Tuesday, November 5th, 2013
[ Since I frequently post time lapse videos here, I wanted to provide a more critical take on them. I came across this interesting post by Oli Mould on the topic over the summer and he was gracious enough to let me repost it. I do wonder though if whether the increasing commoditization and ubiquity of the time lapse that he notes simply means this trend is already well past its sell-by date - Aaron. ]
It seems a day does not pass without a new professional time lapse film of a city landing in my Google Rea…, Feedly or twitter stream. They all seem to follow a similar pattern; they’re shot at night and from an elevated position perhaps with a slow pan; they contain a collection of shooting angles that span highways, bridges or capture the throng of a pedestrian-heavy zone; some will have the seemingly ubiquitous (and simply annoying) tilt-shift effect (which seems to make everything look miniature) perhaps added to increase the visual metaphor of the ‘God’s eye view’ of the city engendered by such films (a good list of the best ones can be found here). Some of my particular favourites are from Dubai, Sydney, Melbourne, Quito and this rather Miévillian offering of New York. Time lapse films represent the vibrancy, complexity and gleaming aesthetics of urban life, or at least a particular kind of urban life. For me though, the increasing proliferation and professionalisation of these films is an interesting trend because it could be seen to represent a number of cross-cutting contexts and themes that have been debated in contemporary urban geography discourse of late, but also, the time lapse video could be viewed as part of urban entrepreneurial strategy.
The first and perhaps most obvious theme is the lowering of the barriers to entry to such an endeavour. Cameras, editing software and dissemination channels are becoming ever more accessible, which makes the only real barrier to achieving a well-crafted film is access to the best vantage points within the city and the desire to do so. The fact that even I have produced some, such as one of Chicago, should be testament enough that even the most amateur of filmmakers can start to produce and disseminate time lapse films (albeit in my case, very poorly). That said, many of the films (particularly those in the links above) have been shot by professional photography and filmmaking companies and individuals, as such time lapse photography is becoming an industry subset in it’s own right. This dichotomous process of the uptake by amateurs of creative visual practices (armed with only a £200 camera and a filter-adding software package) against the proliferation of a professionalised workforce has its own set of problems, not least the increasing precariousness of work, but that debate, as they say, is for another time. Suffice to say, it is no doubt getting easier (from a technological perspective) to create and publish content like this, but also an industry around the practice is manifesting.
The second and perhaps more interesting context which can be teased from the proliferation of time lapse videos is the ‘mobility’ turn in Human Geography. The interest in (im)mobility has burgeoned recently, with a number of key articles, books and even a new journal. John Urry, who pioneered the field of mobility, built upon an argument forwarded by Putnam, and suggests that a ‘good’ (utopian?) society effectively ascribes the right to co-presence to everyone, i.e. limitless mobility to all. This of course is unachievable, and indeed undesirable for current processes of entrepreneurial urbanisation. Cresswell (2010: 17) argues that there are six constituent parts to the concept of mobility; “motive force, velocity, rhythm, route, experience, and friction”, only some of which seem to be articulated by time lapse videos. The constant fluidity and ‘smooth’ space depicted by these films negates the frictions of mobility and perhaps more tellingly, obscures the immobility that is part of the urban condition. Thinking of urban immobility though is not conducive, and indeed counter-productive to the wider lexicon of ‘flows of capital, people, ideas’ and so on – all those themes which have became the common parlance of urban entrepreneurial strategy. Which leads on to the third and (for me) most relevant theme….
…of the Creative City paradigm. The rise of creativity as an urban policy tool, as we should all know by now, is the go-to agenda for cities looking to get ahead in the global urban rat race. Bullied into global competitiveness by the endless ‘city league tables’ that are produced by economist units, public relations firms or real estate agents, cities have taken to acting like companies and spending more on building a competitive ‘brand’. The relentless search for uniqueness and the next ‘cool’ urban imaginary is very much entrenched in urban entrepreneurial strategy. Couple that with the pervasiveness of social media that is becoming inextricable from such strategies, then we find ourselves in a situation where time lapse videos that depict cities as mobile, vibrant, unconstricted and dynamic will be very favourable to city PR departments, and as such, are beginning to commission the films themselves, as was the case in Shanghai recently. “City logos and brands have become ineffective” it seems, and so time lapse films are taking their place.
Therefore, city time lapse films are highly relevant and desired vehicles for urban competitiveness as they visually articulate urban fluidity that is representative of (and indeed a pre-requisite for) mobile capital, while at the same time (re)producing a particular urban aesthetic of ‘cool’, that is much needed to attract the people and workers that are the conduits for the capture of said mobile capital. How long will it be before the time lapse film becomes part of the Creative City package that is sold by doorstep salesmen to the next city wanting a slice of the ‘creative’ action? Is it already the case?
