When I hear the term “smart cities,” I think of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film, Metropolis. The 1927 classic portrays an Art Deco landscape of wealthy industrialists reigning from high-rise towers over masses of catacomb-dwelling uniformed workers who labor underground to keep the city’s huge turbine-driven machines humming. (If you’ve never seen it, it’s visually fantastic, especially with the new soundtrack.)
The builders of contemporary master-planned cities—the Middle East’s Dubai, Asia’s Songdo, or India’s Gurgaon—are smart in some sense. To be sure, these places draw on top talent in their architects, planners, and environmental consultants. They in turn create luxury districts where technology enables a gleaming and growing mix of oligopoly, exploitation, and surveillance.
These arrangements create stark contrasts. As architect Douglas Kelbaugh told James Howard Kunstler, he spent two years in Dubai designing billion of dollars’ worth of “perfume bottle” (beautifully vapid) skyscrapers and abandoned urban projects the size of Manhattan Island—all while encountering daily the thousands of low-wage workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China needed to create this immense Ponzi scheme of the most luxurious city-state on the planet.
But Dubai’s private buses full of mostly manual workers paid $5 a day are only superficially different from Songdo’s legions of programmers and developers: both groups are meant to be invisible and disposable elements in the workings of a neoliberal urbanism with endless ambitions to create a city-state which looks like—in Kunstler’s sardonic phrase—“yesterday’s tomorrow.”
A key aspect of the “smart cities” movement is the promise of personal technology to create new economic opportunities. But the fact is that no sharing actually goes on in most of what’s called the sharing economy—companies such as Uber, AirBnB, Lyft and TaskRabbit extract value from contract employees, not in the service of some dewy-eyed mutualistic scheme, but rather for the benefit of perfectly conventional Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The latter process is sometimes called “Uberization.”
It turns out that the sharing economy is mostly about exploitation of workers and earning yourself an enforced membership in the precariat, that mass of short-term (“flexible”) contract employees who now make up about 40 percent of the worldwide labor force.
These are people who live precariously with no guarantee of a job beyond the short-term, generally less than 40 hours of paid work per week, as well as no unions or industry regulation to speak of, given the dramatic disparity in bargaining power here. Where is this all going, we may well wonder.
To take only one set of dark projections, in Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen foresees a future in which a tiny meritocracy makes millions while the rest of us struggle on anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. It already works quite well in Mexico, Cowen quips.
If you happen to be a millennial or know one, then you’re probably familiar with the issues around digital work. But this economic threat to our democracy—the Internet as an inequality machine—is bigger than one generation. It’s in the process of overturning the traditional rights of workers going back to the 19th century. And it’s quickly scooping in oceans of our personal data—a form of personal property—in order to leverage that asset into creating even more value for the few owners of the digital platforms now driving a large proportion of our lives (Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.).
Thus we see the rise of a new movement employing an old rallying cry: platform cooperativism, a marriage of the historic cooperative model of business and digital platforms aimed at bringing genuine democracy to the internet, especially in the form of distributed ownership. The urgent goal of these activists and entrepreneurs is nothing less than to reset the norms and culture of work.
What if Uber drivers set up their own platform, or if a city’s residents controlled their own version of Airbnb? How about if enough Twitter users got together to buy the company in order to share its ownership?
The latter idea comes from Nathan Schneider, co-editor of one of the best guides to this emerging area Ours to Hack and To Own. It’s a fascinating collection of not-all-that-techy articles on cooperative initiatives to resist the cooptation of the Internet.
Platform cooperativism is simply communal ownership (with roughly 170 years of cooperative movement history) brought together with today’s notions of democratic governance. The term platform, as the editors explain, “refers to places where we hang out, work, tinker and generate value after we switch on our phones or computers.”
Principles of cooperativism are well developed and plenty of impressive examples exist worldwide, from the Mondragon Corporation in Spain (actually a network of coop enterprises employing over 74,000 people) to the dozens of consumer, agricultural and healthcare coops in Italy’s economically resilient Emiglia-Romagna region. In this country, some 30,000 coops contribute an estimated $154 billion to our national income.
Further, coops—values-based businesses that operate for member benefit—have a lower failure rate than conventional businesses, are more likely to promote community growth (via local ownership), can have low startup costs, and help stabilize communities in their role as business anchors by multiplying local expertise and social capital.
We’re talking not about socialism but a form of capitalism—algorithmic capitalism—and how to create more capitalists, people who are genuinely owners. We’re also talking about formulating the first charter of workers’ rights for the growing but invisible digital labor force.
Another important topic addressed here—and a key part of “digital commoning”—is that of countering the corporate, surveillance-driven model of the smart city being promoted by big tech companies. Thus models of public ownership of civic data are needed in order to foster new forms of social innovation.
Notable contributors to this collection include Douglas Rushkoff (Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus), Juliet Schor (Plenitude: the New Economics of True Wealth), Yochai Benkler (Wealth of Networks), Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation), Saskia Sassen (Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy), David Bollier (Think Like a Commoner), and co-editor Trebor Scholz (Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy).
(To follow developments in the platform cooperativism movement, I recommend the clearinghouse website platformcoop.net, which is loaded with resources.)
Building cities that enable true human flourishing—and utilizing new technology to make it happen—is possible. But we must recognize the pitfalls of handing control to a few unaccountable companies. The city that can capitalize on platform cooperativism may yet outsmart the master planners.
Elias Crim is the founder of Solidarity Hall, a group blog focused on renewing civil society.
The typical upper-class Englishman is as near to a Perpetual Schoolboy as can be imagined. At Harrow, they go in for the following expression of lacrimae rerum:
Forty years on, when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play,
Then it may be there will often come o’er you
Glimpses of notes, like the catch of a song;
Visions of boyhood shall float them before you,
Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along.
(Refrain): Follow up! Follow up! Follow up! Follow up!
Follow up, till the field ring again and again
With the tramp of the 22 men!
