A Story I Never Get Tired of Reading!

Ok, I know, we’ve written about this before (see here and here) so my apologies if you are sick of hearing about it.

But frankly, I think it’s important to remember that whatever challenges our part of the country faces, it’s no bed of roses in the Sun Belt, either.  And now there’s a book to explain more on this topic.

USA Today says the “sunburnt” cities of Florida, California and the Southwest must rethink themselves.

The paper writes, “Boomtowns that have been scorched by the housing crisis could learn from struggling Rust Belt communities,” according to Justin Hollander, urban planning professor at Tufts University and author of Sunburnt Cities: The Great Recession, Depopulation and Urban Planning in the American Sunbelt, which was published March 1.

“Sunburnt cities have a chance to limit growth for growth’s sake by allowing dense development and reducing parking requirements to encourage walking, public transportation and more green space, Hollander says.

‘In each place there are a lot of opportunities to think smaller,’ he says. ‘It hasn’t happened yet. Largely, these cities are in denial.'”

We’ll see, I guess, what kinds of choices places like the ones Hollander describes make.

-KG

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Filed under Economic Development, Featured, Real Estate, regionalism, sprawl, Urban Planning

Is Generational Turnover Necessary for the Return of Cities?

How many times have you heard this line: Young people prefer urban living.

Of course, everyone acknowledges, this isn’t a universal preference. But a clear generational shift away from suburban lifestyles is the phenomena on which many of our discussions about urbanism are premised.

However, while young people may be a driving force in demanding vibrant urban environments, they aren’t necessarily in the driver’s seat when it comes to the important policy decisions that continue to shape metro areas, often at the expense of cities.

Mayor Cory Booker's success in redeveloping Newark, New Jersey, typifies of the brand of post-Boomer urban leadership that may be necessary to truly rebuild cities, Aaron Renn argues.

Alex Ihnen at NextSTL articulated this generational tension last month in a blog post after Census figures showed the St. Louis had experienced yet another precipitous population decline: “When will the ‘old guard’ who have overseen this exodus stop cutting ribbons and turning dirt with a smile and silver shovel and simply get out of the way?”

Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile has given this dynamic some thought. In his latest post, Renn wonders whether a turnover in generational power will be necessary before urban areas can regain their primacy in American life:

Gen-X and the Millennials have a much more optimistic and positive views of urban areas than baby boomers and previous generations. I think this results from the rupture that those earlier generations experienced when our urban cores declined. If you read a newspaper interview of someone in that age bracket, you always hear the stories about the wonderful things they did in the city when they were younger. It was the land of good factory jobs, the downtown department store where their mothers took them in white gloves for tea, of the tidy neighborhoods, the long standing institutions and rituals – now all lost, virtually all of it. Unsurprisingly, this has turned a lot of people bitter. Many people saw everything they held dear in their communities destroyed, and they were powerless to stop it.

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Duluth Aims for 90,000 Residents

Duluth, Minnesota, is aiming to grow its population and reach 90,000 residents by 2020, according to this article in The Duluth News Tribune.

The city plans to build on its historic strengths such as shipping, and grow other areas like medicine and IT, according to the story.

It currently has about 84,000 residents, per the US Census via Wikipedia.

Do we have any readers in Duluth? What do you think?

Also, a personal observation – I was in Duluth for the first time last summer and was frankly blown away by how beautiful it was. Stunning Lake Superior views and waterfront, lots going on, and some amazing downtown architecture. I wish I could have stayed longer and I’m hoping to return again this summer!

-KG

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Cities…they’re like Happy Hour

Editor’s note: This post comes from contributor Lewis Lehe, and contains his trademark blend of straightforward economics and quirky humor. -KG

A question for the ages
Today I posed a seemingly obvious question to myself: Why do we care about saving the cities we live in?

Some of us care about carbon emissions, but people were concerned about cities before we knew about climate change. I like living in the city because I would rather spend an hour reading my Kindle on a bus than sit twenty minutes in stop-and-go traffic, but that doesn’t explain why I want other people to live in Pittsburgh with me. In fact, the more people, the more traffic.

