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Monday, April 21st, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley

I was able to sit down this month with new Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley to spend an hour on such topics as Cincinnati’s incredible historic assets, its history of social conservatism, streetcars and bike lanes, the repopulation of the urban core, and more.

If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor John Cranely. Image via Wikipedia.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

By far the most provocative thing the mayor talked about to me was his direct challenge to the idea of metropolitan government. Cincinnati hasn’t annexed territory since 1925, leaving it as a smallish, hemmed in city that is only 14% of a very fragmented region. Meanwhile cities like Indianapolis and Nashville had city-county consolidation, Columbus annexed, etc. He thinks that in a new urban era, this model of government is running out of gas and the pendulum is going to swing back the other way:

There’s a real cultural shift and renewed pride in Cincinnati. More specifically though, there are some unique advantages that we have. Think of it this way: if you took our Downtown and Uptown and the corporate base, let’s say it’s 70% of all of our major jobs and income taxpayers. If you take the same exact area and map it in Columbus, they’re going to have 70% of their companies Nationwide, et cetera, all within the same geographic area. The difference is that they have to spread that money among all of Franklin County. We have to provide for 300,000 people. And very quality 19th century historic neighborhoods that already have a sense of place and culture. And we get the benefit of, on a per capita basis, being able to invest way more in these urban neighborhoods than any of our peers because we didn’t annex.

Now, historically, the attitude of urbanists had been, like myself, the we’ve got to have metro government. In essence, the attitude has been, “We poor city.” We need you guys have to play Robin Hood for us. I think the shift is already underway. Now, we have more work to do but the shift is already underway that we’re going to be a better choice for the dollar value because of our historic infrastructure, our density, our diverse economies of scale. The home owner to apartment mix which looks bad at a distance but, candidly, makes it more dense in which it makes labor pools a lot easier to transport inside the city.

What we haven’t done, in my opinion, is be insistent enough on value for the dollar, because we’re spreading our dollar over a much smaller population than cities of size. So why isn’t the quality of customer service of all services of city government superior? You still get complaints today of people who say, “I live in a nice suburb and my snow is picked up immediately and it’s cleaner and my roads paved faster and less litter. Coming to a city, I can immediately tell it’s a city.” There’s no excuse for that. And I believe that we can provide a better customer service because we have more money over less people than our competitors do. Which if you think about the fact that we lost population to cities this way, people kept moving one suburb out — and I think most of us agree we’re going to repopulate from the inside out — we have more resources to invest in economic growth policies than our competitors do, and we intend to use that advantage to become the most exciting urban city in the country.

We’ll have to see how this plays out, but I think there’s something to this. When places like Indy, Columbus, and Nashville annexed all those suburban areas, they were able to capture that tax base to support the central city. Now though they are saddled supporting miles and miles of aging and decaying suburban type development that may ultimately represent a drain on the resurgent urban core tax base. To the extent that the urban core does come back, places like Cincinnati, from a municipal point of view, will get a bigger lift from it because it gets spread over a smaller area. It’s easier to turn around a small ship than a big one.

We also talked about the geography and architecture of neighborhoods like Mt. Adams, which is like a Midwestern San Francisco. Mayor Cranley likes that analogy:

As I always say, if Chicago is the New York of the Midwest, we’re the San Francisco — in fact, that’s exactly my mind is to say Chicago is the New York of the Midwest. We’re the San Francisco. Because we have the hills, the architecture, the arts, the culture, the big league teams, all the advantages of a major city with the livability of a small town. And everyone has an opportunity to be a big fish if you got that kind of ambition. And it really is. Again, we’ve proven that’s true because we’ve been able to maintain such a concentration of Fortune 500 companies which then, of course, leads to all kinds of spin-off businesses and a huge privately held company, group of businesses, that have really been family traditions that have lasted a hundred years and have really continued to come. As I like to point out, what city our size has an entire company dedicated to Shakespeare? We have a theater that does all Shakespeare. And it has full on season.

I pointed out one important difference vs. San Francisco: Cincinnati’s history of extreme social conservatism. A number of wealthy conservatives like billionaire Carl Lindner and Charles Keating (yes, the Keating Five Charles Keating) poured tons of money into anti-pornography campaigns. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was convicted as recently as the late 90s of obscenity charges. In 1990 locals tried to ban an exhibition of explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and even put the museum director on trial for obscenity (he was acquitted). An anti-gay rights amendment was added to the city charter by citizen initiative in the early 90s. There was a race riot in Over the Rhine in 2001.

This is clearly a sore point for the mayor, as he answered at length. He acknowledges the history of these things, but says things have changed radically and wants to be able to get the word out on the new attitude in the city:

I think that’s changed. You take one rather prominent issue with gay rights. In 1993 an anti-gay law was passed in the city charter which was awful, and would stain our reputation for ten years. When I was on council we had a transvestite who was murdered, and even the very conservative chief of police said that this was a hate crime. And I led the effort to add sexual orientation to our hate crime law. And that was sort of — this was 2002, I believe, 2002 or ’03, it might have been 2003. And this had only been ten years since the charter thing had been passed. Remember, the charter thing was passed in the aftermath of Bill Clinton being elected and gays in the military, that first debate. And several cities, including Denver, Colorado, passed virtually identical [language] ran by a right wing group around the country.

Here, we went on a major effort and we progressively, in 2004, in the midst of Bush getting reelected in Hamilton County 54 to 46, got the thing repealed by a substantial margin, which showed a real shift in our culture and our attitudes. And then we immediately passed — reinstated — the human rights ordinance. We immediately reinstated the non-discrimination. We passed benefits for domestic partners and many, many other things. So candidly, and this is why I think it’s so important that you’re here, we need to get the message out. I believe that we have moved many, many miles since then.

In addition, we have been incredibly progressive as it comes to civil rights and to police-community relations. We had, in 2001, a very difficult time with police and the community, the black community in particular. And we voted to invite the Justice Department in the Cincinnati to mediate rather than litigate allegations of police misconduct. And we led to the 2002 collaborative agreement — which I’m proud to say I helped negotiate — which is now held up as a role model for how to improve police community relations around the country. In fact, the judge in New York who struck down the “stop and frisk” law in New York City specifically cited Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement as the right way for the police and the community to work together.

And so I respectfully say that I understand that we have some baggage in terms of what happened in 1993 on gay rights, and we’ve had on the 80’s and 70’s…Larry Flynt… So I’m not denying that there isn’t some reason for that reputation, but it’s no longer fair.

In addition to a Harvard Law degree, Mayor Cranley also has a Masters of Theology from Harvard Divinity School as describes himself as a man of deep faith. I asked him how that informs him in his role as mayor:

I think that all of this has to be done in the context of the common good and building a society that expands opportunity. And I think at the end of our lives we’re fundamentally going to be asked did we make the world a better place for those who didn’t have as many advantages as we had and did we leave it better than we found it. A sense of stewardship. And all that comes, I think, deeply from my faith, schooling and family, values, traditions, et cetera.

And so we spend an enormous amount of time thinking about how are we going to reduce the poverty rate. One of my major planks in my campaign was reducing the poverty by at least 5% over the next four years. We are engaged at every level, re-examining the dollars that are — federal dollars that come in to the city budget that are earmarks for low income individuals and must be spent to the benefit of low income individuals — are we really getting the most bang for the buck out of these dollars?

Right now we have a cohort coming out of the Great Recession of folks who have never had high school or college degree, with kids, who have got very bleak prospects, and that is not surprisingly where those folks live tend to be some of our toughest neighborhoods. If we can, I think, rise to the moral challenge of figuring out how to not write off this entire generation but invest in job training and skill set to get them at least ready to work at low skill, low paying jobs and bring the dignity back of having a breadwinner in the family, the social dividends of that are enormous in terms of turning those neighborhoods around, those families around, the city around.

But in addition, if we can do it on a systematic basis, we can then market Cincinnati as a place for companies who want to locate with a large, ready to work population. Now, obviously, 20-30 years from now I’d love for us to have a higher education rate. I’m not saying it’s good and we just want to leave the education rates where they are, but given what we have today, how do we turn all that into an advantage and, at the same time, tackle the moral issues of poverty?

And while it’s not the same thing — a very sensitive issue, this is not the same thing — but building a more inclusive and welcoming society for immigrants and for African-American, Hispanics is also, I think, part of my faith tradition of — it does come from a history of prejudice that Cincinnati has been part of. And so we do have a moral obligation to tackle those issues but I do think from a political standpoint, it’s better — and true, not just better political argument, which it is, but it’s also true — that it’s better for all of us to have a more inclusive and welcoming city.

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer

I recently sat down to talk for about half an hour with Louisville, Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer. We had a wide ranging discussion that ventured from branding to globalization, regionalism, talent attraction, legacy, and more. If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor Greg Fischer. Image via Wikipedia.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

On an economic development partnership between Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky’s second largest city:

[Globaization] is central to who we are as a city. We have a very high export ratio here. We out export, we punch above our weight if you will, as a city. My background is one as an international business guy and we’ve spent a lot of time growing a broader regional economy. The city of Lexington and Louisville have a joint economic development plan that we did with the Brookings Institution called BEAM, Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. And a central thrust of that is growing exports throughout the region. We have people that go out and help businesses understand that’s the way of the future.

As a business guy, I’ve been more of a small, medium sized business person, 500 employees and below, so frequently I would compete with large, multinational corporations. When you start your career, you’re like, “My gosh, how can I compete against this firm that’s got manufacturing plants or offices all over the world and 10,000 employees?” What you find is as a small company, you have a lot of advantages that the big company doesn’t have. You’re closer to the customer. You’re nimbler. You can speak for the company.

