Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Strong People, Strong Cities

Resiliency is a hot topic in urban circles, but hasn’t gotten a lot of traction on the right. After reading The Resilience Dividend by Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and a recent book on personal resilience by former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, I decided to write a pitch to conservatives to consider engaging in the resiliency discussion. The resulting piece is posted over at City Journal and is called “Strong People, Strong Cities: The conservative case for resilience.” Here’s an excerpt:

Disasters do strike cities, and disaster preparedness is a core function of government. New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, ably led the city through the aftermath of 9/11, for example. Giuliani believed in less government, but he also believed that Republicans should govern effectively. Republicans, particularly at the state and local level, should take heed. Risk management and resilience planning are not betrayals of conservative principles, and ignoring them cedes the good-government high ground to the Left.

Rodin’s book also makes some conservative points about resilience. She devotes a section to underinsurance, pointing to a SwissRe study finding that only about 30 percent of global economic losses from disasters have been insured. If government picks up much of the shortfall—which, in the U.S., it invariably does—serious moral hazard results. Requiring that communities insure themselves more robustly will boost resilience and motivate developers to avoid building in environmentally sensitive areas.

Click through to read the whole thing.

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Monday, April 6th, 2015

Throwing Good Infrastructure Money After Bad in NYC

My latest is in today’s New York Daily News. It’s called “In NYC, throwing good infrastructure money after bad” and it’s about the grotesque costs of transport projects in the NYC area, compounded by terrible decision making. Here’s an excerpt:

Ten billion dollars — for a bus station. And if other projects are any guide, this price tag for a Port Authority Bus Terminal replacement is only going up from there.

That’s after we’ve committed: $4.2 billion at the PATH World Trade Center station; $1.4 billion for the Fulton St. subway station; $11 billion for the East Side Access project; $4.5 billion for just two miles of the Second Ave. Subway, and $2.3 billion for a single station extension of the 7-train.

Having grown numb to multi-billion price tags for building almost anything, New Yorkers might not know just how messed up all this is. In any other American city, even just one of these fiascoes might well have sunk the entire town.

For example, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley attempted to construct an underground “superstation” in the middle of downtown for an express train he hoped to build to O’Hare Airport. Mothballed when the shell was complete after blowing the budget, this was one of his biggest boondoggles. But it still only cost his city $200 million — lemonade-stand money by New York standards.

Click through to read the whole thing.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: New York

Friday, March 27th, 2015

The Metropolitan Century

Update: Apparently you can browse the report online for free, you just can’t down load the PDF. So check it out.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an organization of developed world countries, recently released a report called “The Metropolitan Century.” I read it while researching an article, but it’s full of interesting information. In fact, I think it even makes a good introductory primer to trends in urbanism.

First, they noted that productivity increases 2-5% when you double the size of a city. This is basically Geoffrey West’s finding, or something close to it. But what they also say is that if the population (weighted by distance) within 300km of a city (~185mi) doubles, productivity grows by 1-2%. So the population of the extended hinterland also plays a role in urban productivity. A city surrounded by a hinterland that is shriveling up might thus have some modest drag on its economy.

In the US, the OECD says that San Francisco and Washington, DC outperform economically relative to their size. Los Angeles and Chicago underperform. Among the top global cities, London outperformed relative to its size whereas New York was right at its expected value.

They also put some meat on the bones of real estate prices. They estimate that building regulations increase prices by two to eight times in central London and New York. Even in smaller city centers they estimate a 50% increase in prices. (This wasn’t specifically housing cost related, but overall real estate prices it would appear). They say:

Land-use regulation that limits new construction benefits home owners at the expense of renters and prospective residents. Home owners tend to benefit in several ways. First, they can enjoy the amenity value of attractive protected neighbourhoods. Second, they benefit from the house price increases that regulation causes. Land-use regulation can also be used to prevent people with lower social status from moving into a neighbourhood (for example by prohibiting multiple dwelling units). In contrast, renters will suffer because they have to pay higher prices. Similarly, prospective residents lose out because they have to pay more to move to the city. It also limits labour force mobility and can have detrimental effects on the entire economy of a country.

As home owners are often the most vocal group of the three, local governments might be tempted to pay particular attention to their wishes and restrict construction strongly. This might have positive effects on the current residents of a city, but will have negative effects on the rest of the country. If every local government pursues such a policy, it leads to a situation in which the negative effects outweigh the positive effects and most residents will be worse off.

There’s also some interesting info on whether it’s better to have one big city that dominates, or a collection of smaller cities. Here’s what they say on that:

It is not only the size of cities, but their spatial distribution as well that matters. Countries with more polycentric systems, i.e. systems of large cities instead of a small number of megacities, are found to have higher per capita GDP. The reason for this could be that, with a larger number of metropolitan areas, a bigger part of the territory benefits from being close to at least one of these metropolitan areas compared to, for example, a situation where one megacity combines the population of all those metropolitan areas.

In contrast, within a region of a given country, a more dispersed structure of cities appears to be associated with lower per capita GDP than if one larger city were to combine the population of those cities. In this case, with spillovers from small cities being fairly minor – both geographically and in size – having one large city in a region rather than a network of small cities may be economically more beneficial. This may also apply to small countries.

These are just a couple small samples. The full report is very readable, full of interesting insights. I believe it would even make a good introductory textbook on urbanism. Grab a copy if you can.

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Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

New York’s Next Public Safety Revolution by Nicole Gelinas

[ As part of highlighting some of what you’ll find in City Journal, where I’m a contributing editor, I’m presenting this piece from last spring’s issue by Nicole Gelinas, in which she argues that De Blasio’s Vision Zero is nothing less than a new public safety revolution – Aaron. ]

Belkys Rivera wept as her English translator conveyed her words to the New York City Council in February. “I remember my heart breaking when hearing the news. The last day I saw my son alive was December 25, 2011.” Josbel was 23, starting a new store-management job. Belkys worried when he didn’t come home. “Nunca,” she responded when asked if she had expected to see two detectives on her doorstep at dawn. “The police asked me to get my other children nearby, and that’s when I began to realize that something had happened. The detectives were heartbroken as well, and they were explaining through [my] younger children what happened.” Josbel was dead—killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the Bronx’s Mosholu Parkway. “The driver . . . left the scene and burned the car,” she said. “I did my job as a mother,” she added, but “because of an atrocity committed by a man who should not have been driving”—the driver’s license had been suspended—“the world will be denied Josbel’s contribution.”

COURTESY OF NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION (2)
Public outrage over pedestrian fatalities led to a citywide ad campaign featuring victims’ loved ones . . .

