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Sunday, October 20th, 2013

Bridges Boondoggle, Portland Edition

A couple weeks ago I outline how the Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville had gone from tragedy to farce. Basically none of the traffic assumptions from the Environmental Impact Statements that got the project approved are true anymore. According to the investment grade toll study recently performed to set toll rates and sell bonds, total cross river traffic will be 78,000 cars (21.5%) less than projected in the original FEIS. What’s more, tolls badly distort the distribution of traffic that will come such that the I-65 downtown bridge, which is being doubled in capacity, will never carry just what the existing bridge carries right now anytime during the study period, and won’t exceed the design capacity even slightly until 2050. Meanwhile, the I-64 bridge that will remain free will grow in traffic by 55% by 2030, when it will be 34% over capacity.

A nearly identical scenario is playing out in Portland with the $2.75 billion I-5 Columbia River Crossing. Joe Cortright of Impresa consulting unearthed the information through freedom of information requests looking into the investment grade toll study on that is being conducted for that bridge. You can see his report here (there’s also a summary available).

I’ll highlight some of his truly eye-popping findings. Traffic forecasts are inflated, of course. The toll study is suggesting traffic increases of 1.1% to 1.2% per year when over the last decade traffic has actually declined by 0.2% per year on average even though there are no tolls. But it’s the addition of tolls that badly distort cross-river traffic and make a mockery out of the EIS. Here’s the money chart for the I-5 bridge itself:

How is it possible that after building a gigantic multi-billion dollar bridge traffic declines? For the same reason as Louisville: tolling will cause huge amounts of traffic to divert to the I-205 free bridge. By 2016 traffic on I-205 would rise from 140,000 per day to 188,000 – and up to 210,000 by 2022 (full capacity).

This is so eerily similar to the Louisville situation, that someone suggested, only half in jest I suspect, that they must be having “how to” training sessions on this stuff over at AASHTO HQ.

Unlike Louisville, where a docile press is basically in cahoots with the state DOTs pushing the project, Portland’s media started asking questions. And one local paper even caught a civil engineering professor from Georgia serving on the independent review board for the project labeling the tolling scheme “stupid.” (Louisvillians take note).

Oregon DOT director Matt Garrett released a letter in response in which he says, “This work is fundamentally different than the traffic analysis completed for the Final Environmental Impact Statement, and with very different goals in mind.” I agree. The FEIS was performed with the goal of getting this bridge the DOT wanted built approved. The toll study was designed to withstand financial scrutiny on Wall Street and be relied on in selling securities. I’ll let you be the judge of which is more likely to be closer to the truth. What’s more, Cortright addresses this very issue by saying in his report, “Neither federal highway regulations nor federal environmental regulations authorize or direct using multiple, conflicting forecasts for a single project, or using one set of traffic numbers for one purpose, and a different set for another.” I might also add that the DOTs in Louisville have not to the best of my knowledge made similar claims to explain away an identical discrepancy there. Nevertheless, the rest of Garrett’s letter acknowledges that I-5 will see a big traffic drop and there will be diversion from tolling. So he appears to just be doing the bureaucratic equivalent of “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

Again, want to know how it is that we spend so much money on transport infrastructure and get so little value? It’s because far too many of our highway dollars go into boondoggle mega-projects ginned up through political pressure (watch this space as I have another example coming soon) instead of into projects that make transportation sense. It may well be that there are legitimate problems with the existing I-5 river crossing, but these numbers give no confidence that the Oregon DOT has come up with a good or cost-effective plan for dealing with them. Unlike some, I do think we need to build more roads in America. Unfortunately our system is set up to ensure the survival of the unfittest instead of projects that make actual transportation and economic sense.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

No, Freeways Are Not Dead by Keep Houston Houston

[ Houston is a city that isn't widely regarded in urbanist circles, but some folks like it just fine the way it is. One of them is the blogger behind Keep Houston Houston, who recently resumed posting after a hiatus. He enjoys putting out the other side of the case, so I though I'd share a piece with you. This one examines whether or not the era of the freeway is over in light of a number of recent freeway removals. Even if you don't agree, I hope you enjoy - Aaron.]

I think this is probably the third article I’ve read in the last month asking: “Are Freeways Doomed?” “Is THIS the post-freeway age?” “Are Urban areas moving on?”

Uh, no.

All of these pieces work like any “bogus trend” piece – string together a few anecdotes, posit a trend, quote a couple authoritative-sounding people, call it a day. And indeed, more than one freeway has been removed in this country. But there’s no trend toward de-freewayization; quite the opposite in fact. What’s missing, then, is the underlying reasons for the changes.

Fundamentally, there are two reasons for US freeway closures:
(i) The freeway was replaced by a newer and bigger freeway, built to better design standards, at which time the old facility was abandoned.
(ii) The freeway was part of a link in a grand “master plan” that was truncated by the “freeway revolts” of the 70′s. In other words, it was pre-obsolesced by non-completion of the network.

Some examples:

Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland, Oregon
Berkeley’s “Preservation Institute” says: “When Portland decided to tear down the Harbor Drive freeway, the city made one of key decisions that transformed it into a national model for effective city planning.” Well… maybe. What actually happened was that they had one freeway built to 1942 standards, and in 1964 they opened up another freeway half-a-mile away built to 1964 standards. That was I-5 – the Eastbank Freeway – and it’s still truckin’ almost 50 years later.

Now it’s true that some traffic engineers freaked out about the idea. Even if Harbor Drive only had 24k ADT (which is well down into arterial territory), it was still predicted the city would grow. And considering how slowly traffic crawls across the Marquam Bridge today, you know, there was probably a grain of truth in the forecast. But what the engineers didn’t predict was that Portland would soon enact a ridiculously strict downtown height and FAR ordinance in an effort to ward off further skyscrapers in favor of the existing Glazed Terra Cotta building stock. This essentially killed office development downtown and pushed the region’s employment base into an intensely suburban, office-park-dominated form. In fact, low-rise office parks are the very first thing you see when you cross the UGB into Greater Portland, whether you’re coming in on 26 East or I-5 North.

Those silly traffic engineers thought Downtown office space would keep expanding, like any American city. Instead the downtown office market was frozen in time, new construction confined only to condos and fair trade vegan clothing boutiques. But what really cinched the deal was when they went and built yet another freeway less than a mile away. Sandwiched by parallel north-south freeways of (then) modern design, serving a downtown whose development would be forever stunted, there would never be a need for the widened and straightened Harbor Drive.

Park East Freeway, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee is a case where the infrastructure was obsolesced by the freeway revolts. In the original plan for Milwaukee’s freeway system, there were two north-south trunk highways – one inland, and one along the lake. While the inland route got built as planned (and is now signed as I-94 and I-43), the Lakefront route was only half finished. Thus the Park East Freeway – which, as designed, would’ve been an important connector distributing traffic between Lakefront and Inland routes – was rendered a fairly truncated spur. Not really necessary in its original form. And while Milwaukee gets New Urbanist props for killing the spur, it’s instructive to note what they replaced it with.