This post originally appeared in taCity on July 8, 2013.
Thursday, September 5th, 2013
I’m going to be traveling for a while and since I didn’t take a summer vacation, plan to take a break from the blog for the next week and a half to two weeks. To keep you occupied while I’m gone, here’s another installment in my roundups of the coolest and best city videos I’ve featured here. In case you missed the previous ones, check out the first installment and the second one.
Time Lapse Philadelphia
A cool video from Angelo Leotta with a nice soundtrack. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
An amazing look at the Windy City. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Singapore: The Lion City
If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Not the work I would use to describe Zurich based on its reputation, but a cool video nevertheless. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
This Is Shanghai
If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Sunday, August 18th, 2013
Among post-industrial cities in America, one of the things I observe is a sort of malaise in the civic character. Many of these places have been beaten down so hard for so long that a sort of defeatist attitude has set in. This can include bitterness about what was lost, a self-loathing mindset, and cynicism and negativity about any proposed efforts to improve things.
Our Backyard Rhode Island
This negativity has inspired efforts in some places to first change local perceptions about their community before trying to market to the world. One such initiative was recently unveiled by the Rhode Island Foundation and is called “It’s All in Our Backyard.” This effort grew out of a civic brainstorming event from last fall called “Make It Happen Rhode Island.” While the name makes it sound like an internally focused tourism campaign, the idea to sell residents on the positive side of their community in order to provide an uplift to the civic spirit.
I was apprehensive about this when I heard about it, as most place-based marketing campaigns out of officialdom anywhere are dreadful, tending towards the generic and the earnest, and are often actually counter-productive. So I was glad to see that It’s All In Our Backyard is actually pretty good.
Here’s an example of one of the videos, which is a company feature of textile business Hope Global, based in Cumberland (if the video doesn’t display for you click here):
This example works on a variety of levels. It’s a historic business in the textile manufacturing business that has been core to the state’s economic identity. There are nice shots of a historic building and a WPA-style mural along with modern machinery, a female CEO, and discussions of globalization that show a piece of authentic Rhode Island’s character successfully repositioned for the 21st century.
I might have suggested some tweaks. It’s not exactly clear what this company actually does, though the one example was given pretty compelling. (Hope Global is adding workers while exporting shoe laces to China for premium branded products in what appears to be an example of re-shoring). But my lack of familiarity with the company doesn’t diminish the quality of the piece, which comes across as solid and convincing in contrast with so many place marketing videos that can easily be picked apart like a bad action movie plot.
At the more grass roots level, Andy Cutler and some associates have been trying to put out a positive word as well, but aimed at external as well as internal audiences. He laid out a vision in an op-ed piece on GoLocalProv. He also convened a small gathering of folks to brainstorm what’s great about Providence. This resulted in two online efforts branded “OurPVD.” One is a Twitter account @OurPVD (and #OurPVD), which is designed to get out the word on cool things in Providence. Similarly, there’s a Pinterest page that is pretty good. Cutler is also trying out a bit of “citizen diplomacy” with an effort called “Smaller Cities Unite!” that led to a trip to Copenhagen and at least one mention of Providence in Copenhagenize, arguably the world’s most influential urban bicycling blog.
Rockford, Illinois: Our City, Our Story
An interesting initiative out of Rockford, IL called “Our City Our Story” is another example. This one is a sort of intermediate level initiative between the two Rhode Island ones. Filmmaker Pablo Korona was tired of Rockford taking a beating, such as in a major New York Times feature called “Portraits From a Job-Starved City.” He launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video community storytelling project to give a different perspective on the city. While still an outsider effort that local officialdom seems not yet to have fully embraced, in a sense it has “gone legit” and gained quite a bit of traction as well as national press. (See, for example “How a Branding Vigilante Is Saving His Town With a Rogue Website” in Fast Company).
There are 16 videos so far, each featuring some interesting character from Rockford. These range from a tailor who in a previous life was a singer, songwriter and owner of a record label that took a pass on signing the Jackson 5 to a kid jailed for tagging become a legitimate street artists lauded by the very mayor who bragged of having him arrested.
Here’s one that is similar to the Hope Global story above. Called “Our Curiosity”, it’s a look at a local machine shop that cut all the gears on the Mars rover Curiosity. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here):
Again here the “our” motif reveals the inward focus of the piece.
Thanks for Carl Wohlt for pointing me at this.