(The reference “22” denotes two cricket teams, it being almost impossible for an upper-class Englishman to differentiate reality from cricket, as it is totally impossible for numerous Americans of every class to differentiate reality from Hollywood.)
In even the most Anglophile of Australian boarding schools, such singalongs are probably unknown. Nonetheless, the particular pathos that clings to the end of a school year knows neither economic boundaries nor geographical limits. A modified version of it can afflict even that lowliest of educational phyla, the Melbourne school crossing guard. Which is where I came in.
As I write, the Southern Hemisphere is now experiencing early summer. (It would be a useful exercise to ascertain just how many policy wonks at the State Department, how many presidential candidates, have discerned this simple truth.) This means that the Australian school year finishes in December, and the great chunk of down-time which Americans and Europeans associate with the middle of the calendar year is in Australia inextricably tied with Christmas. (Australians have no Thanksgiving, the concept of gratitude being basically so alien to the national ethos as to resist all attempts—however otherwise successful—at Coca-Colonization.)
Sports teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, mathematics teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, science teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, history teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, so what does the mere school crossing guard get? If he is lucky, he will get a Yuletide bottle of wine and an invitation to the school barbecue.
He is paid solely for the hours that he works, so when there is no work, there is no pay. Not altogether surprisingly, this increases in his eyes the general end-of-year pathos.
That the school administrators have expressly informed him of their desire to have him return in 2017 does not noticeably ameliorate his financial unease. He hopes that enough office-cleaning employment or some other remuneration in the service industries will tide him over until the little tykes trudge back, protesting, to their classrooms on January 31.
What, then, have five months as a school crossing guard taught me about life, the universe, and everything? In my answer to this question I can do no better than quote Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who, in a supreme expression of what Alistair Cooke once called “diplomatic fuzz,” responded to an urgent inquiry with the words “It depends.”
Perhaps, though, a few disjointed thoughts can, if expressed in point form, do duty for a reasoned disquisition on the topic.
That silliest-sounding of 1960s bromides has surprising validity still: “The kids are all right.” I have not encountered a solitary instance of genuine rudeness directed at me by kids at the school crossing. Actually I have encountered very few instances of genuine rudeness directed at me by anyone, but I had previously assumed that with the youngsters there might be a Lord of the Flies—or, if female, Mean Girls—element controlling their behavior. After all, Victoria’s education system did not need Lake Wobegon to convince it of the insane fallacy that “all the kids are above average.”
Not a bit of it. I made a particular holiday in my heart when one boy, who appeared to be no more than six or seven years of age, told me (apropos of absolutely nothing) “You’re doing a good job, keeping people safe on the road.”
But the single most memorable, and most moving, comment directed at me came when, one afternoon, another lad—also no more than six or seven—saw me putting away my STOP sign and my children-crossing flags. Mindful of the fact that in Australia (as in Britain) the STOP sign’s similarity to a gigantic lollipop causes the school crossing guard to be colloquially known as a “lollipop man”—or, if female, “lollipop lady”—this lad grinned from ear to ear and yelled: “HELLO, LOLLIPOP DUDE!”
You can fool adults, and goodness knows you can fool millions of American (or Australian) voters purporting to be adults; but as every actor, conjurer, and daycare center manager knows, you cannot fool kids. General James Wolfe, famously, is supposed to have said that he would rather have written Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard than conquered Quebec. I would rather be known as a Lollipop Dude than as any kind of writer, however lucrative, or any kind of guru, however worshiped.
Most Melbourne drivers appear to have obtained their licenses from cornflakes packets. Many of the mothers I encounter, far from validating the myth of female drivers as indecisive and slow—a myth which has more to do with the ancient Bob Newhart comedy sketch about driving lessons than with the visible world as it turns in 21st-century Australia—are the most consistently reckless behind the steering wheel.
To watch these mothers careening past is to recollect P.J. O’Rourke’s description of the car horn as “the Egyptian brake pedal.” Often their motoring aggression will be exacerbated by the way in which they have only one hand on the wheel, the other clutching a cellphone.
The existence, clearly signposted, of a 20-kilometers-per-hour speed limit at this school crossing —as at all Melbourne school crossings—is not for a moment suspected, let alone perceived, by more than about 10 percent of drivers. I fail to understand why Victoria’s cash-strapped left-wing state government does not simply conceal a speed camera at the school, thereby assuring itself of endless revenue-raising. It need not fear a political backlash, since no-one in the relevant suburb will ever vote for a left-wing administration anyhow. The locals’ idea of financial hardship tends to involve after-hours repair costs for a malfunctioning spare jacuzzi.
At this school crossing, angry white men have stopped being angry white men, but they still can’t dress properly. The more bizarre sights afforded each day to a crossing guard in this neighborhood include the spectacular contrast between the women and the men in terms of attire. Granted, the difference is more apt to reveal itself in Australia generally than it is in America. In my experience of American environments, males and females dress either equally well (as in the average Beltway office) or equally badly (as when pillaging Walmart).
Yet where I serve as guard, the contrast becomes fantastically well marked. One is tempted to wonder how sexual congress between the two categories can be tenable at all.
With a few exceptions, the kids’ mothers look as if they are doing a good imitation of Taylor Swift. Never is a hair or a fingernail out of place; never is a blouse un-ironed; seldom will even the most cynical eye be rewarded with the sight of a wrinkle. And then we have the male of the species, whose limited grooming, usurious debt to the national tattoo industry, Hieronymus-Bosch-like notions of dental hygiene, and (in many though not all cases) vast expanses of pallid midriff bursting forth from under torn and dubiously washed shirts all suggest the mindset of a Trump voter whom the Trump voters are afraid of.
Whilst there are males who do not conform to this stereotype, you need to look for them. Only after several months did I solve the mystery.