A brand-new surface street, striped for four lanes but obviously designed for six, got put right in its place. Now, from my perspective, as an infrastructure guy, I think this is pretty sweet. The original freeway was designed primarily as a connector (with distribution functions secondary), so it didn’t utilize a lot of the Milwaukee grid. A proper downtown highway spur should crap traffic out onto every surface street in sight, like 527 does. Thus the new surface street does a better job at fulfilling its primary raison d’etre, since it was actually designed for that purpose. It’s also more amenable to condos than an elevated highway is, which can be good for property values – and good for the local government, if they don’t piss it all off into 20- and 30-year tax abatements like PDX does.

But a green eco-symbol this is not; it’s just the engineers replacing a middling facility with a better one.

Claiborne Expressway, New Orleans, Louisiana

This one is actually still there, although there’s a good chance it’ll disappear in the next decade. If you’ve read Divided Highways you’ve read the tales of Claiborne’s vibrant business and music scene before the coming of the elevated. The pictures I’ve seen show a mostly auto-oriented strip of gas stations and buy-here-pay-here lots. But these also have their charm, and I’m sympathetic to the argument. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been put there.

What we do know for certain is the Claiborne didn’t last ten years before it had been supplanted with I-610, which cut several miles off the route for through-traffic. At this point the Claiborne became essentially just a spur, albeit one masquerading as a through route.

Even just as a spur, there would be a pretty decent argument for the Claiborne’s continued existence… except that the downtown NOLA office market isn’t exactly booming. In fact the consensus is, during times when a surface-street Claiborne would be slow, all the extra traffic could just be routed up the Ponchartrain, which is a solid eight lanes with full-width shoulders and feeder roads. Even CNU proposes that they add a direct connector for this purpose.

Transportation improvements are GREAT. Just don’t try to front like it’s some sort of repudiation of the basic need to move large quantities of cars in and out of a city.

Mas
You can find more examples wherever you look. The Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was supposed to have been a vital shortcut between the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, providing a downtown through route to complement the east bay’s 580. In fact they only got it about 1/3rd built before they ran into rich white people neighborhoods and the rest of it got canceled. The truncated version lasted until an earthquake killed it, at which point it was deemed not worth saving. But what if they’d finished it?

It’s not too hard to figure out what would’ve happened, since basically the same freeway got constructed in Seattle – the Alaskan Way Viaduct. When that freeway got wounded in a quake, they just patched it up with duct tape and JB Weld and set about planning Seattle’s Big Dig as a replacement. If the Viaduct had been cut off halfway – say, if it never went north of the Seneca exit – well, it’d probably have been torn down by now and replaced with a tourist trolley. Conversely, if the Embarcadero had been completed as designed, San Francisco would have almost certainly embarked on its own “Big Dig.”

The West Side Highway in New York… are you kidding me? New York was broke in the 70′s. The highway collapsed because there wasn’t enough money to do even preventive maintenance. And certainly not enough to rebuild. In fact, they didn’t even tear it down for another 15 years – it just sat up there, closed to traffic. Yet even this gets spun as some sort of “cities transcending the freeway” narrative.

The Freeway Revolts Are Over

Assuming our economy doesn’t implode into one big Teapartian circlejerk, we’ll continue to build newer and better highways that obsolesce old ones. And when that happens, those old ones will make great spots for redevelopment. If I was Houston, I’d seriously be looking at I-10 between Crockett and Jensen – which has, by far, the worst geometry of any of the downtown freeways – and moving it about a half a mile north, opening up more of the north side of the Bayou to development.

What’s not going to happen anymore are the truncated spurs, the freeways rendered obsolete by revolts. It’s not because the concerns over freeways – legitimate and NIMBY alike – have gone away. It’s just that engineers have become sensitive to them.

The master freeway plans of the 40′s and 50′s were models of rationality and efficiency. But they didn’t really account for anything besides rationality and efficiency. Houston largely followed theirs and it’s one of the reasons the place is so easily navigable today. But the original plans also sliced right through parks, forests, wetlands, whitepeople neighborhoods. And thus the revolts.

It’s arguable that we’ve lost something. Newer highway alignments are no longer quite the paragons of scientific virtue they were in the drafting easel era. In a smaller, newer city like Tulsa, you can see the difference between 50′s and 60′s alignment studies versus modern ones.

I look at the alignment for SH 130 south of Austin and I has a sad. So many squiggles. “YO DAWG, WE HEARD YOU LIKE CORNERS SO WE PUT A 3-DEGREE REVERSE CURVE IN HERE SO YOU CAN AVOID ANY TAKINGS FROM DA MOBILE HOME PARK.” This doesn’t necessarily result in better highways. What it does result in is highways that will be built.

And this is where the post-freeway era ends. There’s a very limited supply of highways that are “overbuilt” as a result of their connections never materializing. New construction isn’t going to provide us with any more because they’ll detour and slosh around anything that might have put up a fight 40 years ago. As time goes on, the pace of freeway removal will *slow*, not increase.

Clickbait article writers, take note.

This post originally appeared in Keep Houston Houston on December 7, 2011.

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.

Monday, April 4th, 2011

The 31-Flavors of Urban Redevelopment by Rod Stevens

Aaron Renn’s March 24 posting on “The Logic of Failure” and his reference to “silver bullet” solutions for redevelopment and revitalization reminded me of my visit to the “Creative Cities Summit”, about revitalizing cities, three years ago this fall. The setting, timing and venue could not have been better, at least in terms of provoking thought about how to do things better.

The setting was Detroit, the time was October, 2008, when the financial markets were crumbling, and the venue was Renaissance Center (“RenCen”), the Robocop-like mixed use center that is headquarters for General Motors. I flew in the night before and opened my door that morning to a newspaper lying in the corridor on which the top headline read “GM in Merger Talks With Chrysler”. This was the beginning of the end as the auto industry had known it for the last 100 years, and those very same corporate managers were coming to work 30 floors above me.

This was my first trip to Detroit, so I decided to take a quick ride on the People Mover to see the city. With a station attached to RenCen, this automated system took me on a loop around the city, on elevated tracks 20 feet above street level, without my having to set foot on the street.

The first thing I was conscious of was that this was supposed to be rush hour and no one else was on the people mover. For that matter, there were few people on the streets. Some cars streamed off the freeway and almost directly into the RenCen parking garages, but not many, and even fewer people were out walking.

Most of the buildings between the stops also seemed to be empty. Most of were of the same pre-WW II vintage and quality as those on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago and in Mid-town in Manhattan, but there was no one in them. It was like an old Star Trek or Twilight Zone episode in which something has happened and the population has disappeared.

I gradually became aware that many of the stops were at Sim-city like attractions – the kind you are allowed to build when your city gets to a certain size- such as the convention center, an arena, a baseball park, a football stadium, and a casino. Each of these must have taken hundreds of millions of dollars to build. I thought, “They’ve been spinning the roulette wheel, hoping to get the tourists and suburbanites back into the city”. But what had the city fathers done for the residents themselves? Later I was to walk through Campus Martius, a center city park that people take considerable pride in, but even in the middle of the day it was largely empty. On the last day of my trip I walked up Woodward Avenue, the grand street at the center of the city that used to be the main place where people shopped. The buildings on one side were largely empty. The buildings on much of the other side were simply gone, some torn down for underground parking garages that were to be the new base of new office buildings to be built by private developers. These office buildings didn’t materialize.

