Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

The Digital Divide Between Big And Small Cities

My latest column is out in the May issue of Governing Magazine. It’s called “The Other Digital Divide” and talks about the potential gap between how larger cities can be better positioned to take advantage of civic technology than smaller ones. It’s an emerging area I think we should keep an eye on. Here’s an excerpt:

Harvard professor Stephen Goldsmith co-wrote a book titled The Responsive City to highlight the promise of data- and tech-enabled innovation to improve government service delivery and citizen engagement. He sees the potential for new tech to actually reduce the large-small city digital divide. “There definitely was a danger just a few years ago where cities with resources could buy expensive technology and then use their scale to rationalize the purchase,” he says. “I think in the next few years that will shift dramatically. Cloud computing allows mid-sized and small cities to purchase the best computing with a new pricing system.”

Santiago Garces, chief innovation officer of the mid-sized city of South Bend, Ind. (population around 100,000), agrees on the potential of cloud computing. “Tech is being commoditized,” he says. With today’s cloud offerings, there’s less need for cities to roll out their own in many areas. What he worries about, however, is talent. “It’s a ‘who,’ not a ‘what’ issue,” Garces says. Small cities have to work hard to ensure they get access to the talent to implement this technology.

Click through to read the whole thing.

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Topics: Talent Attraction, Technology

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Can Hipsters Save Providence?

Kate Nagle has a piece in GoLocalProv called “Can Hipsters Save Providence?” in which I am extensively quoted. To summarize my basic take on hipster driven revitalization:

  • It’s great that people are choosing these cities and urban neighborhoods. Who doesn’t want to see growth, better food and coffee, and more cultural offerings?
  • Channeling William Frey, there aren’t enough hipsters to go around to revitalize America’s cities. Having said that, some level of hipster neighborhood now exists almost everywhere.
  • Outside of a handful of locales like Brooklyn, the scale of hipsterdom is relatively small. Even Portland’s impressive central area is only a minority of what’s going on in that region.
  • Hipsters haven’t yet created much follow-on opportunities for the working class.
  • Portland’s culture of small makes it a great place to run an artisanal business. New England’s anti-business culture raises more barriers. If you want more hipster stuff, make it easier.
  • I think most hipsters in Providence specifically want to be there, so they aren’t that likely to flee to Detroit or some other hot spot. They have a passion and commitment to that place.

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Topics: Civic Branding, Economic Development, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Providence

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

Creating Fertile Soil For Innovation

I was privileged to give the opening keynote at Governing Magazine’s Summit on Performance and Innovation in Louisville last week. Not only was it great to get to speak there in its own right, it’s particularly special for me because Louisville is my hometown.

My talk was on innovation, the imperative for innovation today, the barriers to innovation, and how to create fertile soil for innovation to flourish. The video is embedded below, but if it doesn’t display for you, click over to watch on You Tube.

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Topics: Globalization, Talent Attraction, Technology, Urban Culture
Cities: Louisville

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

The Silent Killer – The Company Your Community Never Created by Mark Suster

[ My fellow Accenture alum Mark Suster is a former startup founder and now a VC based out of Los Angeles. Hence he writes the fantastic tech startup blog Both Sides of the Table that’s a must read if you’re into tech startups. This recent piece particularly caught my eye as it’s relevant to so many cities’ startup scenes. Mark graciously gave me permission to repost it here – Aaron. ]

I was at a dinner recently in Chicago and the table discussion was about building great companies outside of Silicon Valley. Of course this can be done and of course I am a big proponent of the rise of startup centers across the country as the Internet has moved from the “infrastructure phase” to the “application phase” dominated by the three C’s: content, communications and commerce. But the dinner discussion included too much denial for my liking.

I think startup communities being simple cheerleaders doesn’t help anyone. Those of us outside Silicon Valley need to make an effort to effect change not just wish for it.