So when you take a look at the challenges of a state like Kentucky, we’re not one of the biggest states. We’re certainly not one of the smallest, either. So what we’ve got to do is be excellent at partnering with each other internal to the state so that we can use that as a competitive advantage when we compete with other countries or other states for economic development. Louisville and Lexington combined metro region, including Southern Indiana, is about two and a half million people or so, more scale than just us at 1.3 million and certainly, more scale than just Lexington.

On regional cooperation with Southern Indiana:

When people move to Southern Indiana, they identify as moving to the Louisville area, typically. Our restaurants over here, our housing options over here are complementary to what’s in Southern Indiana so if a company is going to say, “Okay. I’m going to be in Southern Indiana or I’m going be in Missouri,” I want them in Southern Indiana.

Southern Indiana’s got some advantages that we don’t have. We don’t have that much open land left in Jefferson County. River Ridge, which is just opening across the river, is going to be helped by these bridges going in right now, these megaprojects, the Ohio River Bridges Project. It will be where a lot of these businesses are going to locate. I’d rather they locate there again than in some other state. So we win as a region because people live regionally. We’re happy to cooperate and brainstorm with Southern Indiana.

On how Louisville’s relationship with the state of Kentucky is evolving:

Evolving is the right term. Louisville produces about $2.4 billion a year of taxes and we get back $1.2 billion. Kentucky has been cited as the fourth most centrally controlled economy in the country in terms of states. In other words, sending taxes to our capital and redistributing them throughout the state. So it’s a challenge for us. I’m working right now to get the state constitution changed so that all cities and counties have the right to levy a local option sales tax where their citizens have the right to vote on specific capital projects, paid for in a specific way with that temporary sales tax sunsetting. Part of that is so local cities, whether it’s Louisville or Pikeville or anywhere in the state, could have more specific control over their built environment. So, that’s one way to address it.

Long term, we need some type of overall state tax reform. But in any state, you’re going to have an economic engine like we are here in Kentucky that contributes more to the balance of the state than what it is they generate. Our rural legislators are very good at teamwork, if you will, and our metropolitan legislators are not so good at teamwork. So they can be our own worst enemy in terms of directing more funds back to where they were originally generated – in this case, Louisville.

On the local food scene:

It’s been an interesting way to see how the rural parts of the state and the metropolitan areas really appreciate the partnership that we have with our local food movement. Like many places around the country but particularly here, when you go into restaurants, you’ll see the origin of the food in terms of the farmers that they came from. We were the first city in the world that we know of to do a demand analysis for local food, how much local food do people want to consume here. We did that deliberately to help our partners in the rural areas of the state, the farmers, so that they can understand that they’ve got a big, growing market in the biggest city in Kentucky.

When we did this survey, no matter what somebody’s socio-economic background was, everybody supported local food. They said, a), it’s healthier and b), we want to help local businesses. So, it kind of busted this myth that local food, farmers markets, all this was just yuppie kind of thing. Everybody appreciates good local food.

On why a 2014 college grad would choose Louisville over other cities such as Cincinnati or Nashville:

One, you want to take a look at the culture of the city. Are you going to be able to fit in? Are you going to be able to make a difference? You know, not every city is perfect for every student. So, is there a connection? Do you like our art scene? Do you like our local food scene here? What about the innovation we’re doing with the makerspace, for instance? Because I think we’re among the best in the country in that regard.

Take a look at the economic development clusters that are important to a city. In our case, are you into lifelong wellness and aging care, or food and beverage, or logistics and e-commerce, or business services, advanced manufacturing? Where is that fit for you? I can guarantee if you’re going to live here, you’re going to have a good quality of life and enjoy yourself, but are you going to be able to be employed in a meaningful way?

Any city that says they’re everything for everybody is being disingenuous. It’s just like a company. When you look at the city, find a place whose values mirror yours and whose opportunities mirror your interests at the same time. Make sure it’s got a beautiful, natural environment like we have here that’s full of nice people, and then you’ll have a good place to live – and it would be nice if it was Louisville.

There’s a lot more where this came from so listen to the whole thing or read the complete transcript.

Some may be wondering about the Ohio River Bridges Project. There were no restrictions on what topics I could ask about, and I haven’t changed my opinion on it. But I felt the discussion time would be productively spent elsewhere so did not ask about it.

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Does Calling Someplace a Metropolitan Area Make It So? by Chuck Eckenstahler

[ Today Chuck Eckenstahler looks back at the unfulfilled promises of Benton Harbor, MI being declared metropolitan - Aaron. ]

It’s called the “Benton Harbor Rule”, a hard fought change spearheaded by now Congressman Upton and local leaders to obtain metropolitan status in 1980.

Background

Back in the mid-1970′s, Berrien County Michigan, local governments and the Twin Cities Chamber of Commerce (predecessor to Cornerstone Chamber Services) identified the value of being recognized as “being metropolitan rather than rural”.

They identified the immediate opportunity to access as much as $1.8 million (1970’s dollars) of new federal and state funding that could only be obtained by “being metropolitan” for road improvements, bus transit, health and other social services. They estimated the designation would yield a $12-14 million dollar impact to the local economy.

To access these potential funds, they undertook a multi-year effort to change Federal Office of Management and Budget policy prohibiting Berrien County from ever being considered metropolitan.

Successful lobbing changed the rules for the 1980 Census creating, 9 new Metropolitan Areas like Benton Harbor-St. Joseph lacking a central city of 25,000 population in a concentrated urban area having a population of 50,000 or more, in a county having a population of 100,000 or more. This change modified the minimum sized “single city” criteria for determination of a “demographic dominate central city” requirement for federal metropolitan designation purposes.

Economic Development Advantages Identified

In the 1970’s being “metropolitan” meant more than increased state and federal money, according to the supporters. “Metropolitan” meant growth – increasing population and prosperity.

Business seeking to locate understood “metropolitan” to be a better place for new investment – both industry needing workers and retailers needing customers for success.

On the contrary, being a rural area meant the area didn’t quite make the grade for certain businesses especially the rapid growth of emerging fast food franchises and location of regional shopping malls.

The recruitment of these new businesses was a major goal of Chamber of Commerce visionaries who sponsored a nonprofit owned industrial park as a place for new industry to locate and create jobs. Back then there were no regional shopping malls and residents did a lot of their shopping in Kalamazoo, South Bend and Michigan City. It was believed the “metropolitan” designation would contribute to the redevelopment of Benton Harbor and the growth of communities throughout the county”.

Anyway, it just didn’t make sense that the home of several national firms such as, Auto Specialties, Leco Corporation, Tyler Refrigeration, Clark Equipment and Whirlpool would not reside in a growing metropolitan location.

Measuring the Impact of Metropolitan Designation

Today many wonder – was this successful? Did the change in federal policy truly make a difference?

Three decades later one measurement – population growth – can be used to gauge whether the legacy of this effort achieved results.

The adjoining table contains data for 8 of the 9 new MSA’s designated in 1980 due to the “Benton Harbor Rule”. The other has been merged into a consolidated MSA, a newer federal designation describing larger population centers, eliminating decade-to-decade data comparison.

This data reveals population of the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph MSA did not grow to the same extent as other comparative MSA’s created in 1980 – being a population loss of 8.4% compared to a 35.2% growth in population over the past three decades.

Where the average total comparative metropolitan growth rate in each decade ranged between 7-17%, the Benton Harbor St. Joseph MSA lost population twice between 1980 and 1990 and again between 2000 and 2010. The MSA only had marginal 0.7% population growth between 1980 and 1990.

What Happened

Obviously, the legacy of the authors of the Benton Harbor Rule, raises questions – why and what happened to the well intentioned efforts to stimulate growth.

The logical questions based on the data include – Why didn’t the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph MSA achieve similar growth? Shouldn’t the population have grown in a similar fashion as the other MSA’s – at least at the average rate? What social, political and economic impediments arose to limit population growth?

Many credit the demise of the auto industry, the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs and globalization of business as impediment to population growth. Others mention Michigan’s unfavorable business climate as a cause.

There certainly some truth in each statement. However closer to home, the more appropriate question might be – are there local impediments that hampered population growth?

Economic Geography and Realities of “Place”

The following offers a few thoughts on social and political barriers that might cause the lack of population growth:

Geographic Isolationism

The “Friday Night” social identity of Southwestern Michigan where small town high school sports define the community is a barrier to multi-community collaboration and cooperation. It limits the ability of local government and customer trade areas to form and strengthen economic clusters of businesses to maintain economic marketability necessary to sustain small local business that once supplied the small town community shopping experience.

Paralysis of Political Geography

In place of economic consideration which should inspire cooperation there is paralysis, the inability to shed “political boundary binders” that maintain the historic political geography that may, in some cases limit the scale of economics necessary for retail business sustainability and the delivery efficient government services.

Cognitive “Place” Realism

Without a doubt, economic markets of Berrien County today are different compared to 1975 when efforts to create a demographic dominate metropolitan central city composed of smaller individual communities was first initiated. Individual mental mapping of the actual area of influence of the Niles and Benton Harbor – St. Joseph shopping areas shows customers pay little attention in which local government the actual shopping is done. This mental cognitive mapping discloses three major retail markets, Benton Harbor – St. Joseph, Niles – connected to South Bend and Harbor Country – connected to Michigan City.

This pattern creates a rather isolated St. Joseph – Benton Harbor metropolitan market area surrounded by two (or three) market areas influenced by more dominate regional competitors having a population approximating 70,000 people with a somewhat lackluster future growth trend.

Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Polarization

Modern metropolitan community development theory has identified “social capital” as a key to economic prosperity in a global market. This is especially important for international businesses who recruit globally for management talent. Academic researchers have documented communities who richly embrace ethnic, cultural, religion and gender differences that increase social interaction among a wide spectrum of people tend to have increased population growth resulting in greater economic prosperity.