Amy Tam’s story was just as wrenching. She told the council about her three-year-old daughter, Allison Liao, who sang “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round” as she rode the Q44 bus and who loved “using upside-down laundry baskets as drums”—and who died last fall, “holding Grandma’s hand,” after “a huge SUV” abruptly turned into a Main Street crosswalk in Flushing, Queens, and struck her. “We are never going to see her start kindergarten,” Tam lamented.

Too many New Yorkers die every year because of reckless drivers. Thankfully, new New York mayor Bill de Blasio has shown leadership in this area, unveiling an ambitious and workable plan to make traffic safer. Backed strongly by New York Police Department chief William Bratton and the city council, the mayor’s multiagency initiative, called Vision Zero, will seek to reduce traffic deaths in the city to zero, just as the police try to cut murders to zero. The inspiration behind the plan, which reinforces and expands on efforts by Michael Bloomberg’s administration, comes from Sweden’s use of innovative road design and smart law enforcement, which has reduced overall traffic fatalities in Stockholm by 45 percent—and pedestrian fatalities by 31 percent—over the last 15 years. When a child runs after a bouncing ball into a residential street and a speeding car strikes and kills him, the Vision Zero philosophy maintains, the death shouldn’t be seen as an unavoidable tragedy but as the result of an error of road design or behavioral reinforcement, or both. We already think this way about mass transit and aviation. These days, a plane crash or a train derailment is never solely explained by human error (a train conductor falling asleep, say); it also is a failure of a system that allowed a mistake to culminate in disaster. Of course, engineers and regulators can’t eliminate all injuries and deaths; but by applying rigorous, data-based methods, they can cut down on them dramatically.

Nobody favors road deaths, but Vision Zero won’t be an easy sell. Implementing it will require working out complex power issues between city hall and Albany, as well as transforming public attitudes. Even in New York, teeming with pedestrians and traffic, many still view speedy driving as an entitlement. Drivers will need to realize—and here, better engineering, law enforcement, and education will be crucial—that getting behind the wheel in a dense urban environment is very different from seizing liberty on the open road.

New York City has already come a long way in reducing traffic fatalities, it’s important to recognize. Last year, New York suffered 288 crash deaths, including 170 pedestrians. That sounds bad, and it is, but in 1990, New York had 701 traffic deaths, with 366 pedestrians killed. And 20 years before that, the city saw nearly 1,000 traffic deaths in a single year; it wasn’t unusual to lose 500 pedestrians annually. New York’s current traffic-fatality numbers compare favorably with other American big cities. An Atlanta resident is more than three times more likely to die in a traffic crash (adjusted for population); a Los Angeleno faces twice the risk. But New York remains behind—in some cases, far behind—other global cities in this area of public safety: Paris, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are all less dangerous. A citizen of Stockholm—the gold-standard metropolis for traffic safety—faces just a third of a New Yorker’s risk in dying by vehicle. Last year, the Swedish city, with a population of 900,000, suffered only six traffic deaths. The Gotham equivalent would be 60 such fatalities—not nearly five times that number.

New York City’s improved numbers have resulted in part from state-level policy reforms. New York was the first state to get a seat-belt law, in 1984, a controversial measure at the time—the governor of Maine vetoed a similar bill, saying that it “crosse[d] the line between public interest and personal choice”—but a major lifesaver. New York was also a pioneer in fighting drunk driving. More than half a century ago, everyone, including most public officials, thought it was perfectly okay for people to drink and drive. The legal limit for blood-alcohol content was 0.15 percent, nearly twice today’s limit, and enforcement was nonexistent. A handful of New York State leaders—above all, health chief William Haddon, Jr.—sought to change this blasé attitude. As Barron Lerner, author of One for the Road, a history of drunk driving, recounts, Haddon headed the first state health department driver-research center, in 1954, and it soon found that half the drivers involved in single-car crashes in New York’s Westchester County had blood-alcohol levels above the 0.15 limit, and another 20 percent had levels of at least 0.05 percent. By 1960, thanks in part to Haddon’s visionary work, New York lowered the legal limit to 0.10 percent (it’s now 0.08). During this same period, New York also became the first state to enact an “implied consent law,” which revoked the licenses of drivers who refused to submit to alcohol tests. And police stepped up enforcement while numerous public campaigns targeted drunk driving.

Countless lives have been saved. In Mississippi or Louisiana, you’re two and a half to three and a half times more likely to die in a car crash than in New York State, in part because it’s still more culturally acceptable in those Southern states to get plastered and hit the road. Nationwide, 13 percent of drivers are drunk when they kill a pedestrian. In New York City, 8 percent of vehicular killers are inebriated.

Haddon, it’s worth noting, was one of the first public-health researchers to think of auto crashes as predictable and preventable rather than as random tragedies. “Haddon had come to deplore the use of the word accident, which he believed made automobile crashes sound inevitable, and, by implication, not preventable,” writes Lerner. His approach was to figure out who—and what—was causing deaths on the road, and then work to prevent the fatalities.

Over the past half-decade, New York City has pursued that vision aggressively, seeking to determine who and what continues to kill on the road. Despite media focus on taxi crashes, the city found, 79 percent of New York’s killer drivers are behind the wheel of their own private car or truck, not a commercial vehicle. Most of the drivers are male. In pedestrian deaths, vehicle speed and driver inattention are major culprits. As a recent analysis of five years’ worth of crashes by the city’s department of transportation concludes, “in 53 percent of pedestrian fatalities . . . dangerous driver choices—such as inattention, speeding, failure to yield—are the main causes of the crash. The pedestrians in these cases were following the law.” Three-year-old Allison Liao’s grandmother was following the law when the SUV killed the little girl. The MTA bus driver who hit and killed 23-year-old Ella Bandes on January 31 “was looking in the mirror to try to avoid a taxi at this complicated, pedestrian-unfriendly intersection,” her father, Kenneth Bandes, told the city council; his daughter wasn’t “texting or talking on her phone,” as some people often assume of crash victims. In another 17 percent of pedestrian deaths, a driver error—often excessive speed—made a pedestrian’s mistake a death sentence.

Make no mistake: speed is lethal. Someone hit by a car going 20 mph will live, 90 percent of the time; someone hit at 40 mph has only a 30 percent chance of surviving. Speeding distorts the judgment of both driver and potential victim. “Drivers overestimate their own ability to stop” and “underestimate the impact” of a crash, says Rune Elvik, a civil-engineering professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University. Drivers wrongly think that they’ll save a lot of time by speeding on free stretches of otherwise clogged roads (lights or traffic eventually slow them down). And a child crossing the street has difficulty judging a fast-moving vehicle’s distance. A 2010 paper by the University of London’s John P. Wann and colleagues found that “children . . . could not reliably detect a vehicle approaching at speeds higher than approximately 25 mph.”

Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, used her authority over street design to try to reduce speeds and sharpen driver attention. Times Square’s now famous pedestrian island, filled with tables and chairs, and similar islands and protected bike lanes that Sadik-Khan set up across the city give drivers something to notice, reminding them that people live and work where they’re zooming along. Streetscape changes like these often narrow traffic lanes, as well, which tends to make drivers more careful and makes it less likely that pedestrians will get stuck in oncoming traffic as they rush to cross a street—they can now can take refuge on the islands. Other Sadik-Khan changes included “countdown clocks,” which show crossing pedestrians how many seconds they have before a light turns green, and “split-phase” green lights, which let pedestrians cross before cars and trucks get to turn—a response to the fact that left-turning drivers disproportionately kill.

The numbers show the effectiveness of the design changes. At modified intersections, fatalities have fallen by a third since 2005, twice the city rate. Redesigning Jackson Avenue in Long Island City, Queens—a very dangerous road—by extending medians, painting new crosswalks, and delaying turns cut crashes with injuries by 63 percent. Building a pedestrian island and adding crosswalks on Macombs Road in the Bronx reduced deadly crashes by 41 percent. “Pedestrian-oriented designs save lives,” says Polly Trottenberg, de Blasio’s transportation commissioner.

De Blasio’s Vision Zero project will keep up the Bloomberg-era engineering efforts to change driver behavior, focusing on 25 key “arterial” streets, wide avenues like Queens Boulevard (long called the “Boulevard of Death” for its many traffic fatalities) and the Bronx’s Mosholu Parkway, where Josbel Rivera died. These roadways make up just 15 percent of Gotham’s streets—but 60 percent of the city’s traffic-related fatalities occur on them. The arteries “were designed for the fast movement of cars and trucks,” says Trottenberg, and making them look less like highways will slow drivers. To get the job done, though, de Blasio must be willing to take the heat, as Bloomberg did, for imposing changes that a vocal minority will strongly resist. It’s not a good sign that the mayor, in his February press conference on Vision Zero, wouldn’t say whether he thought that redesigning Times Square had been a good idea.

The smart use of data is a second crucial component of Vision Zero. De Blasio is directing his taxi regulators to explore outfitting taxis with “black boxes,” which can record data and sound warnings when drivers go too fast. The devices could not only deter drivers from breaking the law but could also give the city more data on who speeds, and where. The police could use the information to deploy manpower and the transportation department to redesign dangerous intersections. And Commissioner Bratton says that improved data collection and presentation in all areas of NYPD activity, including traffic enforcement, will be a major goal of his second term as the city’s top cop. That Bratton’s NYPD takes traffic safety seriously was evident in its recent flyers warning drivers that illegal double parking, by reducing visibility and forcing bicyclists into traffic lanes, put innocent people in harm’s way. In March, police officers were out in force ticketing drivers who had parked in bike lanes, pleasing street-safety advocates who had long complained of lax enforcement.

In addition to road design and data crunching, the de Blasio administration will take a more traditional approach to combating speeding: reducing city speed limits. Lowering limits was “the most important” step that Sweden took two decades ago in its traffic-safety turnaround, says Stockholm mayor Sten Nordin, whose city helped pioneer Vision Zero. New York will ask Albany, which controls many of the city’s laws, to let it cut the city’s default speed limit—the maximum speed that drivers can move when they’re not on a highway—from 30 mph to 25 mph. And the city wants to set up more “slow zones,” where 20 mph is the top speed. “The standard in densely populated cities where Vision Zero has been implemented around the world” is 20 mph, Amy Cohen, whose son, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, died on Prospect Park West last year, reminded the city council.

The real challenge will be enforcement. “His memorial is still up,” says Cohen of the site where her son died, yet people still speed there. Deterring such lawbreaking will mean ticketing speeders more aggressively, as well as revoking recidivist speeders’ licenses. After a series of high-profile traffic deaths this winter, the NYPD has been nabbing more speeders and other reckless drivers. The police wrote 7,648 speeding tickets in January, up 20 percent from last year.

An NYPD-led traffic-ticketing blitz runs into problems as a permanent strategy, though. As City Council Member James Vacca notes, “Since 2001, the highway division has been cut by 50 percent. Local resources are stretched.” De Blasio is adding some officers but not nearly enough to make up for past cuts. Moreover, enforcement is inconsistent and incomplete. Thus, Elvik argues, “there are advantages in using automated enforcement”: speed cameras. “There is a much higher risk of detection” with cameras, he adds, and they make for “a fairer system. Speed cameras treat all drivers equally”—even drivers with public-sector union stickers on their cars, for example, whom police tend to treat leniently. The unpredictability of “ticket blitzes” also angers the public. Over time, people appreciate consistency and predictability. If you know that you will always pay a price for driving 10 miles over the speed limit, you probably won’t speed.

Speed cameras are common in cities with better safety records than New York’s. A decade ago, London was only 29 percent safer than New York for pedestrians, relative to population size; now, with lots of cameras in place, it’s twice as safe. “London has a pretty decent network of speed cameras,” says Bruce McVean of Movement for Liveable London. “It makes it a lot easier for local authorities.” London’s transport authority estimates that the cameras help save 500 people annually from death or severe injury. And after New York City started ticketing red-light runners two decades ago, serious injuries at the targeted intersections fell 25 percent; more red-light cameras would improve on those safety gains.

New York politics have made speed-camera use tricky, though. Albany, not city hall, controls the number and placement of the city’s speed cameras, just as it controls the speed limit. Last year, the city won the right to install 20 speed cameras only after a protracted campaign, which benefited from then-mayor Bloomberg’s support, including his shaming of three state senators who had stalled legislation. “Maybe you want to give [their] phone numbers to the parents of the child when a child is killed . . . so that the parents can know exactly who’s to blame,” the mayor said. This year, Mayor de Blasio secured Albany approval for an additional 120 cameras. The power the mayors won is limited, though. The city can only use the cameras to enforce the law on roads that run past schools, and during school hours, though drivers have the most opportunity to speed at night, when there is less traffic congestion. The fine for exceeding the speed limit by at least 10 mph isn’t high: $50. And speed-camera tickets don’t result in penalty “points” on a lawbreaker’s driver’s license—a significant omission, since drivers with too many points for violations can temporarily lose their licenses. As part of Vision Zero, de Blasio wants Albany to relinquish its right to dictate the number, placement, and use of cameras.