When a new CEO takes over a company that has struggled, one of the things he has to do is rebuild corporate morale. These various efforts show examples of how local people are trying to initiate an improvement in their region’s civic morale and break the cycle of self-loathing, a very important task.
As a post-script, I’ll highlight one more Rhode Island video. The typical “What’s so great about your community?” video is terrible. Again, usually it is either generic items most communities would likewise brag about, or comes across as exaggerated. This one, which appears to be mostly sort of outtakes from the various other videos produced, shows how a small community can pull this off. This is because the producer and the people in it have some fun with the state. For example, the guy who in reference to the small size of the state says, “Well, I feel like the size one is one everybody’s going to talk about. What are other people saying?” Or the guy who says, “First of all, my wife’s from Rhode Island, and I absolutely love her.” . (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here):
When you’re small, you can’t take yourself too seriously or you’ll look like you’re trying to hard. Not being afraid to have some fun with yourself is a great way to disarm that. Not bad for what appears to be an “extra” production, though the claim of diversity is a bit of a head-scratcher.
This post originally appeared in GoLocalProv on August 12, 2013.
Sunday, July 28th, 2013
As I’ve noted before, Detroit is all too frequently just a blank screen onto which people project their own personal bogeymen. So liberals see in Detroit racism gone wild, America’s comeuppance for its love affair with the automobile, and corporate greed. Conservatives see the ultimate end result of unions and where liberalism will take the US as a whole if it isn’t stopped.
There’s a bit of truth in all of these. The left would have us believe that having Democrats in charge of the city for so long had nothing to do with where it is today. But they reality is, they’ve got to own their piece of blame. Detroit certainly hasn’t been a bastion of conservative policy, that’s for sure.
On the other hand, Republicans should be aware that Detroit’s decline has been ongoing for quite a while, and there were definitely some mayors with R’s by their name who were in on the game. And economic forces shaped Detroit far more than they’d like to admit.
But ultimately what we see today is the left furiously spinning about Detroit (for example, see the book “Detroit: A Biography”) and the right trying to use it as a poster child for everything they hate. Yet on the right I can’t help but observe a particularly mean streak in the commentary, one that’s positively gleeful about Detroit’s demise. It’s as if, not content with letting the results speak for themselves about what happened under Democratic rule, the right seems determined to humiliate Detroit, reveling in its pain. It’s schadenfreude on steroids.
Let me highlight this. First Kurt Schlichter says that “Conservatives Should Point and Laugh As Detroit Dies.”
The agonizing death of Detroit is cause for celebration. It’s the first of the liberal-run big cities and states to fall, and we should welcome its collapse with glee.
Yeah, liberals, eventually you do run out of other people’s money.
The blue state model is a terminal disease, and Detroit is its poster child. Only this is one telethon where we should pledge that we won’t pay a single dime to keep the progressive party going a single minute longer.
Detroit represents the epitome of the blue state, Democrat machine liberalism that Barack Obama represents. Well, not one damn cent for Barry’s Kids.
Don’t hold back, tell us how you really feel. John Fund at the National Review is nowhere near vicious, but he does paint a target on Detroit’s art, basically arguing that the city should be forced to sell off its assets to satisfy creditors:
What no one wants to do, apparently, is sell the city’s assets. The city has largely unused parks and waterfront property that could be opened to economic development. The Detroit Historical Museum has a collection of 62 vehicles, including an 1870 Phaeton carriage and John Dodge’s 1919 coupe, that is worth millions. But the biggest sacred cow is the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), one of the nation’s oldest and most valuable art museums. It has pieces by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, and Rembrandt. The Institute also owns William Randolph Hearst’s armor collection and the original puppet from the children’s TV show Howdy Doody.
The Detroit Free Press asked New York and Michigan art dealers to evaluate just a few of the 60,000 items in the Institute’s collection. The experts said the 38 pieces they looked over would fetch a minimum of $2.5 billion on the market, with each of several pieces worth $100 million or more. That would go a long way toward relieving the city’s long-term debt burden of $17 billion.
Let me get this straight. Instead of Detroit being $17 billion in debt, let’s sell off everything left that makes Detroit viable and end up still $14.5 billion in debt and still bankrupt. (Though only a few items were evaluated, they were clearly the handful of most valuable ones. Howdy Doody ain’t Van Gogh). Oh, yeah, that will help – if your definition of help is bailing out banks who loaned money to a city everyone has known is a basket case for many, many years. If those banks expected the art to be sold, they should have made the city pledge it as collateral.
