mistake Wakes Up, Roaring” (New York Times, 1996). And even the academics were feeling it. Here’s a bit from a 1997 article entitled “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cleveland” from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science of all places: “Cleveland has enjoyed a….renaissance and has swiftly moved from backwater to the forefront of contemporary urban change”.

It’s apparent, though, that we receded to being “backwater” again. Why?

It boils down to method. And the renaissance method back then (and one which still dominates today) was about big, stand alone projects that will either attract tourists (e.g., Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) or the suburban diaspora (e.g., downtown malls like the Galleria). The thinking was to get a critical mass through splashy—if non-unique—development so as to increase the tax base through sales and other spin-off projects. That is: city investment was being catered toward non-residents and away from neighborhoods, no doubt an acquiescing of sorts that the immediate future of the Rust Belt city was not through its neighborhood real estate. And it was a strategy that perhaps pushed back the immediate future of Cleveland even more far off.

The failures rested heavily on two faults of the investment: product type, and placement. Regarding product, the development in the 90′s was for the most part layered on top of the city’s history and culture as opposed to being built through it. Copycatting a suburban, glass-built mall as a means to recapture retail market is a prime example of being what you’re not, and the signal this sends works at cross-purposes to your intent, i.e., “you love the suburbs so much we’re bringing it into the city for you”. But it’s much easier to stay in the suburbs to buy your coat. And so people did, and now both Tower City Center and the Galleria are both cash cow liabilities emptied of cheerleading, not to mention coats.

And then there are the splashier tourist attractions like the Rock and Roll Hall. Here, the concept is more unique to the Cleveland identity but the look and experience of place effectively vanilla’s the shit out of the opportunity to differentiate the city by making a Rust Belt Chic stamp on the landscape. In fact, whatever you think of I.M. Pei this does not exactly sing the Kinks or WMMS. It’s rather every big-ticket building on every city’s waterfront and is thus lost in the non-imagination of everyman’s mind’s eye. (Note: Below embodies WMMS. And I still remember their efforts at rallying the city to give Cleveland the Hall of Fame nod. That said, the Rock Hall in an adaptive, industrial reuse would’ve been killer.)

Making matters worse is the obvious: the developments for the most part are islands. And given that Downtown Cleveland is an expansive CBD with expansive streets (I was shocked walking the Philly and Boston CBD as I was so used to the swaths of C-town’s avenues), the effect was to make it a one-trip wonder for the suburban diaspora or an unwelcoming field of streets for the out-of-town would-be pedestrian. Moreover, if you want to start a fire—or in this case: a mass—you don’t do it by starting the ends of disparate sticks. You do it through strategic placement and flow. And in a city like Cleveland where you only have a few matches, you better sit, think, and make strikes on the matchbox count.

Hopefully this time they’ll count, as with a grip of new projects in the pipeline—namely the Medical Mart and the casino—we are at it again, with the voices of the renaissance reaching a crescendo both locally and nationally (hell, even the White House believes it). And whether or not we’ve learned from past mistakes is uncertain, yet there appears to be some proof that this is the case, at least relating to placement and connectivity.

Said Joe Marinucci, CEO of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance: “Where we may have failed is we haven’t connected those investments properly in the past.” And so connectedness—or hemming the places of investment with public paths to be interspersed with revamped public spaces—has been a large focus. In fact the task was delegated by the Mayor Jackson to a newly-formed Group Plan Commission. Some of their recommendations to breathe circulation in Downtown are as follows:

  • Creating a new pedestrian bridge from the east end of the revamped Mall (which is Cleveland’s rather inert piazza as well as the site of the new Medical Mart and underground convention center) to isolated past investments along the Lake. This is needed, as the entry points crossing a dividing Route 2 are limited (Est. cost $13 mill).
  • Complete street policies–referred to in the plan as “Healthy Streets”–would be put into effect along the East/West streets of Lakeside and St. Clair. Bike lanes would be added filling a multi-modal gap between the Euclid Corridor and various bike-laned bridges heading into the western neighborhoods. As well, Rockwell Avenue—currently a small wasteful street along the southern edge of the Mall—will be closed and turned into a greenway with bike lanes connecting Public Square to the new investment (Est. cost $6 mill).
  • Public Square, Cleveland’s other grand public place but with actual humans mostly smoking smokes or swisher sweets and eating hot dogs from the vendor (pretty Cleveland really), will be turned into two sections from four with the closing of Ontario (Est. cost $40 mill). The idea is to inject life with the creation of an urban forest designed by Field Operations.