After this trip I began to compile a list of the “silver bullet” solutions, of redevelopment projects that city leaders have put in place in various places across the U.S. over the last sixty years like those I saw in Detroit, and that I present here. Early in my career I prepared marketing and feasibility studies for these things, so I knew there would be a number of different kinds, but I was still surprised at their number when I stopped counting. Like Baskin Robbins, there are 31 flavors on the list, and it would be easy to add to it.


Graphic by Carl Wohlt from an original chart and information by Rod Stevens/Spinnaker Strategies. Please do not re-use without attribution.

I have divided these into three kinds of projects: business, retail and tourism, and transportation. The bars show the decades they span, from the 1950s through the 2000s, with the earliest kinds of projects shown first. Expos, first on the list, actually started with the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition in England in 1851, which later inspired Chicago’s “White City”, but my time frame here starts after WW II, when American cities began to consciously redevelop themselves in the face of suburban competition. For each kind of project I have also included an example and the year that example opened. The examples were not always the first built, but they inspired others to follow. For example, the Ontario Science Centre came before the Exploratorium as a modern, hands-on science center, but it was the Exploratorium that most of the other centers in the U.S. looked to as an example. San Diego’s Horton Plaza was not the first downtown mall, but it excited a lot of talk in the world of urban development.

Notice that the largest category is retail and tourism. If you really looked behind the rationale for most of these projects, you would find that most were in fact aimed at tourists or at suburban shoppers who had fled the city. The grand-daddy of all redevelopment projects is Ghirardelli Square, which remains vital to this day, although the upper floors have now gone condo for rich people who want to keep a place to stay in the city. Ghirardelli inspired the festival marketplaces of the 1980’s, many built by the Rouse Company, and many of which are now struggling. These later morphed into the food halls inspired by Granville Island in Vancouver and the Pike Place Market in Seattle, and, more recently, the market halls or sheds for farmers markets that have recently begun to show up. Notice the trend here for an ever-more-local clientele. Partly this is due to retail trends. When Ghirardelli first opened, it was filled with unusual boutiques selling clothing and glasses not found in the malls. Today you can buy these things at suburban “town centers”, where chains like Crate and Barrel keep a good selection of wine glasses and linens.

There is almost a flavor-of-the-month approach for transportation as well, which really started with the downtown connector freeways aimed at whisking shoppers to ailing main streets. More and more cities are now tearing out these freeways and converting the space to parkland. What’s more interesting is the evolution in rail, from heavy systems like BART and the DC Metro, to light rail in places like San Diego, to the current passion for street cars. Transportation is becoming lighter than air, and now this is even an urban gondola in Portland, with Vancouver planning a second on Burnaby Mountain. Years ago Disneyland had one of these, for frenetic visitors eager to punch all of their E tickets.

Notice how few kinds of business-related projects there have been. Science parks, which started with Stanford and the Research Triangle, have mostly been in the suburbs, but a few are in the city, such as Yale’s Science Park, and more are on the drawing boards. Carnegie Mellon’s Collaborative Innovation Center may be the best example of integrating academia, industry and the city, for here private sector tenants come together on a campus in the middle of a very urban city.

Notice just how briefly projects like Renaissance Center were popular. John Portman, an Atlanta architect, designed the most prominent of these, including not only Renaissance Center but the Hyatt Regency/ Embarcadero complex in San Francisco (which is connected with sky bridges), Peachtree Center in Atlanta, and the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A. At the time these were the wonder of their cities, and tourists came in to gaze upward at the atriums and light-bedecked elevators that moved through these. They almost all included office buildings, hotels, and mini-shopping malls, and almost never housing. Many of these were introverted, arrived at by car in special drop-off lanes, with the pedestrian entrances being hard to find. Few or no lobby windows faced out onto the street. At Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the main level of pedestrian activity is one floor above the street. and for about 20 years it had a thriving trade of office workers from nearby buildings eating and shopping there at noon. Now most of that lunchtime activity is out walking along the Bay, on the true Embarcadero, or eating in the Ferry Building next to it.

And then there are the truly wacky projects, which may or may not work in their own right. Projects like the automated people movers in Detroit, Miami, and Morgantown, West Virginia. The canal in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown “entertainment” district. And the submarines and battleships, like such as a submarine in the prairie land of Muscogee, Oklahoma and the dreadnaught Olympia at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. The Olympia ship may be headed to the scrap heap, for lack of support and visitation and Penn’s Landing has struggled because of its isolation. Fish don’t shop.

Why is it that these projects work in one place and not in others? And why is that Portland has pioneered so many of these projects? I believe the answers are related, and having grown up in Portland, with a family that was involved in creating some of these solutions, I can offer some insight.

Aaron Renn uses the term “silver bullet”, and that is exactly why many cities copy other cities’ solutions: they hope these will magically solve their problems. But as Aaron points out, these other cities frequently fail to adequately define what problem they are trying to solve, and what their priorities are. The approach that works well in one city for one set of challenges will not work well for a different set.

But why has Portland been so successful? I believe there are three reasons: 1) crises and political turnover that opened the community up to questioning and new leadership; 2) a growing facility with problem definition and problem solving; and 3) the attraction of “outsiders” who joined the community and brought fresh new approaches and energy.

Without getting into too much detail, the political crises included a revolt and mobilization of the citizenry in the 1960s, when private interests tried to take over the public beaches. Never before had the legislature seen so many private citizens flood its conference rooms, and this led to other conservation measures like the bottle bill, land use planning and the Willamette River Greenway. This activism, growing at the same time as Vietnam War and Watergate, brought a new generation to power in the early 1970’s, including Neil Goldschmidt, who pushed forward light rail system when citizens revolted against more freeways. And the final event was a very, very deep recession in the early 1980s, when most of the major timber companies closed shop or left town, leaving behind a vacuum of power in which it was easier to make broad-based decisions. Oregon’s growing environmental reputation and the easier entry into the circles of power drew in like-minded people from throughout the country, and some of these people helped push the city in new ways.

Most importantly for Portland, and perhaps for other cities, the community got better at problem solving, at not simply reaching for off-the-shelf solutions. In the 1970s, relatively strong retail, on the street downtown, led the community to reject a multi-block retail project connected by sky bridges that was proposed by Canadian developers. That first light rail line took care of a transportation need when citizens said no to a freeway that would have wiped out miles of neighborhoods. “Fareless Square”, downtown, was a response to federal air pollution rules that made it tough to build new parking garages. The streetcar that opened in 2001 simply connected an already-strong downtown with Northwest Portland, a strong residential neighborhood that is the densest in the state. Portland has had its failures and misspent money – the Rouse project is now ailing and the extension of the transit mall has killed retail along its length- but its successes come because they are rooted in local needs.