Fund is right that Detroit does need to make tough choices about assets. I’ve made that argument myself. But the goal should be to create at a minimum a sustainably functional government and ensure the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit doesn’t undermine the broader region and state. Selling off secondary assets (and yes, Howdy Doody may be a good candidate) is worth pursuing if there’s cost/benefit. But saying that Detroit should sell off its regional cultural crown jewels is little more than an attempt to inflict counter-productive penance, to force humiliation upon the city. And it would also be completely unlike say a corporate Chapter 11 restructuring, which is designed to produce a viable firm on the other end and thus the most valuable assets are often retained.
Of course, Detroit’s own residents make it easy to act this way. A group of protestors referred to the bankruptcy filing as a “declaration of war,” saying that outsiders aren’t entitled to any say or even get the money back they loaned the the city, saying instead “the banks owe us.”
Still, have some compassion. It’s understandable Detroit’s residents are in pain and lashing out. Clearly they have tough medicine they haven’t reconciled themselves to taking. But there are better ways to respond to it. Andrew Biggs at the American Enterprise Institute took a more moderate path, suggesting that while a plain reading of Michigan’s constitution suggests it wouldn’t protect pensions in bankruptcy, there’s still reason to give pensioners some preferential treatment (thought not being made 100% whole, saying:
Does this mean that retired city workers should take the same haircut as municipal bond holders? I really don’t think so. Anyone loaning money to the city of Detroit was knowingly taking the risk that the city might not repay; that’s why bonds issued by Detroit paid a higher yield than Treasury securities, which are assumed to be riskless. As with any risk investment, sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.
City employees, on the other hand, exchanged services today — along with employee contributions to their pension plan — for benefits to be delivered in the future. Sure, employees should consider the financial stability of their employer in its ability to deliver what is promised, but city employees seem to be a qualitatively different group than municipal bond holders.
This seems more rational type analysis and isn’t rooted in mean-spiritedness.
Though eager to point out how Democratic policies and corrupt Democratic politicians helped propel Detroit headlong in bankruptcy (which is certainly a valid political claim to make), having a vengeful streak only shows Republicans behaving in a ways that’s as hard hearted as Democrats say they are.
Friday, June 21st, 2013
My latest post is online at GoLocalProv and is called “What Makes a Great Community?” This one goes beyond the Providence specific to take a look generally at what makes a great place to live. I discuss the debates over what metrics to look at, as well as the emotional and cultural appeal of place. Here’s an excerpt:
There appear to be two fundamentally different views of what makes a successful community, the “horizontal” model and the “vertical” model. The horizontal model focuses on quantitative metrics like population and job growth. The vertical model emphasizes qualitative ones like per capita income or GDP.
Unsurprisingly, cities tend to fall into one or the other of these categories. And the partisans of the different models tend to be very vocal about their “team.” Vertical success cities include Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Horizontal success cities include Dallas, Charlotte, and Nashville.
The people, culture, and lifestyle, things that are difficult to quantify and capture in ranking systems, are what distinguish most of New England. But exactly what it is about these can be frustratingly difficult to articulate. I have found this to be the case almost everywhere. For example, I am from the Midwest. Most of the Midwest has a rather plain vanilla reputation and most cities there find it almost impossible to describe themselves other than with platitudes like “a great place to raise a family” or “big city amenities without the price tag and hassles.” But go to say Ohio and visit Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland and you will experience three radically different places. Yet is hard to really describe the uniqueness of each one. I know it when I experience it, but it’s hard to articulate.
I have found this similarly to be the case in much of New England. Where I live in Rhode Island, I hear people describe its best assets as the coast, the food, the fact that everything is close, and the historic architecture. The coast is very nice, I agree. But to be blunt I don’t find the other three items very compelling. They are nice things, but not overwhelming distinctives.
This is a difficult problem. Not because of anything unique to the community or New England, but because it’s a hard problem generally for places that are not used to being introspective. Lots of places struggle with it. Almost everyplace struggles with it to be honest. It requires digging deep into the local soil. It’s like going on an anthropology or archeology expedition.
Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
Here’s a test to see how many of you are actually serious about attracting creatives and building a creative economy in your city: will you actually watch this 53 minute documentary about Berlin that’s in German with subtitles?
“In the Belly of a Whale” is a great film that consists of talking head style ruminations on the art scene and life as a creative in Berlin. The people featured are “all in” as artists and fully part of that scene themselves (though as you’ll see most of them wear many hats). We get to see plenty of their often very cool art as well as hear some cool tunes.
Given that Berlin has attracted more artists than any any city in the world, it’s a case study worth looking at if you plan to try attracting any sort of creative base. Nobody has succeeded like Berlin.
