Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Flatness by Drew Austin

“Two extremes of redundancy in English prose are represented by Basic English and James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake. The Basic English vocabulary is limited to 850 words and the redundancy is very high. This is reflected in the expansion that occurs when a passage is translated into Basic English. Joyce on the other hand enlarges the vocabulary and is able to achieve a compression of semantic content.” — Claude Shannon

Bandwidth is a late machine age term that helps illuminate the millennia of technology and culture that preceded its coinage. The definitions of bandwidth vary, but its most basic meaning is a channel’s capacity to carry information. Smoke signals and telegraphs are low-bandwidth media, transmitting one bit at a time in slow succession, while human vision transmits information to the brain at a much faster rate. The past century has yielded tools for measuring bandwidth and quantifying information (see Claude Shannon) as the channels for carrying that information have advanced rapidly.

matrix

Source: Ceasefire

In any era, but never more so than now, the landscape of existing technology is a palimpsest in which the cutting-edge, the obsolete, and the old-but-durable all coexist as layers of varying intensity and visibility. New, unprecedented means of information exchange and communication are invented constantly, while their older equivalents live on long after they’ve stopped being state of the art. Information reaches each of us—and often assaults us—through a multitude of high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth channels, some of which we permit to speak to us, and some of which do so uninvited. Sitting down to watch TV, checking one’s iPhone during dinner with a friend, or finding a quiet place to read a book all represent conscious choices to block certain channels and pay attention to others. Marshall McLuhan recognized that technologies in our environment have a rebalancing effect on our senses, writing that each medium is an “intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it.”

Human attention, then, is a finite resource. A variety of criteria inform everyone’s small, constant choices about which media to focus on and which to tune out, and those choices often have little to do with their bandwidth, but today one thing is certain: Our own brains, not anything manmade, are the bottlenecks that limit how much information we can receive at once. The contemporary world offers as much space for storing information as we’ll ever need, and we can instantly send any amount of it to the other side of the planet. Well before either were the case, however, humans learned to ignore the features of our environments that we deemed irrelevant—the noise surrounding the valuable signals we actually wanted or needed to receive.

Claude Shannon’s quote above, from his Mathematical Theory of Communication, introduces a qualitative layer to the question of human bandwidth and the environments we seek: People move continuously through information-rich and information-poor environments and are affected differently by each. Basic English is “redundant,” meaning it’s a language that requires many words to convey even simple messages—and is therefore a language that few would choose to use for anything but utilitarian purposes. Finnegans Wake, at the opposite extreme, could not be richer in information or content, to the point that it can barely be compressed or summarized. In Shannon’s example, the rich, information-dense content of Joyce’s novel represents a higher quality of communication, and Basic English a lower quality, although the latter fulfills plenty of functional roles.

Low-information, redundant content has a flatness to it. It’s less interesting. The Residents expressed this a different way on their Commercial Album, which comprises 40 one-minute-long pop songs. The liner notes explain:

“Point one: Pop music is mostly a repetition of two types of musical and lyrical phrases, the verse and the chorus. Point two: These elements usually repeat three times in a three-minute song, the type usually found on top-40 radio. Point three: Cut out the fat and a pop song is only one minute long.”

Plenty of pop music, in other words, is redundant and can be compressed without losing anything. This might be too harsh and cynical a judgment, but it’s valuable as a polemic. Modern environments, from top-40 radio to architecture to fiction, are full of redundancy and thus thin on information. The ease of digital information storage and transmission help explain why we can afford to be less economical with information than we were in the past, but getting used to redundancy, like getting used to a diet full of salt and sugar, reinforces our appetite for it and actually influences the types of information we produce. If the manmade world seems like a flatter place in the Information Age (not in the Thomas Friedman sense), this might be part of the reason.

As communication technology improves, the argument periodically surfaces that face-to-face interaction and cities in general will become obsolete. Joel Garreau rebutted this argument a few years ago in his article “Santa Fe-ing of the World,” in which he praises the high bandwidth that physical proximity and direct experience afford. He writes, “Humans always default to the highest available bandwidth that does the job, and face-to-face is the gold standard. Some tasks require maximum connection to all senses. When you’re trying to build trust, or engage in high-stress, high-value negotiation, or determine intent, or fall in love, or even have fun, face-to-face is hard to beat.” Even the most advanced digital media, in other words, are limited compared to full sensory engagement with one’s environment—the digital, closer to Basic English than Finnegans Wake, is still a utilitarian solution to problems like distance more than it’s an ideal theater for the highest levels of human contact. As our reality becomes more automated and algorithmic, our truly complex, nuanced, information-rich activities will continue to justify their existence, while the flat and redundant will increasingly disappear into the digital. By recognizing this condition, we can learn to preserve the depth of the former instead of simplifying our reality for easier absorption into lower-bandwidth channels.

This post originally appeared in Kneeling Bus on October 5, 2014.

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Topics: Technology, Urban Culture

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Replay: Global Cities Don’t Just Take, They Give

This post originally ran on April 28, 2013.

Creativity for the world or for your city gives something back – Charles Landry

I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.

Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.

For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.

We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.

Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.

Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.

The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”

A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.

Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.

Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.

Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.

Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.

How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).

Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?

I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.

Friday, November 7th, 2014

Changes Coming Soon to the Urbanophile

I wanted to give everyone advance warning that there major changes underway here at Urbanophile HQ. This is going to include some changes in direction for the site itself, and also for the underlying technology it uses.