These males—invariably amiable, I must point out—were not, as might be concluded from their appearance, escapees from a Queensland public-housing project. They had very demanding jobs, far more demanding than any which I have ever performed. The advertising on their vans proclaimed them to be welders, tilers, road-menders, electricians, plumbers, and swimming-pool installers. But of course. Outside politics, the legal profession, the highest reaches of certain sports, and maybe the more glamorous types of medicine, these are the only fields in present-day Australia where one can earn enough money to pay the school’s fees in the first place.
My school crossing career, it will be appreciated, has thus far been marvelous in the strict sense of that word: superabundant in marvels, even when unpleasant ones. Any danger of growing jaded at it came to an abrupt halt when, near the term’s end, I found myself introduced to the school’s headmistress.
First of all, she was slim, no more than three-quarters of my height, and looking like a slightly insomniac 34-year-old. Second of all, when I addressed her as “Ms. [surname],” she immediately responded: “You can call me [given name].”
This is not the type of headmistress I am used to. This is not the type of headmistress any Australian of my age is used to. Our upbringing bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the old joke (Billy Connolly’s?) about the Glasgow slums, where mothers were proverbially so tough as to scorn even breastfeeding: “Yer mammy would jest hand ye the milk-bottle and tell ye to git on wi’ it.”
Accordingly our notions of what constituted a headmistress were—I was about to write “spartan”, but that would suggest a groupthink incompatible with any example from our own predominant Social-Darwinist experience. The main visual qualification for being a headmistress in our day was the ability to interest Central Casting as a candidate for the next biopic about Gertrude Stein. (Some would say that the main temperamental qualification for being a headmistress in our day might have consisted of fantasizing about life as a guard at Dachau, but we won’t go there.)
To be bandying given names with a headmistress … it’s all very well for the whirligig of time to bring in his revenges. But can’t the revenges be at least a bit predictable?
See you at the school crossing in 2017.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne.
“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
[T]he same citizens who grabbed the electoral megaphone to voice their displeasure must now begin to rebuild their own places. … Thriving cities need to lift barriers to keep housing affordable; struggling cities need to remove obstacles that make it hard for people to create value. And any federal infrastructure money would be better spent on maintenance and on undoing the mistakes of past urban-renewal boondoggles, not on building new vanity projects in front of which politicians can cut ribbons and receive plaudits. [More…]
—Jonathan Coppage, National Review
… [T]here are some serious limitations to using municipal boundaries to distinguish between cities and suburbs. A common practice is to treat the largest municipality in a region as the “city” and everything else as “the suburbs.” In some places–Phoenix, Austin, Jacksonville–great swaths of low density development are in the city limits of the largest city. Its also the case that in some metro areas, the largest city represents only a tiny fraction of the metro area–the cities of Atlanta and Miami are only about 10 percent of their respective metros, for example. ….
Cities have grown faster than suburbs in the 2010-2015 period; close-in urban neighborhoods have attracted a disproportionate share of young adults, and cities remain more diverse, in the aggregate, than suburbs. [More…]
—Joe Cortright, City Observatory
… [A]ll the evidence points toward development restrictions being a big reason for high rents. Allowing more market-rate housing in large established cities is a good way to bring down the cost of living, not just for high earners, but for the poor and working class as well. Progressives should support higher density, not more restrictions, if they want to help the most economically vulnerable city-dwellers. [More…]
—Noah Smith, Bloomberg View
By-right zoning is getting a lot of buzz these days as a needed tool to help solve the affordable housing crisis many communities are facing. For those unfamiliar, a zoning code is considered “by-right” if the approvals process is streamlined so that projects that comply with the zoning standards receive their approval without a discretionary review process.
Housing advocates and developers rightfully claim that discretionary review processes are contributing to housing crises across the country by increasing the cost and delivery rate of housing, and often directly preventing needed housing from getting built. [More…]
—Karen Parolek, CNU Public Square
My all-time favorite moviegoing experience took place at Le Champo about six years ago. I was not then living in Paris but my father was, having decided to spend his first year and a half of retirement within walking distance of the Seine. When my brother and I visited in December, the weather was uncommonly cold. It’s unusual for it to snow so early in the winter, and yet, a few days into our visit, we woke to find pale petals softly falling into the courtyard outside my father’s window. Expecting that it would melt right away, we were shocked, upon stepping out the front door, to discover that the city was swaddled in a blanket of pure ermine white. Fluffy, virgin snow powdered the conifers in the Champ de Mars, piled on the balustrades of the Quai Branly, and carpeted the Pont Bir-Hakeim. By evening, the three of us were chilled to the bone, and so we ducked into Le Champo to get warm, resigned to watch anything but thrilled to find that the theater was playing The Dead (1987), John Huston’s adaptation of the short story by James Joyce.
I mention these details because they are, for me, inextricably linked with the experience of watching the movie itself, a perfect frame for it. Never, in all my trips to the cinema, have a day and a movie been so impeccably paired. [More…]
—Graham Daseler, LA Review of Books
“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered in the last week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
The Geography of Middle Class Decline | Richard Florida, CityLab
The large metros where the middle class is smallest are a combination of superstar cities, tech hubs, resource economies and poorer places. L.A. has the smallest middle class overall, followed by San Francisco, New York, and San Jose. Houston, Miami, Boston, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Hartford round out the top ten. That said, the places with the smallest middle classes are mainly smaller metros such as Monroe, Louisiana; Midland, Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, and El Paso, Texas; Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, and El Centro, California; as well as college towns such as Auburn, Alabama; Champaign, Illinois; and Morgantown West Virginia.
Federal Regulators Will Let U.S. Railroads Run Faster, More Efficient Trains | Angie Schmitt, StreetsBlog
Why are American trains so expensive and yet so slow? One factor that rail advocates often point to is the Federal Railroad Administration and its rail safety regulations — rules that are finally on the verge of changing.
Antiquated regulations that date all the way back to the late 1800s (they were updated in the 1930s) compel American passenger rail operators to use trains designed like “high-velocity bank vaults,” as former Amtrak CEO David Gunn once put it. While European and Asian railcars became lighter and sleeker in recent decades without compromising safety records, FRA rules continued to insist on heavy, slow, outdated, and expensive equipment.