Academic research also discloses communities with “less tolerance for differences” lag behind both in community population growth and employment growth by firms serving global markets; leading to the question of adequacy of inclusionary and tolerance tendency of the metropolitan area.

Questionable Externally Communicated Metropolitan Identity

A metropolitan area identity, or its “good name”, is formed in people’s minds by repeated exposure – being the accumulated knowledge they acquire from varied sources (news media, marketing publicity, testimonials, etc.) and their personal experiences resulting in a positive, negative or neutral image. To often this image is one that leaders prefer not to address or address by issuing cheerleader statements or other auditory claims promising a personal experience that cannot be kept. A positive metropolitan identity and image is a message designed to attract attention and then follow with support services that fulfill the expected experiences.

The decision to visit or invest in a “place” is based on faith and trust because “customers” are purchasing an intangible personal asset. The logical question for any metropolitan area is – Do we offer a “good name” identity and image?

“Metropolitan” As a Determinant of Future Growth

Post-recession public policy has reinstated the importance of “metropolitan areas” in Michigan’s economic development policy.

Academics and political leaders extol the virtue of economic advantages of Michigan’s metropolitan areas. They are assembling new legislation and administrative policy to direct public and private investment to Michigan’s “core community” metropolitan areas.

From a public policy perspective this makes logical sense. Young people gravitate to metropolitan areas due to job opportunities metropolitan areas generate, the greatest number of new business formations occur in metropolitan areas, metropolitan areas tend to have higher per household incomes for their residents, and metropolitan areas attract higher value real estate investment that enhance the local government tax base.

A recent Brookings Institution analysis confirms this statement, where their research documents that in 47 of the 50 states, metropolitan areas generate the majority of the states’ gross economic output. They report in 2009, the St. Joseph – Benton Harbor Metropolitan area accounted for $5,620,000,000 (1.5%) of Michigan’s gross economic output (See: Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program – Metropolitan Area and the Next Economy and New Economy State Profiles).

Brookings advocates a “metro-led vision” for the future since they have “distinct assets and market strength to grow quality jobs and provide statewide prosperity”. They also note that metropolitan areas have:

1. In 30 states (including Michigan) the most innovative and educated workers,

3. Generate the majority of internationally exported goods and services, and

4. Host 89% of the working-aged people with post-secondary degrees.

All in all, Michigan’s strategy to define and focus government economic development attention to metropolitan “core communities” areas having greatest economic development impact is a reasonable and prudent “statewide” public policy. Michigan’s future hinges on performance of its metropolitan urban “core communities” hosting innovative firms, educated workers and critical infrastructure.

The Importance of “Geographic Place Identity”

Michigan’s newly forming metropolitan focused economic development public policy direction again draws attention on the importance of “metropolitan” and its impact on future growth of the Niles – Benton Harbor – St. Joseph Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Future community growth success is about understanding residents and, in the case of southwestern Michigan, to a lesser extent, seasonal residents and the occasional visitor. Population growth, especially well-educated workers is paramount to participation in the next wave of U.S. economic growth.

They say history repeats itself and again today – the term “metropolitan” once again communicates a sense of vitality and future prosperity.

In the eyes of the world a “metropolitan geographic brand identifier trumps a rural territorial identifier”.

This post originally appeared in Chuck Eckenstahler’s blog on February 27, 2014.

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

How Globalization Isolates Struggling Cities

My latest piece is in the January issue of Governing Magazine. It’s called “How Globalization Isolates Struggling Cities. In effect, this is a companion piece to my recent post on metro-centric economic development strategies. Here’s an excerpt:

In the age of globalization, cities and states would rather build bridges to the world than to the town next door. Some of this is simply the way the economy works. As Richard Longworth, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, wrote in his book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, “Chicago probably deals more, daily, with Frankfurt or Tokyo than it does with Indianapolis.”

He went on to identify the problem at hand, noting that “Globalization is beginning to isolate cities from their hinterlands: The hinterlands see this trend and are disinclined to do anything to speed it up. They perceive that most of these people—globalization’s winners—have never spent 30 seconds worrying about globalization’s losers.”

This is the two-tier society we see developing nationally playing out at the local level. It creates a tug of war at the state policy level, and it tears apart the whole notion that we are a commonwealth. It creates states that are, as Longworth put it, “hives of warring interests.”

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Grand Central Terminal And Penn Station: Will The Beauty and The Beast Ever Get Married? by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series by Robert Munson called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.


Photo by the author to celebrate GCT’s 100th anniversary

In today’s tale, Grand Central Terminal is The Beauty. Admired also for her goodness, she touches souls in ways most civic buildings cannot. Many souls, such as this author, find her exquisite. So when our mid-Century trend of destroying beautiful buildings put GCT on the demolition list, the public’s stored-up admiration stopped her assailants. And this inspired a preservation movement across the nation. Better yet, her Beauty also runs deep with a brilliant design that faithfully works 100 years later; distributing people better and seemingly with social graces that other hubs can only wonder how she does it.

However, our storyline has a dark side. For the past century, suburban passengers — who prefer her east-side location — have been forced to ride past her to the west-side Penn Station; often adding 30 minutes to the daily commute and congesting Midtown surface traffic further.

Who would conspire this denial? As in our tale, it is Beauty’s mean sisters who run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Railroad. And like Beauty’s sisters, these bureaucracies seemingly are statues who — to have life again and solve this problem — merely had to admit their mistakes.


Photo of Penn’s main concourse, taken by the author while waiting for gate posting for his LIRR train

Of course, today’s Penn Station is The Beast. Its ugliness is visceral and personal; defying description. Most who enter its maw sense what true ugliness does; instinctually aware of the cramped quarters and negative energy generated by masses of irritated humans. To manage their discomfort, most learn how to get out as quickly as possible. It is hard to imagine how this guy can become Beauty’s Prince.

The fable’s richest lesson tells us that transformation only happens if one changes one’s ways. Today’s real life Beast cannot transform because the governments of New Jersey and New York have self-interested priorities; unconcerned with the collaboration required for the region to benefit from sustainable solutions. Yet, some agent of the public must have the authority to bring transit into the next era.The consequences of not creating suitable authority are immediate and darken the mid-term.

As an immediate (and recurring) problem, Midtown has hellish crosstown traffic. Because trains do not connect both stations, too many commuters surface and add unnecessary street congestion. While surface congestion was reduced by making subway trains interconnect six decades ago, that vital lesson still has not been applied to interconnect suburban service.

Similarly a result of ineffective regional authority, through-routing New York suburbanites to New Jersey (and vice versa) will benefit commuters and employers. Yet, this mid-term economic collaboration is a pipedream. Analyzing each station objectively gives us reasoned premises from which to shape solutions. Let’s start with Her, the fun one.


Poster artistically depicting the glamor of Grand Central, photo by the author while riding the subway

Grand Central Terminal: The Beauty As Secular Cement

Score: 81 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainables

When GCT was threatened, prominent architect Phillip Johnson joined the civic movement to protect it with this statement: “Europe has its cathedrals and we have Grand Central.”

Also active in the movement to save GCT, the prestige lent by Jackie Kennedy Onassis helped revive the glamor of trains as GCT established a national standard that stations could be great again. After the nation’s Supreme Court decided in favor of GCT in 1977, the preservation movement had an icon and the law to grow its success.

More inspiring and exhilarating than the finest 21st Century airports (yet without the technological building advances of the past 80 years), it is hard to understand how GCT touches the human soul while smoothly handling its daily flurry of 1 million people hurriedly going places. As a museum piece, elegant shopping mall and transit’s single most efficient infrastructure piece, GCT’s magic is completed by generating constant fascination; serving as the sixth most visited tourist attraction with 21,600,000 visitors annually.

Grand Central sets this standard for every station: to serve as a complete destination, somewhere for tourist and commuter alike to benefit and enjoy travel again.

Now celebrating its 100th year, GCT’s excellent design remains an engineering marvel; flexible enough to accommodate ten times more people today than when it was completed at the start of World War One.


Track entrance, photo by author

Excellence starts in the basement with gates to the tracks that are welcoming, elegant and functional; all promising a pleasant commute. To accommodate rush hour traffic, platforms are wide; certainly the widest I’ve seen for a large terminus. Since platforms easily become choke-points as ridership grows, this shows GCT’s capacity to adapt.


Strolling down the ramp from the dining concourse to lower tracks, photo by author

Also adding to more fluid flow, ramps move people between the main, dining and lower concourses. The walk is far more spacious and pleasant than the usual cramped escalators… and wondrously less expensive to maintain or make handicap accessible.

Great design also helps GCT fulfill retail’s formula of location, location, location. Accommodating a variety of retail shops, GCT is unmatched perhaps anywhere; possibly except Tokyo hubs that have Macys-like department stores. But no where are shopping choices more elegantly arranged than GCT. Ranging from a cool Apple Store to upscale specialty boutiques to even a store for the New York Transit Museum to fascinate the inner subway rider of people like this author. And the shopping tour is not complete without a visit to the vast Grand Central Market (below) that ranks near the top of anyone’s list of gourmet cornucopias.


Grand Central Market, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Unlike any station in the western world, GCT’s 40 stores for shopping exceeds the 36 for dining. GCT’s Dining Concourse and famed Oyster Bar plus the upper level lounges and dining rooms all combine to rival any station on the planet for quality. Also unlike the fast food dominance of other stations, GCT finds ways to offer a more healthful “grab ‘n go.” (GCT’s leasing decisions should be compared to Penn Station’s whose criteria seem to heavily favor impulse-buy foods that are fattening and, generally, lack intrinsic nutritional value; all consistent with the quality of Penn’s public service.)