Now, regarding product type there is room for debate. Because as was stated, the problem with big ticket development is that it usually comes from the idea of some other success story and is then layered on top of a city’s topography like a toupee covering the internal dynamics of balding. Shave it, get tats: that’s the Cleveland way. And so if we are going to have a casino, at least make it Cleveland and not some night- club-lame, multi-colored neon egg that is this rendering for Phase 2. Make it more like Phase 1: historically accentuated, subtle, stone—and facing out into the winds of Erie.

As well—as far as branding—I think Gilbert and Harrah’s really missed an opportunity to create a Rust Belt Chic brand through the gritty, rock and roll culture that is Cleveland. Instead, it’s the Horseshoe brand. It could’ve been a really unique dynamic between the Rock Hall and the casino, complete with Kiss slots.

As for the Medical Mart, I for one am optimistic. First—and perhaps most importantly—it’s a development through the Cleveland lineage, the concept an amalgam of Cleveland’s health care and manufacturing histories. Second, it acts as a legitimate counterpoint to the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals along the bus rapid transit axis that is the Euclid Corridor. Now if we can only make it run like a BRT, i.e., rapid, and get a criticial mass to and from these endpoints, then I feel increased movement along Euclid can serve to create investment into Cleveland’s forgotten East Side…

You know what—eff it—maybe 5.0 is where it’s at. Maybe we have perfected failure to the extent where we are coming out the other side: coal into diamonds. Cleveland: we’re back baby!

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on April 4, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Announcing the Indianapolis Neighborhood Map

One of the things that has always struck me about Indianapolis is its weak sense of neighborhood. Now this isn’t monolithically the case. There are many neighborhoods with a strong sense of identity. But in many parts of the city, people probably can’t even name the neighborhood they live in apart from perhaps the name of their subdivision. This is probably an artifact of Unigov which consolidated the city and county governments. Much of the suburban area was anonymous. Also, many of the neighborhoods that do exist strongly in the minds of neighbors in the city are what I call “micro-hoods.” Many of them are basically glorified block clubs. That doesn’t make them bad by any means, but it is hard to call something a neighborhood if it doesn’t contain a single business.

You can see this in action in the way TV stations report crime, for example, which is generally just on the “East Side” or some such and not specific as to the neighborhood where it happened. There are many other possible examples as well.

As a start at changing this, a group of us decided to put together a first cut at a comprehensive neighborhood map of Indianapolis. We used every resource available, including city records, community documents, local experts, and the internet to assign every square inch of Marion County to a named neighborhood of reasonable size. Some of these were new areas we had to define ourselves. This is certainly not definitive at this stage. The idea is to provoke a discussion and to get people thinking about this. Eventually I’d love to see stronger neighborhood differentiation and different neighborhoods coming up with unique strategies to attract their own specific mix of residents and businesses. We’ll see what happens.

The initial result though is what I believe is the first comprehensive neighborhood map of the city of Indianapolis ever created. With that, here it is:

This map was created by Yours Truly in conjunction with Josh Anderson and Matt Hale. There was significant input from Chris Barnett, Matt Hostetler, and Sarah Lester, along with review and suggestions from many, many others. The map itself is available as a 46×48 inch high quality poster you can purchase online at naplab.net and also at First Fridays at the Harrison Center for the Arts. I hope all of you in Indy will check it out and pick up a copy today.

What is Naplab? I’m glad you asked. Naplab is an informal group of us who decided to stop just talking about things and start doing actual projects that would be a positive influence on the city. This map was one of them. The fact that we’re a rogue operation made it possible for us to do things like draw lines on a map that would have been very difficult for government to do. Having said that, this map still took about two years to complete. I’m no longer active in the group since I don’t live in Indy anymore, but I know there are other cool projects in the works.