That finally appears set to change with the FRA’s release of new draft safety rules for traincars.
Why America’s Roads Are So Much More Dangerous Than Europe’s | Norman Garrick, Carol Atkinson-Palombo, and Hamed Ahangari, Vox
Much of the disparity seems to arise from how we build communities and the types of roads we design and construct. In the US, we drive more than any other developed country in the world, which goes some way toward explaining the higher traffic fatality rates. But even when we correct for vehicle miles traveled, we still have higher fatality rates. What we are learning is that the countries with the best traffic fatality records are different from the US in the following ways:
a) they live more compactly,
b) their road design favors more vulnerable users such as bikers and pedestrians, and
c) they have enacted laws and regulations that also favor these vulnerable road users.
Where Small Is Possible | Hank Dittmar, Brian Falk, CNU Public Square
A Pink Zone — an area where the red tape is lightened — is the locus for implementation of Lean Urbanism strategies and improvements,. The Pink Zone identifies a specific area where new protocols are pre-negotiated and experiments are conducted, all with the goal of removing impediments to economic development and community-building. It will be developed and refined in a series of pilot projects, and then released to the public. Yesterday Public Square ran an article on the first Pink Zone pilot project in Detroit.
Bright Lights, Small Government | Max Holleran, New Republic
[T]he great, unaddressed subject in Jacobs’s best-known work is gentrification. Specifically: Did her work, in part, serve as an economic and philosophical rationale for the wave of bohemian gentrification that overtook the West Village? If so, it would give new meaning to her much-lauded appreciation of street life: We would have to read Death and Life as the document of a neighborhood going through extreme economic change, with results that inevitably pushed some residents out. The West Village is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States today.
JACKSON, Mich.—With a renewed interest in Middle America, it is a good time to examine both the plight of our Rust Belt urban centers and their untapped assets.
The Great Lakes region in particular is characterized by classic downtowns sporting Italianate-style buildings made from the venerable Chicago Common brick. Some even feature architectural works of art by famed designers like Detroit’s Albert Kahn. Today this once vibrant part of our country—filled with hard working, second-generation Americans and underutilized downtowns—is experiencing a quiet renaissance spurred by unlikely sources.
Despite going through one of the toughest economic downturns since the Great Depression, the Great Lakes region still has a fair amount of large businesses and corporate headquarters in hundreds of medium-sized urban centers. Yet these companies are fighting a revolving door: new hires cost them excessive amounts of money to train, and too soon they find themselves retraining replacements. Why? According to Governing magazine
…the millennial generation, adults 34 and younger, many of whom continue to express a preference for walkable neighborhoods with bike lanes, public transit and a mix of recreational amenities. Last year, millennials became the largest component of the American workforce. … In 2013, the Urban Land Institute found that 62 percent of millennials preferred a home close to shops, restaurants and offices.
Smaller urban areas suffer from vacant storefronts, lack of dining and entertainment options, and, most importantly, market-rate housing. Since the 1970s, businesses have fled to malls and highway interchanges as well-meaning but misguided planners turned much of the existing downtown residential inventory into federally-subsidized, low-income housing. Because of the lack of housing choices, new millennial hires often choose to live a long commute away—in bigger urban cores where they can find the lifestyle they prefer. But after driving through the snowy Great Lakes winter, many quit and instead find employment they can easily walk or bike to in larger cities. In short, this new workforce prioritizes their living environment over job loyalty.
So how does a town attract businesses to save their Midwestern Main Street? There are five key ingredients:
- Infrastructure. Local government must invest in downtown roads, streetscapes, placemaking, parks, and trails. If you have the vestiges of 1970s urban planning, such as roads turned into walking plazas or one-way bypasses speeding potential customers around and away from downtown businesses, you must remove these impediments to growth now. Many of these projects can take advantage of federal and state incentives that already exist.
- Entertainment. One of the fastest ways to rejuvenate a downtown is to encourage development of restaurants and pubs. Basic local tax incentives, a progressive Downtown Development Authority, and a destination venue such as a craft brewery or distillery can serve as a focal point to start the resurgence. Many states offer redevelopment-zone liquor licenses at reasonable rates to spur growth.
- Market-Rate Housing. Many downtowns have vacant lots that are available for new construction of market-rate apartments. Finding willing developers can be a challenge; even though available apartment inventory is low, the prevailing market rental rates are still depressed. Because banks appraise businesses based on the Income Method (which evaluates potential revenues versus operational costs), new construction in these inactive areas often appraises for less than construction costs, making conventional financing difficult. This gap between construction costs and appraised value needs to be narrowed by the use of local tax abatements and brownfield development grants and credits. Tools like these can be used to bolster the project’s internal rate of return and attract more investors without jeopardizing local tax dollars.
- Basic Necessities. Most urban cores, even in small Midwest towns, are what the USDA defines as Food Deserts (“…at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.”) To attract a new residential population the downtown core must have easily accessible, healthy, convenient food. Several chains are experimenting with small format (7,500 sq. ft.) hypermarkets to serve the urban cores.
- Retail. “Build it and they will come.” Retail is one of the last and most cautious pieces of the puzzle. Regional and national chains usually have very strict guidelines for population and demographics that determine where they will locate. Often developing urban cores do not meet the requirements of these chains, and they are not local enough to gauge the momentum first hand. The best bet for retail is to court local entrepreneurs that open destination stores like beauty parlors and candle stores. These will soon be joined by coffee shops, bakeries, and purveyors of other artisan goods. Once a critical mass is realized, regional chains will follow.