Shifting from destination-making-made-easier to the general genius of Grand Central’s original design, its long-term value must be compared to today’s addition when the government builds stations. Here is the MTA’s schematic for the East Side Access project.

It will take a century to correct the obvious mistake of bringing all LIRR passengers to Penn Station and their surfacing and over-crowding Manhattan’s streets for the last leg of a commute. But, government finally is making progress. This MTA project will bring about 20% of weekday LIRR passengers into GCT. As the immediate area redevelops under new zoning laws, the influx of new pedestrians and taxi-users probably will compound today’s congestion; in some ways, defeating the purpose of the East Side Access… and causing its expense, in the judgment of history, to eventually appear as unproductive.

I offer two items as a half-time critique of the East Side Access.

First, ridiculous cost-overruns clearly make the MTA inappropriate to direct future improvements. This project to serve the public is starting to look more like a perversion of tax dollars. The 1999 federal budget had the price at $2.2 billion. Functioning as a slow motion lure that promises the public a solution, it took eight long eight years until ground-breaking; creating lots of opportunities for the politically connected to get their piece of the public’s treasury and for bureaucratic battles to work their woe.

By the time digging started, the project cost almost tripled to $6.4B and completion was projected to end this year. Now in 2013, completion has been bumped to 2019 and tagged at $8.4B, a 382% increase since politics got involved. With a performance like this, intuition tells me that we have not seen the end of this fiscal travesty.

There are acceptable explanations for some cost-overruns. But, there are no excuses as far as the taxpayers’ bottom-line is concerned. If the MTA cannot protect its funding source, the MTA should be replaced with an authority that has a core financial discipline.

If there is to be any accountability moving forward to complete the East Side Access or any current MTA project (or any future project such as remaking Penn Station), the accountability process should start this year with inspector generals of New York City, New York State, Connecticut and, possibly, the federal government making an expanded report. Better yet, a joint report will help taxpayers understand what has happened to their money and suggest ways to help restore the public’s trust.

It will be curious to see if reports indicate the lack of cooperation between MTA subsidiaries (LIRR and Metro-North) led to these ridiculous cost-over-runs. For example, why did the LIRR platforms have to go 91 feet under Metro-North’s?

As a separate item, how are these cost-overruns related to the shared tunnel on 63rd Street ? (See map below.) Didn’t that two decade construction project — starting in 1969 — also end in a fiasco in which it wasn’t useful until the 21st Century when subway connections were made ?

From this tunnel fiasco that so far spans half a century, what are the lessons from this overall lack of authority so that taxpayers can be protected in the future?

And in the Big Picture, would a through-routing strategy have made a lot of these costs unnecessary and still improve the chances to achieve the objective of reducing congestion?

But alas, all this money does not contribute to the strategic solution of through-routing. (Don’t forget, the “marriage” in this piece’s title refers, in part, to the sustainable benefits of through-routing.) Future capacity of Penn and Grand Central can be increased by trains running through it. Yet, the East Side Access project terminates these LIRR trains along with GCT’s 67+ other tracks. The future needs through-routes to contribute to sustainable regional solutions.


Drawing courtesy of Foster + Partners prepared for MAS competition and its website

Easier to grasp than this mind-boggling waste of tax dollars, my second criticism starts more micro. The East Side addition is too far below the standard of GCT’s elegant design; largely resulting from an inability to reconcile differing systems. While more passengers will be able to enjoy GCT (an improvement over Penn’s discomfort), they first get pinched (as in the red pressure points above.) There appears to be a poorly designed exit from the the East Side Access into GCT’s lower level concourse.

There is an even more serious constriction of customers seeking to transfer to the subway, the primary solution to Midtown’s street congestion. MTA also supposedly has authority to manage the subways. (On page 51 of the Foster proposal’s link above, a solution is offered; but, of course, the MTA has no money given its cost-overruns.)

So, we see yet again the weakness of MTA’s authority upon entering the subway system. Lines 4 and 5 (in the lower right corner) already are the nation’s most over-burdened. The ESA will bring some 12,000 more riders from the LIRR. And if the MTA plans to relieve this congestion by finishing the 2nd Avenue subway one long block away, I remind everyone that the Elevated was torn down and used as scrap in the war against facism… and east-side Manhattan riders have been waiting ever since.

Back to belief in today, these problematic transit connections are reviewed starting on page 31 of a study released for GCT’s 100th anniversary, A Bold Vision for Midtown. Prepared by the Municipal Arts Society, MAS has served as the primary civic organization and Guardian Angel throughout Beauty’s life. Opening yet another chapter of great public service, this excellent 65-page publication analyzes GCT. Particular attention is paid to public spaces and mobility within its original surrounds that sprung up in the 1920s. Known as the Terminal City, it remains NYC’s best contribution to the City Beautiful movement. Terminal City also is the original application of the “value capture” concept being talked about by cities today. For a relevant primer on value capture, refer to this 2012 post in “Urbanophile.” And for a longer discussion, see this recent post.

Using the rezoning of GCT’s surrounds, “Bold Vision” turns the coming redevelopment into an opportunity to evolve East Midtown. (The booklet also is a bit of a pre-emptive strike to prevent the surrounds from further reducing Beauty’s prominence.) I certainly hope MAS successfully guides and monitors deals between developers and City planning agencies to improve public spaces, streets and sidewalks to cope better with Midtown’s congestion.

But, all of these real estate updates beg several questions. First of all, why focus municipal attention on a center that, on a relative basis, works pretty well now? Instead, shouldn’t all these plans of increasing density be preceded by solving the congestion caused when commuters surface to get to their destinations?

And given that the MTA will be ridiculously over-budget and decades late in getting the LIRR to stop at GCT, should it be the agency to through-route GCT’s trains? Through-routing makes several contributions to regional sustainability. For GCT to advance in that direction, some lines need to go through.


Photo taken by author while riding the Lexington Ave subway

It is not my intent to challenge MTA’s competence. Per the photo above as an example of many improved efforts to serve the public, MTA is trying. (And relative to Chicagoland’s agencies, MTA gets an “A”.) But, here is the real question: is MTA the correct agent to solve problems economically?

Here also follow bigger questions for the sustainable era; most are so far beyond MTA’s purview that a true authority will be needed if the future is to look better than today.

But….. As beautiful as GCT is and as positive as the MAS influence on land use agencies and developers seems to be, how does remaking a 21st Century Terminal City fit into a strategy for regional redevelopment? Offering the more objective perspective of someone who lives in the nation’s second densest city, I ask: isn’t Manhattan’s problem really that it has too many people? Don’t Midtown’s insanely high land costs drive even more density that we currently cannot afford infrastructure for?

Let’s face the Big Picture. Manhattan bound trains serve its CBDs, but also congest these districts. Terminating commuter lines merely compounds connections to other transit and, thereby, raises the cost for everyone.

If our governments cannot follow a de-congestion strategy such as through-routing that European cities solve almost as a matter of course, then how can current agencies ever guide something as complex as the much talked-about goal of economically rational regional redevelopment? Fundamental to our economic competitiveness, this topic is explored in later articles. But for now, truly sustainable stations — of which GCT could lead the way — must also contribute to systems that guide rational redevelopment.

To end where we began our story….. In my personal opinion, The Beauty is doing just fine. She can age more gracefully with better streets and sidewalks. But giving her implants in the form of bigger buildings will just make her sag… or at least cause her to lose her shape… if you don’t mind my metaphor.

As for marrying her off to a Beast… we have to believe in miracles. Specifically, New York must try through-routing and other transit connection methods to relieve congestion… or else the marriage fails to improve the household’s economics. These methods are explored in the remake of Penn Station… the next article in this series on how stations can support truly sustainable transit.

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Is Cincinnati At an Inflection Point?

Cincinnati, like most older cities, has experienced a long period of population and economic decline, especially relative to its overall region (i.e., sprawl). Looking at recent trends in the city, I’ve been prompted to ask whether or not it has hit an inflection point where decline has been halted and a new growth cycle of sorts is underway.

Cincinnati was once something like the 5th largest city in the US and was the dominant city of the interior West during the first half of the 19th century, much like Chicago today. A failure to embrace railroads and structural factors it never could have overcome (just to cite one example, an inability to quarry Wisconsin ice fields during the winter) led to the center of gravity shifting to the Windy City. Cincinnati entered a long period of relative and decline and stagnation, though regional economic employment and population grew on an absolute basis. As with many places, a basically land-locked core city saw population peak 1950, followed by decline. A particular recent low point in the city was the 2001 race riots in Over the Rhine, which may be the most recent major racial disturbance in a major American city.

Whether triggered by this or some other factor, Cincinnati in (mostly) the post-2000 embarked on a number of changes that did quite a transforming work in downtown. This included lowering a highway that cut downtown off from the riverfront, building two new stadiums, major redevelopment in Over the Rhine, etc. Notable here was completion the first phases of the Banks, a mixed use riverfront development that had been a poster-child for many of a city that could never get anything done. Similarly, a street car system seems on track thanks to Herculean efforts in the face of stunning obstacles. There has been new major office construction and also (more dubiously) a casino. Outside of downtown Cincinnati is replete with many high quality neighborhood business districts that have seen significant improvements. The University of Cincinnati embarked on a major starchitect oriented building spree, etc, etc.

Other cities can tell similar tales, but what made me specifically consider Cincinnati was a couple factors. First is just the huge difference in feel and palpable physical change between visits I made in 2008 and in 2010. I was not the only one who noticed as even firebrand conservative talk radio host (and pretty rabid anti-city guy) Bill Cunningham changed his tune on Over the Rhine, singing its praises.