The graphic design of the poster is by Matt Hale, who incidentally was the designer for my web site too. He and Josh talk about the map over at Urban Indy‘s Kevin Kastner, and I got permission to re-run that interview here, so enjoy!


Word about a new neighborhood map for the city came to me unexpectedly. Phil Hooper, from DMD and the Greater Indianapolis Neighborhood Initiative, stopped me in the lobby of the City County Building, and the first thing he said was “have you seen the new Indianapolis neighborhood map?” He was excited, and I was intrigued. I’ve loved maps since early childhood and majored in Geography, so sure, tell me more. He mentioned it was a paper wall map that was for sale at the Harrison Center for the Arts’ First Friday event. I was unable to attend, but thankfully, the website for the group who designed the map went live. And it was worth every bit of hype

I sat down with the Naplab duo, Landscape Architect Josh Anderson and Graphic Designer Matt Hale to find out more about their inspirational creation.

Josh and Matt in the Indianapolis City Market

How did the idea for the map come about?
Naplab: Aaron Renn from the Urbanophile pushed for it, inspired by the Chicago Neighborhood Maps from Ork and other designers. We wanted to help create a dialogue about neighborhoods in Indianapolis and better establish a sense of neighborhood throughout the city. Initially, Aaron approached Ork about doing a design based on our research, but it wasn’t in the cards for us. We finally decided we would do a neighborhood-based map, but in our own design style. In the beginning, we had meetings with different people that have a good understanding of the entire city and we had a lot of discussion about what exactly constitutes a neighborhood in Indy and other cities. We wanted it to be a cool poster that people enjoy looking at, but also we also have a higher goal to promote a conversation about what it means to be a neighborhood in the city and help establish the identity of “the neighborhood” throughout the city.

What sources did you use?
Naplab: Human resources, as well as IMAGIS, city documents, google and wiki maps, official city neighborhood resources, Polis Center info, and of course, the internet. Chris Barnett, Matt Hostetler, and Sarah Lester were a tremendous help as well. We started out with a sharpie marker and a paper map, scanned it, and then spent months refining it with the multitude of sources we found.

Any personal favorite features of the map?

Matt: There are some really neat lesser-known neighborhoods that the map reveals. I grew up in Speedway, so the west side is my territory. North of 16th St (east of Speedway and north of Haughville) I never knew that that neighborhood was called Venerable Flackville, so that was a cool discovery for me. Also, though we don’t have the roads labeled, you can tell what they are if you know the city well. It’s neat to scan the map visually and fill in the informational blanks, so to speak.

Josh: Everything on the map is to scale. It makes it easy to see the difference in the scale of the airport when compared to downtown, the track, etc. It’s amazing to see the differences of neighborhood footprint size within the city. From the near southeast side, stretching around to the near north side, the neighborhoods are really small. Whereas the farther out you go, the neighborhoods increase in size, but also sprawl.

What font did you use?

Matt: It’s from a typeface family called Knockout by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. The specific weight/width is HTF26 Junior Flyweight. It’s ultra-condensed, and created better word-shapes across the wide spectrum of neighborhood word-lengths and combinations. Those word-shapes were more square, less horizontal, and that helped them fit in the varying neighborhood shapes more efficiently. In a nutshell, it’s a confident, condensed typeface that helped with legibility!

How has the reception been?

Matt: It’s been great. Snowballs are starting to roll. We just launched the website 2 weeks ago. Recently, we’ve been selling maps at the Harrison Center for the Arts on First Fridays. We have really seen the conversation that we were hoping for start to happen as we talk to people there. In one unexpected turn, Chuck Lofton from Channel 13 bought one last month. If we get people in the news organizations interested, it could have a huge impact on how neighborhoods are labeled in the city. Instead of always saying “a murder happened on the east side,” which is often blatantly false or misleading location-wise, a more specific area of the city can be specified. The City of Indianapolis is huge at around 400 square miles. We’ve got to stop labeling areas only by north, south, east, and west sides, or variants of those. It just makes less and less sense the farther out you go from Monument Circle.