Creating the Perfect Storm
These tactics are beginning to be carried out here in Jackson, a Michigan city of 34,000. In this metropolitan area of 160,000, corporate leaders Consumers Energy and Henry Ford Allegiance Health helped form The Anchor Initiative. According to the Michigan Municipal League, “the program’s three-pronged approach stresses the value of living, investing and innovating locally. It also emphasizes the important role that private sector anchor institutions can play in developing the physical, social and economic conditions that can help the city thrive.” Some of the strategies used include rental incentives to encourage employees to live downtown.
Around the same time, the city appropriated matching funds to completely redo the streetscapes and add trees, bump outs, lighting, signage, and additional on-street parking. Part of Jackson city manager Patrick Burtch’s plan included purchasing property and razing non-historic buildings to offer developers attractive parcels for only $1. The city is also working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to return downtown bypass streets to their original two-way design, incorporating additional landscaping and bump outs to allow traditional on-street parking. A new downtown park is currently under construction with a multipurpose art gallery and amphitheater, and the urban core was just connected to over 14 miles of paved biking and running paths.
This all got a boost from an unlikely source. In 2013, I renovated a run-down, empty, graffitied building in the heart of downtown Jackson and opened Grand River Brewery. This risky new venture offered a 220 seat restaurant, 80 seat community event room, bakery, craft brewery, craft distillery, and winery. The complete renovation of this 12,000 sq. ft. former bus repair garage and 1980s mini mall earned us a “Brick Award” by the local Chamber of Commerce. My facility became the social hub of the downtown, hosting weddings, rehearsal dinners, baptisms, church services, retirements, wakes, corporate meetings, political rallies, special events, and even public radio shows.
Then a funny thing happened. Due in part to overwhelming local support, we started to grow at a 30 percent annual clip. I was able to prove that despite naysayers, one could launch a new business in downtown Jackson and be successful. That revelation had a profound effect on the community, and a new optimism about downtown was born. Businesses that had faithfully remained there felt confident improving their buildings and services, and entrepreneurial groups became interested in developing new projects.
Three and half years after I opened the brewery, my business partners and I are building a new mixed-use, luxury apartment building. (I am still looking for a grocery store for the first floor.) Our group is also restoring an 1868 Italianate building that was formerly an iconic city restaurant, with more market-rate apartments on the upper two floors and a steakhouse on the first floor. Since our brewery launch, the downtown has added five new restaurants and five new retail stores, signed a development agreement on an old vacant Albert Kahn-designed hotel and another mixed-use apartment complex. A major engineering firm is planning to build their headquarters downtown.
Jackson is proof that the best way to revitalize a downtown is with a progressive master plan, passionate local entrepreneurs, and a good brewery thrown in.
John Burtka III, who was formerly involved in the global automotive industry, now acts as a Lean-Six Sigma business consultant, winemaker, distiller, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and county commissioner.
I knew my involvement in civic matters in northwest Indiana would eventually take me to Gary, about 25 miles from my town of Valparaiso. As I’ve driven along Interstate 90 heading to and from Chicago, I’ve often peered down from the expressway into the city’s empty streets and dilapidated neighborhoods. For many long-time residents of the area, the town’s very name is an epithet for a landscape of failure and fear where it’s thought that no one stays who can find a way to leave. I admit I have not been in a hurry to visit the place but in recent months I’ve come to see it quite differently.
Gary was created as a kind of company town (U.S. Steel basically built the city out of dirt in 1906) and reached a population of almost 180,000 in 1960. Today the city (with a geographical area about the same size as downtown Boston’s) has just under 80,000 inhabitants and is about 85 percent African-American. The Gary Works steel plant went from a peak of 25,000 employees to today’s 5,000. Approximately one-third of the city’s housing stock today stands empty and Gary’s public schools have slowly been closing for a number of years.
And yet. The city has an energetic and popular mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson(Harvard Law grad, former attorney general of Indiana). It has an artsy neighborhood called Miller with the obligatory brewpub, a gallery and some nice restaurants. And it has—if it can find more ways to leverage the asset—Lake Michigan.
The friends of a revitalized Gary include the PlaceLab at the University of Chicago, where social practice artist Theaster Gates is deploying a substantial Bloomberg Philanthropies grant to create ArtHouse, “a social kitchen” in downtown Gary. The grand opening was last weekend and an artsy, mostly African-American crowd of 200 listened to Gates, Mayor Karen (as everyone calls her) and the architects talking about why social practice art (you need to know what this is if you don’t already) can achieve placemaking—even in Gary.
I hope that’s so, as I’m bought in. I want our civic incubator, the C-Lab, to host community microfunding dinners (called SOUPs) at ArtHouse. And I’ve met several great Gary people just networking around this project.
But there’s more. The Diocese of Gary got a new leader, Bishop Don Hying, about a year ago. He has a very genial manner and spent his first two or three months personally visiting every one of his 70-plus parishes. I gradually figured out he was a radical in a Boy Scout uniform, so to speak.
Now he’s leading a discussion group (held at the rectory of the cathedral in Gary, where he lives) on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement with the aim of collaborating on a Catholic Worker house somewhere in town. Note the term “collaborating”: the Diocese of Gary will not be officially sponsoring the house—such an arrangement would probably not be feasible for various reasons—but Bishop Hying does want to help make this happen for Gary. And we’ve got supporters chiming in from Chicago, South Bend, and elsewhere.
Some of our Catholic Worker team think we should publish a blog about the process of creating a Catholic Worker house, as we consider all the different dimensions to this kind of project.
Elias Crim is a civic entrepreneur in Valparaiso, Indiana.
This post originally appeared at Solidarity Hall.
“Words on the Street” highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
Where Millennials Live | Robert Steuteville, CNU Public Square
The often quoted cliche that millennials are moving downtown is not quite accurate. The greatest share of young adults is choosing urban neighborhoods outside of downtown. Just over a third of millennials identified in this 2014 nationwide survey live in such neighborhoods—preferably the walkable kind where they can get around without a car. Only 13 percent live downtown, which tends to be more expensive.