First the video, then some additional commentary on what I saw in it. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
I have generally argued that talent migration is not a zero sum game. However, according to these folks Berlin really has hoovered up a good chunk of Germany’s artists. This makes it more difficult to be an artist today in second tier cities than it was in the past. How true this is I don’t know. The people here clearly take a “global elite” type view. They frequently refer to places like New York and London. They clearly recognize that Berlin is in the top echelon by reputation in the global art world and don’t hesitate to act like it (though they candidly recognize Berlin’s weaknesses).
How does this play out elsewhere? I do think there are certain industries that are extremely centralized. Art and fashion are two of those. There are only real commercial markets in a handful of places. So while secondary cities can perhaps attract more artists and creatives than they did in the past (just as they have more coffee shops than they did back in the 80s or 90s, for example), building a real economy out of this will be extremely difficult. While this might seem insulting, the art would in a smaller city is to some extent scenery or decoration, not the integral part of the city and its economy that it is in Berlin.
This is probably doubly true since even in Berlin there’s no money in art. None of these people really make much of a living from it, except one person who seems to exhibit internationally. They all admit people in Berlin want cool stuff, but don’t want to pay for it. You need international representation to get paid. But what Berlin lacks economically, it makes up for in dirt cheap rents, abandoned buildings without clear title (even today), and an unmatched richness of interaction with other creatives.
I do think it’s fair to say that while perhaps the artists haven’t profited much from their work, the city has. The art scene and the techno scene (which seem very inter-related) have put Berlin on the map and drive huge tourism dollars. So I’m guessing the economic impact is much higher than direct art spending. However, having a collection of artists unmatched anywhere in the world has certainly not succeed in turning Berlin into an economic dynamo, and the city remains “poor but sexy” as its mayor once said.
In any case, if “creativity” is on your city’s agenda, then this is a much watch video. Also must-watch is Real Scenes: Berlin that I previously posted. That one is a nice complement that covers the rise of the techno scene and the reasons behind that.
Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013
This week I’m featuring a promotional video for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was part of a series of videos Atlantic Cities highlighted about the city. They say this is played at the stadium before every home game. I can see why. It’s a fantastic piece. The way that it captures gritty Pittsburgh while also throwing in slices of more traditional “cool urban” (like skyline shots) and lots of average, everyday people instead of the Beautiful or the Bearded Ones is great. The lessons of this videos should be absorbed by the tourism teams of most cities which as a rule continue to churn out work that actively makes me not want to visit those cities. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
I’d like to contrast the Pittsburgh with a video called “Here Is St. Louis.” I pick that one not because it’s bad, but because in many ways is actually very well done. It’s not a tourism video, but what I’d call an explicit “city video” of the type I often post here. This video does indeed show many only in St. Louis type landmarks, shots of people, etc. But where this video falls flat is that it tries too hard to make St. Louis look like a super-cool city. Coffee shops, microbreweries, cool restaurants, record stores, etc. It checks all the boxes. But substitute in your city’s equivalents for everything shot in the video, and you’d probably come away not really being able to tell the difference. This doesn’t tell a truly compelling story of St. Louis, though it’s certainly well done and conveys the city positively. I just think the Pirates did a much better job of capturing the unique spirit of their city. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
h/t Chris LeBeau
Saturday, May 11th, 2013
[ Yesterday's article on casinos was inspired by a Richard Florida piece bashing a proposal for a new casino in Toronto. Since it was published in a Canadian web site, many American and global readers may not have seen it, so I'm grateful he gave me permission to repost it here - Aaron. ]
The debate over a casino in downtown Toronto is coming to a head. Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee of Toronto City Council voted 9-4 in favour of a downtown casino, putting the ultimate fate of the casino before a vote of the full City Council.
Ford said he was “optimistic” Toronto will ultimately get a downtown casino, according to the Globe and Mail. “Nine votes, I think that’s a good beginning.”
Fortunately, a majority or near majority of Toronto’s councillors are on record as being opposed to a downtown casino, according to recent reports.
If Council votes no, the mayor said he will take the issue directly to the voters. “It’s either no or yes. If it’s a yes, thank you very much, appreciate your support for creating 10,000 good-paying jobs,” Ford said on Monday. “And if it’s a no, then I guess that becomes an election issue.” But he backtracked on this on Tuesday, saying that: “It’s not an election issue. They are just going have to explain to the voters why they didn’t create 10,000 good-paying jobs. I want to deal with it this year. I’m optimistic. People are seeing the light.”