I’m starting the first piece of the technical changes soon. Right now I use a Google product called Feedburner to send out my blog by email and newsreaders like Feedly. It’s clear Feedburner’s days are numbered, so I’m migrating away from it. Here’s what will change.

1. I’ll be switching to new email software. I hope to make this transparent, but those of you who subscribe by email might have to re-confirm that you still want to subscribe. I will give specific instructions when I pull the trigger.

2. I’m also switching out to another RSS system for newsreaders. Again, I hope to make this transparent, but will send out notifications so you can be sure you don’t miss anything.

3. I’m also retiring my Facebook page. Facebook has become a complete “pay to play” platform in which only a small fraction of those who “Like” my page every see my content unless I’m willing to pay Facebook for the privilege.

In addition to blog content, I’ll have extra exclusive content for email subscribers, so you’ll definitely want to take advantage of that.

Details on changes coming soon, but I wanted to give you a head’s up so you’re on the lookout.

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Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Building the Responsive City

The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data Smart Governance
by Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford

Technology, and especially the use of data and analytics, has been transforming the way cities manage service delivery. Former Indianapolis mayor New York City deputy mayor Steve Goldsmith, and his colleague at Harvard Susan Crawford, recently wrote a book called “The Responsive City” looking at this technology revolution. I recently read the book and posted some thoughts in a review posted at City Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

The book chronicles more than just technology’s potential; it also highlights what some local governments have already achieved with innovative approaches. After several fires resulted in the deaths of five people, New York City built a system to identify buildings at high fire risk, using predictive models and integrating data from multiple sources. City inspectors are now aggressively targeting those buildings for upgrades. To fight its rat problem, Chicago is using data analytics to predict where rats will gather, instead of waiting for resident complaints. Boston has developed a civic customer-relationship management system, with mobile-device apps, to link residents more easily with city services. Mimicking the way that Yelp collects restaurant reviews, Washington, D.C. uses a website to solicit ratings of city services. Cities around the country are adopting open-data portals.

Goldsmith and Crawford are candid about the challenges facing their responsive-city vision. Progressive-era reforms designed to eliminate corruption also curtailed government employees’ discretion, leaving them with narrowly defined roles and limited ability to respond effectively to real-world problems. Rigid job descriptions, such as “temporary full-time permanent intermittent police officer,” are common in cities like New York, which has more than 2,000 such classifications. Procurement rules require that detailed specifications be prepared in advance, unlike in the private sector, where technology and other solutions are often developed iteratively. Government’s rigid contracting processes make it tough to respond to findings during development.

You can click over to read the entire thing

I also sat down with Steve Goldsmith recently to talk about the book, and some of the challenges and pitfalls of this technology-drive approach. If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

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Topics: Public Policy, Technology

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Boston Layer Lapse

Here’s a unique take on the time lapse genre the creator labels “layer lapse.” Boston needed some love in this genre anyway. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo.” h/t Peter Brassard

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Cities: Boston

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Investing Cheap Money by Charles Marohn

[ Many of you have probably heard of the web site Strong Towns. If not, you should definitely check it out. They focus on the long term financial consequences of current development and transportation investment patterns. They also publish their content under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike License. So I’m taking advantage of that to repost this piece by Strong Towns front man Charles Marohn – Aaron ]

Interest rates are at historically low levels while local governments have a huge backlog of infrastructure needs to address. It seems logical that this presents an opportunity for earnest city officials.

Yesterday’s post on domain dependence was a prelude to answering the question posed me last week on Facebook.

How can we best invest cheap money to sustain growth in the future and not squander this opportunity?

There are two types of transactions where cities are justified in taking on debt. The first I will call a “true investment” and the second I will call “legitimate cash flow”. This is true regardless of how cheap money is.

True Investment

In the public realm, we call a lot of things investments that really are not, a lot of things assets that are really liabilities. So when I say a “true investment” I am referring to an expenditure that has the following properties.

  1. The expenditure has the potential to lead to an improvement of the city’s financial position.
  2. That improvement is measurable in terms of dollars.
  3. The actual return in dollars is measured, accounted for and used to inform subsequent investments.

Note that this doesn’t preclude speculative investments, and I’ve indicated that I support a certain level of speculation. My public project portfolio for nearly every American city in 2014 would include many small projects spread out over a large area as opposed to one, two or a handful or large projects. I would also never borrow more money – in terms of term and payment amount – than my current cash flow could cover if the investment went bad.

I would never take on debt speculating on future growth if the repayment of that debt depended on the growth. Never. Cities are not private businesses, property owners aren’t shareholders. The local government has a responsibility to be prudent stewards of the public purse, not gamblers at the casino, regardless of how confident they are that the slots are loose.

Should we be using cheap money to make a true investment? I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with that, and the cheapness of the money certainly lowers the threshold for success. I would be extra careful, however, to fight the impulse to ignore the need for a return on the investment simply because the money is cheap.

Legitimate Cash Flow

Most cities borrow money for cash flow purposes. In doing so, they are mistaking their insolvency problem for a simple cash flow problem.

Let me give an example. Let’s say a city has four streets. Each street lasts four years before it needs to be repaired. One street was built each year and so they are on a nice four-year maintenance rotation. If the city is solvent – if there is enough wealth in the community where the tax revenue can cover the city’s long term obligations – then there should never be a need for debt. Each year, each street produces 1/4 of the tax revenue needed to fix the street and after four years every street is fixed and the process starts over.