In total, 48 percent live in cities—with another 13 percent living in dense, older, inner-ring suburbs. These older suburbs also enable reduced automobile dependence, which cuts expenses for folks who are still paying for higher education. Older suburbs are relatively convenient to jobs and activities—a quality in demand with this cohort. So 61 percent of this group are living in compact neighborhoods or downtowns—a higher number than previous generations.
Helping Struggling Places | Adam Ozimek, Economy.com
The level of nihilism espoused by economists about what we can do to help struggling places in the U.S. is, quite frankly, strange. Whenever the issue of helping places is raised, critics jump straight to the most extreme examples, such as former mining towns. But the fact that some places need to shrink, and the costs of helping some places sometimes outweighs the benefits, is a far less powerful point than these critics imagine. Other places have survived the loss of major industries and gone on to thrive. Understanding why this happens sometimes and doesn’t happen other times, and what policymakers can do to help replicate the successes, are crucial policy issues that cannot be pushed aside by pointing out the impossibility or desirability of saving every place.
Elite Cities Are Pushing Out the Working Class | Nicole Gelinas, New York Post
In a study highlighted last week by the Wall Street Journal, Trulia analyzed who moves away from the country’s 10 most expensive cities, all on the East Coast or in California.
Answer: disproportionately, the poorest — those making $30,000 or less. But they weren’t exclusively poor: People earning $30,000 to $60,000 also left in numbers that exceed their share of the population.
People making more money left, too. But they left in smaller numbers, far less than their share of the population. (The cities continued to grow because of immigration, including high-earning immigrants.)
Jane Jacobs Predicted a Dark Age Ahead | Richard Florida, CityLab
Back in 2004, before the economic crisis, urbanists were celebrating the resurgence of the city. We didn’t think much about the rise of conservative populists like Trump or the late Rob Ford. But there was Jane Jacobs, arguing “caution” against a new dark age lurking right around the corner.
In Dark Age, Jacobs focused on the erosion of the key pillars of stable, democratic societies—the decline of the family, the rise of consumerism and hyper-materialism, the transformation of education into credentialism, the undermining of scientific norms, and the take-over of politics by powerful special interest groups, among others. Persistent racism, worsening crime and violence, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and increasing divides between the winners and losers of globalization provided growing evidence of the decay of society, she argued.
Why Planting More Trees Is One of the Best Things a City Can Do | Brad Plumer, Vox
Trees can make a city sidewalk prettier, sure. But that’s not even their best trick. A growing pile of research suggests that planting more urban trees, if done right, could save tens of thousands of lives around the world each year — by soaking up pollution and cooling down deadly heat waves. In fact, as a fascinating new report from the Nature Conservancy details, a well-targeted tree campaign could be of the smartest investments a hot, polluted city can make.
This post was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Aquarius, the new film from Brazilian critic-turned-director Kleber Mendonça Filho, sells the battle for redevelopment of an apartment complex in Recife, Brazil as nothing less than a battle for the soul of a nation. To the film’s great credit, even the least interested in urbanism among us will buy it; bravura filmmaking is bravura filmmaking any way you slice it.
The Aquarius, the building that lends its name to the film’s title, is unassuming both inside and out—luxury Northern-Virginia tower block it ain’t—though it isn’t lacking for personality. Since walls can only talk in the figurative sense, we learn about the building’s history from Clara (Sonia Braga), a resident of the Aquarius of more than 30 years. At 65 Clara has experienced the broad sweep of life’s joys and sorrows under the the Aquarius’s roof: she’s celebrated with family both close and far, survived breast cancer, lost her husband to an early death, watched her children grow old and leave the nest, renovated the space into a home for the record collection she’s amassed through the years as a music critic and lover of culture.
Cosmetic changes notwithstanding, Clara’s apartment has held onto a certain character through the years. We see this no more beautifully or succinctly than in an early scene that transitions seamlessly from a 1980s flashback to the present day. With the camera fixed in one all-seeing corner of the room, an elongated cross fade slowly transforms a scene of a jubilant and crowded birthday party into one of Clara enjoying the fruits of solitude in her modestly refurbished 2016 pad, the same record playing on the turntable in one decade as in the next. People and furniture arrangements come and go, but the soulfulness Clara has striven to cultivate in her home persists across time.
All that Clara has labored for over the years is threatened by the arrival at her doorstep of a construction company seeking to demolish the Aquarius. The company, represented by its president and his obsequious grandson Diego (Humberto Carrão), say they’ll keep the memory of the old building alive by naming the new one, blandly, “The New Aquarius” in its honor. Clara makes short work of their insincerity by pointing out that until very recently the new development was to be christened, even more blandly, “The Atlantic Plaza Residence.” The developers sulk back into their corner of the ring for regrouping, and it’s at this point that we realize we’ve been dropped into this boxing match in medias res. Clara has been stubbornly opposing the developers for at least six years, the building’s other tenants having long ago sold their apartments to the company and moved out.
Thus what could have been a treacly paean to preservationism is anything but. Our sympathy for Clara can only extend so far: every year Clara refuses to move out is another year her less-financially-stable former neighbors are kept from the money they’ve been promised for selling their homes. If Clara’s stubbornness were just a product of elderly nostalgia, it would be easier to dismiss her position. Instead, it’s the result of a deep-seated memory of history. The Aquarius is a receptacle for ugly memories as well as beautiful ones, and the former can be just as meaningful to Clara as the latter.
This could have been a point easily and glibly made in on-the-nose dialogue; instead it’s an occasion for Aquarius’s skilled director to play with genre to achieve the same ends. While the film starts, in 1980, as as a dreamily nostalgic period piece, it metamorphoses into a family melodrama, a raunchy bad-neighbor comedy, and, finally and most memorably, a haunted house film. This might leave some viewers reeling with narrative whiplash, but these changes in register nevertheless help us experience, both viscerally and in a condensed timeframe, what Clara has spent her whole life living.