Hopefully this trend is developing nationally. The failed Rouse project in Milwaukee, aimed at drawing tourists back into the city, is now re-oriented to more local shoppers, largely because Mayor John Norquist would not give it more subsidies. Money is flowing out of big downtown projects and into more neighborhood-based retail projects, like those sheds and squares for farmers’ markets. And we are putting more of an emphasis on “productivity” projects, aimed at creating good places to work, and fewer on the “consumption” side, retail and housing. More cities are realizing that great places draw good talent, and that they need to focus on the work side if they are going to participate in the modern knowledge economy. Already we are seeing more collaboration between the city and the universities, and while much of this new development still takes place within the walls of the campus, in some places like downtown Phoenix, where the new Arizona State University campus has opened, the city and the university are one, without walls. It will be in leveraging the talents of our people, and our anchor institutions, that we do our best problem solving, and create the most interesting and durable of places.

Rod Stevens is a business development consultant on Bainbridge Island WA, specializing in urban ventures.

Friday, December 24th, 2010

Urbanoscope

Hard as it is to imagine amid the wreckage of the stimulus, American history is replete with examples of how government can actually do good things. The public support for canals, railway lines, the New Deal engineering and construction projects, the Interstate Highway, and space programs all greatly benefited the country’s economy. They underpinned first American leadership in the industrial age, and then in the information economy. In recent decades, public investment in basic infrastructure construction and maintenance has declined, even in the face of considerable population growth. – Joel Kotkin

The Census Bureau recently released not only the first 2010 Census results, but the results of its five year American Community Survey, which provides post-2000 demographic information at the census tract level for the first time. There’s a ton of fascinating detail in here, and a wonderful way to explore it is through the mapping system at the New York Times. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Apparently I wasn’t off my rocker when I suggested US rail capital costs are too high. Over at Human Transit, someone linked to Danish study (in English) that shows US capital costs/km running well ahead of Europe.

Top Stories

1. Richard Longworth: Cities on Their Own – “Both federal and state governments, including Midwestern state governments, are in deep deficit. Partly as a backlash against these deficits, voters handed power to congresspeople, governors and legislators pledged to cut those deficits. This means two things: (1) the money isn’t there, even if governments were inclined to spend it, and (2) they aren’t inclined to spend it. Government funding to cities won’t come to a halt, by any means, but it’s going to be cut back severely. Cities that had looked to Washington or state capitals to maintain or increase funding for schools, infrastructure, economic development and jobs are going to have to look somewhere else — mostly to their own resources.”

2. Portland Oregonian: Knocking the Lake Oswego Streetcar Off Its Rails – An interesting piece about how the federal regulatory process is sending costs through the roof and killing our country’s ability to invest. “If you paid a reasonably bright engineer $75 an hour and gave her 3,000 hours to work through traffic patterns, noise issues, job creation and design options, the tab would be $225,000. The draft EIS cost 19 times that amount, and no one even blinks. ‘It does seem like a lot of money,’ said Bridget Wieghart, a project manager at Metro, ‘but it’s fairly typical for this kind of process.’ Obletz breaks it down for us: $470,000 for the conceptual engineering, which TriMet couldn’t handle on its own; $440,000 for the traffic analysis, performed by David Evans and Associates; $1.37 million for additional consulting fees and the writing assignment; another $1 million for Metro’s input; $150,000 for ‘public outreach’ … And, yes, that $330,000 to Shiels Obletz Johnsen, which bills at a rate between $60 and $200 an hour. Once upon a time, the streetcar was low tech, low overhead, low design and construction costs, and worth celebrating. ‘A beautiful, streamlined process,’ Obletz says. Then the feds showed up. And the train wreck began. ”

3. 60 Minutes: State Budgets: The Day of Reckoning – “And nowhere has the reckoning been as bad as it is in Illinois, a state that spends twice much as it collects in taxes and is unable to pay its bills.”

4. WSJ: Town embraces the ugly truth: it’s a dump – “Nicolas Buissart leads an ‘Urban Safari’ that includes climbing a slag heap, exploring never-used metro stations, walking down streets reputed to be the ugliest in this country, and visiting the house where the painter Magritte’s mother lived—before she drowned herself in the canal. If this sounds like fun, hop into his van, which has no seats.”

A Physicist Solves the City?

The NYT Magazine article from last Sunday about a physicist who claims to have solved the city by reducing it to “a few exquisitely simple equations.” has been getting tons of airplay in the urbanist world.

I can’t figure out why. The article is IMO poorly written and despite its length, it doesn’t actually tell us much at all about what these equations are or what they say. We only learn three things about this:

1. Cities get more cost efficient as they grow larger
2. People are more productive in bigger cities. (“cities are valuable because they facilitate human interactions”)
3. Social pathologies of various types increase at a greater than proportional with city size.

None of these says much new. The first one is a straightforward application of scale economics. If you’ve got fixed costs and variable costs, your unit cost declines as volume increases. That’s why high volume manufacturers have a lower unit cost than small ones. The productivity can easily be taken both from Adam Smith’s division of labor principle – larger cities enable greater specialization and division of labor – and the reduction of transaction costs – both properties of cities that have long been known. As for crime and the big city? Puhleeze. So where’s the beef in this article?

Presumably urbanists get excited because West mentions Jane Jacobs and seems to endorse density and urban form. But a careful reading shows that the article itself never asserts West is claiming anything about density or urbanity in his equations, only city size. He also doesn’t explain why cities like Detroit stop growing while new ones like Atlanta spring up and many other things a casual observer can note about cities. Detroit didn’t suffer from any exhaustion of resources other than customers willing to buy its cars at a profitable price, for example.

Possibly his actual work contains more than this, but this weak article certainly doesn’t bring it to life. In short, I can’t figure out what all the excitement is about.

Innovative Roadway Design

The Reason Foundation published a paper called Innovative Roadway Design that has some suggestions even traditional urbanists might be interested in (not that they’ll like the whole thing, mind you):

People don’t like the look or feel of many of our big highways…This study argues that in too many American cities, despite much planning, we are planning highways poorly…Many of our highways have gotten too big, not because anyone wanted them to be that way, but because widening an existing highway was the simplest thing to do at each point—the line of least political resistance.

World and National Roundup

The Globe and Mail: A Tale of Two Torontos

NYT: Using waste, Swedish city shrinks its fossil fuel use

Forbes: Why can’t we do big things anymore?

Virginia Postrel: The Allure of Techno-Glamour

TNR/Brookings: Jobs jump off a cliff in the nation’s metro areas

Mashable: 5 ways cities are using social media to reverse the economic downturn

CS Monitor: Segregation hits 100 year lows in most American metros

NYT: Census data shows immigrants making paths to suburbia, not cities

WSJ: Downtowns get a fresh lease

NYT: High Line’s second phase differs from its first

WSJ: NJ Governor knew tunnel deal required repayment – Yes, Gov. Christie is now trying to welch on a contract he signed requiring New Jersey to repay the feds for federal funds already expended on the tunnel project he cancelled.

Michael Diamond: Is there a future for manufacturing in New Jersey?

Metropolis: Austin, Now What?