Also, there’s been a political shift as well. Previously many Cincinnati initiatives had been derailed by a very active Tea Party style group called COAST – “Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes” (which actually predated the Tea Party) They were a pretty fearsome force to be reckoned with for a period of time. However, after failing to defeat the proposed streetcar in a referendum, their power appears to have wanted considerably in the city. The locus of opposition to city initiatives now comes from the statehouse, and also from collar county politicians like Rep. Steve Chabot, who was gerrymandered into a district where he represents downtown Cincinnati while being supported by a Warren County voter base. This isn’t to say that COAST is always wrong. Cincinnati and Hamilton County have cut some astoundingly bad deals that have inflicted taxpayer torment (such as the aforementioned stadiums). But their loss of influence is suggestive of demographic change in the city. Had more urban-oriented residents been attracted to the city?

To test this, I took a look at some base data. Here’s a look at total population in the region since 1950:

Here’s a look at percentage change by Census year. The change is over the preceding decade. So 1990 represents the change between 1980 and 1990:

Lastly, here’s a look at population share within the region:

As of 2010, none of these show a material change in the sprawl paradigm. I was hoping to see especially that Cincinnati had reversed its share loss within Hamilton County and/or that its percentage loss had decreased, but this was not the case. The 1980-1990 decade was actually the best for the city, and the population percentage losses have increased in the two decades since. Similarly, share loss even within Hamilton County has continued to grow.

However, I find the numbers interesting. Suburban Hamilton County was the growth juggernaut in the 50s and 60s, but it basically flatlined in 1970. I know geography complicates things in the area, but from my drives about town, there appears to be land left that could be developed but hasn’t been. Suburban Hamilton County itself actually lost population during the 2000s. This is in line with general inner suburban declines around America. I suspect this has had an impact in bridging the city-suburb divide within Hamilton County because now almost the entire county can related to being the “inner city” if you will. Many of these areas are in pretty much the same boat as the city, and thus could find alignment of interests.

Also, the loss of population in the city suggests a possible alternative narrative for why the Tea Party lost influence. Namely that its political supporters in some Cincinnati neighborhoods gave up and left, leaving a pro-downtown type majority coalition. Whatever the case, it provides an opportunity to achieve civic momentum because there’s more policy consensus, though state level Republicans can continue making things difficult. (Again, this says nothing of the merits of various policies themselves, merely consensus for action). The core population growth was real in the past decade, but concentrated in downtown and though the percentages were pretty high (around 30%) it was on a pretty small base so the total gains were only about 1,350 people. Good, but not good enough. Here’s the NYT Census map:

Looking at jobs, the core zip code of downtown, 45202, lost 19,500 private sector jobs between 2000 and 2011, a drop of 23%. (Zip code 45219, which includes the University of Cincinnati, had a slight job gain, but on a comparatively smaller base of only 14,400). This suggests that there hasn’t been an economic inflection point either.

To date the data would not appear to have confirmed the notion of a center city inflection point in Cincinnati. However, the change in the feel of the city is, as I said, palpable. Last time I was there I just generally got the feeling that the wind was back in the city’s sails. Time will tell if this is the start of a real trend or whether it is just a bump created by unsustainable public investment and a change in national trends. Given the high quality “bones” of the city, Cincinnati is one of the place I’d be watching to see if post-industrial cities can really pull off a turnaround.

If you’re interested in the raw data and charts I created for this post, here’s the Excel file.

Monday, June 24th, 2013

The Metropolitan Revolution

The Metropolitan Revolution
by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley
Brookings Institution Press, June 2013

By far the most important thing that the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program has done is educate and advocate for the reality of the metro-centricity of the United States. This might seem obvious from their name, but from the behavior of all too many, this new metro reality is apparently not obvious to most.

Lost in the statistics of world urbanization is the fact that the United States is already almost entirely urbanized. In 2010, over 80% of the US population lived in urban areas. In America, that urbanization takes the form of the metropolitan area we’ve come to know, consisting of a central city and its associated suburbs. Just the top 100 metros contain 2/3′s of America’s population.

Too many policy makers seem to think that America is still a nation of yeoman farmers or that the average American lives in something resembling Mayberry. Because the basics are like the urban air many of us breathe, I think it can be difficult to appreciate just how hard it is to talk to senior elected officials who don’t share our mindset – or even get them to listen in the first place. One thing Brookings has is the institutional stature to speak to them at both the state and federal level. Thus they are able to educate those people on basic facts that probably seem beyond obvious to anyone reading this. This is hugely important.

On the other hand, Brookings can be distinguished by being advocates for the idea of metropolitanism to urbanists who too often reject it. Because the American urban form is often bifurcated into central cities that look and function one way and suburban areas that look and function another, it’s easy to see “city” and “suburb” as different entities and indeed even opposed entities rather than the integrated societies and economies that they are. While I think it’s fair to say that Brookings is favorable towards central cities, they aren’t anti-suburban. This is to their great credit.

The Metropolitan Revolution is a new book from them (Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley) that is basically a packaging of their urban point of view and manifesto circa now. It consists of four case studies followed by four chapters outlining their big call to action themes. Fortunately, it reads much more like one of Bruce Katz’s speeches than it does a typical Brookings whitepaper, and is very readable on that account.

Richard Layman already wrote a detailed review I’d encourage you to check it out as I’m going to attempt to cover different territory and rely on him for what he describes.

Case Studies

The four case studies are New York City’s process for developing the Cornell-Technion tech campus project, Denver’s regionalism, Cleveland’s Fund for Our Economic Future, and a Houston-based social service organization called Neighborhood Centers, Inc.

These cases were obviously selected with an eye towards a diversity of metro types. Given its prominence as a urbanist bête noire, Houston was a particularly bold choice. All of them were told as feel-good stories, which makes you come away feeling hopeful about metro America. On the other hand, this means that when you investigate the cases in more detail, they don’t look quite so perfect.

The New York tech campus example is an interesting one to me. It is an unrealized project, so the jury is still out, but it’s an important statement about how that city sees the future. Layman softly dings this one as being only a city level initiative, but at over eight million people, NYC is bigger than any other metro area aside from LA or Chicago, so let’s cut them some slack.

The most notable thing here in my view is that New York believes it has to be in the tech talent production business. NYC has traditionally been the ultimate talent attractor. They didn’t need to worry about producing the world’s top talent because it would seek them out. Silicon Valley and most tech hubs rely on this kind of talent attraction for their supply. By setting up a tech talent factory in town, however, NYC is saying that they don’t think they can meet their tech industry ambitions solely through hoovering up outsiders. They need to be in the production business as well. I’m not sure what Jim Russell thinks of this, but he’s often claimed that the era of prosperity on an attraction model is waning in a more convergent world (i.e., where tech & talent are becoming more decentralized). NYC seems to be responding to this reality.

Brookings has done quite a bit of consulting work in Cleveland I believe, so perhaps it’s unsurprising they used an example from that city. Cleveland is in a sense another bold choice for a case study given that it has performed so poorly as a region. But perhaps the desperation birthed out of such performance is what convinced a number of regional foundations to get into the economic development business, and to pool their resources to do so as something called the Fund for Our Economic Future. Whether foundations are a good vehicle for driving economic development is debatable. But in a place that has such toxic city-suburb divides – for example, Cuyahoga County reps banded together at the local MPO to veto a suburban interstate interchange even though a developer was paying for it … until the suburb in question agreed to share tax revenue with Cleveland – this was a good first place for regional collaboration to take hold. However, it’s not clear to me that this initiative is actually going well, as newspaper articles from 2010 suggest that the Cleveland Foundation, its biggest funder, was scaling back support for it. Whatever the status today, clearly the road was not without major boulders in it.

The chapter on Denver was one I found particularly depressing at it illustrates the problem folks like Brookings are fighting to overcome. As Denver grew, it annexed territory, but as in many places, a hostile state disempowered the city. Colorado effectively banned future annexations by amending the state constitution to require a majority vote of all residents in a county containing territory Denver wanted to annex. That’s all county residents, not just residents of the affected territories. Yikes! It just goes to show that America’s state legislatures will go to any length to kill the golden geese that pay their bills. Though this happened long ago, the same spirit is alive and well today in many places. As the authors put it when discussing the problem more broadly:

States have used their power not only to define and limit the power and geography of cities and municipalities but also to create a dizzying, often comical array of special-purpose entities: school districts, fire districts, library districts, sewer districts, mosquito districts, public benefit corporations, industrial development authorities, transportation authorities, port authorities, workforce investment boards, redevelopment authorities, control boards, and emergency financial managers. Fundamentally, cities and metropolitan areas have either been places acted on or the backdrops and locations where state and federal interventions have been made, whether for ill or good.

This case study charts the evolution of regionalism in Denver from this starting point of animosity, through to the creation of a regional mayors organization, building a new airport, a cultural facilities tax, and the vote to approve the FasTracks rail system (including discussing how an initial attempt fail). As with Cleveland however, all has not been rosy. In a bit of impeccable timing, earlier this month (no doubt after the book went to press), Adams County demanded that Denver de-annex the land that it ceded in 1988 to build the new airport. Lawsuits are threatened.

A Call To Action

In the second half of the book Katz and Bradley highlight a number of imperatives they think are critical to metro areas in the future.

I’ll start by talking about what I didn’t agree with. Richard Layman liked the “innovation districts” theme from the book, but I’m less sold. There are definitely bona fide examples like Cambridge, MA. But these were generally organic (or at least unintended by-products of government action). Most intentional innovation districts (Research Triangle Park being a notable exception) have been Potempkin village like constructs as near as I can see. I’d put the Detroit example in this bucket. There’s a lot of good stuff happening, but not all that much Cambridge or Silicon Valley style innovation. Heck, I’d even put Boston’s South Waterfront in the same category, at least to date. There’s a lot of real estate development, but not quite as much spontaneous innovation. (Mass Challenge is only one floor of one building, for example, received a lot of government money I believe, and is a non-profit to boot).