Albany will probably resist. First, police unions hate cameras, fearing that they will make human officers redundant. “Ridiculous,” says Paul Steely White of the Transportation Alternatives advocacy group. There would still be plenty for cops to do in traffic enforcement—stopping drivers and levying fines and points for failing to yield to a pedestrian, say, or for texting behind the wheel. Another, more reasonable, charge is that cameras will just become another way for the government to shake people down for revenue. The city and state must combat this perception. “The sole purpose of traffic law should be to prevent harm,” says Leonard Evans, a research veteran of the auto industry and author of the book Traffic Safety. As a way of easing concerns, the city and state could announce that they would split camera-ticket money equally among all New Yorkers via a rebate on their tax return. Expanded camera use should actually shrink revenue over time, as drivers learn to obey the rules. Privacy is a third concern. As Evans notes, though, driving is a public activity, monitored by police for a century now, and traffic cameras “record only people who are breaking the law.” Anyone who uses an E-ZPass already has his movements tracked. A fourth obstacle is the state’s dislike of “home rule.” New York governor Andrew Cuomo isn’t known for giving up power, and de Blasio is pushing for home rule on multiple fronts, from the minimum wage to rent regulation. De Blasio would be wise not to take an all-or-nothing approach, as he did for a time in his battle with Cuomo over a proposed city income-tax surcharge to fund a prekindergarten program.

. . . urging New Yorkers to take caution behind the wheel.

When a cabdriver runs over a little boy in a crosswalk, or an SUV driver mounts a sidewalk and plows into someone, the public reaction is: the driver should be behind bars. But he’s not. As Karen Friedman Agnifilo, chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr.’s office, says: “It can be difficult for people to understand why a crash is not always a crime.” For one thing, in 1990, the state’s appeals court ruled that, as Agnifilo puts it, “an unexplained failure to perceive” on the part of a driver—absent some outrageous conduct—“is not a crime.” In other words, a driver really can say “I didn’t see him” and walk free under the law, even if he had been driving irresponsibly.

New York law currently limits vehicular homicide or assault charges to drunk-driving cases. Several states, though, including Illinois and Florida, now make it possible to charge sober drivers with homicide if they kill. New York does let prosecutors charge for criminal recklessness. Vance is willing to use this law aggressively, as he did in charging Adam Tang, who allegedly videotaped himself trying to break the speed record for motoring around Manhattan. The question is whether juries will accept that driving dangerously is similar to driving drunk.

New York unquestionably needs tougher penalties for deadly driving. “Look at these sentences,” says Agnifilo, pointing to two 2013 vehicular-homicide cases in the city. One defendant got a maximum of four years; the other, six. “Do these sentences seem long enough to you?” Without stiffer punishments for drunk offenders like these, it’s hard to justify longer sentences for other forms of careless driving; the maximum penalty for criminal recklessness is a year. State Senator Mike Gianaris and Assemblywoman Marge Markey of Queens have introduced a bill that makes it a felony if someone with a revoked or suspended license injures or kills someone with a vehicle. Senator Joseph Addabbo, Jr., a cosponsor, observes that, over the last five years, license-less drivers have killed 181 people in New York City crashes—and largely gotten away with it. Under the bill, they could face four years in prison. The measure not only targets a particularly lethal set of drivers; it also could help change public attitudes by making it clear that operating a potentially deadly machine on roadways is a privilege. A related proposal empowers police and prosecutors to seize the plates from a car or truck operated by a driver without a license before he crashes. City hall, backed by several local lawmakers, is asking Albany for several other legal changes, including increasing the punishment for fleeing a crash—one year in prison—so that it’s equivalent to the four-year penalty, practically speaking, for inflicting a drunk-driving injury or death. As Juan Martinez, general counsel at Transportation Alternatives, explains, the driver who hit Josbel Rivera faced a more serious charge (arson) for torching his car than he did for leaving Rivera to die.

Agnifilo says that the NYPD’s “crash investigation squad” now responds to crashes that result in death or “critical” injury. That’s an improvement over two years ago, when the police investigated crashes only when victims were “likely to die.” She would like to see them respond to crashes that cause “serious” injury, the standard for criminal charges. In that case, “district attorneys would be called to more crash scenes, allowing prosecutors to make more appropriate charging decisions,” she says.

To prepare cases, the DA relies on witness testimony as well as subpoenaed cell-phone and text records and, increasingly, thanks to a new federal law, on black-box evidence from cars. Agnifilo wants some straightforward changes from Albany to give prosecutors more resources to prepare their cases. Prosecutors need the right to draw blood at the scene of a serious crash without a warrant, which can take hours to secure—while the driver detoxes. The DA’s office would like more time, under “speedy trial” requirements, to prepare vehicular-homicide cases—as it gets for other homicide cases.

Prosecution of smaller infractions can serve as another deterrent. Thanks to better police enforcement, the Manhattan DA received 2,556 drunk-driving cases last year, up 18 percent from 2009. Though the charge is only a misdemeanor, it can mean thousands of dollars in legal costs and a license suspension, as a current public-service advertisement reminds potential drunk drivers. Here, too, tighter laws could complement better police enforcement and prosecution. Currently, if you rack up two DUI convictions in five years, you lose your license for six months. Cuomo wants anyone convicted of drunk driving twice in three years to lose his license for five years. “Three strikes, and you’re out and you are off the road, period,” the governor said this winter.

The most potent factor in making Gotham traffic safer is that citizens and lawmakers are starting to demand change. “We’re reaching a point of critical mass on the pedestrian safety issue,” says Gianaris. The senator says that after two Queens deaths—eight-year-old Noshat Nahian and Angela Hurtado, an older woman on her way to play bingo—caused by drivers with suspended licenses, he grew angry. “This should be a felony.”

New York is a city made up of powerful special interests, and now a grim new lobby has organized itself: family members of crash victims. Parents, including Amy Cohen and Amy Tam, have helped create Families for Safe Streets, encouraging the public to push for speed cameras and other traffic-safety measures. Lerner, the historian of drunk driving, whose own nephew, Cooper Stock, died on the Upper West Side in January after a cabdriver struck him in a crosswalk, says that the movement is similar to the early movement against drunk driving. “Angry parents and relatives” highlighted “the absurdity of a society” that looked the other way as drunk drivers killed. Just as you now know that you shouldn’t drink and drive, texting and driving should be equally taboo. “As more and more potential distractions for drivers emerge, we should be less—not more—tolerant of a mind-set that excuses such behaviors because ‘everybody does them,’ ” says Lerner. The politically active New Yorkers who show up to community meetings to pressure city council members and Albany legislators on bread-and-butter issues are starting to view dangerous driving as one of those issues. Parents want their kids to get to school safely; elderly people perceive themselves as vulnerable.

Those demanding safer streets expect local government to use better data and smarter engineering and enforcement to achieve that end. Many observers once contended that the murder rate would never fall, but thanks largely to smart policing, it is down 85 percent since 1990—nearly twice as big a drop as traffic deaths. New Yorkers are thus likely to hold de Blasio to his stated goal: a quick and marked reduction in traffic deaths. “We are thrilled that the mayor is so supportive,” says Amy Cohen. But she and her fellow grieving parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, and aunts will be “a public force” if “things aren’t moving along as expected.”