New Geography: Commissioner Leonard Steps Up Portland’s War on Fun

NYT: Michigan’s decade of tarnish seen in Census report

Blair Kamin/Chicago Tribune: Dubious design moves of 2010

MinnPost: Can a metro area so sharply divided by income, race, and geography continue to thrive on the national stage?

The Dream of the 90′s Is Alive in Portland

Randal O’Toole’s blog pointed me at this hilarious video, which appears to have come from the Independent Film Channel cable network, called “The Dream of the 90′s Is Alive in Portland.” (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Bicycle Parking in Copenhagen

Here’s another great video out of Copenhagen, this one about bike parking in that city. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Louisville’s Economic Future

The Courier-Journal did a major series looking back an an ambitious plan to boost the region’s economic fortunes that thus far has failed:

In 1997, a group of local business and civic leaders released a blueprint for Louisville’s economic prosperity in the 21stst century — imagining that by 2010, the area would have a fast-growing population and incomes soaring past the national average. It didn’t happen.

Instead, Louisville’s economy has declined — 24,600 jobs, or about 4 percent of the 13-county Louisville-Southern Indiana total, were lost between 2000 and 2009. That leaves Louisville near the bottom of 16 competing metro areas that vie for jobs, talented workers and investment

It’s a compelling, if gloomy read. Leaders identify, correctly in my view, educational attainment as the key issue, as Louisville’s college degree attainment is very low. One item that wasn’t stressed but I also believe plays a role is that the Louisville metro region is just a bit too small to have the heft it needs to really compete in the league it aspires to.

At the risk of going against everything I’ve said about focusing on attraction vs. retention, I do believe there are probably people Louisville is losing for no good reason. I grew up in Southern Indiana in the Louisville MSA. Out of my high school graduating class of 50, about 8-10 got college degrees. Of them, I live in Chicago, three more live in Indianapolis, and another lives in Kansas City. I believe we were the top five in GPA rank in our class. When I was in Indy, I was amazed at how many people I ran into from my tiny high school that lived there despite growing up right across the river from Louisville. This includes the girl I dated most of my senior year. I attribute this to Southern Indiana high schoolers going to Indiana state schools for tuition reasons, where they are more likely to be recruited by Indy employers than Louisville ones. I think there’s an opportunity for Louisville to pick up more Southern Indiana types coming out of school if it figured out how to better recruit at Indiana state schools. Just a piece of free advice.

Post Script

Kaid Benfield put together a delightful collection of photos of transit systems decorated for Christmas. Here’s a sample:

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Urban America’s Quality vs. Quantity Dilemma

My latest post is up over at New Geography. It’s called the “Urban Quality vs. Quantity Dilemma.” In this piece I examine what we might call “high quality” cities ranging from New York to Portland vs. “high quantity” cities like Austin or Atlanta. The data are very interesting. It looks to me like each sort of place has only got half the puzzle figured out.

The dilemma in America is that it seems that to some extent you can have per capita income and GDP growth or you can have population and job growth, but you can’t have both easily.

As an aside, the most interesting stat I found when looking at the data is that Portland, Oregon had the highest per capita GDP growth of any metro over one million in the US from 2001 to 2008, the full range for which data is available. It’s number one. Portland grew GDP per capita by 22.4%. That’s particularly impressive when you consider how many people are unemployed or underemployed there. Clearly, something about the talent program there is working, because they are really ratcheting up their economic output. So my hat’s off to Portland on this one.

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

The Specter of Autarky

Autarky, not to be confused with autocracy, refers to a policy of economic self-sufficiency. Generally, this is considered a bad idea. Instead, nations and people benefit when they specialize in areas where they have comparative advantage and engage in trade with others to satisfy the rest of their needs.

While some have described the policies of China and others as autarkic mercantilism, generally autarky is out of favor in macroeconomics except for certain matters such as those related to national security, like defense technology or minimum food security.

But at the “meso-economic” level, autarky is making a comeback bigtime. This is the form of the increasing preference for “local” products. This is richly illustrated in a recent New York Times piece in which we hear about people coming to blows over, of all things, a pig from Iowa:

For Mr. Bechard, it came down to this: never should a pig from Kansas or Iowa have even been entered in the contest; it only made it worse that the Iowa pig won. After all, there are Red Wattle heritage pigs raised right here in Oregon. The chefs who competed work in Oregon, and most promote locally produced food.

“I get there and I get the flier and I’m immediately sickened because I’m seeing ‘local,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘local farms,’ ‘local chefs,’ ‘local wine,’ ” Mr. Bechard recalled, “and then two of the pigs are from Kansas and Iowa? I’m looking at my friend and he said, ‘Eric, just let it go.’ ”

Many hours and drinks and insults later, witnesses told police Mr. Bechard was the aggressor when he encountered Brady Lowe, the event’s Atlanta-based organizer, outside a bar. Words were hurled and fists flew. The police came, firing Tasers and pepper spray.

This isn’t just Portland. For example, last year America’s first USDA certified organic bakery, the Bleeding Heart Bakery in Chicago, was kicked out of that city’s super-elite Green City Market for not being sustainable enough:

In short, if you want to set up a stand at Green City in the next few years and sell blueberry muffins, it doesn’t matter if those berries are organic or not. You’re better off worrying about the carbon-emitting trucks carting those berries in from California or Mexico should you choose to cook out of season. But with the Midwest’s limited growing season, is it realistic to expect bakers and chefs to stick solely to what they can procure within a 100-mile radius and, even beyond that, to what proves to be certified sustainable?

To some extent, this represents little more than the next iteration in the cycle of pretentiousness. It’s a very old story. As Jean Renoir so aptly summed it up:

Each of these cliques has its customs, its mores, indeed its own language. To put it simply, each has its rules, and these rules determine the game. And the smaller the clique, the harsher and more complex the rules. That’s why groups of wealthy people, tennis players, horse lovers, and, more simply, the people of a social set, live by a code that is all the more severe since these groups stand apart from a nation’s overall population.

It’s fine line between sustainability and farce.

But if you look at this more closely, there’s a real embedded notion that autarky is actually an important way to live and for cities to function. A growing number of people believe that we really should do everything we can to consume as much as possible that is produced locally to use.

As with most things we all defend and promote, this is touted both for its moral correctness (sustainability) and its utilitarianism (talent attraction, economic development, etc). Putting aside the moral questions for a moment, is trying to source as much as possible locally, whether that means buying products grown or manufactured locally, or from locally owned establishments, really a good idea practically?

Jane Jacobs might have us believe so. She talked about how cities generate new export industries by adding new work to old. (Of course, how can you have exports if you never import anything?) But more importantly, she talked about how certain businesses could only locate in major cities because of the ecosystem of suppliers that were there. This might be less important in the internet age, but having the suppliers you need in your business at hand is helpful. It’s sort of like the venture capital rule of thumb of not investing more than a 20 minute drive from the office. For example, if you are a designer, having something like a Tech Shop comes in handy. My friend in suburban Chicago is restoring an old house in a manner that’s totally date compliant. He is able to do this by tapping into the network of craftsmen that exist in Chicago.

These types of businesses are only there if there’s a local market. So buy local can be good in some regard if it creates this type of ecosystem that entrepreneurs are able to combine or leverage into new sources of value. Local artists and such can also provide a local cultural scene that enhances life in the city.