At the dinner some of those arguing that Chicago has everything it needs now that it has built: Groupon, Braintree, GrubHub and others and that it has “come along way” and “will never get the full respect it deserves just because it’s not Silicon Valley.” But I think this misses the point. I’m a very big fan of Chicago. I started my career at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) so I went to Chicago many times a year for nearly 9 years. I then got my MBA at University of Chicago so I secretly pull for local entrepreneurs as long as they don’t make me visit in the Winter any more.

But no community can become complacent with the wins that it has. It’s not the great companies you build, it’s the silent killer of those that should have been build locally and weren’t. It’s the thousands of jobs that weren’t created but you don’t even know it.

Think about Facebook had it stayed in Boston. Could it have become the behemoth that it is today? Who knows. But I’ll bet the Boston community would take 50% of the success of Facebook built locally. And the truth is that successful startups beget more successful local startups, wealthy VPs who go on to build their next startups, etc. Even Mark has acknowledged moving wasn’t the be all, end all in this famous interview:

“If I were starting now, I would have stayed in Boston. [Silicon Valley] is a little short-term focused and that bothers me.”

Boston is still a great tech hub. But wouldn’t it want to be great PLUS have Facebook?

We have similar stories in LA and most people don’t know it. For example, Lookout is a mobile security company that was founded by three talented graduates of USC. They started their company in LA but a couple of years after raising capital from Khosla Ventures in the Bay Area they ended up relocating there. A few years later they announced $150 million in a funding round at $1 billion+ valuation and are ramping up jobs to secure their market-leading position. You could say the team would have gone North anyways. Perhaps – who knows? But I know with local funding and local support that’s certainly less likely.

And consider Snapchat – one of our hometown favorites as they’re based in LA (Venice Beach). Luckily for our community the founders decided they wanted to build their company in LA regardless of not having local funding from LA. That’s our great gain as Snapchat has also raised a lot of money at a monster valuation ($10 billion reported) and has been scooping up talented Stanford engineers and relocating them to LA. Locally we call it “the Snapchat effect.” The VPs of SnapChat will be LA’s great founders 5 years from now.

Silicon Valley is littered with startups where the founders were originally in LA. Klout was an LA company – sold for $200 million to Lithium. As was FarmVille (sold to Zynga) and many, many others.

Local capital matters. Local mentors matter.

That was my original idea behind Launchpad LA. I figured if we couldn’t fund every company locally we should at least embrace them as a community and show that we’re willing to mentor them whether they raise their money in town or not.

So what can a community do?

I often point out the story of when we raised our fourth fund a few years ago. I went to see several LP funds in Boston. At least twice I had conversations that went like this, “Yes. It’s true. Your fund performance has been great. But there’s also several great funds in Boston and while our first priority is to returns we have an equal responsibility to local funds and local jobs.”

LA public pension funds and endowments have historically been the opposite. I think government and community members need to understand that capital formation is an incredibly important part of economic revival. People often say, “Great entrepreneurs will build a community and the capital will follow.” I don’t see much evidence of that. I think it’s a combination of the two. It’s clear capital with no talent ends up having to travel to do deals. But talent with no capital is another word for migration.

And then there is public policy. Historically the City of LA has been hostile to startups. I’m reminded of LegalZoom who was founded in LA but moved it’s headquarters to Glendale and much of its operations to Austin, Texas. While LA was trying to impose archaic taxes on the firm and seemed to care less about its existence since it was a “startup” – the first lady of Texas welcomed them to Austin by picking up the CEO at the airport on his first visit there. It’s no wonder hundreds of jobs migrated. Luckily since then we elected Mayor Eric Garcetti who understands the importance of startups and of technology and venture capital on job creation.

But we still need more funds. No – I’m not worried about the competition. We’ll win our fair share of deals. But when you remember the Snapchat effect you see that I gain even from the deals we didn’t get to do. I’m guessing the future leaders of Lookout will build companies in the Bay Area.