Cities don’t generally have their maintenance obligations so nicely staggered. Often they come in bunches, an echo of the hasty timeframe in which they were originally built. Let’s say that all four streets need to be maintained in the first year. In that case, the city could tax four times the normal amount the first year and nothing the last four OR they could take on debt in the first year to cover the project and then pay it back in the next three. (Note: Obviously this is very simplified and so I’ve not bothered with interest.)

That is a legitimate cash flow problem that the local government can solve with a judicious use of debt. I fully support it.

Let’s say, however, that all four streets need to be maintained in the first year but the city’s tax rate is only half of the prior example. In other words, the city is not collecting enough money from each street – there is not enough wealth there to collect – to cover the cost of maintenance. As in the second scenario, the city takes on debt to cover the maintenance cost but, when we get to the end of the fourth year and need to fix the streets again, they have not been able to pay off all that debt.

Scenario 3 is a case of confusing insolvency with a cash flow problem. The local government believes they have a cash flow problem – there’s plenty of wealth there, just not right now – but what they really have is an insolvency problem. They don’t have the money to maintain everything they’ve taken on. By taking on debt at this point (good interest rates or not), they are piling more obligations on top of the unfunded liabilities they already have. This is a recipe for disaster.

Here’s the scary thing: all cities that take on debt for infrastructure maintenance believe they have a cash flow problem. They believe this despite not having the actual analysis to determine whether or not this is true. My example is four streets over four years. Cities sometimes have hundreds of miles of streets with maintenance occurring over decades. You have to be pretty intentional, organized and disciplined if you want to discern your true financial status.

Most cities don’t. They want to believe they have a cash flow problem because it is convenient, because insolvency is too difficult to fathom, especially when everyone else appears to be doing the exact same thing. Could everyone be wrong? Could we all be insolvent? These two questions probably cost me a total of six years in the intellectual wilderness as I clung to the notion that what I was seeing and measuring could not possibly be true, that a wisdom greater than mine had to be at work that I hadn’t perceived.

While I’m not going to say that low interest rates are a bad thing (they absolutely wouldn’t be if they were real, not artificial), they have the desired effect when it comes to local governments: it induces them to borrow and spend more. This is my primary critique of our current monetary policy, and Federal Reserve intervention, in general: it assumes an underlying economic model that is functioning. When the economy slows or stalls, the theory says to create the liquidity needed to get it back going again. What if it is stalling because it’s broken? What if it shouldn’t go on? Short of total collapse, where is the painful financial feedback that is going to force a change?

Some would argue that this is why we need good policy. Sure, but the smartest minds at the time – from both sides of the political spectrum – believed that suburbanization was a good thing. Same with urban renewal. Same with the nationalization of automobile transport policy. What is a good policy and how can we ever have the confidence to put the overpowering weight of the U.S. economy behind what we think it is? And what if it is a good policy, but only to a degree? Is local nuance even possible with such a highly centralized approach?

The Growth Ponzi scheme has three predictable phases: growth, stagnation and then decline. During the growth phase, everyone is a genius as the new revenue pour in and all the maintenance liabilities are decades away. During stagnation, the debt climbs as we fail to deal with the insolvency problem, mistaking it for simple cash flow. When we are finally forced to deal with insolvency in the decline phase, we have to do it with a crushing debt burden already in hand. Unfortunately, this fate awaits a great number of our places.

So, how can we best invest cheap money? With a Strong Towns approach to debt centered on true investments which pay a measurable return and legitimate cash flow in a city that understands its true balance sheet.

This post originally appeared at Strong Towns on September 9, 2014.

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.

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Talking Transit

This week I want to share a couple of urban podcasts. The first is another installment in Carol Coletta’s Knight Cities program, this one featuring Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Art Society in New York. I should note that the MAS Summit for New York City is actually tomorrow and Friday. If you aren’t attending in person, previous ones were live-streamed I believe, so my assumption is that this one will be too.

Cipolla talks infrastructure, density, entrepreneurship, civic leadership, and outer boroughs in a talk focused on New York City but relevant to other places. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

The second is a radio segment in Kansas City featuring Jarrett Walker talking about public transit. As always, this is fantastic, must-listen stuff. If the audio embed doesn’t display, click for the MP3.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: New York

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Chicago’s Secondary Stations: Little Engines That Could…And Should by Robert Munson

This is part of the series North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable or Not?

To describe how central stations can help us evolve toward sustainable transportation, this series uses a middle category called “Economic Engines.” This category stimulates its surrounds. These three Chicago stations do that job well.

Category: Economic Engines (click for all currently reviewed stations)
Consolidated Scorecard: Click to view full scorecard
Scorecard Summary:

max pnts = 100 80 Ogilvie Transportation Center     (OTC) 75 Millennium Station (MS) 70 Lasalle Street Station (LSS)
  1. A) Function & Flow
18 17.0 While OTC gets busy at rush hour, good design made this Chicago’s best functioning station. 14.0 Despite two decades of missteps between agencies of two states, the station turned out OK … except for cost overruns. 13.0 Chicago’s smallest terminus works well and METRA plans to add about 15% more passengers by adding a second line.
  1. B) Efficient Connections
32 27 It connects just OK to other transit as well over half choose to walk. 23.5 Most walk to destination or one block to “Elevated.” Bus connections are slighted; crowded at street level. 23 The building is less ped-friendly than OTC, but connects best to transit with the “El”, a subway and has a protected bus station.
  1. C) Station Synergies  
50 36 For redeveloping its surrounds, OTC is in America’s Top 5. 37.5 Surrounds are the tops; one of the world’s great urban park destinations, many office buildings and lots of mixed uses. 34.0 Surrounds to the south and west have not redeveloped as fast; being separated by expressway traffic.