This post originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of City Journal.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: New York

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

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

More on Minneapolis-St. Paul and the North

Following up on last week’s post from Alex Schieferdecker about Minneapolis-St. Paul as the “Capital of the North” – an attempt to rebrand it to be in a region separate from the Midwest – I put together a few thoughts of my own that are posted over at New Geography. Here’s an excerpt:

There are two basic approaches cities are pursuing today. One is the regional capital approach of a Barcelona. (It would perhaps like to see itself as a national capital). The other is the global city approach of Chicago in which the city seeks to brand itself as a stand alone entity directly in the marketplace while actively divorcing itself from the region. The global city model seems more popular at present….If the Twin Cities are functionally a capital, this regional relationship will assert itself organically, however it seeks to brand itself.

Where the branding idea falls flat is in two areas….

Click through to read the whole thing.

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Topics: Civic Branding, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Regionalism, Urban Culture
Cities: Minneapolis-St. Paul

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Urbanoscope

Here we are again with another roundup of select pieces from outlets where I’ve been a contributor.

First, Governing magazine uploaded an updated video edited to include only my Louisville talk. You can access it here if you bookmarked the old version and want to update that link.

City Journal

In City Journal last month, Steve Eide wonders if Chris Christie will bail out Atlantic City. An excerpt:

It took six decades for Detroit to reach the brink of bankruptcy. Atlantic City, New Jersey, got there in less than one. With casino revenues falling by half between 2006 and 2014 and the local economy imploding, the beleaguered gambling mecca resorted to fiscal gimmicks to shield its budget from severe cuts. But the day of reckoning has come. The 5 percent loan that the city secured from Bank of America represents a near tripling of its borrowing costs in only one year. As unwise as it was for Detroit to have relied so heavily on the auto industry, a city economy based on gambling makes even less sense.

Editor at large Myron Magnet takes strong issue with the NYC bus drivers union, which wants special treatment when one of their drivers kills a pedestrian after making an illegal turn.

Nicole Gelinas points out that despite a fatal crash on the Metro-North, overall the trains are safer than they’ve ever been.

James Panero has an interesting look at attempts to map the diverse genetics of New York City.

Governing

Frank Shafroth writes about Chicago’s unfolding fiscal disaster.

Liz Farmer talks about how cities are having to pay penalties to get out of bad swaps deals. Governments shouldn’t be in the interest rate speculation business.

Daniel Vock writes about how cities are turning against red light cameras.

The Guardian

Lucy Bullivant asks how women are changing our cities.

Sean Marshall examines American cities’ streetcar obsession.

Rosie Spinks writes about the cultural tensions of gentrification in Hackney.

Claire Rigby talks about how São Paulo is running out of water.

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Monday, March 9th, 2015

Where’s America’s Entrepreneurial Economy?

Go to almost any city and you’ll hear them brag about their startup scene. But the reality of entrepreneurship in America is very different, as my latest column in the March issue of Governing discusses. Here’s an excerpt:

Yet despite our perceptions, entrepreneurship has trended downward in recent decades. The Brookings Institution found that so-called “firm entry rates” have declined since the 1970s and that they suffered a steep fall post-2005. And though millennials are often seen as an entrepreneurial generation, The Wall Street Journal reports that business ownership among those under the age of 30 recently hit a 24-year low. Self-employment has seen a similar downward trend. A study by Economic Modeling Specialists International found that both the total number of self-employed and their share of jobs have fallen since 2006.

So with conditions seemingly so ripe for an economy fueled by entrepreneurs and freelancers, why are we not seeing its emergence on any large scale? And what can be done about that?

Click through to read the whole thing.

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Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

Can Minneapolis-St. Paul Rebrand Itself As the Capital of the North? by Alex Schieferdecker

[ There’s been some talk recently about MSP trying to disassociate itself from the Midwest and rebrand itself as the “Capital of the North”. I think there’s some interesting potential here, although the underlying thesis is classic Midwest: we’re already great but gosh-darnit people out there don’t know how great we are. That is, it views the problem as marketing. I believe in better marketing, but generally believe that most problems run deeper. Also, I think it plays off both sides by benchmarking against the Rust Belt while saying you’re not part of it. If you’re not part of the Midwest, benchmark against a peer like Seattle-Tacoma. Do that and the performance doesn’t look nearly as standout.

In any case, local Alex Schieferdecker likes the idea of the North and put a lot of thought into various aspects it, including hitting on some of the above. He wrote this piece for Streets.MN with this thoughts, which he graciously gave me permission to repost – Aaron. ]

MIN-northIn November, I joined an overflow crowd at the Walker Arts Center to hear a panel discussion entitled Midwest? The Past, Present, and Future of Minnesota’s Identity. The discussion stemmed from common questions of identity, and proposed that Minnesota and the Twin Cities secede from the “Midwest” and claim ownership of a new region: the North. If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably heard about this, perhaps from the Star Tribune’s original write-up. There are some powerful people behind the movement. It’s the brainchild of Eric Dayton, son of the governor and owner of The Bachelor Farmer restaurant and the Askov Finlayson clothing store.

Recently, the idea has experienced another surge of media interest. Brian Martucci, The Line‘s Innovation and Jobs News Editor, wrote an article that catalogs piecemeal some of the projects and movements that are transforming the Minneapolis-Saint Paul cityscape. A day later, The Wall Street Journal (of all newspapers), published a different take by Christina Brinkley, their fashion and style columnist.

It’s a fascinating experience to read these two commentaries side by side. Martucci writes from the perspective of someone who lives here, and his focus is firmly on the built environment. As is evident to any resident, Minneapolis and Saint Paul are undergoing a breakneck physical transformation, with further changes hurtling down the pipeline. Meanwhile from New York, Brinkley is interested in goods. Red Wing shoes, Faribault wool, Duluth packs, and other ‘Made in Minnesota’ products are reportedly—this writer wouldn’t know, he cannot afford them—in vogue, thanks in part to their decades-old, blue collar, lumberjack bona fides. At the confluence of both of these trends, both writers found Eric Dayton and his determination that we live in the ‘North’, and that Minneapolis-Saint Paul should assert its place as the capital of this new region.