One obvious answer is that cities are full of people, and people care about people. But the death of a city often means people simply moving to other cities. Why do I care about tipping people’s decisions towards living in Pittsburgh, where I happen to want to live? (The exception is when a city dies because Godzilla attacks it.)

A blinding insight
The real reason we care about dying cities, I believe, resembles the reason our coworkers ‘huphs’ if Kate or I skips happy hour. Partly, it’s because Kate and I are interesting, smartly-dressed, and fabulously wealthy; and to be seen with us confers a kind of status…a discerned worldliness typically obtained only by the possession of a rare violin or Oscar invitation. You could say our presence is “de rigueur.” But mainly it’s because happy hour is only happy with lots of people. If you see someone downing five beers alone at happy hour, they’re unhappy no matter how cheap the Iron City (or Great Lakes Elliot Ness) is.

Just like how happy hour requires a group to be fun, businesses require a critical mass of customers to earn profits. Try finding a gay bar in rural California, and you’ll have a hard time, not because it lacks gays or because the place is stiflingly intolerant, but rather because the population is so sparse that there are not enough gay people near any one spot to sustain a gay bar. That’s why there might be more (underground) gay bars in homophobic Tehran (population 7.8 million) than in San Francisco (population 815,000).

Living in a dense, populous place means there are critical masses for more types of businesses. I only eat Ethiopian food like once per year. I doubt most Pittsburghers eat it even one third that often. But there are enough of us that our occasional trips make the restaurant Abay viable year round. This gives me a really neat experience occasionally, and it’s a godsend for those who eat Ethiopian weekly. It’s usually the people, not the specific buildings, that make a place. This is why, time and time again, residents of Tokyo have rebuilt their tiny cardboard skyscrapers in the wake of a Godzilla attack.

The idea of the critical mass is related to an economy of scale. Restaurants, bars, museums, and even concerts have high fixed costs, and, to a point, low variable costs, so they need enough customers that the average revenue per customer exceeds the average cost per customer.

Usually we hear about economies of scale with giant factories, and that’s a useful analogy in a way: just like economies of scale make more experiences available, they can also make our experiences into better values. Bus fares would be way cheaper if more people lived in the areas where my bus runs. My commute from Shadyside to South Side Works is a pretty fixed cost–one bus, one driver, one insurance policy, etc. So if twenty people rode the bus with me, we could each pay one dollar instead of two. Some buses, such as those on the East Busway, run at capacity in the morning, so it might seem like adding more riders would not lower costs, since the cost can’t be diluted any further. But more riders would mean more buses running, and more buses running means more frequent trips…or even express buses that make fewer stops but go faster.

To summarize, living next to other people gives us more options and makes some of our options cheaper. That is why we want people to live in cities with us. When they move away, they erode the critical masses, and it’s as if we ourselves moved a little farther out into the country.

A bold vision
I think it’s important to define why we want people to live in cities with us in selfish terms like I have above, because young urbanists are sometimes characterized as do-gooders…as though we want people to live in cities because (a) we know what’s good for them or (b) we hate the crass materialism of suburbia. But actually, deep down, I think some of us want other people to live next to us because (a) we know what’s good for us and (b) we want to have more nice things for less money. In the American political landscape, you are much more likely to be taken seriously if you’re fighting openly for your own interest. (I also think that, in the climate change debate, an underrated argument is “I bought all this beachfront property and I don’t care about those coal miners if it means I lose money.”)

A new moral code
Finally, considering the scale economies behind the curtain of urban living casts many supposedly community-spirited actions in a different light. If you organize to stop a condo development in Squirrel Hill, then you’ve made my life in Shadyside worse: those condo-dwellers might have given the East End the critical mass needed for a sorely needed cheap southern restaurant…or an extra bus route. When people rally to stop new development, they presume a new building is the only thing we’re missing out on. They should actually feel they are snatching newer and cheaper experiences from residents citywide.