Chicagoland’s twelve commuter lines constitute a system that is nearly the nation’s largest. (New York’s LIRR is slightly larger; while Metro North and New Jersey Transit, respectively, run a close third and fourth). But if we bite-size Chicagoland, we see an analogy to mid-sized cities. The first bite is that six lines terminate at Union Station, leaving six more at these three stations. Here are their counterparts in other cities.

1) Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC) terminates three lines with commuter volume slightly more than Boston’s South Station.

2) Millennium Station ends two lines from different states, as does DC’s Union Station with similar suburban volume.

3) Lasalle Street Station terminates one large line with passenger visits at just under 30,000 daily, similar to San Francisco’s Caltrain terminus.

Also strengthening comparison to other cities, Chicago’s secondary stations connect poorly to one another, creating, essentially, three mid-sized rail systems. Comparing Chicago’s three smaller stations shows other regions how to develop better stations and strengthen the national trend to improve suburban rail. Today, eleven systems in North America carry more than 41,000 passengers daily. Some 15 more fledgling lines are trying to catchup. Highlighting central stations’ future importance, there are 28 new lines in various stages of construction and engineering.

In studying some three dozen central stations, I see many similarities to these three in Chicago and hope you find the analogy useful as well.

What Do These Three Stations Have In Common?

These stations were key parts of the eleven decade transformation from a filthy, industrial downtown to a global center today. In 1900, downtown’s chaotic streets were surrounded by rail yards and warehouses. These stations’ predecessors muted this roughness and provided orderly centers. But as private passenger rail collapsed during the 1960s, Chicago’s downtown also lost its balance. Yet, plans boldly were made to rebuild all three stations. The new ones served as leverage for Chicago’s revival from the 1980s through the 2006 real estate crash and were key to transforming the downtown. A century after Burnham’s fantastic depiction in “A Plan For Chicago,” today’s downtown has a different beauty… but arguably, an equal of those drawings.

Transportation established Chicago as central to the nation’s economy. A recent book, Terminal Town, reviews how Chicago used rails. In today’s economy in which people are a key asset, ownership of passenger rails and terminals, again, is strategic.

Unfortunately, all three stations are owned by Metra; the beleaguered state agency. This challenge to Chicago’s future cannot be ignored much longer. While Illinois has fiddled away the last five decades without a management scheme capable of remaking the system into a future regional asset, all three termini, somehow, got updated.

When you consider that the 1970s and 1980s saw Chicago battling its suburbs, redeveloping these stations seems amazing. That storm and fury was transcended by a simple deal; the suburbs knew these rail lines were their assets also and, as Chicago did, that they could use the rails to revitalize every municipality’s downtown. For the last three decades, Chicago leveraged its land use authority well and turned eyesore rail yards and warehouses into vibrant blocks around all three stations; improving nearby real estate values in ways that only ambitious cities do.

Impressively, all three stations work well and OTC is close to great. Here’s how.

Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC): How Excellence Redevelops Surrounds


Main concourse adjoining tracks. Photo by the author.

Few stations treat the eye better. Also true of its predecessor, Chicago & Northwestern’s grand concourse evoked the glories of rail travel. But, it was demolished and the new concourse adjoining a 42 story tower was completed in 1984. The new concourse spaciously evokes rail glories in a post-modern setting. Reminiscent of United’s hub terminal at O’Hare Airport, OTC’s main concourse also was designed by the same starchitectural firm. But OTC makes a more important statement on a daily basis: traveling with others in efficient modes makes a better future.

Also, few stations better flow during rush hour’s crush. On the photo’s left, 16 tracks end. In the middle (not pictured to the right) are 6 escalators eventually connecting to four street exits. Also not pictured to the left, each train shed platform has stairs so commuters have the option to exit down to a retail concourse (called MetraMarket) with two more street exits. While neither concourse has a suitable waiting area, one can while away time at some 60+ stores in three distinct malls that seem to thrive on the station’s high traffic.

OTC was named for Governor Ogilvie. His leadership and staff cobbled together the deals that saved a world-class set of commuter rails while places such as St. Louis let their systems die. The Governor’s public service and this station’s quality explains why Chicago’s downtown revival has been so much faster.

A three block radial walk (map below) depicts how a 42 story tower and tracks have leveraged redevelopment ever since. Large warehouses were converted and old low-lying railroad shacks were demolished and rebuilt into a dense urban neighborhood; mixing office and residential high-rises. To address the retail shortage, the station’s ground level under the tracks was converted into the Metramarket complex (see black rectangle) and includes the destination-like French Market with two dozen gourmet food shops; making dinner easier for suburbanites and nearby urbanites alike. The French Market is not New York’s Grand Central Market, but it is America’s stations’ second best.

OTC’s scorecard rating of 80 indicates how well OTC works during its rush hour detraining of passengers to platforms and sorting them to six exits and on paths to their final destination. And OTC does all this while feeding suburbanites slices of 21st Century urban life; hopefully, so they move and add to Chicago’s downtown population which has grown by over 500% since the station was built.

Millennium Station: Destination Made, But No Second Act


Millennium’s main concourse. Photo by the author.