Communities can make a difference. I wrote about the awesome efforts of Cincinnati to stimulate its startup community and the role of Paddy Cosgrave in Dublin, Ireland as well the entire Irish business community, the IDA, etc. who woo businesses to put their headquarters there. I also covered the impact of Brad Feld in Boulder or Fred Wilson in NYC as observed from my keynote on a trip to Seattle, which I felt could have a huge boom if its elder statesmen embraced startups a bit more.

Don’t get me wrong. Chicago has made strides. The Pritzker Family has been very active and the opening of 1871 as an entrepreneurial hub is a great example. But my conversations with countless Chicago entrepreneurs suggests it has similar issues to all non-Silicon Valley centers: not enough venture capital, too few tech angel investors, not enough talent for product management or engineering, not enough local tech powerhouses to drive local biz dev / keiretsu. I think this is true of LA, NY and many other tech communities so I’m not singling out Chicago.

My point is this … cheerleading isn’t enough. We need to help create local venture capital funds who may be national in investment strategy (as we are) but who will do more than their fair share of fundings locally (for us that’s 50%). Fund formation + local mentors + local talent = a shot at creating successes that drive the future job growth of our great cities.

This post originally appeared in Both Sides of the Table on November 15, 2014.

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Topics: Economic Development, Talent Attraction, Technology
Cities: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

I was out in Portland, Oregon last week and while there I sat down for an interview with Mayor Charlie Hales. We talked about the real Portland vs. the idea of Portland, the city’s industrial base, retrofitting suburban infrastructure, and a lot more. If the audio doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Mayor Charlie Hales. Image via Wikipedia

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

Mayor Hales rejects the idea that we will have to strategically abandon infrastructure because the finances don’t add up:

My point here is that this is about political will. It is not inevitable or immutable that America is going watch its infrastructure decline. It’s a choice. It’s a bad choice to dither and do nothing. And it’s a good choice to step up and do something. And I think you’ll see more cities doing what we’re doing here in Portland. Which is to say, we’re going act locally, and then keep the pressure on Congress and the State House to do their part too.

Regarding how hard it really is to find a job in Portland:

Not hard. In fact, I think it’s 4.8% – the unemployment rate – among 25-34 year olds here – lower than New York, lower than a lot of places. We’re the 3rd greatest city in terms of college educated immigrants moving here deliberately. They move here, and then not long after, they find work. Or they create work by starting their own business because we’re a very entrepreneurial city as well. I did this in 1979. It’s not an original thing for Portland. In fact you could say it’s been happening since Lewis and Clark that we – that people immigrated here from elsewhere because they saw some opportunity here. We’ve been absorbing those people as they come to Portland. They find work. But that’s the value set of that 25-34 year old cohort. They care about quality of place, quality of life, and what they’re going do when they’re not working. And that doesn’t include, say, sitting in traffic in suburbia. So they like the idea of living in Portland, and they come here and try to make it work. And most of them do. Again, we have a better employment situation for those folks than New York City does. So it’s not true that young people come here and are stuck in jobs that they’re way over qualified for indefinitely.

About how the real Portland differs from the idea of Portland people have from the media:

Like all good caricatures, Portlandia makes fun of some things about us that are true. I mean, we do love localism, so Colin the Chicken is somebody that we would care about here in Portland. And we are relentlessly earnest about our values.

There some other ways that we don’t. We’re still an industrial city. We’re a big hands, port industrial city. We build boxcars and barges. We just cut the ribbon on the biggest dry dock in North America last weekend. So we employ a lot of welders and steel fitters and plumbers and pipe fitters, and all those hands-on trades. We build trucks here. We build boxcars. We make steel pipe. There’s a lot of traditional “old economy” industry here.