-Lewis Lehe

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Glitz Wrestles with Authenticity in Clevelandtown

Imagine if there was a Napoleon Dynamite II.  In it, he switches from tetherball to basketball. He ditches the 10-speed for the leather of an Audi.  He tightens his hair, making it clean to the sides. And he gets Lasik and dons a sag.  Of course if this happened there’d be no movie, no character that touches that underdog part of us—this part that constantly allows one to pick oneself off the ground when the winners decide to shove you down again.

The above clearly illustrates what would happen to a brand  if that brand was taken into the realm of vanilla cool (see footnote*).  Namely, it ceases to exist so that whatever comparative advantage you had in your under-the-radar mystique becomes a disadvantage by being lame, surface-smooth.  But what’s known in entertainment and ad circles is often ignored in economic development, as every year in hundreds of locales there sits booster and civic leaders that see the future as being whatever their city isn’t.

Cleveland—it is a lot. It’s part Napoleon Dynamite: alienated, quirky, but with a spine of cut-through-the-bullshit intrigue.  It is lunch pails and bridges, iron and stone, yet a place of poetics formed from a pensiveness borne from its afterthought status.  Cleveland is hard and soft, then: knuckles and tits—and this is perhaps most embodied in its music as hybrid polka-rock DJs share the same city air that catches the sounds of the Cleveland Orchestra.  Cleveland is wandering. Cleveland is finding when it’s not blinded by what it’s looking for. Cleveland is the nostalgic comfort that is hearing the night train. Cleveland is Joan Jett in the Light of Day.

In all: Cleveland’s got its own DNA on the brand that is Rust Belt Chic. And it is a brand that is gaining increasing attraction in the American ethos, if only because the country is becoming hip to what has been known in the industrial heart for some time now: namely, that all that glitters is not gold, and that the shine of a new Miami condo can in fact be uglier than the crumple of a vacated plant.  As it were, it’s more of a shared suffering now—one related to the beginning of the end for consumer-bloated models of economic growth.  And so attention is coming to the urban frontier as it is here where new ideas have been fermenting the longest, or those ideas relating to how to make more out of less.

Still, time will tell if Cleveland looks back and kicks itself in the ass because it passed on its chance to lead due to some self-efficacious need to follow.  Specifically, check out this rendering for the casino that is to be built downtown. Where the hell is this place?  Not here, and when folks design places that hint at elsewhere it gives the message that: “you really don’t want to be here.  You’d rather be somewhere else.” This kind of aesthetic, it dilutes your brand, especially when your brand is derived from notions reverse of the ephemeral, notions like cores and firm handshakes and undying metal.

So if convention, casino, and aquarium building don’t exactly aid Cleveland’s product differentiation for the grit-chic consumer folk, then what would?  Well, a brand is not much more than a collective identification with a set of values, ideas, and images that have become needed: hard work, fair play, genuineness, resilience—and an aesthetic defined by stoicism in the form of sturdy if lonesome materials.  This is now wanted after the collapse caused by their opposites. And so Cleveland just needs to pass some creativity through itself to form a package made appealing to the accumulating American gut that has grown hungry to become tangible again.  Some ideas in Cleveland that come through us rather than at something else follow.

ReImagining Cleveland takes bank-busted vacant lots, a group of residents, and 10,000 grand or so and has the folks go at it. People literally make their vision on the vacant canvas and create things like vineyards and homesteading plots and prototypes for small business, be it local food markets or hoop house installers. This is no doubt smacks of self-regeneration, as going into the heart of Cleveland’s problem with sweat equity to make use is about as rust belt make-do as this.

• One day last year the Amish came north and then voila: a six-acre plot in the shadow of CMHA was ready to be planted. Called the Ohio City Farm, the plot sits in an area called the Irish Bend that housed the city’s first industrial immigrants. Now, newer immigrant farmers from the likes of Bhutan and Sudan tend to a ridiculous spread of heirloom varieties. The supply line from pick to plate is short as it is marched a few blocks down to the venerable West Side Market as well as restaurants like Great Lakes Brewery.

• The city is and will always be a town that makes things. And yes, we still make steel and bolts et al. but other innovating manufacturing is occurring at Tremont Electric, which makes the nPowerPeg: a backup battery charger for hand-held electronics that uses the energy you generate while walking, running, or biking. Again, creating through you, while lacing the rust brand with modern sentiment.