As this station’s metaphor, the center-point above is where the two state agencies and their separate lines meet. Follow those lines and you get to their underground tracks. Yet, redeveloping the Illinois Central rail yard and depots into Millennium Station was not simple for several reasons; a primary one being how cost over-runs of Millennium Park, its above-ground neighbor, affected this station’s construction.

More important, the station required Illinois and Indiana agencies to act like partners and mesh different rolling stock, albeit both electric since they run underground for three blocks. (Metra’s other ten lines are diesel). These and other complications created a construction zone for two decades; instead of a station that welcomed suburbanites. Eventually, the collaboration got OK and passenger levels returned after completion.

Indiana’s South Shore line has six tracks that terminate at the south end and Metra’s former Illinois Central line terminates on five tracks at the station’s north. Both sets of passengers merge into a concourse with ticketing, a decent waiting area and food shops. Efficiently, passengers distribute into three exits of Chicago’s extensive underground Pedway; allowing them to escape bad weather or connect to transit.


Millennium Station’s main entrance comes from the underground Pedway and contains most of the station’s 10 store retail corridor. Photo by the author.

An underground station, it can look like a fancy subway stop. Serving one of the city’s most intense urban areas, the station still is pleasant enough to begin one’s workday and, hopefully, make it less of a grind. With limited room for growth at rush hour, this station is what it is. The scorecard rates it at 75.

Lasalle Street Station: Some Room To Grow


On the far right of this photo of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s model, you see the train shed leading into Lasalle Station and its adjoining tall Stock Exchange Building. To its left is an expressway and considerable undeveloped land. (The other two stations have almost none). Photo by the author.

This fourth remake of Lasalle Street Station had a relatively simple deal. It involved only one bankrupt line (the Rock Island) and Metra also bought the tracks; giving it more control. Much like OTC, the main entrance depends on collaboration with one large building owner. But in Lasalle’s case, the Chicago Stock Exchange was not as accommodating. It is an over-imposing host and unwelcoming to pedestrians. While airy and utilitarian, the station itself works well enough to earn an overall rating of 70.

Lasalle does have excess capacity at rush hour and Metra plans to shift the Southwest Service and its 10,000 daily passengers from Union Station to Lasalle, increasing the station’s usage by almost one-third.


Entrance and exit to the east-west Congress Expressway. Photo by the author.

The station’s only major weakness is an east-west expressway ends under it. Eager to reach high-speeds or slow to slow down, eight lanes of traffic make it harder for urban and pedestrian life to develop. This division makes the station’s south side less desirable to live and work in and has been much slower to develop. This is changing as its parking lots are being built into condos and apartments. While Chicago is adding streetscapes for urban fabric, the expressway is hard to hide.

How Can These Good Stations Contribute In the Future?

Each should connect better to transit. While they average about 44% of their passengers who walk to their destinations, the finite number of jobs in each station’s pedestrian shed means that most new commuters are more likely to first want improved transit connectivity. This is more true at OTC, where only 33% of riders walk. To encourage transit transfers, OTC passengers should be able to enter the ‘L’ at the same level they detrain. But with ceaseless inter-agency bickering, de-trainers must go down to the street and up to the ‘L’ whereas a simple passage on the same level would encourage train passengers to use rapid transit.

Also, all stations could improve transfers to standard buses in little ways… if some agency had the authority to force Metra to obey the law and participate in the CTA’s Ventra universal card. (An agency with a future would even subsidize the transfer of train passengers to CTA buses and ‘L’).

When the downtown Bus Rapid Transit starts in 2015, lousy transfer policies start getting better. BRT ties together Union Station, OTC and Millennium with several other key stops downtown. To visualize how the BRT works, here is a downtown map with rail termini as the large blue blocks and BRT as the double-red line.

As big an improvement as this promises to be, BRT in a congested downtown such as Chicago will only provide temporary relief. BRT is no replacement for an integrated system. (Chicago has twice failed to build an urban circulator). Agencies that squandered time and taxpayer goodwill, now, must resort to the BRT stopgap.

Even if achieved, improved connections only will cause the rush hour crush to grow. Now near capacity, the quality of two station’s commute deteriorates with increased ridership. Often touted as panacea, a West Loop Transportation Center (WLTC) that through-routes Union Station and OTC will make greater efficiencies, improve rush hour capacity and speed travel between suburbs. But, a WLTC is highly improbable under Metra’s regime and its poor supervision by Illinois’ RTA.

Besides, the WLTC only marginally helps the core problem: Chicagoland’s lines are radial and bring everyone downtown; causing congestion. So a strategic solution would use rails to bring commuters to Chicago’s employment centers that are not downtown.

For example, many south-side Chicagoans and suburbanites work at the west-side medical district, one of the world’s largest collection of hospitals. The former Rock Island line easily can be connected to a new medical district station two miles west of Lasalle. If successful, that train eventually could be connected to O’Hare Airport; also a non-9-to-5 employment center that requires better train service. And with service in-between the medical district and the airport, other employment centers will be stimulated.

If Metra cannot start this strategy quickly, we should organize a way around it.

Chicagoland should consider how trains increase service and stimulate redevelopment in other global cities. London’s Thameslink started in the late 20th Century. It was so successful that redevelopment around its stations now stretches from the once run-down St. Pancras area for three miles through London’s center and across the river (follow the yellow line) to the much more forlorn surrounds of Elephant & Castle. While hard to see in my photo, the six stations in this three miles, on average, have redeveloped over 50% of their surrounds. (The St. Pancras foreground shows new construction as the lighter shade, whereas renovations remain the darker shade).