Layman does highlight a conundrum faced by metros when it comes to innovation districts, however. Namely, they are mostly in the core city. To him this implies a future that’s core city centric. To me it highlights the free rider dilemma for regional amenities. As I noted regarding sacred space, it’s the core city that often provides (and pays for and makes valuable land non-taxable for) regional amenities. These cities expect the suburbs to ante up for this. And in some cases (often the wrong ones, like stadiums) that’s happened. But in many cases it hasn’t. City advocates often decry this. However, if a suburb happens to step up and build a regional amenity, the city folks howl at that too. For example, when Carmel, Indiana built a concert hall, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra reportedly lobbied wealthy people in the region not to donate any funds to it. I’ve yet to meet one person from the urban core who thinks that suburban concert hall is a plus for the region. The downtown crowd wants to hog the amenities, but expects everyone else to help pay to support them. This is an example of the counter-productive thinking that plagues our metros.

Where I thought the book really stood out was in an area Layman was less sold on, namely the notion of an international league of trading cities. I think he got caught up in the analogy to the Hanseatic League. The key point here was that metro areas need to focus on exports. Global growth has shifted away from the US, so if your metro economy is only focused on domestic markets, you are practically doomed to being a slow growth city at best. The regions that export to high growth markets are going to have a huge advantage. As the authors put it:

Many metro leaders in the United States have not used or even flexed their communities’ exporting muscle. As a result, the system for global engagement in most metros is either nonexistent or badly frayed. Most American metros have no baseline information on what—and with whom—they trade. Few resources are dedicated to exporting, foreign direct investment, and global exchange.

Obviously in order to export, it helps to have existing relationships. Building these relationships is something that’s critical for every metro area to be doing. Katz and Bradley highlight attracting immigrant communities as one way to get international networks “for free.” This is something that too few local leaders understand. The backing for mayoral trade trips is one I’m less sold on. I’ve seldom seen these result in much actual business and I think there’s something to the notion that these are junkets (if not outright pseudo-bribery). Regardless, the Brookings offering around creating export plans for communities is right down the rails of what metros need to be looking at. They make a very effective case for this.

I once asked what globalization means to non-global cities. I think this book offers a compelling answer that it means the difference between having a stagnant economy and one that is potentially high growth through global trade. This is an imperative for every region with the scale to operate at the global level (which I tend to scope at around the top 50 metros).

I also want to highlight their chapter on metros as the “new sovereign.” Given the gridlock in Washington and the fecklessness that characterizes most state legislatures when it comes to metros, it’s tempting for a lot of people to talk about cities going it alone. Brookings, perhaps because they are so tightly connected to federal and state institutions, doesn’t see it this way. Katz and Bradley chart out a middle course, recognizing that now is the time for regions to step up and take the lead, but also acknowledging the criticality of federal and state governments. From their introductory chapter:

Like all great revolutions, this one has been catalyzed by a revelation: Cities and metropolitan areas are on their own. The cavalry is not coming. Mired in partisan division and rancor, the federal government appears incapable of taking bold action to restructure our economy and grapple with changing demography and rising inequality. Recent Supreme Court decisions have also circumscribed the ability of the federal government to respond to national challenges. States are a varied lot. Some, often under the leadership of mayors-turned-governors, are aligning policies and programs to meet the needs of their metropolitan engines; some are too broke and broken to engage and, in fact, are scaling back investments in critical areas like education, redevelopment, and community health; still others have a long history of antagonism toward their urban and metropolitan engines.

Yet cities and metropolitan areas, even if they are largely on their own, cannot go it alone. Federal and state governments are dysfunctional but powerful actors. If the states are an irresponsible parent, the federal government is a distant, often clueless relative—who nonetheless controls the family money.

They other thing they so importantly get right is the distinctiveness of cities. It’s no longer about having the same collection of assets and amenities as everyone else, but about trying to understand your unique local environment and build on that.

One takeaway for me was that, despite the almost obvious importance of metro areas to America, there’s isn’t necessarily a road map forward. This is most true within metro areas themselves. As the Cleveland and Denver examples showed, there are generally no legal or institutional frameworks that by default create metro level thinking. In fact, everything is aligned exactly the opposite direction, as I highlighted earlier with innovation districts. Doing the right thing requires immense leadership by broad-minded locals who realize that their own particular city or town is part of an overall mosaic or team on which everybody needs to know their role and bring their A-game. This where perhaps Brookings could help metros going forward. How can these regions see themselves as part of a single organic entity and not as a collection of semi-independent feudal estates?

In any event, the book’s biggest contribution in my view is making the case for why this new view is important to those local leaders (as well as folks in state houses and Washington). And along the way it will hopefully provide a wakeup call on globalization and other critical topics for a metropolitan 21st century.

PS: Kaid Benfield at the NRDC also just posted a review.

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Milwaukee’s Future as Part of Greater Chicagoland

Last summer I was invited to speak at a conference called “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity” put on by the Marquette University School of Law and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. It was an interesting day of conversation about mega-regional integration between the two metros. In follow-up, Marquette Lawyer magazine asked me to write a piece for them about it. I’m including the full text of that article below. However, the current issue of the magazine has a couple of other major articles on the same topic. These are “Thinking and Acting (and Flourishing?) as a Region” by Alan J. Borsuk and “Rivalry, Resignation, and Regionalization” by John Gurda. I recommend both of these.

In the meantime, my article is below. The first part of it includes material and ideas from my “Don’t Fly Too Close to the Sun” post, but most of the article is original. Enjoy.


Milwaukee and Chicago sit a mere 90 miles apart on I-94. Growth in both metro regions has led to near-continuous development along that corridor, which is being expanded to handle the increasing traffic between the two regions. Amtrak links downtown Milwaukee with downtown Chicago in only 90 minutes, which is shorter than some Chicago commuter rail trips. The two cities share a lakefront heritage and similar industrial history.

With their closeness and parallels, the idea that there’s benefit for the two cities in mutual collaboration is almost obvious. This is particularly the case for Milwaukee as it looks to differentiate itself from peer cities. What does it have that those places don’t? Chicago. This idea was even the subject of an entire conference called “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity,” sponsored by Marquette University Law School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This essay further explores Milwaukee’s relationship to Chicago.

Is Proximity to Chicago a Positive?

In most discussions of the topic, the increasing integration of Chicago and Milwaukee is assumed to be a positive. But we should ask whether this is so. For other examples of close cities around the country suggest that perhaps a more cautious view should be adopted.

Indianapolis analyst Drew Klacik has suggested a reason to be skeptical about Chicago–Milwaukee. He promotes a model of the Midwest as a solar system with Chicago as the Sun. His idea is that Indianapolis is Earth—it’s the perfect distance from Chicago. A place like Cleveland is like Uranus—it’s too far away and doesn’t get enough heat and light. But in this model Milwaukee is like Mercury—it’s too close to the sun and gets burned up.

Of course, Klacik comes from Indianapolis. But is there something to this notion of being “too close to the sun”? Taking a look at other similarly situated cities suggests some indications that it isn’t always healthy to be located next to a megacity. Providence, R.I., about the same size as Milwaukee, sits just 50 miles from Boston, but shows little signs of life. Neither does New Haven, Conn., 80 miles from New York, or Springfield, Mass., 90 miles from Boston. But these post-industrial cities have struggled for reasons completely independent of megacity proximity.

A more positive example might be Philadelphia, which is 90 miles from New York and seems to be seeing a resurgence due to what we might dub the “Acela effect,” as runaway gentrification chases people from New York. Yet Philadelphia is also a near megacity in its own right. Various post-industrial cities such as Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet have seen new growth as Chicago enveloped them, but they are much closer and much smaller than Milwaukee, and in the same state as Chicago. To the extent that they’ve benefited from being close to Chicago, it’s because Chicago has turned them into suburbs.

The key takeaway might be that Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago is potentially either a pro or con. It is something that must be studied, and managed as well as possible, to both regions’ benefit. There is no choice to grow together or not grow together. The two regions are growing together as we speak, driven purely by market forces. It is happening on its own. The real question is what, if anything, should Milwaukee’s leaders do about it.

To show the double-edged sword of proximity, consider the case of General Mitchell International Airport. How is service at this airport, and thus for Milwaukee generally, affected by Chicago’s proximity? There are many ways. For example, to the extent that it is more convenient or has lower fares, Mitchell Airport can draw from the Northern Chicagoland region, becoming a de facto third airport for Chicago. This is a positive for Mitchell Airport and Milwaukee. However, to the extent that Chicago has better nonstop flight options, especially internationally, people may choose to drive from the Milwaukee region to O’Hare for a nonstop flight rather than connect. This potentially suppresses Milwaukee air traffic, particularly for international flights. Among metro areas with more than a million people, Milwaukee ranks only 41st in the United States in originating international air passengers per capita, according to Brookings Institution research. This is a negative for Milwaukee. But the flip side is that Milwaukeeans, by driving to O’Hare, have access to many nonstop flights that aren’t options for people in other small cities.

In short, the dynamics are complex and cut both ways. That’s why simple surface thinking will not suffice to manage this problem. It requires a lot of careful analysis and new types of thinking.