Ford and the nine committee members who voted yes are not the only ones people pushing for a downtown casino. Key elements of Toronto’s business leadership have either been active cheerleaders for it, quietly supportive, or eerily mum.
You have to ask yourself, why?
Toronto’s business leaders like to think that they are helping to build a great global city, but casino building is city-ruining of the highest order. Virtually every serious study that has ever been done of the economic impacts of casinos shows that their costs far exceed their benefits and that they are a poor use of precious downtown land. A downtown casino will tear holes in Toronto’s urban fabric, create more costs than benefits, and as surely as if it’s holding up a giant sign, will send the message that Toronto is on the wrong track. As the architecture critic Christopher Hume put it a while back: “Torontonians have made it clear they’re not interested.” He added, “the beauty of this city now is that it doesn’t need a casino, let alone want one. In fact the casino needs Toronto more than the city needs it.”
I had my chance to vent about casino gambling in Toronto in the Star last spring. “About one thing,” I wrote, “urbanists across the ideological spectrum are unanimous. And that is that building casinos, especially in an already thriving downtown, is a truly terrible idea.” My colleague Kevin Stolarick put it best: “Adding a casino to Toronto will not make it a ‘world-class’ city. It will make it second class.”
David Olive, the business columnist of the Toronto Star, recently wrote that in the “Toronto casino debate, it’s time to walk away from the table.” Citing a March study by my research team at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, he writes that:
“The turning point in the interminable debate over a new casino resort in downtown Toronto will be, one hopes, the astonishing report released March 12 by the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) at the University of Toronto.
“The MPI found that a casino makes little — if any — sense for the GTA. And it implies that the slick lobbyists employed by casino advocates Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) and its private partners are betting on what they hope is widespread gullibility among Torontonians.
“The MPI report knocks the stuffing out of the casino advocates’ bloated claims of renewed economic vitality in a GTA that, in fact, is already thriving — a rare metropolis to boast the status of North America’s fastest-growing city twice in the past half century (currently and in the 1960s and 1970s).
“The Martin Prosperity Institute is an extension of the business school at U of T. As such, it is pro-business and has a vested interest, for the sake of attracting the best and brightest students worldwide, in the GTA’s economic stardom.
If a new downtown casino, as proposed, could help advance MPI’s interests, the think tank would be a cheerleader for it. Instead, in remarkably blunt language, the business and urban-economy experts at MPI conclude that the casino champions have simply generated a blizzard of numbers, ‘all of them meaningless’ and conveyed in a ‘remarkably skewed’ and ‘misleading manner.’”
The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed Toronto’s casino push, a “dead man’s hand,” pointing out: “Casinos aren’t for cities on their way up. They’re for cities out of options.”
Toronto is hardly unique in the push for casinos. Mega-casino moguls and developers like Sheldon Adelson and Malaysia’s Genting Group are proposing lavish billion-dollar casino complexes in cities across the globe. I called it “the casinoization of everywhere” in an oped in the New York Daily News — the latest manifestation of what the late Susan Strange aptly dubbed “casino capitalism.”
In the U.S. alone, gambling generates roughly $90-billion in annual revenues, a figure that is projected to expand to $115-billion by 2015. Faced with the prospect of laying off teachers, firemen, and policemen, it looks like manna to cash-starved cities and metros. But if there’s one truth we know about casinos, it’s that the house always wins. Casinos generate mega-profits for their developer-owners, who don’t have to deal with the myriads of problems they cause for the cities in which they are located.
Gamblers might fool themselves into thinking that they can get something for nothing, but cities and governments should know better. For all the ostensible billions in tax revenue, spillovers from increased tourism, and higher property values casinos supposedly generate, when all the social, moral, and monetary costs that they levy on cities are added up, they have almost always proven themselves to be financial and economic disasters.
Most of the outspoken opposition to Toronto’s casino has come from academics like me, journalists, religious groups, and civic activists. Toronto’s business leaders have been conspicuously mum on the subject — and on Mayor Rob Ford’s small-minded, anti-urban agenda. In addition to holding the mayor, pro-casino councillors, and the OLG accountable, civically-minded Torontonians should be asking where the city’s business and political leadership stands. Especially when you consider how many of the most outspoken opponents of casinos in other cities have turned out to be prominent business leaders.
A case in point is Warren Buffet, the über-successful investor. “I’m not a prude about it,” he said in 2007, “but to a large extent gambling is a tax on ignorance. I find it socially revolting when a government preys on the weakness of its citizenry rather than serving them. When a government makes it easy to take their Social Security and start pulling handles or playing lotto, it’s a pretty cynical act…. It receives taxes on the backs of those dreaming of a car or colour TV….it’s not government at its best.” When casino gambling was proposed in his home state of Nebraska, he took to the airwaves to oppose it, as seen in the above Fireside Chat.