Josh: I live on the east side, and if a crime happens anywhere within a particular 20 mile section of the city, then the entirety of that part of the city is dangerous. Also, regarding the map’s reception, people you don’t normally think of as urbanists do get very excited and proud when they see the name of their neighborhoods on the map and they begin to see the city in a new light. Especially for the lesser-known neighborhoods that people living on the other side of the city don’t know about.

Matt: You can see the lightbulb go off in their eyes. It’s really great.

What’s next for Naplab?

Matt: We’d like to find out more about the history of all these neighborhoods and display that somehow. The coolest way would be to have a clickable map online, but maybe just a wiki of some sort would be good too.

Josh: Yes, there are definitely more ways to promote this idea, make it more interactive, and expand the impact.

The Neighborhoods of Indianapolis 2011 map is available online for $35 at www.naplab.net

You can also pick one up at the Harrison Center for the Arts this Saturday, June 11 from noon to 8 as part of IMAF and the INDIEana Handicraft Exchange.

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Replay: Metropolitan Linkages

[ The New York Times ran an article recently discussing the trend of big city law firms hiring non-partner track attorneys in smaller cities to handle routine work at lower cost. It reminded me of this post where I floated a similar idea back in 2009. I hope you enjoy – Aaron. ]

In my kickoff of the year of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan in Chicago, I argued that while Chicago was performing well in a globalized world, it was only riding the wave of globalization and wasn’t defining its own uniquely successful future, one where it first and most fully grasped the implications of our new world. I also promised ideas on where to look to do that, starting with re-embracing its own unique culture and identity, resisting homogenization.

Today I start a four part mini-series looking at another opportunity area. It’s been widely noted that globalization has worked to separate global cities from their traditional city-regions. Indeed, Chicago and others have almost deliberately turned their back on their past in this manner to focus exclusively on the global conversation. With most global cities doing that, the question immediately comes to mind: is there overlooked opportunity in the hinterland? I argue that there might be, and I’ll look at two specific items: metropolitan linkages and on shore outsourcing. Each of these will have a main article with a follow-on more fully discussing a particular aspect. Today, we talk about metropolitan linkages.

There have been many calls for greater cross-regional (or “mega-regional” or “pan-Midwest”) cooperation. The idea is that similar challenges beset the Midwest as a whole and they are best solved collectively. There’s a certain surface appeal to this, but I’ve been reluctant to accept it before. The basis of my argument is in my previous posting “Mega-Skepticism“. My problem is fundamentally that people don’t explain what it is we are actually supposed to do to implement cross-regional collaboration, and there are few tangible benefits offered for it. Consider: we’re told to build a Midwest high speed rail network. Ok, but so what? I built it. What does it do for me? What does this allow Minneapolis and Chicago to do today, for example, that hourly shuttle flights on multiple airlines don’t? What’s going to be different once it’s built? This is the great unanswered question. We must be able to articulate the value levers we want to pull (for example, scale economics, specialization, or purchasing power) and why and how places will take advantage of them.

Having the Midwest try to work as a whole is a “boil the ocean” type solution. I’m not convinced rural areas, small towns, small manufacturing cities, and larger cities intuitively have enough common ground to try to create fully common solutions. Even among just the Midwest’s large cities, there is incredible diversity. Again, how much in common do Chicago, Detroit, and Columbus have? And to do so so would require enormous trust and consensus building.

So what I’m going to suggest today is that we narrow our focus to specific city pairs, and see if we can articulate a basis for cross-regional cooperation. For my example, I’m going to use Chicago-Milwaukee and Chicago-Indianapolis. Why? Several reasons:

  • They are all cities that have the minimum scale to have economies that can operate effectively in the globalized world. Indeed, Chicago is a successful global city, Indianapolis is by many measures the most successful city in the Midwest, and Milwaukee is hanging in there. This isn’t a “dinosaurs mating” type situation where a bunch of failing cities try to band together. Rather, it is looking at reasonably successful places. Can they enhance their success even further through cooperation?
  • Chicago is the logical place to start because it was historically the dominant city of the Midwest. To envision a highly successful cross-regional collaboration that does not somehow involve Chicago is hard to do. Also, because Chicago is such a unique place in the Midwest, smaller cities like Indy and Milwaukee don’t have to feel bad about playing second fiddle in some respects. Those places know they aren’t Chicago. Whereas trying to get the “3C’s” in Ohio to agree on things would be much tougher. I use the term “hinterland” in the title deliberately, despite its pejorative connotations. That’s because I think there may be opportunities to re-create a true urban hierarchy in some ways.
  • These cities are highly complementary, especially Chicago and Indy. That is, each is strong where the other is weak. This means they are not natural competitors and there is reason to believe that specialization and the division of labor – one of the key advantages of scale – can work. By contrast, Indianapolis and Columbus are nearly identical cities. Specialization is harder for them to do, so there would have to be another basis for cooperation to have benefits.
  • Their common culture eases the path of cooperation. America 2050 has an interesting framework for relationships that create mega-regional linkages. Their relationships include environmental systems and topography, infrastructure systems, economic linkages, settlement patterns and land use, and shared culture and history. It is easy to see how these apply here.
  • They are geographically close, which would seem to simply matters. I include both Indy and Milwaukee because in fact Milwaukee is so close that it is possibly experiencing the “sixth borough effect” we’ve see in NYC and Philly, where Chicago’s massive growth is just taking Milwaukee into its orbit. Indy provides a control study for that to make sure we are dealing truly cross-regionally

Considering these cities, we now have to ask ourselves the question: how do they cooperate? The globalized economy seems to have two sorts of operations: one tends towards “flattening”, where routinized operations like manufacturing or answering phone calls can be done anywhere in the world. The other is towards “spikeyness” and valuing the face-to-face interactions of highly creative people in the cores of places like Chicago. Is there an model somewhere between them that we can imagine?

Richard Florida just issued a call in this month’s Atlantic Monthly to build “rail connectivity within the mega-regions. There are the fast trains along the Boston/New York/Washington corridor that have allowed Washington, in effect, to become a commuter suburb of greater New York. But how about a place like Detroit? If Detroit were better connected to Chicago, one could imagine Detroit having a better reason for existing. Or Pittsburgh. If Pittsburgh were better connected to Chicago or even to Washington, D.C.—it’s only a four-hour drive—that could spur growth.” I won’t use his example cities, but will assume in our example that we’ve got high speed rail between Chicago and Milwaukee and Chicago and Indy that provides a terminal to terminal journey time of 90 minutes. In the case of Milwaukee, this is actually already true – future rail upgrades will only shave that time down even further.

What could we imagine the benefits of this being? I see two: a labor force play and a division of labor play.

The labor force argument goes something like this. You’ve got these highly creative jobs in Chicago. But not everybody is a trader at the Merc making megabucks. There’s a lot of joe average type white collar jobs too. Many of these pay solidly, but the quality of life you can purchase for the money in Chicago might not be the greatest. Chicago may not have high taxes and housing prices compared to the coasts, but its does compared to the Midwest. Some people crave urban excitement, shopping at Neimans, the opera, etc., but a huge number just go home to the suburbs. I’ve long argued that if you don’t take advantage of the things that only Chicago gives you, and are just trying to live an average suburban lifestyle, that’s crazy. Why pay the premium to live in a Chicago suburb in terms of housing, taxes, and above all congestion when you aren’t getting much more than you’d get elsewhere? Obviously lots of people are asking themselves that question, because Chicago’s metro area had net domestic outmigration to the tune of 57,000 people last year – a pace of almost 600,000 per decade. Of those, a net 7,000 moved to Indianapolis in just the last few years. Now I don’t know the makeup of this. Some of it may be second order Latino immigration or something. But I’ve got to believe some of it is Chicago’s precious talent bleeding away because they cost/benefit isn’t worth it to them.