• The area has a blue-blood lineage when it comes to industrial design (see: Viktor Schreckengost). Now, couple that lineage with a surplus of dismantled factory and house parts and you get: Kevin Busta, a one-time union boilermaker operating out of a Lakeside Ave. garage and selling remade industrial wares to Coast clients like Starbucks and Ralph Lauren; and Jason Wein, the proprietor of just-opened Cleveland Art shops in Los Angeles and Palm Beach; and then the folks at A Piece of Cleveland who harvest their supply of old-growth wood from deconstructed Cleveland houses and then make a piece of furniture with a story embodied in its grain.

There is an arc in every history, and the history of the American city may be making its way back to those places that made that history possible in the first place. There’s no doubt a mystique in the country’s young that finds the attraction in the ruins to be as magical as their parent’s visions of a frontier out West. That said, Rust Belt cities can’t dilute their opportunity at being attractive by just being. This means fighting the temptation to bring South Beach’s talents to us. As there remain many who can’t understand not so much the porn in ruins, but the chance in ruins that comes with an arising.

–Richey Piiparinen

*You could argue Clevelanders don’t care about brand because of their realness, man.  You’d be wrong for the simple reason that Clevelanders protect their “brand” like soldier bees do the hive.  And it just so happens a large chunk of this brand has become needed again. And this is an article about economic development.

Photo credits: Cleveland Plain Dealer (Ohio City Farm); 52 Weeks of Cleveland ( DJ Kishka)

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Sprawl Wallops St. Louis with 8% Population Loss

St. Louis is reeling from the news that the city has lost 29,000 residents — or eight percent of its population — since 2000. The Gateway City had already lost a greater share of its population than any other major US city. The latest count brings it down to a total 319,294 from a height of 856,796 residents in 1950.

News of the loss was especially disappointing as the Census’s biannual population estimates had shown a slight uptick in city population, leading many to believe St. Louis had turned a corner. Alex Ihnen at Next STL shared the frustration of local urbanists and characterized the news as an indictment of local policies:

It had become conventional wisdom that the City had hit bottom, that the population was now increasing for the first time since 1950. The 2009 American Community Survey, a yearly estimate produced by the U.S. Census Bureau had estimated the population had grown 356,587 residents.

Who is the city losing and why? Where can new ideas come from? When will the “old guard” who have overseen this exodus stop cutting ribbons and turning dirt with a smile and silver shovel and simply get out of the way? The City of St. Louis is subject to national and international trends that challenge every historic American city, but what we have done has failed. Failed.

Population loss in the central city is only half the story, however. St. Louis’s suburbs are seeing a different trend, noted by New Geography:

The St. Louis metropolitan area did much better. In 2010, the metropolitan area had a population of 2,813,000, up from 2,699,000 in 2000, a gain of four percent. The loss in the city was eight percent, while the suburbs gained six percent.

New Geography uses the metro growth to argue that the St. Louis region is “flourishing,” despite the declining state of its central city. However, a more critical look at the data tells a different story.

Hardly a harbinger of health, St. Louis’s metro growth rate was less than half the rate of U.S. as a whole, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. St. Louis County lost two percent of its population, dipping below 1 million residents, as a result of population declines in the inner-ring suburbs. Meanwhile, suburban St. Charles County overtook the population of the city of St. Louis in the last decade. And Jefferson County isn’t far behind. St. Charles County gained 76,602, or 27 percent. Jefferson County gained 20,634, or 10 percent. Exurban Lincoln and Warren counties both had growth rates greater than 30 percent.

The slow regional population growth rate would be tolerable, if in fact the region’s economic growth was outpacing it, making the region “richer,” says Tim Logan at the Post-Dispatch, but alas, that is not the case.

This latest round of data should inspire some reflection on the part of St. Louis leaders about regional development patterns, or the next Census is likely to be just as disappointing.

It must also be noted that St. Louis is hardly unique. Chicago residents were taken aback last week when the Census showed the city had lost roughly 200,000 residents.

This article originally appeared on Streetsblog.

-A.S.

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