The same is true of the Florida billionaire Norman Braman, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, who vehemently opposes destination mega-casinos in South Florida. “If you open the door to casinos,” he told the journalist Eliott Rodriguez in the television interview posted above, “you are opening the door to crime and creating more unemployment. No proponent of casino gambling can name any place in the United States where casinos have revitalized a community. Actually, it’s had the opposite effect.” To Dylan Ratigan (the video is posted below) he said, “If you look at all the statistics concerning casinos throughout the United States, whether they’re riverboat or permanent, after three to five years, almost two jobs are lost for every one that’s created.” He makes an important point. As in Singapore, most places that introduce gambling see a quick upward spike, followed by a steep decline. Casino lobbyists prefer to talk about their early successes.
When all is said and done, gambling is one of the most regressive ways to generate public revenue and one of the least productive uses of money imaginable — it takes the most from the people who can afford it the least.
A glitzy mega-casino in the heart of downtown would be a direct affront to Toronto’s brand as a well-managed city of builders and investors. Taken together with Mayor Ford’s bizarre statements on gay rights, his move to abolish bike lanes, and the numerous scandals that surround him, it couldn’t but have a seriously deleterious effect on the city’s ability to attract people and thus on its long-run economic prosperity. As I told the Globe and Mail recently: “Casinos are brand killers. People in the outside world would say, ‘Toronto is a great city, so why are they putting a casino there?’ “
For everyone who’s concerned about Toronto’s future, it’s time to take score. Not just of who’s been in favour of such a city-ruining monstrosity and who’s been opposed to it, but who among the city’s so-called leaders have sat quietly on the sidelines.
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post Canada on April 17, 2013.
Tuesday, April 9th, 2013
Two recent columns on the Urbanophile, one by Angie Schmitt called “A Culture of Corruption” and another by Aaron called “Do Cities Really Want Economic Development?” discuss how the forces of the status quo fight change. But sometimes you can create a new strategy for a place, based on its values, that will better embrace those values than what is happening now. This takes visionary leadership, as well as a “small is beautiful” approach to change as something that happens in the moment.
The Politics of Identity
In Detroit, the main problem is that local people are now being told that they are no longer Motown. This is a hard thing after being the center of the universe for cars for the last 100 years. How humiliating that Chrysler is now owned by Fiat, by old stereotypes an Italian maker of small under-powered cars. That’s why the Chevy Volt was so important when the feds took over GM take-over story: the government might be running things, but at least this new vehicle offered hope of a future in the limelight again.
In Port Townsend, WA, on the northwest corner of Puget Sound, there’s another identity play going on, this one to provide place-based education around maritime themes. Port Townsend is a small town of less than 10,000 people, but it is the wooden boat building capital of the United States. This is where people truck their old yachts to be restored, or refit work boats that go up to the fishery at Bristol Bay . The new schools superintendent talks of “making the city the classroom”, with the community, its surroundings and all things maritime as the subject of study. There is already a program there now, in operation for about ten years, in which seventh graders go down to the waterfront to learn rowing, and into shops at the maritime center where they learn geometry and measurement while building boats.
Now the superintendent wants to expand this program, pushing maritime subjects into every grade and class. Imagine biology students putting on rubber boots and going out on the tide flats to measure how the pH of the water is affecting oyster production, or third graders hiking up over the headlands of the old fort to look out at the lighthouse where the wind, waves and currents of Puget Sound collide. The key word here is “relevance”, of studying things that kids are already familiar with day to day, the beaches and boats they play on, the work stories they hear from their parents and grandparents at the dinner table. This isn’t learning in the abstract, some subject or formula they may or may not use later, but learning up close and personal, with things they can see, hear, touch and know. Imagine a town in western Pennsylvania saying that it wanted to make the study of steel, coal, rock, geology and making things part of its curriculum. If this had been done 25 or 30 years ago, with modern hands-on teaching, perhaps more of those towns would still have core industries in those fields, no longer giant, but perhaps re-oriented to niche markets, with highly trained workers who spoke “steel” or “glass” in their business conversations. In Port Townsend, they still speak “boat” there.
I haven’t met many charismatic leaders in my career, maybe two or three, but this new superintendent is one of them. He speaks in a low-key way that is the exact opposite of the bellicose corporate leaders who sound like high school coaches yelling at the football team. This guy is a former art teacher who still keeps colored pencils in a box in the center of his conference table, but he has a track record of success, both starting up a high school maritime academy in Seattle, and a Chinese language program in northern Nebraska.