Another part of Portland that doesn’t show up in the caricature is…the other half of the neighborhoods that were half-baked suburbia when they got annexed into the city. And we’re trying to make them complete communities with a local economy in that neighborhood and those kind of services that you can walk to. And, oh yeah, in many cases, there aren’t even sidewalks, and there’s no neighborhood park. So, we’re spending a lot of effort and money on trying to retrofit those suburban parts of Portland, to not be physically identical to the old neighborhoods, but have those ingredients of a complete neighborhood that Portlanders like to see.

Friday, October 10th, 2014

More On the Midwest vs. the South

My post on Sunday about SEC vs. Big 10 football produced quite a stir. There are 165 comments and counting, and it even prompted posts by Richard Longworth and Crain’s Cleveland Business.

Not everyone was critical but the ones that were basically say that it’s ludicrous to say that football proves anything. I don’t think that it does. But I will make three points:

1. The differing fortunes of the two conference is yet another in an extremely long series of data points and episodes that demonstrate a shift in demographic, economic, and cultural vitality to the South.
2. Sports is one of the many areas in which Midwestern states have clung to traditional approaches, even though those approaches haven’t been producing results.
3. Demographic and economic changes have consequences. It’s not realistic to expect that the Midwest’s excellent institutions will necessarily be able to retain excellence when supported by hollowed out economies.

I’d like to throw up a couple of charts to illustrate the longer term trends at work. The first is a comparison of per capita personal income as a percent of the US average for Illinois vs. Georgia since 1950:

il-vs-ga

Here’s the same chart of Ohio vs. North Carolina:

oh-vs-nc

If I put up the population or job numbers, the same charts would show the South mutilating the Midwest. (Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina were all about the same population in 1980, but the latter two have skyrocketed ahead since then for example). What’s more, the South’s major metros score better on diversity and attracting immigrants than the Midwest’s major metros as a general rule.

These charts show the convergence in incomes over time. The decline in relative income of the Midwest is possibly in part to increases elsewhere, not internal dynamics. But think about what the Midwest looked like in 1950, 60, or 70 vs the South, then think about it today and it’s night and day. The Midwest may still be endowed with better educational and cultural institutions than the South, but we can see where the trends are going. Keep in mind that those things are lagging indicators. Chicago didn’t get classy until after it got rich, for example.

Now we see that Southern income performance hasn’t been great since the mid to late 90s. This is a problem for them. As is their dependence on growth itself in their communities. I won’t claim that the South is trouble free or will necessarily thrive over the long haul. But they seem to have a clearer sense of identity, where they want to go, and what their deficiencies are than most Midwestern places.

Longworth seems to buy the decline theory but has a different explanation of the source, namely that Chicago has sucked the life out of other Midwestern states:

In the global economy, sheer size is a great big magnet, drawing in the resources and people from the surrounding region. We see this in the exploding cities of China, India and South America. We see it in Europe, where London booms while the rest of England slowly rots.

And we see it in the Midwest where, as the urbanologist Richard Florida has written, Chicago has simply sucked the life – the finance, the business services, the investment, especially the best young people – out of the rest of the Midwest.

To any young person in Nashville or Charlotte, the home town offers plenty of opportunities for work and a good life. To any young person stuck in post-industrial Cleveland or Detroit, it’s only logical to decamp to Chicago, rather than to stay home and try to build something in the wreckage of a vanished economy.

This seems to be a common view (see another example), even in the places that would be on the victim side of the equation. But I’ve never seen strong data that suggests this is actually the case. Are college grads and young people getting sucked out of the rest of the Midwest into Chicago?