The Idea of North

I love the idea of “North.” I am a New York native. I came to Minnesota for college, studied geography and have lived here in the short period since. I have flown over Minnesota and I have also called it home. I have an unshakable certainty that Minnesota is deeply underrated, especially among people like myself. After the event at the Walker in November, I convened a Facebook focus group of high school friends and asked them what came to mind when they imagined Minnesota. I heard back—

The Vikings—

Adrian Peterson—

Outdoorsy stuff when it’s not cold—

You can go to the movies or marry your high school sweetheart or get cold in Minnesota—

We’ve all heard something to the same effect. Minnesota is a frozen tundra populated by mostly second rate football players and provincial people. No theater. No bikes. No beer. We barely get credit for being an objectively incredible sports town. I wholeheartedly blame our association with the Midwest for this. We are shoehorned into a familiar “flyover state” template and the thermostat is turned down. At least Ohio gets to choose the president.

Why yoke our region to images of yokels? There’s hardly a consensus that we’re part of the Midwest anyway. Meanwhile, the commonly used “Upper Midwest” is the unsweetened oatmeal of place names, hardly worth insisting on.

In “North,” we would own an identity that is simple, evocative, and accurate. It is miles beyond what we have now.

mayday2

Keep Minnesota weird

Yet is this reason enough? It may be that most Minnesotans feel the same way and that the roots are already laid for a reinvention. The capacity crowd at the Walker indicated that many are ready to jump on board. But the success of the North movement relies on both broad and fervent support. To harness both, advocates need to make a compelling argument that embracing our Northern identity is not just a good idea because it feels better than before, but because there is an economic and cultural imperative toward doing so.

Do We Really Have a Place-Branding Problem?

It’s not clear that the Twin Cities and our hinterland are struggling because of our attachment to the boring Midwest and our reputation as the American manifestation of Hoth.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul is punching well above its weight economically. The metro unemployment rate is the lowest of any large American city, we have high wages, and a modest cost of living. We have the fifth most Fortune 500 companies and the most per capita of American metropolitan areas. We’re not bad for small businesses either. As a result of the MSP economic engine, the state of Minnesota is also doing relatively well. Our state’s unemployment rate is the nation’s fifth lowest and our economy is growing at a reasonably strong rate.

Of course, the problem here is that we’re dealing with a counterfactual. If Minneapolis-Saint Paul had a stronger identity, would we see the results in a better economy?

It’s nearly impossible to prove, but with basic data we can make a few back-of-the-envelope observations that may bolster that claim. We know that cities and regions with more human capital have a strong correlation with economic strength. There is some evidence that suggests we could do better at attracting that talent. Data from City Observatory‘s ‘Young and Restless’ Report shows that the Twin Cities boasts one of the better educated cohorts of young people in the country. Given our strong economic position and wealth of colleges and universities this is not surprising. But despite an increase in the number of young and educated in the city and the metro area, we lag behind some of our national rivals in growing these numbers in a way that seems at odds with what our economic and educational attractiveness would predict.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul ranks tenth in young and educated adults who live in the city, but fourteenth in terms of real growth, and twenty ninth in percentage terms. Denver is an easy comparison. The Mile High City (that’s their tourist slogan too—straight, to the point, and in sync with how outsiders think of the city) had just over 2000 more young and educated adults than MSP in the year 2000. Now the gap is over 6000. That’s why Denver got the star treatment from the New York Times in this article that Facebook’s algorithm has been advertising to me for the past three months.

Baltimore is the nation’s biggest turnaround story, having doubled the young and educated population of the city from 2000 to 2010, surpassing MSP in the meantime. Baltimore doesn’t have a brilliant identity (The Charm City), but it offers a relatively low cost of living, dramatic cityscape improvements, powerful educational institutions, and an enviable position in the undoubtedly cool Northeast megalopolis (with the ability to commute to DC). MSP can boast three of the four, but not the East Coast brand.

It’s plausible to infer that Baltimore’s low cost, urban and high ed assets, and unique position have helped it draw in a young, educated crowd, but that its lack of a compelling identity has contributed to the lack of attachment to it that residents feel.

The Branding Theory

So the theory as a whole goes like this:

We are mired in a classic economic morass of having a product that people cannot distinguish from other substitutes. Those substitutes are regional railroad and rust-belt towns like Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. The image of these cities is cold, boring, and downtrodden. If we want Minneapolis-Saint Paul to attract people, especially people who have the agency to move to a place of their choosing, what outsiders think of us matters. It is not enough to simply have a superior product. We want to be competing globally as a region and nationally with places like Baltimore and Denver, cities near our size that are buoyed by capturing a greater share of the flood of young human capital. To better compete, we need to celebrate our strengths, turn our weaknesses into opportunities, and emphasize what makes us unique.

guthrie

Minneapolis at its most dramatic

The third rail to this argument is the (in)famous University of Toronto geographer and public intellectual Richard Florida. His work, first laid out in his astonishingly influential 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, is referenced in the original Star Tribune article, and was also brought up at the Walker discussion. Florida essentially takes the human capital economic theory and identifies certain groups—like scientists, engineers, gays, and bohemians—who are “creatives”, and thus (more) important to urban economic vitality. Creative class theory offers policy prescriptions that are extremely appealing to many urbanites, and a beguiling foundation for the Northern argument. There are two problems with it. The first is that Florida’s work, while popular with policy makers and media, is extremely controversial among academics, and has been thoroughly criticized. Second, the creative class is a deeply exclusionary group. While I enjoy belonging to the demographic being fêted by city officials, the identity of our cities and our region must belong to all, not just people like me.

This perspective is biased in another way, too. When I ran this article past a friend of mine who is originally from Wisconsin, he called me out on my own coastal bias. In writing extensively on how to make Minnesota attractive to outsiders, I had left unsaid what championing the North might say to those who already live here. This was an embarrassing omission. 29,000 young adults leave Minnesota to attend schools out of state (21,000 come in) and far fewer return. Overall, Minnesota suffers a net loss of residents to domestic migration. Even to those who live here, the North’s image could use burnishing.

Culture is the Key

That’s why the Northerners must make a cultural argument as well.

There’s a lot of low hanging fruit here. Minnesota is the state of hockey (despite the disappointments wrought by our local professional team). We supply the US Olympic Team’s curlers. We host the Loppet, a pond hockey championship, and the best attended Red Bull Crashed Ice event. Snowmobile manufactures Polaris and Arctic Cat are Minnesota-based. We’re avid ice anglers, an activity that is the subject of ridicule in most of America. (Full disclosure: I don’t really get it either.) There is no state in the union that so thoroughly embraces the full spectrum of winter activity. Meanwhile, in the summer, Saint Paul hosts the Minnesota State Fair, which can claim the highest daily attendance in the nation. If any event celebrates the spectrum of what it means to be a Northerner, it’s this.

