Q & A with The Urbanophile

Aaron Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century. His particular focus is the oft-overlooked cities of the Midwest, which he reports on at his blog The Urbanophile. In a recent interview with Occasional Planet (OP), Renn (AR) shared his thoughts on the state of cities today.

OP: Why is it so hard for cities to think creatively about themselves?

AR: What often hobbles Midwestern cities is a resistance to change.  There’s a lot of nostalgia, a mentality about what has been lost, and bitterness about that. Older generations are mired in a past conception of what their city used to be. I might even suggest some places suffer from an oversupply of historical assets. Everybody says, “We have to build on our assets.” But relying only on legacy assets can end up being about defending the past, not building the future. The only reason why they have most of these assets in the first place is that previous generations didn’t build on assets.

OP: What other factors hinder new ideas?

AR: Ironically, sometimes powerful and effective city government itself is a hindrance. A strong city government can actually keep out creative ideas. In Chicago, for example, a frozen-custard stand by my house decided to put out of a couple of chairs for its customers. The city cited it for operating a café without a license for a sidewalk café.  City government in Detroit, in contrast, has so many problems that the attitude is, “If you want to try something, go ahead.” The Heidelberg Project is a great example of what you can do in Detroit that’s simply impossible anywhere else. Revitalizing our cities is to a great extent about grass roots changes. Don’t squelch it.

OP: Do other government agencies play a role?

AR: Yes. I’ve spent the past 15 years jousting with state departments of transportation. They’re very set in their ways. Highway engineers are trying to do a good job, but they’re trained in a particular way, and they rely on cookbook solutions—one size fits all. New ways of thinking are often foreign to them. Of course, you want engineers to be conservative, to build safe highways and bridges.  Highway design manuals are created to enforce consistency on a national level, and that’s not a bad thing. But I’d like to see the engineering profession evolve in its thinking, with new areas of specialization, such as a clearer distinction between urban traffic engineering and rural traffic engineering—similar to commercial vs. residential architecture.

OP: What city is doing a good job of re-inventing itself?

AR: Indianapolis is the #1 performing city in the Midwest. It didn’t have the historical assets of a city like St. Louis. It was almost an overgrown small town. They had to build a legacy, because they didn’t have the traditional things: miles of old, dense urban neighborhoods or a big-league baseball team. They were hungrier. Columbus, Ohio is similar, as are some of the Southern boomtowns.

OP: Where have you seen missed opportunities for creative, urban revitalization?

AR: There’s a potentially huge missed opportunity right now in Louisville. They’ve had a 40-year debate about where to locate a new bridge over the Ohio River. Then they reached a compromise: to build two bridges to satisfy the two warring political factions. The cost is estimated at $4.1 billion, and the design will create 23 lanes of traffic on the riverfront. Urban activists have a better plan to build just one bridge and tear down the existing riverfront expressway to reconnect downtown with the river. But no one in officialdom is interested, because, they say, “It took us 40 years to reach a political compromise. We’re not changing the plan now.”

OP: What do you think of the proposed “City to River” project in St. Louis? [To reconnect downtown St. Louis with the Arch grounds and the Mississippi riverfront, now separated by a highway]

AR: It’s an absolute no-brainer. Just do it.

OP: Here’s a chicken-and-egg question: Which comes first, better schools or more residents?

AR: The conventional wisdom is that it takes schools to attract people to a city. But I think that schools will get better when people move into the city. When people like an urban area, they say, “We’re not willing to move to the suburbs.” So they stay, they research the available schools, and they advocate for the schools their kids attend.

OP: Is there a difference between the Obama administration and previous administrations regarding cities?

AR: There’s a huge difference. President Obama is an urbanite. He established the White House Office of Urban Affairs, which is a first. In addition, under the Obama administration, the US Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency are now thinking with a tremendously different attitude toward geography. We’re very early in the game, and change will take time, but we’re definitely moving in a better direction. Cities have more clout than they used to. You know, it used to be said, in politics, that “nobody ever lost votes by running against New York City.” This President understands cities: he doesn’t have that point of view.

OP: What book, and which blogs, would you recommend to people interested in learning more about the future of American cities?

AR: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a very compelling, easy-to-read book that I strongly recommend. It’s the rare classic that exceeds its reputation. As for blogs, I’d say take a look at Streetsblog, Human Transit, Broken Sidewalk, Urban St. Louis and Columbus Underground, to pick a sampling of the over 200 I read.