Thanks to the Census Bureau, we now have a view, albeit limited, into this. The American Community Survey releases county to county migration patterns off of their five year surveys sliced by attribute. There seems to be some statistical noise in these, and for various reasons I can’t track state to metro migrations, but thanks to my Telestrian tool, I was able to aggregate this to at least get metro to metro migration. So here is a map of migration of adults with college degrees for the Chicago metro area from the 2007-2011 ACS:

degree-migration
Net migration of adults 25+ with a bachelors degree or higher with the Chicago metropolitan area. Source: 2007-2011 ACS county to county migration data with aggregation and mapping by Telestrian

This looks like a mixed bag to me, not a hoover operation. What about the “young and restless”? Here’s a similar map of people aged 18-34:

ya-migration
Net migration of 18-34yos with the Chicago metropolitan area. Source: 2006-2010 ACS county to county migration data with aggregation and mapping by Telestrian

This is an absolute blowout, with a massive amount of red on the map showing areas to which Chicago is actually losing young adults. Honestly, this only makes sense given the well known headline negative domestic migration numbers for Chicago.

I do find it interesting that there’s a strong draw from Michigan. Clearly Michigan has taken a decade plus long beating. There’s been strong net out-migration from Michigan to many other Midwestern cities during that time frame, and its the same in Cleveland, which also took an economic beating in the last decade. This is just an impression so I don’t want to overstate, but it seems to me that a disproportionate number of the stories about brain drain to Chicago give examples from Michigan. Longworth uses the examples of Detroit and Cleveland. These would appear to be the places where the argument has been truly legitimate, but that doesn’t mean you can extrapolate generally from there.

What’s more, even if a young person with a college degree does move to Chicago from somewhere else, will they stay there long term? They may circulate out back to where they came from or somewhere else after absorbing skills and experience. It’s the same with New York, DC, SF, etc. I’ve said these places should be viewed as human capital refineries, much like universities. That’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s a big plus for everybody all around. Chicago is doing fine there. But it’s a more complex talent dynamic than is generally presented, a presentation that does not seem to be backed up by the data in any case.

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

In Praise of Boring

My latest piece is online in the Guardian. It’s called “In Praise of Boring Cities.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand got herself in a bit of trouble for dismissing Arlington, VA as a “soulless suburb.” I argue that to a great extent soulless is in the eye of the beholder. And that a lot of inner cities could stand to be a lot more Maytag repairman type boring when it comes to actual delivering on the services citizens deserve.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Soulless” and “boring” are to some extent judgmental code words for “stuff I don’t like.” Sophisticated urbanites tend to look down on much of suburban life. But I suspect many suburbanites find downtown obsessions – contemporary art, say, or elaborate ways of preparing coffee – equally tedious. Why isn’t their thumbs-down verdict on urban pretentiousness just as valid?
….
Those of us who love urban areas’ walkability, variety and novelty often have a tendency to universalise – not to say sacralise – our values and tastes. But in an ever more diverse world, different people are going to have different ideas about the good life. We need to be more tolerant of those who make different choices. (In Arlington you can’t even argue that the car culture is killing the environment, since as Adler notes they’ve focused much more on transit and density than your average place). Some people like stability, predictability, rootedness and a lot of what suburbs have to offer. There’s nothing wrong with that. We frequently fail to recognise that our own personal preferences are in most cases just that. And too often in urbanist discussions, that means white hipster preferences.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

The World City

Last week’s episode of the Monocle 24 show the Urbanist was an interesting look at the “world city” or “global city.” They take a bit of a skeptical look, showing how, for example, many residents of Istanbul are at odds with the construction boom designed to turn the city into what one critic dubbed a low-grade Dubai. And also how smaller cities like Lisbon and Wellington, New Zealand are following their own path without trying to aspire to compete as peers with the big boys. They also take on Vancouver, though fail to note its extremely high housing prices (it’s not livable if you can’t live there), and also its gang wars and other issues that belie the kumbaya vision the mayor is pitching. And there’s a conversation with an analyst from the Economist Intelligence Unit who talks about that organization’s ratings. It’s a bit eyebrow raising that Monocle, a publication that has done a lot to promote the whole global city idea and transnational norms, values and amenities to which all cities are called on to aspire to (in addition to publishing its own league table), would be critiquing the global city, but it’s a good listen regardless.