Milwaukee Must Go It Alone

Additionally, in its attempts to manage the increasing integration of Chicagoland with Milwaukee, Milwaukee should expect largely to have to go it alone. People from Chicago may come to the occasional conference, but it’s unlikely that Milwaukee will capture much time and attention from Chicago’s leadership. Milwaukee is much smaller. Chicago already has all the scale it needs to compete in its chosen global-city strategy. And Chicago and Illinois both have serious near-term problems that must urgently be addressed. The leadership of the Chicagoland region is mostly Chicago-focused. It can even be difficult to get Chicago and its suburbs to pay attention to each other or get on the same page—how much more so Chicago and Milwaukee. Thus the next key question to ask is this: What can Milwaukee do by itself for itself, without much help from its larger neighbor? What should Milwaukee do to try to shape its future in the Chicago megacity?

A Plan of Attack

Here are some potential ideas to explore.

1. Think “Different.” Milwaukee is similar to Chicago but smaller; hence it can at times view itself as a little brother or “Mini-Me” version of the Windy City. But the approach of being like Chicago is not a positive for integration. Economic gains come from specialization and the division of labor. You can only take advantage of this to the extent that you are different. On a football team, not everybody can be a quarterback or a linebacker. Everybody has to know his role on the team. Milwaukee would be much better served to be a starting wide receiver to Chicago’s quarterback than to settle for second-string QB.

Mike Doyle illustrated the downsides of thinking too much like Chicago in his critique of a local tourism campaign aimed at Chicagoans. One tagline from an outdoor ad was “Beer. Brats. If you had another hand, we’d go on.” But, as Doyle notes, Chicago is arguably already as good a beer and brat town as Milwaukee. Why would people make the trip for something they can already get at home?

Milwaukeeans instantly understand that you go to Chicago to get what you can’t get at home. The city needs to invert that thinking to figure out what it is that you can get only in Milwaukee and not in Chicago. That is where you market your city.

Similarly, in thinking about the best way to relate to Chicago economically, Milwaukee should sort out how the two cities can have complementary specialties.

2. Promote an Expanded Labor Market. Another area of integration is to better market the two cities as an extended labor market. This could take place in various ways. Naturally, making the sale to talent you are trying to attract to Milwaukee that Chicago is a piece of Milwaukee’s value proposition is a given. There may also be people who want to live in Chicago but could potentially be attracted as employees in downtown Milwaukee. This is particularly true if a person needs to be on site only part-time, such as a software developer. Many people reverse commute from the city to the suburbs of Chicago on Metra. There’s no reason they can’t do it on Amtrak as well. Figuring out the addressable market and how to sell it on Milwaukee is the “to do” here.

3. Market Nearshore Outsourcing. The move from Chicago to Milwaukee provides a steep cost gradient while maintaining good physical proximity in a way that provides opportunities for periodic face-to-face interactions. The globalized economy appears to be currently rewarding two models. The first is the “flat world” model of Tom Friedman in which work travels to wherever in the globe it can be produced most cheaply. The second is the “spikey world” model of Richard Florida in which intensive face-to-face collaboration is so valuable that it forces clustering of people and businesses in locations such as downtown Chicago.

Is there an intermediate model where reducing costs is important for certain activities, but face-to-face meetings are still valuable? If so, this is where Milwaukee–Chicago would have a very strong play. Examples may be various types of legal work or business-process outsourcing. For example, Walgreens maintains an operations center in Danville, Illinois, some 135 miles to the south of Chicago along the Indiana border. This is not only lower-cost than Chicago, but it allows executives from Deerfield to make day trips, enabling much better oversight and collaboration than an overseas location would, particularly with the time zone commonality. These types of applications would be something that could be highly beneficial for economic development in Milwaukee.

4. Eschew the Amenity Arms Race. Many cities of the same general size as metro Milwaukee spend much of their time trying to produce amenities that prove they are a “big-league city.” For many of these—stadiums, hotels, convention centers, department stores, high-end restaurants—there is a sort of “nuclear arms race” between cities in which one city after another pumps large subsidies into bolstering these high-end sectors in order to try to distinguish itself from the pack.

For Milwaukee, proximity to Chicago reduces the ability of the city to attract and support these types of amenities. Consider one example: high-end department stores. An analysis by David Holmes discovered that Milwaukee had fewer high-end department stores than regional peer cities. He also noted that when plans for a Nordstrom in Milwaukee were announced, it was reported that the city was the largest in America without one.

This is unsurprising. The incredible wealth of high-end amenities in Chicago siphons off money from high-end consumers by shifting it south. This reduces the effective capacity of the Milwaukee region to support amenities. This might be seen as a negative. However, the situation holds two key positives that also should be mentioned. The first is that, again, Milwaukee can take advantage of everything Chicago has to offer, which is something other places can’t. This is vastly more than Milwaukee could ever support by itself. And, secondly, many other cities give a lot of subsidies in attempts to lure these types of amenities. That’s money Milwaukee can keep in its pocket.

5. Avoid Other Sectors Where Proximity to Chicago Is a Disadvantage. Consider where Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago is a disadvantage, and avoid those sectors. This is particularly true when solutions targeting these sectors are popular and thus tempting for Milwaukee to try. For example, both Indianapolis and Columbus have focused on building tons of bulk distribution space. But because of Chicago’s terrible traffic and Lake Michigan as a barrier to the east of Milwaukee, Milwaukee may not be as good a fit for that type of business, which is a low-wage industry in any case.

6. Improve Rail Connectivity Between the Cities. The highway linkages between Chicago and Milwaukee are already being upgraded, but the rail system requires improvement. The cities are currently linked via Amtrak’s Hiawatha service, which is subsidized by the state of Wisconsin. As noted, it provides a 90-minute journey time with seven trips per day. This route has received little investment compared to similar types of corridors, such as the Keystone route linking Harrisburg, Pa., to Philadelphia and on to New York.

Unfortunately, the state and federal political climates are not favorable to significant rail upgrades at this time. Ideally, the route would have hourly frequencies and shorter journey times (though true high-speed rail along the lines of that found in Europe is not needed). In the meantime, Milwaukee leaders should look to explore ways to better manage the existing service. Ideas include Metra-style boarding in Chicago instead of making passengers queue in a waiting room, variable pricing to better utilize and allocate capacity, and amenities such as Wi-Fi.

Milwaukee should also establish policies favorable to curbside bus operators such as Megabus that might provide additional connectivity to Chicago.

Milwaukee Is Blazing the Trail

There has been a lot written about so-called mega-regions, from people such as Richard Florida to the Regional Plan Association of New York. The concept is that cross-regional collaboration such as between Milwaukee and Chicago is the next level of regional economy that will become a basic competitive unit in the global economy.

There’s just one problem: other than building high-speed rail in these mega-regions, there’s a paucity of ideas about what one would actually do to make these mega-regions work. The public policy ideas for this are few.

Milwaukee and Chicago provide an excellent test bed for the mega-region concept. They are close enough together to be nearly an economic unit in formation already, but far enough apart to truly be two metro areas with two centers of gravity. If Chicago and Milwaukee can’t figure out how to generate value from the mega-region concept, it’s unlikely many other people will, apart from pure market forces.

This means Milwaukee has the exciting opportunity to be a trailblazer. Given that the regions continue to grow together day by day with no intervention from the outside, this is a challenge that is coming Milwaukee’s way whether Milwaukee wants it or not. Chicago may be able to ignore it, but Milwaukee has no such luxury.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Marquette Lawyer magazine.

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Could Buenos Aires Be a Model for Thinking About US Cities? by Lee Epstein

[ I used to have a team in Buenos Aires when I was doing consulting work and got to visit the city. It is absolutely fantastic, if sadly too much of it is run down. Its energy is palpable. The people and culture are fantastic. It was one of the rare non-US cities I've visited that made me say to myself, "Oh, yeah. I could live here." Unfortunately, Argentina has been run into the ground for decades by a series of dysfunctional governments. The current one certainly fits the mold and I expect its denouement will be disappointingly standard. Regardless, it's an amazing city and country. I'm pleased to be able to present this Buenos Aires essay by Lee Epstein. - Aaron. ]

Buenos Aires residents enjoy the tango (:Jonathan Lewis, creative commons)

Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, has a metro area population of 12 million people, making it the second largest metropolis in South America.  The city is situated at the lazy, braided mouth of an estuary (the Rio de la Plata) formed by the confluence of the mighty Paraná and Uruguay Rivers.  (At more than 3,000 miles/4,880 km long, the Paraná is the second longest river on the continent after the Amazon, with a watershed of more than a million square miles.)  With a temperate but humid climate, the Argentine capital (“BA”) never gets too cold in the winter but can be really hot and sticky in the summer.  From December through February, it can be uncomfortably hot, but my family and I were there in mid-spring (early November), enjoying near-perfect weather.

Buenos Aires (public domain, posted on Wikimedia Commons by Facumissing)

Considering cities through the lenses of urban function and sustainability is in my blood, so while in BA – and especially since returning – I’ve been thinking about what makes the city work.  Are there things about Buenos Aires that can inform us, one way or another, as we consider urban environments in the US?

Buenos Aires’s Urban Assets

There is certainly a lot to like.  The city has dozens of unique neighborhoods (barrios), from the upscale Recoleta and Palermo Soho, to the funky, edgy San Telmo and La Boca.  (There are, of course, some pretty rough and unremarkable neighborhoods as well.)  There is not much colonial era architecture left, but BA’s 19th century, European-styled, three- to ten-story buildings are beautiful, featuring large windows and balconies with iron grill-work, sometimes overlooking tree-lined streets; many of these (thankfully) seem to be undergoing renovation.  Major cultural institutions, such as the Teatro Colon, one of the world’s premier opera houses, are sumptuous.

classic BA buildings with iron grill work (c2013 by Lee Epstein)

The city has an incredibly wide central boulevard (Avenida 9 de Julio), intersecting with another monumental street (Avenida de Mayo) that connects the president’s home and offices (Casa Rosada) with the home of the National Congress (Palacio Congreso).  These central features, with their parks and squares and fountains – and an obelisk – memorialize a rich if somewhat unsettling past. 

