As part of keeping up with this blog, I read a lot of what other people write about various Midwestern cities. A recurring theme from Midwest urbanists is a frustration with local civic leaders’ unwillingness to implement what they see as new and better policies and approaches, especially in light of the struggles the region has encountered and the resulting imperative for change. This is often phrased in less than charitable terms and there seems to be a low opinion of community leadership in many places. I’m guilty of it myself at times. Sometimes it is warranted.
But other times a better way of looking at it was put forth by a friend of mine when he said of the people who he was working with on a civic project, “They’re not current.” By that he meant that while they were well-intentioned, smart, good at business, good at their technical specialty, and excellent at things like fund raising and building community support for initiatives, they simply weren’t up on the latest and greatest thinking in the urbanism space. They weren’t bad leaders or bad people at all – they just had gaps in their knowledge and thinking about cities.
I think this makes a lot of sense. Something to consider is that most Midwestern cities really haven’t experienced anything but decline in the last 40-50 years. Even in the best performing places, large tracts of the city look like bombed out shells of what used to be there in decades past. For people who’ve spent a good chunk of their lives fighting to turn this around, experience does not offer a template of what success looks like. Also, against a backdrop of secular decline, it is easy to delude yourself as to what progress means. A shiny new building downtown might seem like a coup, and indeed it might be in a certain qualified sense, but if every similarly situated city has a similar new building, is the relative status improved? I see little evidence that civic leaders in many places do what Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard advocated and “get out into the world” to see what is going on first hand.
Also, we find ourselves in a rapidly changing world. This means that there is a lot of innovation going on all over the place in all sorts of fields. It is easy to quickly fall behind the curve. I’ll use myself as an example. A couple years ago I asked one of the youngest people on my staff, a very tech savvy guy, whether he thought Blu-Ray or HD-DVD would win in the market. He looked at my like I was crazy and said that no matter which one won, it wouldn’t matter for long, since everything was going to go digital download anyway. He was already downloading high def movies legally on his XBox360 and thought the experience would only get better. Not a bad point of view – one that now appears to be right, in fact – and one I didn’t even consider. Why did I join Twitter or Smaller Indiana? Certainly not because I thought I needed another time sink. I just feel I have to be out trying new things, or else I’ll end up cut off from what’s happening out in the world.
That’s one reason I, like my friend, love talking to students. They are my pipeline to the now. I think it is incumbent on all of us, but especially community leaders, to be aware of the limits of their own knowledge in the context of a rapidly changing world. In today’s age, the traditional skills and ways of making things happen continue to be relevant, but there needs to be additional expertise and insight informing us as to what we need to be doing. People talk about underfunded infrastructure and such, but the reality is that money is often the least of our problems. Every day I open the paper and find lots of money being spent on some project of dubious merit. The challenge is as much about doing the right thing as it is about getting things done. So it’s more important than ever for cities to have a high receptivity to new ideas, a willingness to change and embrace calculated risk taking, and broader networks – including geographically dispersed networks – than ever before. People have to realize that there’s no way to keep up with both today and the way things are going in the future as easily as happened in the past.
The first step is awareness. Today’s urban leaders have to realize that they often, like all of us, aren’t current. Then they can proceed to make sure they seek out and incorporate more leading edge, innovating, and just plain different thinking into their approaches.
This post originally ran on May 6, 2009.