Clara defends her home through thick and thin, not in spite of all the hurt that has transpired there, but because of it. It’s no surprise to find that same sense of commitment missing from all the younger people around her. In one heated debate with her daughter, Clara incisively calls an entire generation out for its dishonest reverence for the past. “When you love something, it’s vintage,” she snipes, “and when you don’t, it’s old.”
Clara’s not just speaking for the Aquarius here. It will escape precisely no one who sees this film that characters like Clara—strong, sexy, complicated, and well over the eligibility age for AARP membership—never get to be the stars of movies anymore. Cinema’s loss is likewise a loss for an entire generation of younger moviegoers. Sonia Braga hasn’t been called upon for a major film role in several decades, and Aquarius is as grand a rebirth from the ashes of cinema’s dustbin as any older actress could hope for. Braga positively lights the screen on fire, at times with the warmth of a candle yet at others with the violence of an erupting volcano. This is what it means to be a movie star, the type we like to sullenly say they don’t make like they used to anymore.
Clara’s conflict with the developers naturally comes to a head with Diego in a classic clash between the old guard and the new. While Clara is fully a product of Brazil, its buildings, and its institutions, Diego’s character formation has been outsourced to the world of elite, coastal business schools in the United States. Diego speaks that perversely charming language of ruthless appeasement and bottom lines. When Diego accuses Clara of lacking manners and asks her to show some respect for her former neighbors, she viciously turns the tables on him. “You have no character,” she erupts at him, “or, you do, but your character is money. It’s the rich, elite people like you who lack manners; you have no human decency.” Her polemic escalates until it threatens to melt right through the screen. When she eventually backs off just enough to let her opponent get a word in edgewise, that word is “meritocracy”. Cue the groaning and eye-rolling.
Diego’s limp appeal to his hard work and dubious life of hardships doesn’t win any converts to his side. Certainly not Clara, who’s ready to go down fighting in this battle-in-microcosm for the soul of Brazil against the forces of corporate greed and government corruption. In its final twenty minutes Aquarius pulls out all the stops, culminating in one of the most riveting conclusions you could hope to see at the movies this or any year. The very final scene, which sees Clara launching a metaphorical grenade right into enemy territory, doesn’t offer the kind of closure we’ve been conditioned to expect from other movies. Then again, most other movies aren’t as aware of the high stakes of their real-life antecedents as this one is.
Tim Markatos is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.
Baseball is a game of inches, but it is also a game of nostalgia. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore opened in the 1992 season it set off a wave of retro ballpark construction in the Major Leagues. The multipurpose “cookie-cutter” parks with their huge outfields and artificial turf (so they could be used for football in the offseason), with names like Veterans Stadium and Memorial Stadium, were obsolete and out of fashion overnight. As a result, after Fenway Park (1912) and Wrigley Field (1914), the oldest ballpark in the Major Leagues is Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962.
The retro parks are built only for baseball, on real grass, and use many of the materials and strange configurations of the old parks, such as exposed brick and jutting corners for weird bounces, like AT&T Park’s “Triples Alley”. The New York Mets’ new home, Citi Field, even recreated part of the facade of long vanished Ebbetts Field for its Jackie Robinson Rotunda.
A traditional ballpark has a personality of its own and, occasionally, its owner. When Bill Veeck owned the Cleveland Indians in the 1940s, he altered Municipal Stadium’s dimensions regularly to favor the Tribe. Braves Field in Boston was built with a huge outfield in order to increase the number of triples hit.
Baseball teams and their parks also end up reflecting their cities—after all, the reason old ballparks like Fenway have their quirks is because they were built to fit in city blocks and Boston has some strange streets. In a similar way, several writers believe that Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees as much because he couldn’t stomach Boston’s puritanical culture as Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s money troubles.
Baseball has also brought cities together in a way not often seen in other sports. The 1968 Detroit Tigers were credited with calming the city after the race riot in 1967 and the unrest following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F. Kennedy. The ’77 Yankees and 2013 Red Sox are similarly credited with bringing their cities together at difficult times. The strong emotional bond between a city and a team feed into a city’s sense of place.
Last year Rod Dreher visited Siena and wrote about how within the walls each contrade, or ward, competes with every other one in the annual Palio horse race. They all have their own hymns, yet all are set to the same tune, the same one for the whole city when competing with other cities. A similar thing happens with baseball teams—it becomes the city versus all comers instead of one faction among many. Things might be said to go from “my city” to “Our bleeping city”.
But all is not as it seems.
Baseball stadiums are expensive to build and urban property prices have always been high, especially considering the amount of parking needed to accommodate 40,000 people. As a result, teams want public financing, tax abatements, and all the other ills that crony capitalism promotes. Paid for with higher taxes, increased public indebtedness, and highway improvements, the retro ballparks were sold to city, county, and state governments as a form of economic development and urban regeneration.
None of that has happened. Not even with Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which started the whole thing and cost taxpayers $282 million, according to Field of Schemes. According to Bloomberg in 2013, sports stadiums don’t fulfill development goals because they’re empty much of the time, the jobs they create are low-wage, and they divert spending on food and beverages from other businesses. In Baltimore, says Field of Schemes, the number of employers in the area fell between 1998 and 2013, while crime and unemployment were up.
Tim Chapin, an urban planning professor at Florida State University, told Bloomberg that Camden Yards had not saved downtown Baltimore or improved the poorer neighborhoods near downtown. Former Maryland legislator Julian Lapides said that the whole area was vacant on game days. “It’s a big hole in the center of the City.”
In that respect, stadium deals are no better than ordinary economic development funds. Back in December of 2012, the New York Times found that states and cities spend up to $80 billion a year on economic development incentives with nothing much to show for it in the way of stronger economies or more and better paying jobs.