If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

A Look At College Degree Migration


Net domestic migration of adults age 25+ with a bachelor’s degree or higher by metropolitan area. Source: 2007-2011 ACS with rollups and mapping via Telestrian

Many of you know I’ve got the best place to place migration data from the IRS in my Telestrian system. Well, the Census Bureau also releases migration data as part of its American Community Survey. This has a lot of limitations and quirks, but one thing it lets you do is track migration, both overall and place to place, by demographic characteristics such as age, sex, race, educational attainment, and income.

I’ve now added this data to Telestrian. As with the IRS data, I’ve aggregated it to the metro area level (not just county) so you can look at things like where you are getting college grads from and where you are sending them to. As with the IRS data, this is so painful to work with, I’ve seen next to nothing done with it. I’ve solved that problem for you, so be sure to check it out.

I’m just starting to explore this data myself, but it’s a gold mine of information. I just took a first quick look at net migration of people with college degrees over at New Geography.

You won’t be surprised to hear that fast-growing Austin, Texas is #1 in attracting migrants. Or that the 90s dreamland of Portland is #5. But not everything is exactly what you’d expect, so click over to see how your city fares.

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Incrementally Transforming Kokomo Without Debt by Eric McAfee

[ Kokomo, Indiana is a small industrial city about an hour north of Indianapolis. It is one of the rare ones whose industry remains largely intact, with two large auto-related plants. This makes them different from the type of community that really has deindustrialized. Yet they fret that those who earn decent incomes in their town too often decide to live in the Indianapolis suburbs. Hence a program to upgrade quality of life in the city. It should be noted that while they’ve managed to do this without incurring debt, Kokomo arguably benefited more than any city in America outside Detroit from the massive federal auto bailout. Their civic improvements have in a sense been financed by a unique external windfall unavailable to others. Nevertheless, lots of places have received windfalls and spent them poorly. Cities may not be able to control our circumstances, good and bad, but they at least have some control over how they respond to them. This piece from American Dirt takes a look at Kokomo’s response. Keep in mind it ran in 2012 and there are likely some anachronisms by now – Aaron. ]

Across the country—but particularly in the heavily industrialized Northeast and Midwest—smaller cities have confronted the grim realities of the unflattering “Rust Belt” moniker, and all of its associated characteristics, with varying degrees of success. With an aging work force, difficulty in retaining college graduates, and a frequently decaying building stock, the challenges they face are formidable. Cites from between 30,000 and 80,000 inhabitants typically boomed due to the exponential growth of a single industry, and, in many cases, the bulwark of that industry left the municipality nearly a half century ago, for a location (possibly international) where the cost of doing business is much cheaper. Essentially, everything the smaller Rust Belt cities had to offer is completely tradable in a globalized market; the resources that provided the town’s life blood are either depleted or are simply to expensive to cultivate further.

Reinvention is the only condition likely to save many of these cities from persistent economic contraction, but, with an overabundance of retirees and older workers, these towns lack the collective civic will that could be expected in larger communities with more diversified economies. An absence of young people intensifies (and, to a certain extent, justifies) the low level of civic investment in one’s own community; after all, if a resident is six months from retirement, how likely is it that he or she would support public investments intended to improve quality of life for twenty or thirty years into the future? For that matter, how likely will a population of retirees remain engaged to encourage or challenge major private sector investments as well?

By no means am I intending to denigrate needs and ambitions of the senior population; I’m merely observing that a stagnant Rust Belt city with this demographic profile will demonstrate vastly different priorities from a city rife with young families. While every Rust Belt city large and small must avoid obsolescence that results from the spoils of globalization, the smaller cities—which have tended to be dominated in the past by a single thriving industry—are less likely to claim alternative sectors and labor pools if their primary manufacturing lifeblood fails. A dying city of 80,000 may not exert the same impact within a region (particularly in the densely populated Midwest and Northeast) that a city of 500,000 would, but it is far more of black eye for the state than a town of 2,000 that has lost its raison d’être. This conclusion is obvious.  Many of these small cities must reordering of their economies comprehensively; while the state, the county, or private foundations may offer some outside help, the constituents of these cities themselves are typically the best equipped to understand how their city should evolve. Unfortunately, many of these communities aren’t yet even aware of the need for this reinvention, let alone which avenue to pursue in order to achieve it.