That’s what you put in a 30 second tourism television spot. But being from the North can mean more than just winter activities. Cabin culture is something that seems a uniquely Northern phenomenon. Minnesota has one of the highest rates of second homes among US states (5.1% of the total dwellings); fifth if you remove sparsely populated states. Wisconsin and Michigan have similarly high rates of vacation homes, while Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have the highest percentages nationwide. Northern forests are a transcendent cultural asset.

Historically, the North was settled by Germans and Scandinavians, and their legacy is evident in a way that is easy to spot. Perhaps as a result, our region differs linguistically, which is a powerful source of identity. The Minnesota accent is distinct and a cultural hallmark of the region, just as the drawl defines the American south. Some of our words are different too. Northerners play Duck, Duck, Grey Duck and eat hot dish. (NOT grape salad, remember that now.) And if we’re talking about the legacies of the past, the new North could properly recognize the American Indian history of the region, something that only the Southwest and Pacific Northwest seem to do in any measure.

Our region is also different politically, especially given recent elections in which our neighbors have become Republican territory while Minnesota has remained steadfastly progressive. But this is an element of Northern identity that is problematic, not least because it threatens to excommunicate about half of those whom we would welcome into our tent. Another concern is that political winds are mercurial. Not long ago Minnesota was governed by a Republican and represented by a Republican senator, while Wisconsin was more proudly liberal. Any Northern identity must be durable enough to withstand political shifts.

The Economic Argument

But what do we get from affirming these cultural quirks as the bedrock of an identity distinct from the Midwest? I think a few things.

One, we bolster the value of Minnesotan goods. The ‘North’ movement has been criticized as an elaborate branding campaign by Dayton on behalf of his businesses. Obviously I believe it is and ought to be much more than that. But that does not mean that spreading and supporting Minnesota brands cannot be one of the goals of the campaign. If Minnesota-made boots, sweaters, blankets, and more become fashionable, than Minnesota itself benefits. In the Star Tribune article, Thomas Fischer, dean of the College of Design at the U of M, admits that the region has a “slightly hick” reputation. Northern goods can pave the way for greater respect for Minnesota, the Twin Cities, and this region’s lifestyle.

Second, we better control our own narrative. Fargo is a wonderful movie, but the impact it has had on Minnesota’s image is hard to understate. At Macalester (where I went to college), the movie is one of the few reference points many new students have when relating to their new home. It’s a wonder anyone actually attends. Prairie Home Companion is another revered Minnesotan cultural export that does the state few favors in the population at large. I love it too, but it benefits substantially from context (and repeated listening). ‘North’ can be that context. ‘North’ can trigger the connections between not just Fargo and PHC, but on to other strengths as well. There’s a reason that no amount of Hollywood violence set in New York can diminish that city’s glamour. The context is too strong. Yet Minnesota is best known by just a few cultural touchstones.

Third and finally, emphasizing a Northern culture also includes our rural hinterland. I live in the Twin Cities, as do those who have launched this campaign. At the discussion at the Walker, there was a tension in defining the North; who is a part of it, and who is not? This does not need to be centrally planned; as with all of our nation’s regions, membership is largely down to self-identification. But the North’s borders will not extend beyond I-494 if Minneapolis-Saint Paul dictates the entire platform. There is no dispute that MSP is the economic and cultural capital of the region. There is no dispute that becoming more attractive to young, college educated, creative professionals (near and far) is primarily an urban concern. But rural areas demand respect and deserve it, given that much of the Northern identity we’re peddling is derived from and preserved by them.

minnesotawsj

The Wall Street Journal’s map of Minnesota’s offerings

A Northern Agenda

In one sense, there’s not a lot that really needs changing. The North already exists; it’s not something we need to invent, only identify. This is already well-covered ground. Look no further than The Line or the WSJ articles for a detailed survey of how Minnesota and Minneapolis-Saint Paul are distinct from other Midwestern places, better than other Midwestern places (would we be here if we didn’t believe that on some level?), and uniquely represent what it means to be a Northern region and city. At the Walker, one point of discussion was how to turn our biting winter into a positive. That’s something that Northerners already do. From the Winter Carnival, to the Holidazzle Parade/Village, to Crashed Ice there is plenty to do in wintertime. What’s left for us to do is to be proud of our region’s characteristics (in this case, the climate) and to sell them.

But in another sense, it would be a missed opportunity to think of North as simply a marketing campaign. North could (should) be as much about placemaking as place branding. This may be a chance to set the course of the region in a deliberate way. The recent media coverage illustrates these dual objectives, because both Brinkley and Martucci capture important parts of what North is about. The aim is to reinvent the image of our cities and our region—and reinvent the cities and the region themselves.

If we want it to be—this could be a big undertaking.

Marketing Ourselves

One thing we could get right immediately is the marketing. We should learn from Denver, whose municipal logo and tourism logo both emphasize the skyline of a major metropolis, the rocky mountain backdrop, and the same evocative nickname: ‘The Mile High City’. On the other hand, Minneapolis, our region’s most dynamic hub and economic powerhouse has an awful logo that comes in ballpoint-pen-blue and says absolutely nothing meaningful about the city. Meet Minneapolis has a nice logo, but the tagline; “City By Nature” falls flat. It’s certainly not wrong, our parks are one of the absolute highlights of the cities, but it doesn’t play any of the chords that outsiders have when it comes to Minneapolis. “The Capital of the North” is a bold statement of the city’s prominence, and one that also embraces the region’s climate and culture. It would serve well as both the city’s nickname and tourist slogan, or in a parallel universe, the slogan of a combined MSP tourism agency. As for a logo, there are a number of possible starting points. But my vote is for the North Stars’ iconic mark, which could easily be converted from an “N” to an “M”. The Minnesota/Northern state/region motto and team namesake L‘Etoile du Nord is referenced brilliantly here, and I love the dual meaning that comes from the mapping convention of using a star to represent a capital city.

There’s also a conversation to be had about Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s symbols. Seattle has the Space Needle, St. Louis has the Gateway Arch, Chicago has the Willis Tower, and so on. It’s certainly not necessary to have a single monolith somewhere, but it’s hard to think of an iconic image of MSP that outsiders might have. Unless MSP hosts the Olympics (which we might want to consider, we wouldn’t have to build much) or the World’s Fair, we’re unlikely to throw a ridiculous amounts of money at a massive landmark project in the future. Plus, we’re already doing it. The new Downtown East stadium will soon be the most well-known building in the cities, beating out four important Minneapolis works by Pritzker Prize winning architects, two classical marvels in Saint Paul, and a sculpture of a utensil that will soon be usurped on all the postcards. That’s not the end of the world. The stadium may well look pretty tremendous. It might also change the default-picture-taking-place from that pedestrian bridge over 35W to the Cedar Avenue bridge that crosses over the light rail, which would put the green line in the foreground.