More importantly, when he speaks, people listen. He uses techniques outlined by Stephen Denning in “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling”, techniques like keeping the future stories simple so listeners put themselves in the hero’s role, and think about what they can do to make things happen.
Every hero story involves some kind of Joseph Campbell challenge, and in Port Townsend that challenge is keeping the kids from moving away, the same kind of Pied Piper challenge that so many Rust Belt cities face. Forty years ago this was a counter-culture place young people fled to, a back-water place with cheap housing, a strong sense of community, and a boatyard where they could buy and fix up old boats. Today retirees who have “discovered” Port Townsend have driving up housing prices, and there are not enough good jobs for young people.
That’s where the school superintendent’s vision comes in. For some years the community has had a vision of converting nearby Fort Worden as a “learning center” for adults, and now this new vision extends this down to their own children, putting the city on the map internationally as a place that does K-12 education differently, mixing and matching local institutions together to create “seamless” learning across ages. Part of the goal here is not just to make traditional topics more interesting and relevant, but to create a different world view about how kids can educate themselves and involve themselves in the world. The traditional, conveyor-belt model has kids taking STEM and AP classes in high school, getting an engineering or science or business major in college and then going out into the world, sometime in their early to mid 20s, to interview for a job. The vision in Port Townsend is not only to give kids and adults skills that they can use now, in their own community, but to get them to look around that community for unmet needs and, by age 15, to be thinking about how they can use their own skills to meet these and create a livelihood for themselves. There’s a fundamental shift in this educational outlook, one that kids are not simply charges to be brought up to state standards, but assets to the community, to be prepared for membership in it and contributions to it.
Small is Beautiful
In Washington State, there is no more powerful political group than the teachers’ unions, which fought the idea of charter schools tooth and nail. This may be home to Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon, but most of the young engineers here come from places like Michigan, not the state’s own schools.
That’s why it will take all of the new superintendent’s leadership skills to really make this vision a reality. The first changes have to be non-threatening, incremental programs that do not directly threaten the status quo. How do you do this? With programs that create small and immediate successes. One of these is expanding the partnership with the maritime center to include youth use of its pilot house simulator. That simulator also caused one of the country’s oldest training schools for professional mariners to open a branch operation here. That company was drawn in no small part by the vision of this place as a learning center for all things maritime, and shared use of that facility with youth.
In putting this new strategy forth to the community, both for K-12 education and as a broader economic development strategy, it is important to embrace the values of the community. Some, especially older workers in “heritage trades” like wooden boat building, might say that the community should only encourage the growth of jobs that involve hand crafts, Williamsburg-like preservation trades. In fact, though, the real heritage here is the tradition of craftsmanship and veneration for things well-made, especially those that relate to salt water. The value, then becomes quality, not how or what tools are involved in making something, but of what standard it is made to, and to what use it is put. In Port Townsend’s case, this opens the way to a whole new generation of craft manufacturing, of making things for maritime use out of new materials and with new methods like computer-aided design and manufacturing. We are already seeing a boom in this in places like West Berkeley, South San Francisco, East Cambridge and Brooklyn. It is ironic that these old counter-culture places, the places that people fled to find themselves, have become centers of business change. Why? Maybe it’s because their people now know what they love and value (including their children and grandchildren!), and are not willing to let the status quo get in the way of holding on to them.
Rod Stevens is a business development consultant on Bainbridge Island WA, specializing in urban ventures.
Thursday, March 21st, 2013
Last week I wondered how much the corporate logos on prominent office buildings affected the perception of a city. Today I want to briefly ask the reverse. Does the quality of the brand of a city a company is in affect the firm’s perception in the marketplace?
I had a conversation on this very point with someone probably a year or so ago. He noted that having a mailing address for his company in New York gave his firm a certain level of added credibility. People think, if you’re really good enough to have an office in New York City, or especially be based there, you must be the big time.
I’m not sure this has an impact on major consumer brands, though some companies are clearly linked in the public mind to certain localities. I don’t think the fact that Proctor and Gamble is in Cincinnati has any impact pro or con on what anybody thinks of Tide detergent, for example. But for smaller firms, especially in the professional services business, I think it does make a difference. Every business like that always has a slide in their pitch deck with a bunch of client logos of all the high profile places they’ve done similar work. The better your client list, the better I suppose. If it weren’t true, nobody would do it. Similarly, I think being able to boast of a high profile address in a high profile city makes a company just plain seem more credible in the marketplace at some level.