Now consider what a 90 minute train ride does to the equation. If you are a suburb dweller who loves that lifestyle, you can now move to someplace like Carmel, Indiana outside Indianapolis. You cut your living costs dramatically and increase your quality of life. Plus, you can realistically commute to Chicago, at least 2-3 days a week. That’s a PITA in a car @ three unproductive hours, but when you can work on the train for 90 minutes with wi-fi, it’s a different story, even with collection/distribution tacked on at each end. Combine this with modern flexible work arrangements and you’ve got the makings of an extended labor pool. It could be a win-win-win. Chicago gets the access to talent it would otherwise lose. The worker is happy with access to both great job opportunities and higher quality of life. And Indy get the imported income and improved connectivity to the global economy via Chicago. I already know several people who routinely make the trip up and down I-65 in car or fly every single week. It is easy to imagine this exploding with 90 minute train service with wi-fi and electric power outlets. This both makes the time productive and makes it feasible to do daily commuting, skipping the hotels, nights away from home and other assorted costs.

A similar effect could happen with Milwaukee. Indeed, I already see people commuting down from Milwaukee. But I imagine a separate demographic. To me, Milwaukee is a bit of a “mini-me” Chicago. So what you get are people who want the more urban lakefront experience, but can’t afford or don’t want to pay for Chicago. You are already seeing this happen a bit I think. Same dynamics apply.

The other direction, think about what it does for Indy and Milwaukee in terms of ability to attract their labor force. Both cities have dramatically upgraded their offerings from the day when you couldn’t get a good meal or a decent cup of coffee. Both of them now have a nearly full spectrum of urban amenities. But what they are missing is that creme-de-la-creme. They don’t have elite international opera or true high end shopping. But by putting Chicago within easier daytrip reach via train (imaging sipping champagne on the trip back from your Oak St. spree), Chicago’s amenities become more accessible to people in those other cities. This helps them in recruiting people as well. Oh, and those Chicago workers can now work “domestically” if there is an option. Increasing the labor supply even further. And, people who come to work locally might be more willing to do so knowing that commuting to Chicago (again, only part time using flexible working arrangements as is becoming more common) means they aren’t captive to the “only game in town” for employment prospects in a smaller market like Indy or Milwaukee.

I don’t know if this will really work out or not, but it seems surface plausible – if you had the rail connections at true high speed service levels and the right amenities and price point. This might not involve huge numbers, but it might not take a huge number to move the needle if it is the right kind of people with the right skill sets.

The second point involves re-establishing the regional division of labor. As Chicago becomes more specialized, and its urban core more successful, that will push costs up in that city, making creative but lesser value-added functions less competitive. Is there an opportunity to offload some of that to an Indy or Milwaukee where the highest functions are done in Chicago but lower value added – but still high knowledge worker content, creative type work – is done in those other cities?

Again, as I said in my original posting, I can’t promise The Answer, only an exploration of the problem space. I want to use one sample industry to consider this: law. One, it is harder to offshore legal work I think. Even my own employer won’t let routine work be passed on by someone who isn’t domestic. Two, I was intrigued by something I noticed something the other week when I saw Tristan und Isolde at the Lyric Opera. I opened up the program guide and what did I see but a full page ad for Barnes and Thornburg. This is one of the largest law firms in Indianapolis, yet they have a full page ad in Chicago. I’m told they have a rather large office in Chicago too. What is the reason for this? It could just be expanding where the action is. On the other hand, is there a basis for cooperation between law firms where a large international Chicago firm is the lead firm handling the orchestration and most complex portions of the work there while sending some work to lower cost firms in Indy and Milwaukee, using those firms’ Chicago points of presence and the capability for easy face-to-face meetings to make it happen?

I don’t know a lot about the law business, but I do know that they are under enormous price pressure and even many very successful firms are doing layoffs. I expect a major transition where old school type relationships don’t necessarily translate into premium pricing opportunities anymore when there is lower cost competition for what is effectively commodity work in many cases. I’ve seen this in other industries and it seems reasonable that is could happen in law. Could this ability to tap a “near shore” pool of lower cost lawyers give Chicago firms an advantage? It might be the only elite city in the country where you can get access to a far lower cost point just by going beyond the immediate metro area.

I’ll admit, I’m speculating here, but it is the general concept that is important. It goes something like this. The most specialized components are in Chicago where it justifies the cost of being in the Loop. Specialized but less value added work that nevertheless requires close coordination, time-zone commonality, and potentially significant face to face meetings are in Milwaukee or Indy. I don’t know for sure what, if anything might be out there that fits this. Maybe law, maybe something else, or maybe nothing. But those to me seems the characteristics of the types of work that would lead to cross-regional collaboration.