It is with no small amount of reassurance that I can assert that Kokomo, Indiana is not one of these latter cities.

No Rust Belt complacency on display here in the City of Firsts. Though as recently as 2008 it was on Forbes’ list of America’s Fastest Dying Towns, a recent visit shows much more evidence than I’ve seen of some comparably sized cities in the region that the civic culture is neither resting on its laurels nor wringing its hands about how much better things used to be. In fact, one of the Indianapolis Star’s leading editorialists, Erika Smith, recently visited the city, and, after receiving a tour from the Mayor, was pleasantly surprised by how proactive it has been in implementing precisely the type of quality-of-life initiatives largely perceived as necessary to help a historically blue-collar city stave off a brain drain or descend into irrelevancy.

I, too, recently received the Kokomo tour, followed by a meeting with Mayor Greg Goodnight, and I can also recognize some of the city’s most impressive achievements at shaking off the post-industrial malaise that saddled the city with double-digit unemployment rates as recently as a few years ago. Since then, the city has introduced a trolley system at no charge to users; prior to this initiative, the city had had no mass transit for decades. The Mayor pushed successfully to annex 11 square miles in the town’s periphery, therefore elevating the population by about 10,000 people. The Mayor’s team worked to convert all one-way streets in Kokomo’s downtown to two-ways, recognizing that accommodating high-speed automobile traffic in a pedestrian-oriented environment only detracts from the appeal. The team has restriped several miles of urban streets to incorporate bike lanes, and it has converted a segment of an abandoned rail line into a rail-with-trail path, branding it by linking it to the city’s industrial heritage. They have deflected graffiti from several bridges and buildings through an expansive and growing mural project. They have upgraded the riverfront park with an amphitheatre and recreational path. They have introduced several sculptural installations, the most prominent of which is the KokoMantis, a giant praying mantis made entirely of repurposed metal and funded privately. And my personal favorite: with the support of the City, the school superintendent has integrated a prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program to the public school system, including an international exchange program for young men from several foreign countries (a girls’ program should arrive in the next year or two) who live in a recently restored historic structure in Kokomo’s walkable downtown, attending demanding courses that bolster their chances of admittance in a coveted American university. Most impressively, the City of Kokomo has achieved all of this without incurring any public debt in the past year.

Obviously the individuals offering me this tour are going to make sure their Cinderella is fully dressed for the ball, and I recognize that not a small amount of the securing of certain infrastructural projects and transportation enhancement grants requires a political savvy that the current civic leadership has in abundance. And I don’t want to rehash Ms. Smith’s article, which more than effectively chronicles this approach at a macro level. In addition, Erika Smith recognizes, as do I, that very few of these initiatives (the IB foreign exchange program notwithstanding) are really particularly earth-shattering. But when most other similarly sized cities in the Midwest seem to be engaged in a race to the bottom, luring new industry through generous tax breaks (often initiated at the state level), Kokomo seems to recognize that a town lacking any amenities outside of low cost of living has to compete with dozens of other cities in Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in Indiana, that offer the exact same brand. Whether this investment yields a long-term return remains to be seen, but it certainly demonstrates the right gestures necessary to instill civic stewardship in a place whose decades of job loss have seriously scratched its mirror of self-examination.