But there’s another side to the story. In her seminal work Regional Advantage, AnnaLee Saxenian described how Silicon Valley gained ascendance over Boston’s Route 128 corridor, despite starting out with many disadvantages. Principal among the reasons for this was the high degree of autarky in Boston firms. They were vertically integrated, and they believed in doing everything in house. Conversely, Silicon Valley was famous for smaller, specialized firms that were related via dense, overlapping knowledge and value networks.

Would a city want to consciously choose to proceed down the Boston path? Now Boston is still the #2 tech hub in America, so it didn’t die off or anything. But given the ever more complex, globalized, and networked global economy, I’m not sure that a city seeking to disconnect itself from various trade networks is actually a good idea.

If you look at the cities that have traditions of retaining unique local cultures, products, and traditions over the long term, places like New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati come to mind. But these places have not been economic dynamos. In fact, for a long time they were very sleepy, and still to some extent are known for insularity. For a newcomer, no matter how long you are there, you are never really going to fit into certain parts of the social sphere. In effect, the price of this strong tradition of localism was calcified local networks and ways of doing business. That’s not to say it’s not worth it. These are among the best cities in America to visit, and for many, to live, precisely because they have not succumbed to the lure of generica. But it deadens civic dynamism.

Think about it. There’s a reason why “provincialism” is generally considered a negative word.

Perhaps for cities like Portland, with so many newcomers and so many connections to the broader world, this is less of a risk – at least for now. It is something worth watching though. As the article above goes to show, people are already enforcing new orthodoxies, and I think it would even be fair to characterize Portland as somewhat of a self-selected monoculture that might one day calcify.

But for other cities there’s more danger. The real problem in a lot of Heartland cities isn’t too few local products, it’s too few global connections and too little global perspective. For these places, the real imperative is to establish more networks, for more new ideas, new ways of doing things, and new people to make their way in. These cities need more imports, not less. They’d be better served to demand excellence no matter where it comes from than to insist on buying local regardless of whether or it is any good.

That’s not to say cities should ignore the local trend. I think there’s a lot to be said for having an ecosystem as noted. It’s about balance. A simplistic “buy local” notion comes with downsides all its own. Autarky is not the answer.

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Portland and the Limits of Urban Planning Policy

My latest piece is online at the Portland Oregonian. They commissioned me to write a piece for their Sunday print edition giving an outsider’s view of the city. It is called “Picture Perfect Portland?” (their headline) and you can read it at the Oregonian’s site.

In it I note as a positive that Portland was clearly ahead of other similar sized cities in understanding the importance of density, transit, bike lanes, etc. But more importantly, that the “Portland model” had a wide influence in America. Perhaps Portland has had a greater influence on America’s urban environments than any other city its relative size in history. That’s an amazing accomplishment if you think about it. And what’s more, that influence has been a good thing.

Naturally, they don’t need me to just tell them “It’s all good”. So on the areas for development side I noted their underperforming economy. It’s not so much that Portland is particularly suffering in this recession, though it is, or that it is a failure in an absolute sense, which it is not. No, rather I look at it like diving. There are two aspects: execution and degree of difficulty. Portland has very low degree of difficulty, so we would expect it to perform much better.

I’ll be discussing this piece in a live web chat hosted by the Oregonian Tuesday at 2p Central Time, if you are interested in discussing it.

“First” vs. “Worst”

I’d like to illustrate this performance from a Midwest perspective by comparing Portland to Indianapolis. You can think of Portland as being in “first place” from a policy perspective by popular acclaim. It has an urban growth boundary, extensive transit, excellent urban density, a strong biking culture, a strong culture of civic engagement, the most microbreweries per capita, and on down the line. It is a place people want to live in so badly that they will move there with no job in hand and would be one of the cities that comes to mind among similar sized metros as a talent hub.

If Portland is first, then you’d have to characterize Indianapolis as “worst”. Indianapolis is surrounded by expanding suburbia with very pro-sprawl policies on all four sides. It is one of the least dense cities in America. It has no rail transit and only the 99th largest bus system, along with one of the lowest transit market shares in the country. It is currently in the middle of a multi-billion program to widen about 60 miles of freeway. It just recently put in its very first bike lanes. It scores near the bottom in all measures of environmental sustainability. And its brand image is hardly the best. You don’t hear too many people around the country going, “Man, I’ve gotta get me to Indianapolis.”

But let’s look at how these cities compare on various quantitative measures of urban performance. Note: I pulled these very rapidly, so please confirm yourself before repeating them.

 Portland   Indianapolis 
Population Growth (2000-2008) 14.5% 12.5%
Domestic In-Migration (2000-2008) 5.4% 4.2%
International In-Migration (2000-2008) 3.7% 1.4%
Job Growth 2001-2009 (QCEW) 10,300 (1.1%) 17,100 (2.1%)
Job Growth 2001-2009 (CES) 23,800 (2.4%) 31,000 (3.6%)
Unemployment Rate (Nov 2009) 10.8% 8.2%
Per Capita GMP (2008) 47,811 46,450
Per Capita GMP Growth (2001-2008) 22.4% 1.7%
Median Household Income (ACS 2008) $58,758 $53,671
Median Monthly Housing Cost (ACS 2008) $1,522 $1,125
College Degree Attainment (ACS 2008) 33.3% 31.8%
Travel Time Index (Texas A&M) 1.28 1.21

Now in most of these Portland does beat Indy, but not by a lot. Indy actually leads on the jobs and unemployment front, which is top of mind in today’s world. Portland’s higher incomes are offset by higher housing costs. There are only two stats – international migration and GMP per capita growth – where Portland has a big lead.

Given the wide difference in their policies, it is striking to see these cities so close. By rights, it should be total world domination by Portland – but it isn’t.

Now obviously these aren’t the only statistics to measure a city by. Portland residents would no doubt tout their many livability advantages. Yet at some point isn’t livability supposed to translate into superior demographic and economic performance? Isn’t it supposed to make a city attractive to the talent pool needed to thrive in the 21st century? And isn’t that talent supposed to power the economy? I was particularly struck by how close the cities were on college degree attainment. While I called Portland a talent hub, perhaps I spoke too soon. Contrast with Boston, which has 41.9% of its over 25 population with a bachelors degree or better.

It may be that policy changes act with a lag. But Portland has been at this a long time. The UGB dates to 1973 and the light rail system started construction in the early 80′s. And hey, Indy must be doing something right.

Under-Utilized Talent

One of the problems is that Portland isn’t able to effectively put all of its talent to use. This phenomenon has been extensively written about, but I’ll share this one excerpt from GOOD, a publication that is very pro-Portland.

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, dubbed the dubious “young creatives.”

And the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the entire story. A significant number of people who moved to Portland are simply under-employed.

The Nikki Sutton Story

I’d like to illustrate this with one anecdote. I had originally hoped to include this in the Oregonian piece but ran out of space.

Nikki Sutton was born on the conservative South Side of Indianapolis. Nevertheless, she somehow managed to grow up as a vegan leftist activist. She had visited family in the Pacific Northwest growing up, and fell in love with the place.