If you are able to make these two cross-regional items work with Chicago, Indy, and Milwaukee, then you can look to see if they scale up or extend across distances.

So the question is, how do you go about making these sorts of relationships happen? Good question again. I don’t have the answers. But perhaps this is where the “holding conferences” aspect of mega-regionalism comes in. That is, you get business, academic, community, and political leaders talking to each other, establishing trust, and seeing what collaborations might form. This also brings up another good point as to how to implement it. Chicago has long been the magnet for young, ambitious people from the greater Midwest. Look at all the Big Ten sports bars in Chicago for an example of that. So can you mobilze those expatriate or diaspora communities to form the “glue of the relationship”? I noted before the concept of the “urban alumni association“. Something like this could be leveraged to help forge those business and cultural relationships. In fact, there is already an organization called the Indiana Society of Chicago. I believe this is mostly a networking club. Could organizations like this, plus Big Ten alumni associations, be used as a catalyst to make things happen?

I think this is an area that warrants further research and discussion. The general idea is to figure out how to give Chicago’s companies competitive advantage through an expanded labor pool and potentially lower cost operations that don’t involve the messy coordination of a far flung network. At the same time, it provides mutually beneficial returns to smaller cities in the region.

Reconnecting the Hinterland – Additional Previous Entries:
1B – High Speed Rail
2A – Onshore Outsourcing
2B – On Innovation

This post originally appeared on February 11, 2009.

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

The Taxi As Public Transportation by Drew Austin

[ I ran out of Drew Austin pieces to repost from Where, but lucky for us he wrote this original that I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Speaking of which, Brendan Crain has restarted the Where Blog, which is really awesome news. This one is an absolute must to subscribe to in my opinion. So check it out if you aren’t already familiar with his work. ]

Architecture has borrowed plenty from biology over the centuries, but the reverse is less common. After observing the central dome of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, the paleontologist Steven Jay Gould coined the term spandrel, describing a side effect of adaptation that turns out to be useful in itself. Like the architectural spandrel–a triangular space where two arches meet–the biological spandrel may seem perfectly designed for a certain function though it’s actually more of a lucky accident.

Today, for anyone interested in understanding cities or improving them, data on urban phenomena represent a different kind of spandrel. Much of the data offering useful clues for city planners and researchers is out there accumulating whether anyone wants it or not. The ability to track the origin and destination of every taxi trip in New York or Boston, for example, was a recent byproduct of the self-swipe credit card technology that those cities have required all cabs to install. Last year, an article in Wired described how New York City harnessed the knowledge available from 50,000 daily calls to 311, using that information to map the distribution of problems like noise complaints throughout the five boroughs. Maximizing our understanding of the city means discovering what’s already out there–the spandrels–as much as it means actively collecting data when necessary.

The taxi perfectly illustrates the opportunities these incidental data sources create as well as the limitations of what they can tell us. Transportation is one of the trickiest and most critical problems in any city, and one of the areas where good data can help the most. By recording their own activity, taxis become sensors that roam the city painting a detailed picture of traffic conditions, travel demand, and even the locations where passengers give the best tips. We can learn a lot about the city from taxis, but we can learn even more about taxis themselves and their role in the urban environment.

It’s easy to forget, but the taxi has always been a critical form of public transportation. In cities without good transit, the taxi is often the only public transportation available. More importantly, mass transit cannot efficiently serve every type of travel that passengers demand, and the taxi is better suited to do so in many cases (think of the bus that never has more than a handful of passengers on board). Low-income city dwellers as well as the affluent rely on taxis where buses and trains don’t suffice. In the United States, where everything is seemingly built for the private car, modes of transportation that improve mobility for the carless are allies, not competitors.