The area around Camden Yards, however, is still better than some retro parks, such as Citi Field or Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, which are entirely surrounded by parking. The real appeal of old ballparks (like Fenway and Wrigley) and the nostalgia for lost ones (like Ebbetts Field, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, and others) comes from their history—many former ballparks have the location of home plate marked with a plaque, and Pirates fans still gather at the site of Forbes Field on the anniversary of Bill Mazerowski’s World Series-winning home run against the Yankees—and the way they were part of a neighborhood.
The area around Boston’s Fenway Park has seen a lot of changes come and go, but in addition to the new glass and steel luxury towers going up on Brookline Avenue, there are old warehouses (long-since converted into memorabilia stores and sports bars) and apartment buildings of similar age, their flaking brick facades and sagging wood floors belying their high rents. In Chicago, Wrigley Field gave its name to its neighborhood, Wrigleyville, which is still somewhat affordable and where people in neighboring houses can watch the game from their roofs.
Fenway and Wrigley prove two things: that neighborhoods can develop around ballparks, so long as the neighborhood isn’t torn down for parking and teams don’t need new ballparks every 30 years. But as long as team owners use threats to move a beloved team as emotional blackmail against an entire city—and public officials think can win votes on bad deals—sports franchises will continue to feast on public funds like a slugger on hanging sliders.
In life, like in baseball, sometimes the only thing to do is take the pitch because you can’t do anything useful with it.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Can communities support independent, local retailers while promoting economic development and downtown revitalization?
This was the key question at a panel on “Death by Chains?” in Providence, RI last week. The event was sponsored by the Congress for the New Urbanism New England Chapter, the R Street Institute, and The American Conservative.
One panelist suggested that ensuring a mix of businesses should take a backseat to general placemaking considerations. “My relationship to retail is secondary,” said Cliff Wood, the executive director of the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy. “Now that we’re experiencing some success the chains are starting to knock on the door. Retail is in service to a larger mission.” According to its website, the DPPC promotes revitalizing downtown Providence with pedestrian-friendly public spaces.
Kip Bergstrom, who has held a variety of positions in economic development in Connecticut, said that the United States was overbuilt for retail, with roughly 10 times the square feet per person than in Europe. However, he said there is a mismatch, because much of the supply is in the form of suburban malls and shopping centers, but the demand is for more traditional venues.
“They’re looking for good urbanism,” Bergstrom said. “It’s not death by chain, it’s the death of the suburban shopping center.”
But retail is part of placemaking.
“Retail is the thing that makes a place interesting,” Bergstrom said. “Without retail you don’t have a place.”
He said that the big challenge in retail was affordability. Not only are there currently not enough good urban spaces, but if all the development suddenly switched to good urbanism, it would still be expensive to build initially. He suggested that new retail developments should use well-paying chain retail to keep rents low for independent, local retail.
Arts consultant Margaret Bodell said that local businesses can, in a way create their own demand.
“One of the things I see is that people want to be part of a community,” she said. “Supporting local businesses is what people want to do.”
Anne Haynes of MassDevelopment, an economic development agency, agreed with this idea. “Each store is a hub of community,” she said. “Most retail provides that.” Haynes works with Massachusetts’ “gateway cities,” places that were once fairly prosperous industrial hubs, but have experienced disinvestment and increases in poverty, unemployment, and crime.
Bodell’s community-building efforts focus on using the arts to enhance business districts with nice store fronts and pop-up stores. The biggest obstacle she faces, she said, is getting landlords to allow experimental approaches.
Jonathan Coppage of the R Street Institute said that Washington has created barriers to the good urbanism Bergstrom spoke about.
“There are significant obstacles for small developers trying to get off the ground because of the mixed-use nature,” he said. “When you have the organic mixture of uses—the federal government is not set up for that.”
Coppage said that there were no federal loans or loan guarantees for mixed-use urban buildings unless they were around six or more stories or the developer could get a customized loan from a local bank—which is not likely. He said that there needed to be more adaptive institutions.
Bergstrom said that R. John Anderson, an architect and urbanist who promotes small-scale, incremental development, had developed a template for a one-story retail building with two 900 square foot stores that’s designed to be affordable from the beginning.
“Why does small retail matter?” asked Coppage.
“I think that the most important thing about retail is the sense of creating your own destiny,” Haynes said. “When you see a chain store, you know that the decisions are not being made locally.”
Bergstrom said that he did a lot of traveling and observed that non-chain stores make neighborhoods more unique. “Upscale neighborhoods all look the same with the same high end chain stores,” he said. “It’s chic, but it’s generic chic.”
“People go to places when they want to be in those places,” said Wood. “There’s a ‘hereness’—people like where they are.”
But the problem is that as neighborhoods get more popular and local retailers are successful, the rents start going up until only the chains can afford them.
Bergstrom described the problem as one of creating control rods for the nuclear reaction of neighborhood space.
“Part of our agreements with cities to figure out how to be sustainable and support activity for the long term,” Haynes said. “It requires a person. We call it community engagement for economic development.”
One of the things the panelists agreed on was the importance of ownership. Bergstrom said that one of the important things about the retail building template was that it was designed to be rent-to-own.
Wood said that there was an artists’ squat in Providence called AS 220 that managed to gain control of their building through sweat equity.
“The clever thing they did was figure out how to be owners,” he said.
John DiGiovanni, a member of the Harvard Square Business Association in Cambridge, Mass., said he wasn’t concerned with chains at all.
“It’s all about place,” he said. “The successful spaces are about place and the businesses behind the door come and go.”
“If you can create you can participate in your community,” Bodell said.
Another issue mentioned was the problem of vacancies. In some cities, businesses will move around but keep an empty location leased. Bergstrom called that practice restraint of trade and said that Rhode Island had created a kind of land value tax to punish landlords who keep properties vacant.
Peter Friedrichs, director of the Central Falls, RI Office of Planning and Economic Development, said that it was called the non-utilization tax and was about three times the typical property tax.
“It’s an absolutely crucial tool,” he said.
“You can’t predict the market,” Haynes said. “The only thing you can depend on is a need for a diverse range of spaces.”
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.