Eager to be in this great physical setting and around more people who shared her values, Nikki moved to Portland without a job in the early 2000′s. (She originally thought she had one, but it fell through right as she was moving). She spent 14 months looking for serious employment, but couldn’t find it. In the meantime, she worked at the Banana Republic flagship. According to her, the entire staff was in the same boat – people who wanted to live in Portland but hadn’t been able to find employment in their own field.

Since it gave benefits to part time workers, Nikki also applied for a retail job at Starbucks. She was told there was such a backlog of applications it would likely be some time before she even got a call back. Yes, there appears to be a long waiting list for jobs at Starbucks in Portland.

After more than a year of this, she was lured back to Indianapolis by an actual job offer from a local architecture firm. After working there for some time, she launched her own firm, Level Interior. She’s also active as a model and fashion stylist. I’m personally very impressed with her work.

When a city isn’t able to put top talent like Nikki to work, that’s a warning sign. It would be different if it were, say, New York, where large numbers of people are trying to penetrate elite levels of niche professions, but that’s not what we are talking about.

It may well be that Portland’s approach is right for it. Focusing on livability and sustainability is certainly a good thing.

But there’s a downside for places that do this at the price of major commercial ambitions. Portland offers a very high quality of life beloved by its residents and a more environmentally sustainable vision of a city. But to take advantage of that, you first need a job. It’s not livable if you can’t live there – just ask Nikki.

True Sustainability

Which brings up another point. Nikki now gets the privilege of “enjoying” a car dependent lifestyle and electricity from coal fired plants. What’s the carbon impact of Nikki not being able to get a job in Portland? I wonder what the carbon footprint of the city would look like if it counted people who had to leave for economic reasons, or who wanted to move there but decided discretion was the better part of valor when they couldn’t secure advance employment. Similarly, I guess, what would be the carbon footprint of California be if it counted all the ex-Californians that moved to Texas?

It strikes me that Portland has adopted an approach of quality over quantity. But trying to create a local footprint that is maximally green may not be the right overall solution. We’ve got to keep in mind the entirety of the saying “think globally, act locally.”

What we really need is quantity of quality. That means places like Indianapolis need to step it up – bigtime. But it also means that we need to maximize the use of places like Portland and California that have the lowest carbon footprints. It’s like Ed Glaeser said last year, we should be building skyscrapers in California. We ought to be encouraging more people who might want to to live in places like Portland. By focusing on construction, Glaeser gets part of it right, but misses the other side of the equation. You’ve got to have jobs for the people who want to live in those skyscrapers.

The Limits of Urban Planning Policy

Perhaps Portland also shows the limits of urban planning policy. By that I mean land use and transportation policy. These can play an important role in creating livable, desirable cities. They might even play a role in improving the brand and attracting talent. And of course they affect the environmental footprint of a city. They surely play a role in maintaining core vitality, a huge challenge for a place like Indianapolis.

But they do not, by themselves, turn a city into an economic dynamo.

Here is an interesting local reaction worth checking out: Landscape+Urbanism: Picture Perfect

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Report from the Rail~Volution

I was in Boston last week for part of Rail~Volution 2009, America’s premier transit conference. I was part of a panel on the use of social media for transit advocacy. It’s clear this is a topic a lot of people are trying to figure out. I don’t want to go too far topic, but maybe I’ll do a post on that in the future, since obviously I’ve got a lot of experience in the space. In the meantime, just ponder this: why are almost all influential blogs and web sites in this space run by more or less independent people instead of agencies or organizations?

Election Results 2009

First, a quick Midwest election rundown in some key races:

  • The great news is that Issue 9, the anti-rail charter amendment in Cincinnati, failed. I mentioned briefly before Issue 8, which would require a public vote before transferring the Cincinnati Water Works to a water district. That issue passed.
  • Issue 3, permitting casino gambling in Ohio, passed
  • Mark Mallory was re-elected Mayor of Cincinnati
  • Frank Jackson was re-elected Mayor of Cleveland
  • Cuyahoga County, OH approved a charter form of government
  • In Indianapolis a referendum on building a new Wishard Hospital passed
  • Dave Bing was elected to a full term as Mayor of Detroit
  • Macomb County, MI approved a government reorganization
  • R. T. Rybak was re-elected Mayor of Minneapolis
  • Chris Coleman was re-elected Mayor of St. Paul
  • Luke Ravenstahl was re-elected Mayor of Pittsburgh

John Robert Smith

I was able to catch up with John Robert Smith, CEO of Reconnecting America, and he recorded a short two minute video for me. If you only watch one of the videos I post, make it this one. He makes two incredibly important points that are too often overlooked when it comes to the livable cities agenda. The first is that we need to build an urban-small town-rural coalition around a new transportation policy. The other is that these issues are, or should be, non-partisan. (If video does not display, click here.)

Streetsblog and Streetfilms

I got to see an inspiring presentation by Aaron Naparstek, Editor in Chief of Streetsblog, and Clarence Eckerson, Director of Streetfilms. I’ve talked about Streetsblog here many times, but you might not be familiar with Streetfilms. Streetfilms produces short, high quality films on innovative transportation and livable communities projects from around the world. These films can be an extremely effective sales tool because they can show people in a very real and tangible way what a city looks like when it adopts these types of progressive ideas. The videos are under a Creative Commons license, so can be re-used as necessary. It’s a great resource.

I’ll share a couple of them with you today to give a flavor. This one is a ten minute piece on Bogotá’s “Ciclovia” program. This was one of the many innovations by Mayor Enrique Peñalosa and it has been widely imitated, including in the US. Every Sunday, 70 miles of streets are closed to cars and given to people for walking, biking, relaxing, or socializing. Also, exercise classes and other public events are held in the streets. It’s pretty amazing if you are not familiar with it. (If the video does not display, click here.)

This video has been viewed over 200,000 times.

Here’s another three and a half minute piece on students in New York “painting the pavement”. I hear people all the time say that livable cities initiatives are too expensive and that we can’t afford them. Well, something like Ciclovia does cost money for policing. However, there are all sorts of things we can do that cost virtually nothing. Here is the type of project that can be done for next to nothing. There is simply no excuse. (If the video doesn’t appear, click here.)

Here’s a similar example, where people paint wonderful murals in residential intersections. It’s in Portland, so it’s a little crunchy, but even if that’s not your bag, it’s a great idea. (If the video does not appear, click here).

Again, how much does it cost for a few buckets of paint? The video also talks about the practicalities, such as getting neighbor sign-off and working with city engineers. They even leveraged people sentenced to community service to help with the project!

Dallas TOD

Loyal blog readers know that I’ve written extensively about the challenges of inner ring suburbs in America. One of those inner ring suburbs is Carrollton, TX in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. They are trying to build a future for themselves based around transit oriented development. I also ran into Peter Braster, who is the TOD Manager from Carrollton, and recorded this 40 second teaser video. Anyone looking for lessons learned or someone to network with about TOD in an inner ring suburb, reach out to Peter. (If the video doesn’t show up, click here.