Because taxis are privately operated and can’t be planned like mass transit, the opportunity they represent receives less attention than it should. Now, taxis are still private, but the rich data they generate means they are no longer the blind spot for transportation planners that they once were. We may not know exactly how to improve taxis, but we can start by deciding how they might ideally serve a city and then observing how they currently measure up to that ideal. Beginning with the principle that taxis are a form of public transportation, they should complement mass transit by filling in the gaps where transit service is less accessible, and the aforementioned taxi trip data makes it possible to see whether this happens naturally. As the maps below indicate, more taxi pickups happen where transit access is also quite good. Of course, demand is also higher near Boston’s center, and it’s difficult to say where unmet taxi demand exists (although it’s possible to infer this). As a “spandrel,” taxi data alone won’t tell us everything we need to know to answer a question like this–that is, the data collection wasn’t designed with this particular question in mind–but the more we grapple with the data, the more we learn what it can and can’t tell us, and the more useful it becomes as a means of enhancing taxicabs or countless other aspects of city life.

4 Comments
Topics: Transportation
Cities: Boston

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Come to the Urbanophile Farewell Night Out in Indianapolis

I want to invite all of my readers in greater Indianapolis to join me next Monday night, June 6th, for a farewell happy hour at Scotty’s Brewhouse downtown. I am planning to be there from 5:30p-8:30p so come on down! Shoot me a note if you are planning to come.

With a move forthcoming, I wanted to make sure to have a chance to reconnect (or connect for the first time) with my Indy readers. Already now that I’ve gone carless, I’m rarely in Indy. Other than for a brief professional trip at the end of the month, this could be my last visit for a long while. I feel bad that I didn’t do something when I actually left Indy, so this is also my make up event for that.

It’s no secret that the Urbanophile started out as a heavily Indianapolis-centric blog. In fact, the blog has its roots in the Indianapolis development discussion forum at Skyscrapercity. I am often accused of being an Indianapolis cheerleader and booster. I’d like to think I’ve thrown plenty of pies in Indy’s face where warranted (see here and here for example), but nevertheless, I guess you can say guilty as charged. I do love the city.

This puzzles many because to the outside urban enthusiast, Indianapolis is a singularly unimpressive city. Even its urban core is among the least dense in America, with mostly single family homes and few urban commercial districts. It has only the 99th largest bus system in America. Its architecture is generally undistinguished. It is dominated by chain restaurants. Much of its urban design quality is very low. The list goes on.

But over the years I’ve come to appreciate that Indianapolis may be the worst city in the Midwest – except for all the rest. All of those things might be true. This is a city that has no stately form or majesty – no appearance that we should be attracted to it. In other places, those are what define the urban greatness of the place. But they are not wherein Indy’s greatness resides.

Instead of a lively cafe culture with all those serendipitous meetings we always here about in Portland or where ever, in Indy that social life occurs in people’s back yards or homes. That doesn’t make it any less real. I know because I’ve experienced it for myself.

While Indy’s culture might lack sophistication by the definition of some, it’s got a quality about it few other cities can match. Other cities might have more talk and plans for stuff, but Indianapolis actually accomplishes things. And it’s far more forward thinking than you might think. That’s why from the city-county consolidation and amateur sports strategy 40 years ago to the Indy Cultural Trail, roundabouts in suburban Carmel, and much more today, Indianapolis has in fact often been not just a good executor of best practices, but in many ways an innovator and urban leader. I don’t think it’s any accident that my blog started in Indianapolis and grew to what it is.

There are probably few cities, and certainly no Midwest cities, that have done more with less raw assets than Indianapolis has. So regardless of what many might think, I believe there’s a real story to be told – and it’s backed up by the numbers. The fastest population growth in the region among peers, the fastest job growth, the #3 fastest percentage growth in Hispanic population among all large US metros, the #5 fastest percentage Asian growth, the #6 best state for business according to Chief Executive magazine, etc. While this is a city and region with huge challenges, I think the results speak well for themselves.

I think for those who come without a preconceived notion of what a great and thriving city ought to look like, there’s a lot of goodness to be discovered in Indianapolis. It’s not for everybody. But for a lot of people, it really is a great city I’m proud to have lived in and blogged about. Get to know the city at more than the surface level and you’ll come to say about your time there what I do – “O welche Lust!”

So for those of my readers in Indianapolis, please come on down next Monday night. Since it’s a Monday, you know you don’t have plans. It would be great to be able to see everybody. Hope you can make it.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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

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