Model is in the lobby of the London Building Centre.

As further proof of how trains stimulate redevelopment, note the purple through-line running left to right. The purple is Crossrail; still only mid-way dug. Thameslink’s success signaled to developers that the surrounds of Crossrail stations also are sound investments. Both through-lines have stimulated London’s building boom; one that rarely has been seen by a western city since the industrial era. Such is the leverage generated when suburban rail through-routes and becomes urban rail.

On a relative basis, Britain’s passenger rail system seems flexible; being nationalized, ossified and, now, has had operations privatized. Unfortunately, we live under Uncle Sam’s feeble, federated and seemingly unresponsive transportation laws. This allows Metra to be controlled by suburban mayors who tend not to view rails as a metropolitan asset. Stopped by this regime, Chicago needs a new strategy before it can benefit from London’s example. However given that Illinois laws recently allow public-private partnerships (which have similarities to London’s laws), we should explore how trains can redevelop urban areas. Using an asset to metropolitan benefit leads to sustainable transportation.

Getting To “Should”: Lessons for Sustainability

Mid-sized American cities want what these three stations have. All three stations function well at peak hours and help redevelop their surrounds, the key goals of this series’ Economic Engines category.

But, all three have limited potential to serve as a symbol that pulls their train system into a sustainable future. Chicago’s “little engines that could” — owned by Metra — might improve service with a few small steps, such as improving connectivity to transit. But even if Metra were to be reformed into an adequate agency, these improvements only push the stations past their rush-hour capacity and, thus, still are not on a path for sustainable transportation.

To maximize trains’ potential, strategies must increase off-peak travel and serve employment centers other than downtown. Through-routing can increase ridership and stimulate redevelopment outside of downtown. But these strategies are unlikely to emerge under an outdated, scandal-riddled agency that appears to have lost its social contract with passengers and taxpayers.

So that trains can help inspire the confidence needed to attract new public and private capital to redevelop targeted areas, this series in 2016 will explore how Chicagoland’s agent for sustainable transportation “should” operate.

Robert Munson lives in Chicago and can be reached at robertmunson@earthlink.net.

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Lafayette, Indiana Is Having a Black Population Boom, Powered In Part By Migrants From Chicago

The Lafayette (Indiana) Journal and Courier just ran a major article from a four month investigation called “The Great Chicago Migration Myth” which attempts to debunk the idea that poor Chicago blacks, especially former CHA residents, are moving to Lafayette/Tippecanoe County.

The J&C seems to do a good job of pouring cold water on the CHA idea. But they use that to make a claim they didn’t actually prove, namely that low income blacks aren’t moving to Lafayette from Chicago. What’s more, the data shows that there is material black migration from Chicago to Lafayette, contradicting the clear implication of the article. Additionally, the J&C fails to note the critical context that regardless of origin, Lafayette has been experiencing a black population boom that exceeds even Hispanic growth on a percentage basis.

In sum, this article provides an incomplete and badly misleading view of black demographic change in Lafayette.

Background

Chicago demolished most of its high rise public housing complexes, prompting the obvious question of where the former residents ended up. I’ve been noticing news stories for several years suggesting that former CHA residents have been moving to places ranging from downtown Illinois to small town Iowa. I myself have heard credible reports from generally reliable people I know in public service who say they personally have seen an uptick in Chicagoans in their work.

It has long made me, and I know others, wonder: did Chicago attempt to effectively run its former black public housing residents out of town? I’ve tried to get many journalists who have written on Chicago’s demographics to investigate and get to the bottom of what’s really going on. Ed Zotti did a great series in the Chicago Reader covering some aspects of the issue (see part one, part two, and part three). But there are certainly a lot of open questions in my view and I’m surprised how little investigation I’ve seen of it.

The J&C story is the first part of at least two installments that attempts to do just this sort of comprehensive analysis from the standpoint of Lafayette, Indiana. Greater Lafayette is not the community I would have chosen as my test case. As home to Purdue University, there’s a lot of migration that’s driven by the inflow and outflow of students that can obscure the non-university trend. But obviously from the J&C standpoint it’s their community and so of course they pick it for their work.

Their own words speak for themselves:

Call it the Great Chicago Myth. For decades, the belief has been ubiquitous in Greater Lafayette that thousands of low-income African-American families packed up their belongings and headed down Interstate 65 straight to Lafayette, bringing with them rising crime and worsening drug problems and higher burdens on local social services….The Chicago Myth turns out to be completely untrue. A comprehensive four-month Journal & Courier analysis of data culled from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Chicago and Lafayette housing authorities and other sources shows that, while there has been some migration, relatively few people leaving Chicago end up in Tippecanoe County.

How accurate a portrayal does this provide?

Where Did Chicago’s Blacks Go?

I haven’t personally looked into former CHA resident migration, but Ed Zotti and the J&C convince me that this is not a material contributor to Chicago’s black population decline or to migration elsewhere. I’m sold on that point. However, Chicago has in fact lost a lot of black residents.

It’s well known that the city of Chicago lost 177,401 black residents during the 2000s. But as with out-migrants generally, the default assumption for most of them would be that they moved to the the suburbs and didn’t leave the region. However, the Chicago metro area as a whole saw a decline in black population of 45,689. Considering that there was surely natural increase (more births than deaths) in the regional black population, this implies a huge net out-migration. They had to go somewhere.