Boston Cityscape

Since the good people in Boston were nice enough to host us, I thought I’d share a few pictures from the city.

Remember the “Big Dig”? This is where it happened. Where once a huge elevated freeway cut through downtown Boston, now there is a park. At $20 billion, it is certainly questionable whether the expense was worth it, but they at least got the results they were looking for.

Boston was home to America’s first subway. Today, the regional transit system is known as the “T”. Here’s a picture of the Red Line as it crosses the Charles River. Note the iconic “T” logo.

Don’t be fooled by the MBTA maps. The Green Line is principally a streetcar. And the Silver Line is a bus.

Here’s South Station. It’s a rail terminal used by Amtrak and commuter lines. There is a North Station as well – located on the lower level of Boston Garden.

A pedestrianized street in downtown Boston.

Beacon St. in Back Bay

Boston Common

The Brutalist Boston City Hall

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

The White City

My latest post is up over at New Geography. It’s called “The White City“. I take a look at the cities which are often touted as progressive urban role models, places like Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Austin, and find that one thing that unites these cities is their lack of African Americans. This is in marked contrast to most cities of the Midwest and South. The following chart illustrates:

You might be interested in contrasting my piece with this one in the American Prospect.

When I say “progressive”, I don’t mean it in a left-politics sense – Midwest cities like Cleveland are very blue, for example – but rather that places like Portland and Denver are held up as exemplars that other cities should be imitating in terms of urban policies. I actually happen to be a big fan of a lot of what they are doing and think a lot of it worthy of adapting to other places. I’ll even go so far as to say that changing land use and transportation policies in our urban cores is an absolute imperative if we expect that Midwest cities are ever going to regenerate themselves.

But I am troubled that cities who share a lack of African Americans as a core feature in common are considered the model. Far better would be truly diverse cities like NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami – but those Tier One cities simply can’t be imitated by much smaller places.

Perhaps those cities can’t be blamed for their history and resulting demographics. And I don’t think all American cities should have the exact same demographic mix. But it isn’t realistic to expect that the models that work there will work in other places.

That’s the piece of the puzzle that is missing in places like the Rust Belt and the South. Cities try to “lift and drop” the policies and sales plan of Portland without considering the local context in terms of how things like transit should be targeted to benefit the entire community and promote social justice, as well as how to sell forward looking urban policies in this environment.

Dynamics like this are largely missing from too much of the urbanist agenda. Perhaps it is not surprising, since the “R&D labs” for urban policy are the Tier One cities and also these Portland-like smaller cities. What’s needed in places like the Rust Belt are a mixture of indigenous solutions and imported ideas that are tailored to the local community. It can’t just be trying to buy urban widgets from elsewhere like some sort of “public transit in a box” solution. The Midwest would do well to consider developing an indigenous urban R&D program to mitigate this.

I can also say this, with most large Midwest urban areas having core county African American populations of around 25%, any civic strategy that doesn’t involve African Americans is a loser.

As Smart City Memphis put it, “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.” Cities need to create strategies based around their unique competitive advantages, and for the Midwest, one of those unique attributes are those cities’ African American populations. It’s too bad virtually none of them act like it.

What’s it worth to have a robust and engaged black community in your city? Well, what’s it worth to have the President of the United States be from your city? Absent the rich black cultural and political infrastructure of Chicago, there wouldn’t be a President from that city, or even the entire region, of any race.

I didn’t write that piece to bash Portland – well, not just to bash Portland – but also as a call to arms for Midwestern cities to figure out how to make their African American communities a key plank in their civic growth strategy. It’s a weapon those other cities simply can’t copy or match.

This was the topic of one of my very first blog posts ever, “Towards a New Vision for Black Indianapolis“. I happen to think that Indianapolis is very well placed to be a city that could really execute this strategy. Not only does it have many strong black cultural institutions, it also has, in my view, better race relations that many regional cities such as Cincinnati. And I experience degrees of social integration there to a degree greater than that of other regional cities I’ve been to. For example, pop into even a working class neighborhood bar on the near South Side and don’t be surprised to see a few black faces in the room. There are a number of racially mixed neighborhoods as well. I truly believe that one of the ways Indianapolis could truly take its civic success to the next level would be to set a goal of becoming the next great American city for African Americans and really making a push behind it.

As you might expect for such a topic, that post generated a bit of polarized reactions. Some of the critics suggested that “not black” doesn’t mean “white”. True enough. But that’s also why in the article I note how urbanist discussion in recent times has increasingly emphasized immigration as the prime metric of diversity. It helps divert people from an inconvenient truth.

Lastly, I’ll include this comment from Tommy Ates, whom I hope doesn’t mind my reproducing it here. It is very thoughtful and relevant.

Being black from Cincinnati and now living in Austin, reading the “The White City” article is both a validation of demographic observations and sobering testimony of how 21st Century cities are becoming a lifestyle choice where race is just an unintentional adjective, perhaps leading to ‘intentional’ acts of racial balkanism.

Being raised in Cincinnati, in the ’70s my parents moved there because there were an abundance of middle-class blacks that were “doing well”. In fact, Cincinnati does have safe “blurbs” (black suburbs). However, my deep criticism of Greater Cincinnati is that the suburban wealthy and middle-class blacks shun the black lower-class in Cincinnati.

In the 2000s, now the black “boom towns” are Atlanta and Houston. Living in Austin, instead of lapping it up in progressive Texan shangli-la, I get the creeping sense of being “left behind”. Nearly all of my cousins in my young age (20s-30s) have moved to Houston after high school because there is “culture”. When I’ve told my white friends, they look at me with incredulity. They don’t understand. But, “old South” may have ended for white Austin, but, after the 60s, it never did elsewhere for black and hispanics, except with a ’90s high tech bang with massive white incoming and rising home prices (far beyond average minority incomes).

As a result, Black and hispanic east Austin is dying. The people know it. The city of Austin and its downtown plan expect it. And, cynically, both the young and old minorities suspect, they won’t be missed. After all, their positioning in east Austin was a consequence for “old South” segregation. Well, nothing lasts forever, and what the real estate market gave, the market now takes away..and for some young minorities, time to go to a new “promiseland”.

For me, I love Austin for the art, “atmosphere” of diversity, progressivism, and civic will to build a denser, more impact urban core. Even though sometimes being only black face in restaurants and stores is a little uncomfortable -and jarring. I want to be a part of that effort against the encroaching suburban “donut hole” ravaging so many of our fine American cities.

Sadly, in some black quarters, the article’s mindset simply reveals what many people have thought all along. That, perhaps unconscious – or conscious, race or the lack of race has become a lifestyle choice.

In Texas, Austin for ‘liberal’ whites. Houston for blacks. Dallas for ‘conservative’ whites. San Antonio for hispanics. All the while, not dealing, but “dealing”, with the issue of race – in its absence.

If it’s not done with malicious intent, but it is the result, is it racist? Is it racism at all to go where one feels ‘comfortable’, even if the faces and viewpoints are all the ‘same’?

Related

In a Changing World, Portland Remains Overwhelmingly White (The Oregonian)
Refugees of Diversity (The American Prospect)

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