The renewed focus on Downtown East offers some unique chances to create a unique, iconic place. One interesting urban feature that will come from the downtown east redevelopment is Wells Fargo’s rooftop signage that will shine down on the Commons park. Here’s to hoping that Wells Fargo does something interesting with their branding. The Twin Cities already have a plethora of memorable advertising signs, but none that really stand out as a regional symbol. If the city asked to be able to take over a rooftop space, they could do something much more interesting. As placemaking ideas go, signs are ridiculously cheap.

There are other major projects going on that will be local landmarks. The Water Works park would be a tremendous addition to the river, which remains our best (and not entirely fully realized) asset. The reconstruction of Nicollet Mall is another large scale project, and one that’s much further along in the planning and funding. The city has repeatedly indicated their desire to see the mall become the region’s “main street”. On February 3rd, the city issued a call for artists for four large scale projects along the street. Among the projects, the city would like to see an artist “create a large-scale iconic artwork” on the mall. Whatever shape this takes will probably come down to the mind of a mad genius, but the selection process ought to consider work that is derivative our our city and region.

The key date for this marketing push is February 4th, 2018. That’s the day when over 100 million Americans will tune in to watch two teams—neither of whom is likely to be the Vikings—contest Super Bowl LII. For the week leading up to this event, the nation’s sports media will be in the cities, making jokes about the weather. During the game, NBC will be leading into the play with blimp shots and stock footage. It’s easy to overstate the effect of events like these; politicians do it repeatedly. But the Super Bowl’s visibility and timing make it a natural checkpoint in any branding initiative. The bid committee reportedly won the NFL owners over with their plans to embrace winter. Hopefully that does not just mean hanging out in the MoA. If the organizers are true to their word, the Super Bowl will be the perfect opportunity to show the largest possible audience what living in the North is all about.

redbullcrashedice

A new image of Northern cool

Growing the Region Through Tolerance

Altering the image of the region is one project. Altering the region itself is another. The North is worth distinguishing and promoting. But it is certainly worth working to change and improve. It seems as though every month brings new construction projects that will transform the Twin Cities into a more dense, livable, and remarkable place. Yet there is still a parking lot across from the Warehouse District light rail station and the downtown Saint Paul Macy’s still casts a pall over the surrounding sidewalks. The real estate market is strong, but not yet strong enough to fill all of the available holes. Growth is still an imperative. Meanwhile the battles over transportation investments, which could bind the cities, state, and region closer together, instead divide them along political lines.

Is there an apolitical, Northern resolution to these issues? Perhaps not, but in building a Northern identity, we could make choices about our culture that would help us navigate these storms. In particular, I’d urge a reflection on what ‘Minnesota Northern Nice’ could mean.

All sides of every issue do not need to agree on the particulars, but what they should do instead is make a commitment to a process of compromise and conciliation. Many Minnesotans are descended from Scandinavians, who have a long political tradition of seeking consensus. In an increasingly polarized America, politicians and those promoting the idea of a Northern identity should all agree to work to make Minnesota an exception that can serve as a model. We already can count on voter turnout and civic engagement that rank among the highest in the nation. All sides should at minimum find common ground in bolstering the ownership that all Northerners feel in their society through a political process that takes inspiration from our Nordic cousins. Initiatives like solving the achievement gap and reducing our pernicious residential segregation (linked issues that have been addressed by both parties) would be a powerful start.

Northern identity should also influence our perspective of who becomes a Minnesotan. The state loses more people each year to other states than it takes in. However, Minnesota is still adding newcomers, thanks to international immigration. Again, Scandinavian nations should provide a Northern model. While these nations are more restrictive towards immigration than the United States, they accept high numbers of refugees. This tradition already exists in the state, and it should become a point of policy emphasis. As Minnesota ages, it will become increasingly crucial to bring people to the state from wherever we can; not just the educated 20-somethings covered above. Other regions will have a similar idea, but the North can gain an advantage by creating resettlement policy in the Scandinavian image that would attract those seeking to start a new life in this country. Meanwhile, the North would set in stone a welcoming and helpful culture that eases the transition for international migrants. We have the affluence, the space, and the culture to adopt such a policy.

Assessing how Minnesota markets itself, inside and out, is easy. Building and shaping our landscape and culture in this new image is profoundly difficult. But small steps count too, and we should be bold in setting far reaching goals for the city and the region. If there’s a thread that runs through the North campaign, it’s about taking charge of our own story. As the Midwest, we’re on the fringe of a large, flat, and forgettable mass. As North, we’re at the center of a region with its own story to tell and our own story to write.

minneapolis sunset

Keep Minnesota awesome

Yes, I Know This Is Long…

At one point, this article was conceived as a personal reaction to an issue that struck a chord. It ballooned, in part because everywhere I looked, I found more to discuss. The prospect of changing an entire geographic identity is a daunting one. I believe it can be done, and moreover, I believe there’s a compelling case to be made that it should be done.

That said, I have just one perspective. This article attempts to approach from multiple angles, but there is only one that this writer can truthfully inhabit. I expect to hear about those I shortchanged in the comments.

I have some reservations about the Northern idea. Would it be possible to maintain MSP’s exceptional gap between wages and cost of living if the cities became more popular? New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg once referred to Manhattan as a luxury product, and luxury goods behave differently in economic theory. While comparisons between the Twin Cities and Manhattan are ludicrous, it’s possible to envision the Twin Cities as losing their budget option appeal if the market properly valued (or overestimated) our assets. There’s surely a benefit for those of us who are here now in living in a place that is underrated.

Or might the concept of North simply divide, instead of unite? Would we end up with Team Midwest vs. Team North?

And of course, there’s the real possibility that the idea just never gains momentum. This is the eventuality I can do the most about, and this article’s main contribution may simply be to keep the idea of North in the spotlight. But beyond that, I’d love to add to the debate about the idea. There is not necessarily a right or a wrong answer, nor may there be disagreement as to whether there’s a solution at all. But I think in this time of change, the discussion is worth having.

This post originally appeared in Streets.MN on February 12, 2015.

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Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture
Cities: Minneapolis-St. Paul

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Real Scenes: New York

Here’s another one of those Resident Advisor documentaries about the electronic music scenes in various cities. This one features New York. And like the others, it’s as much as about the culture of the place (or at least certain aspects of it), as music itself. In this particular episode, we’re treated to a long list of complaints about gentrification (and plenty of F-bombs I should warn you). Whether you agree with it or not – and there’s a lot to disagree with – it gives a window into how some people see the world.

It also appears to me that if you’re really into electronic dance music, you’d be better off in Berlin, Detroit, or Jo’burg than New York or Paris, where rising rents are putting a lot of pressure on the edgy underground scene.

If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

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Topics: Arts and Culture, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

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

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