As it happens, the Census tells us where they went. I’m leaving metro area analysis for another day. But let’s take a look at the map of net migration of blacks in Cook County, Illinois. Red indicates net outflow, blue net inflow.

chicago-black-migration
Net migration of black residents from and to Cook County, Illinois. Net in-migration in blue (positive), net out-migration in red (negative). Source: 2006-2010 ACS via Telestrian

Unsurprisingly, when you lose a lot of people, they move to lots of places. There are a number of net recipient counties for former black residents of Cook County. Many of them are in Illinois though not all. As you can see, Tippecanoe County is one of the recipient counties.

Are There More Blacks in Lafayette?

When people make statements like “There are a lot of poor black former CHA residents moving in here” there’s an embedded chain of reasoning that goes something like this:

There are more black people in Lafayette.
Those black people are coming from Chicago.
Those Chicagoans are poor.
Those poor people are former CHA residents.

The last statement may well be false without invalidating the others. I’m buying what the J&C is selling on that one. But let’s look at the other ones, starting with the first. Has the black population of Greater Lafayette been increasing? Yes, and by a lot too.

There were 3,752 black residents in Tippecanoe County in 2000. By 2010 that had nearly doubled to 6,913. This was a bigger increase on a total and percentage basis than any other small industrial county in Indiana. By 2013 it had added another 1,638 black residents (23.7% growth). This was the fifth highest total increase in black residents of any county in the state – this in a county that in 2000 had the 14th largest black population. Again, that growth outpaced all peer counties. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that a 128% population growth in black population since 2000 qualifies as a veritable boom, especially by the standards of slow-growth Indiana.

It’s worth comparing the trajectory of Tippecanoe County to Bloomington’s Monroe County, home of Indiana University, so I pulled some statistics into the following chart:*

Tippecanoe County (Lafayette) Monroe County (Bloomington)
Total Population
April 1, 2000 148,955 120,563
April 1, 2010 172,780 137,974
July 1, 2013 180,174 141,888
Total Growth (2000-2013) 31,219 21,325
Percentage Growth (2000-2013) 21.0% 17.7%
Black Population
April 1, 2000 3,752 3,615
April 1, 2010 6,913 4,491
July 1, 2013 8,551 4,898
Total Growth (2000-2013) 4,799 1,283
Percentage Growth (2000-2013) 127.9% 35.5%
Black Population Share 2000 2.5% 3.0%
Black Population Share 2013 4.0% 3.3%
Jobs
Total Growth (2000-2013) 1,420 2,057
Percentage Growth (2000-2013) 1.8% 3.5%

As you can see, these communities started off with roughly similar black populations. In fact, Bloomington had a higher black population share. But while Bloomington’s black population has grown only moderately more than overall population growth, Lafayette’s has grown at a substantially faster rate.

I should note that both of these towns have very small black populations compared to bigger cities. But that makes growth more easily visible as well, similar to how many small towns have noticed (and reacted) in the case of even limited Hispanic migration.

I put the jobs number in to see if there might be a pull there. Bloomington has actually done better on jobs. But this shows right away one potential root cause of anxiety over out of town migrants: job competition. Lafayette had added over 31,000 people since 2000 but only 1,420 jobs. Not all of those new residents are in the theoretical labor force pool, but I’ve got to believe more than 1,420 of them are. When you’re only adding 1,400 jobs, it doesn’t take a lot of migrants to make a competitive difference for job seekers. I think this is a big factor nationally in the public souring on immigration reform and it wouldn’t surprise me if something similar were at work here.

Whatever the case, it’s true that Lafayette has seen a significant increase in black population. So the reverse of the Chicago question applies here: where did they come from?

How Many of Lafayette’s Black Residents Are Coming From Chicago?

The J&C uses the Census migration data figures to argue that few Chicagoans of any type move to Lafayette. However, the Census Bureau publishes place to place migration by race from the five year ACS survey, so let’s consult that source.

Migration by race is provided in the 2006-2010 ACS through a special county to county migration data release. You can easily browse it through an interactive online map.

According to this data, 127 net black residents moved from Cook County to Tippecanoe County. That doesn’t sound like a lot. However:

  • This is the third highest destination in Indiana for net black migrants from Cook County. Only Lake County (a Chicago suburban area) and Elkhart County ranked higher.
  • No other county in the United States sent as many net black residents to Tippecanoe County as Cook County did. The second highest county is Lake County, Indiana, which again is also part of Chicagoland.

Other than third place Marion County (Indianapolis), nobody else even comes close to sending as many net black residents to Lafayette as Chicago does.

I should note that Tippecanoe is far down the list of net recipient counties from Cook. So from a Chicago-centric perspective, Lafayette is not a major destination for departing Chicago blacks, who are dispersing across many different destinations. Yet the Chicago region has nearly 10 million people and is losing a lot of black residents. Certainly no small city like Lafayette could ever be the destination for more than a small percentage of those leaving a near megacity region like Chicago.

The university is a major wildcard. You would expect Chicago to be both a big source and destination for Purdue University’s student body, and certainly some of them must be black. Looking at our comparator, there were a net of 38 black Chicago migrants to Monroe County (Indiana University). So Lafayette is seeing a higher migration, but is also geographically closer keep in mind. I took a quick look at other Big Ten school counties and there’s huge variability so I’m not sure what we can say with regards to those schools without data from the universities themselves. The homes of Wisconsin and Iowa are the top net exporters of black residents to Chicago, for example.