What ultimately struck me about Kokomo—which Erika Smith only touched upon—was the level of design sophistication evident in some of these civic projects. I need only focus on a single location in the city, in which two particularly laudatory techniques are on display. At the intersection of Markland Avenue and Main Street, just south of downtown, the Industrial Heritage Trail begins its journey southward. Here’s a view as the trail terminates at its junction with those two streets, looking northwestward:

Here is a view in the other direction:

Continuing a bit further in this direction, one encounters this painted wall:

And, pivoting slightly to the left, another mural that is still in progress:

This photo series identifies two amenities that stand out for the astute decision-making that apparently took place during the implementation. The Industrial Heritage Trail clearly operates in a railway corridor, but it is not a rail-trail. Unlike the more common rail-trail conversion, this Kokomo trail did not incorporate the removal of the original rail infrastructure. The Rails to Trails Conservancy would label this approach a rail-with-trail, indicating that the trail shares the railway easement, typically separated by fencing. Rail-trails such as the Monon Trail in metro Indianapolis are still the more common practice. However, a growing number of communities are embracing rail-with-trails, not only because they obviate the need for costly removal of rails, ties, and ballast, but they reserve the rail infrastructure for the possibility that a railroad company may reactivate the line in the future. If the sponsors of Kokomo’s Industrial Heritage Trail had removed the infrastructure, the possibility of ever reintroducing rail along the corridor would be virtually nil. As it stands, the only conceivable disadvantage to rail-with-trails is that, in the event a rail company reintroduces train service, its close proximity to the path may prove hazardous to bicyclists or pedestrians. Otherwise, the decision to retain the railway not only helped to diversify options, it most likely saved a considerable amount of money.

The other smart decision was the site selection for those murals. The ones featured in the photos above are part of a growing mural campaign that the City of Kokomo introduced, and every one that I recall shows real foresight in the locational decisions. What makes them so good? The murals in the photos above front a public right-of-way, minimizing if not completely precluding the chance that later development will conceal them. I blogged a few years ago about an excellent mural in Indianapolis that showed wonderful care and craft in the entire implementation process…except where the conceivers chose to locate it. Not only did they paint on a cheap, cinder-block building that will likely tumble down if market pressures encourage new development in the neighborhood, but the mural also faces a vacant lot which is large enough to host a new structure that would block it completely, no doubt frustrating the community and pitting them against a developer.

Compare this to Kokomo’s murals. Here’s one a little further south on the Industrial Heritage Trail:

Again, it fronts the trail itself—not a chance that a developer will try to block it. And here’s another along a bridge underpass for the recently completed trail along the Wildcat Creek:

The original intention of the mural was to repel vandals at spot that previously suffered from it frequently; this approach has proven successful in locations across the country.  But it also sits in a park along a new greenway, so it should remain in perpetuity. Granted, Indianapolis has plenty of murals along retaining walls and buildings that front the aforementioned Monon Trail. Those, too, should survive far into the future. But in recent years, the City of Indianapolis has encouraged countless murals on the side walls of commercial buildings—sites where a blank wall faces a parking lot, where a building once stood. While these bare walls often scream for some ornamentation to help distract from what used to be there (another adjoining building), in many instances the parking lots will likely fall under increasing development pressure in upcoming years. Will the locals thwart development in order to save the mural? This remains to be seen, and I don’t want to base too much of an analysis on speculation. But it’s hard to deny that these public art investments seem less astute than the once I witnessed in Kokomo.

One could argue that Kokomo is merely taking advantage of the fact that it is jumping into the game relatively late; it benefits by learning from the mistakes of others. But decisions that stand the test of time also contribute their fair share to foster civic goodwill. Taxpayers are rarely too forgiving of poorly conceived projects, and several successive blunders, no matter how small they may be, demonstrate poor accountability. Only time will determine the return on investment, but Kokomo certainly has a leg up on many of its competing small cities. My suspicion is, if these projects stimulate the discussion and enthusiasm for proactive leadership that they suggest (Mayor Goodnight was re-elected last year by a landslide), the citizens of Kokomo are only beginning to stoke the fire.

This post originally ran in American Dirt on November 16, 2012.

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