Casa Rosada (c2013 Lee Epstein)

Casa Rosada (via Google Earth)

Some Porteños (as BA residents call themselves, since they reside in a major port city) gather at these places regularly to protest and argue about politics — which is one of several major passions; we happened to witness the remnants of a demonstration of veterans who served during the Malvinas/Falklands war, seeking benefits.  Another major passion is very good coffee, celebrated in a relaxed way in (literally) thousands of neighborhood coffee houses; some are dark, wood-paneled beauties, like the Café Tortoni, classic and culturally venerable.  A third passion is tango, as practiced and performed in a range of venues from neighborhood tango clubs (milangos) to national competitions.   And the fourth great passion is, of course, futbol – soccer to us.  (Lionel Messi, the current and four-time winner of the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player, is from Argentina and plays on the national team when he isn’t with his pro team, European champion FC Barcelona.)  I’d definitely be hesitant to put these passions in any order.

  Cafe Tortoni (c2013 by Lee Epstein)     Teatro Colon (c2013 Lee Epstein)

  street life (by: Christian Hoaglund, creative commons)

Porteños walk a lot, very fast and often on crowded sidewalks, and the transit system (colectivos or buses, and the Subte or subway) can get you anywhere, cheaply (though you’ll wait in long lines and often stand in those crowded buses during morning and evening rush hours).  There also seem to be about 6 million taxis in the city – and they don’t so much drive as perform a sometimes dizzying arabesque, based on a liberal use of the horn and 1 ½ – 2 ½  cars per “lane.”

Finally, and literally, the city never sleeps.  A few shops and restaurants close for a long lunch when some residents rest at home, but most in this busy capital city don’t.  Dinner is a leisurely affair, usually beginning between nine and ten in the evening.  Many restaurants, bars and clubs are open until six in the morning, and it’s not unusual to find throngs of young people returning home from a long evening out as the sun rises on a fresh Saturday morning above the Rio de la Plata.

the club scene (by: YoTuT, creative commons)

Buenos Aires subway (by: Erik Anderson, creative commons)

The Presence of a Great City

There is something intangible about the “presence” of a great city.  It throbs with life, its people are busy and moving, but the culture also supports moments — sometimes long moments — at a much-reduced pace, as well as places in which to savor that experience:  for example, the corner coffee houses, or the hundred parks and plazas, riverfront greens, open markets, and pedestrian-oriented, tree-lined  places to stroll that are found in BA.  Great cities may undoubtedly be big, sometimes noisy, busy, and very urban places; but thoroughly integrated within them are various-sized green spaces for rest and shade and play; in the case of BA, many of them enjoy access to he river. 

What about the neighborhood scale?  Again, BA’s many walkable districts have the right characteristics.  Indeed, they are often complete in and of themselves, with medical clinics and lawyers, restaurants and small food markets, pharmacies and the kinds of small businesses helpful to daily living.  This is enabled in Buenos Aires because land uses are often mixed, or at least nearby as largely commercial streets are just a block or two from largely residential ones.  Schools and day care centers are found in the neighborhoods, too, and usually a nice park or square.  The commercial and residential diversity yields some resilience to changing economic conditions. 

market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires (c2013 by ee Epstein)I have no illusions, though.  There is some stark economic segregation by neighborhood, such as exists in every major city in the world.  Some neighborhoods mix incomes better than others, but the physical fabric of poorer areas (infrastructure, housing quality, commerce and services) still suffers greatly from decades of neglect.  While BA has many of the features of a modern European city, Argentina is still in the midst of overcoming a colonial, kleptocratic past and these areas require urgent attention.  

(Even with the income disparity, there is a degree of mixing:  because the city’s public life is rich, old and young, rich and poor cross paths daily.  Portenos of all social classes share traditions such as family walks in the park, watching soccer leagues on weekends, enjoying coffee at a corner café, or watching or participating in tango.) 

Importantly, BA’s architectural scale is conducive to walkability.  While there are tall buildings along main commercial streets, as well as scattered high-rises (many of the most modern are in a reinvigorated commercial neighborhood along the docks, called Puerto Modero), for the most part this city is highly dense but moderately scaled, the residential and commercial buildings retaining an intimate, proportional relationship with their streets.  A critic might call these rows of 6-10 story buildings squat and blocky (a complaint raised by some about Washington, DC, which I don’t share), but they are often quite elegant, and there is an undeniable pedestrian comfort in their dimensions.  In many of the neighborhoods, walkable density is achieved with buildings of only three and four stories, fronting on narrow streets — reminiscent of the best tight neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York.

Avenida de 9 Julio (by: Cezary Piwowarski, creative commons)

As noted above, public transport is easy, plentiful, relatively cheap, and ubiquitous.  Walking and biking are also common modes of choice (BA has a growing bike lane system).   Of course, there are still tens of thousands of cars and there is crazy traffic – this is a major city still transitioning.  Like others of its ilk it sometimes eschews the careful orderliness of traffic on most US streets.  But there are good alternatives to driving everywhere, and they are heavily used by everyone, in part because fuel is so expensive but also because these alternative modes are safe, readily available, and get you where you need to go.

Residents of BA also harbor an awareness of the cultural importance of the vast Argentine countryside (although see below).  In at least one way, private enterprise is helping to conserve the extensive pampas (extremely productive farm, ranch and rangeland) with an extensive system of agro-tourism called estancias (basically “dude ranches” that range widely as to size, type, cost and services) that are hosts to both Argentines and foreigners seeking a country respite.  These add substantial income and incentives for continued agricultural and ranch use.

botanical garden in BA (by: Laura Enking, creative commons)

Causes for Concern

The province (versus the city) of BA is absolutely huge, covering almost 119,000 sq mi (more than 307,000 sq km) – bigger than Italy (though not as big as California).  Much of this land area comprises the pampas and the country’s popular Atlantic beaches; both are crucial components of the Argentine economy and, to Argentines, major parts of their self-identity.  But, while there is thus some incentive to protect and preserve these areas, there are also forces at work that are sadly consuming them with suburban and exurban sprawl at the metropolitan area’s (and numerous municipalities’) extensive edges.   

Until recently, the periphery of the city of Buenos Aires was lined with low-income settlements (and highly polluted rivers) that were only slowly growing in land area.  These included small and informal loteos populares without services. 

In more recent years, however, American-style suburbanization has proliferated.  Gated communities and privately planned “cities” now appear on the mostly flat, extraordinarily fertile landscape outside of the city.  This haphazard suburbanization continues to eat away at BA’s vast pastoral surroundings of working farm and ranchland – pushing it farther and farther away, threatening eventually to sap energy and investment from the province’s towns and BA’s city center. 

downtown Buenos Aires (via Google Earth)

These newer, sprawling suburbs are highly (indeed, solely) managed by the private sector, for the exclusive benefit of high and middle-income populations.  This is enabled by highly fragmented and uncoordinated legal authority (as between municipalities and the province), and an immature to non-existent process for land use planning and management.  While there are signs of awareness of these problems (at mid-decade the national government proposed the creation and implementation of land use plans in all Argentine provinces), progress is very slow, at best.  Changes in land management law and practice are very much needed.

Beyond land use, national politics are not helping to solidify a sustainable future for metro BA and its residents.  In particular, I believe the aspirations of lower-income Argentines may be threatened by the form of populism espoused by the current president, which is so insular and protective as to restrict or repel foreign investment.  As a result, many consumer goods from other countries may become so expensive as to keep them out of the hands of everyone but the very wealthy.  I suppose the “good” news on this front is that elections are but a few short years away.    

Lessons North and South

From my perspective as a committed urbanist, Buenos Aires was fascinating.  I believe that many of its good features are, in fact, transferable to North American cities as many in the US and Canada seek to re-urbanize:  the parks and plazas, the lively public life, the many “third places,” the rich menu of transportation choices, the relatively complete neighborhoods, the pleasant scale and walkable streets.  The resulting urban form or practice that we create in our own country of course won’t be precisely the same as in BA, but there is still much to learn from another culture as our own cities grow and change.

Buenos Aires in November (by: Beatice Murch, creative commons)

At the same time, BA clearly needs stronger land use authority.  This is an area in which US municipalities and states are superior, if only in theory:  our problem, of course, is that few US jurisdictions actually use the authority that they have, or use it in perverse ways that thwart sustainability.  As a result, our reality on the ground is that we have become all too good at making the worst of problems that are now beginning to show ill effects in BA, including lack of coordination among adjoining jurisdictions, the politics of development money, poor or absent planning and land use management, and resulting sprawl.  Just as we in the US might do well to look south for some things to emulate, residents and leaders of Buenos Aires might do well to look north to see what they should try harder to avoid.

Lee Epstein is an attorney and land use planner working for sustainability in the mid-Atlantic region of the US.

This post originally appeared in Kaid Benfield’s Blog at the Natural Resources Defense Council on January 10, 2013.

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Reinventing Metro Providence

I was very pleased this week to be a guest on Ted Nesi’s “Executive Suite” talk show on WPRI-TV in Providence. We spent about half an hour talking about the challenges and opportunities facing the region. Here’s the show, without commercial interruption even. We cover a lot of ground, and I think much of the thinking is relevant to many other cities. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

A big point I made was the need to think metro, not Rhode Island. But gosh darnit didn’t I go and talk Rhode Island myself for most of the rest of the piece? I think it just goes to show how difficult it is even for the diligent newcomer to maintain a perspective that’s different from the one that’s basically in the air he breathes.

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

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