To be sure, there’s statistical noise in this ACS survey data. And we only have one survey with race based migration available. The data is definitely limited here. So keep that in mind. But this does show a flow from Chicago.

The J&C did not use this data set for some reason, but relied on the overall migration levels (not broken down by race) between the cities. Regardless, we have a fundamentally different understanding of how to interpret the meaning of the survey data. I generally don’t work with the 5yr ACS, but that’s the only survey in which place to place migration is provided. (The IRS data is not broken down by race).

The J&C treats the migration values as the total migration over the five years of the survey. I actually called the Census Bureau and spoke to someone in their Journey to Work and Migration Statistics Branch that compiles this data. I asked them specifically if the migration values should be treated as a five year total or as a proxy for average annual migration. They told me the latter.

This person could have misspoken but if that’s correct, then the 127 figure would translate into 127 people per year – nearly 1,300 people over the course of a decade. That’s a material percentage of the total black population in town. That’s especially true if we are looking only vs. the increase in black population attributable to net in-migration.

So there does appear to be some data to indicate that part of the increase in the black population of Lafayette is due to migration from Chicago. Also, if the J&C wants to say that Chicago migration is not a material contributor to the robust black population growth in Lafayette, their claim would be a lot stronger if they documented where this increase actually is coming from.

Are Black Chicago Migrants to Lafayette Low Income?

Obviously if any sizable group of people move from one place to another, you’d expect some income diversity and some lower income residents. The J&C actually highlights specific people who made the move from Chicago and who have incomes low enough to qualify for public assistance (e.g., Section 8) though it doesn’t identify their race.

The Census also publishes net migration by household income level, which you can view in the same flow tool I linked to before. I didn’t look at all tiers, but I checked out the bottom few. Keep in mind these aren’t sliced by race. This is overall migration. Unlike in the race data, which appears exhaustive, this data has some suppression for privacy reasons.

According to that data, at the lowest level only a tiny net migration to Lafayette is reported – two people, which I suspect is within the margin of error of the survey. A couple of the higher tiers up actually show migration towards Chicago (87 in the $25K-35K range, for example).

Additionally, the J&C reports that they identified every single Section 8 permit that was transferred between Chicagoland and Lafayette, and found that there was actually a net flow towards Chicago. This data is also not classified by race, but is consistent with what I found in income migration.

So there does not appear to a flow of low income residents into Lafayette when race is not considered based on this survey data (which has similar limitations to the race data I gave above).

I would say based on the data sources I have that there’s no evidence that the black migrants from Chicago to Lafayette are disproportionately low income, though I don’t have a direct stat that speaks to the matter. As I said earlier, it seems pretty clear that there aren’t many former public housing residents (if any).

Conclusion

The J&C article takes what appears to be a fairly strong claim – that former Chicago public housing residents are not moving to Lafayette – and uses that to try to bolster the far weaker, though not implausible, claim that there aren’t low income blacks moving from Chicago to Lafayette. And to imply that basically no blacks at all are really moving from Chicago to Lafayette – something the available evidence contradicts. What’s more, it completely buries the lede on the strong growth in the local black population there.

I think this piece shows how black Americans are, as Ellison observed, simultaneously the most visible and invisible population in the country. The black population in Greater Lafayette has grown by 128% since 2000. That’s faster growth than even the Hispanic population (up 82%). Though the black population grew on a smaller base, the total adds weren’t that far off (4,799 black vs. 6,451 Hispanic).

In a community the size of Lafayette in a slow growth part of the country, that’s Big Deal growth, but it isn’t mentioned in the piece and I wasn’t able to find anything else written on it with a quick google. You can believe if a few thousand of a more exotic minority showed up, it would have been noticed. (In Indianapolis, for example, it’s news article stuff when a few thousand Burmese refugees or Sikhs arrive on the scene).

Statistics about black growth and migration from Chicago almost seem to be treated as embarrassing when in fact it could be something worth celebrating. See my headline for a potentially different way the J&C could have told the story. (Also look at how Amos Brown covers the census estimates release in Indianapolis).

I’ve observed before that black Chicago is not really part of the future success strategy of the city. Its black residents seem to be increasingly agreeing as they are heading for the exits. This creates a significant addressable talent market for savvy cities to target. Everybody and their brother is going after the same narrow demographics of 20-something app coders, artists, etc. So there are opportunities for people who spot an underserved market. As I noted less than a month after starting this blog all those years ago:

For the city that starts taking its black community seriously, and engages with it not just around modest goals but no less than in making that community a major force pushing the city forward, I believe there are huge competitive advantages to be reaped.

I’d still say that today.

A lot of small Midwest cities have an opportunity here to lure Chicago’s departing black middle class before it moves somewhere else. The industries so many of these places are targeting like transportation and logistics are always complaining about labor supply challenges. Why not, for example, go show black truck drivers from Chicago the quality of life your town has on offer? IIRC, that’s exactly what brought of those Sikhs to Indianapolis. I seem to remember reading that many of them were truck drivers in California who took one look at what kind of house their salary would buy in Greenwood and took the plunge.

But in order to do that, you first have to perceive your black community as an asset. That’s something I hope Lafayette and its newspaper can achieve.

* The decennial census uses a different racial classification scheme for race than the population estimates. I pulled “Black Only” population from each but I want to caveat that these are not strictly apples to apples.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis, Public Policy
Cities: Chicago

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