Urban Economies: Going with the Flow

River1j Reading Ed Glaeser's Triumph of the City (which I mentioned in this post on transfer of ideas in cities), I learned that in the year 1816, transporting goods across land in early America cost an equivalent amount to shipping it from Boston to London. The comparative relationship tilted settlement and trade distinctly toward our waterways; construction of the Erie Canal and the Illinois and Michigan Canal completed a loop that connected four corners of the developing country. Between 1850 and 1970, at least five of the ten largest U.S. cities were located on this trade circuit.

Waterways remained critical as arteries to transport commodities and other inputs for trade and commerce; they also provided the doorway through which most entered frontier towns like my place, St. Paul. Over time, comparative pricing and relationships to rivers changed – railroads, then cars and trucks, airplanes, and digital thoroughfares provided radically cheaper modes of overland movement. 

Ports facilitate accumulation of value through transfer of material from one transportation mode to another. In the past, the fact that river ports fronted riverways was only significant in that barge transportation was cost-effective. As freight rail (for long runs) and trucks (for shorter runs) compete with river navigation, many river ports have declined. Minneapolis' Upper Harbor Terminal, for example, has managed falling volumes in recent years, the region's barge traffic dominated by the St. Paul (downriver) harbor.

Today, the relationships of "prices" continue to shift. In particular, the pressure to attract and retain talent is familiar to American mayors and business operators across the country.  In addition to creating recreation amenities, urban riverfronts also create collective open space that draws the eye through the city landscape. When perceived as safe and clean, access to river frontages creates substantial property value and economic potential. In addition to moving things in and out, the role of some riverfronts has expanded to focus on use as open space magnets that  make places more distinct and attractive. 

Our river, the Mississippi, formed and shapes both Minneapolis and St. Paul in important ways. Earlier this year, a team to which I served as regional advisor won the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, now evolved into the Minneapolis Riverfront Development Initiative. I've been engaged for several months managing a project focused on strengthening the connection of downtown Minneapolis to the Mississippi via the Gateway. Comparable efforts have been underway in St. Paul over the last twenty years, including the Great River Park master plan developed in the last year. This subject, conveniently, presents an opportunity for field work: I'm looking forward to August visits to Roman river towns Maastricht, Ghent, and London.

Open space and riverfronts cannot by themselves replace key economic functions such as port activities. Still, as larger forces transform cities, the prominence and role of rivers continue to be key in distinguishing prosperous regions.

Photo courtesy of pmarkham/Flickr.

Charles Landry: City Making in Minneapolis Saint Paul

Landry Expectations were high for remarks by urban theorist Charles Landry, given late last week at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater thanks to program partners at Metropolitan Council and the McKnight Foundation. I shared these expectations, due in part to this article, which described Landry's focus as "the complex blend of elements that most effectively draw talented people to specific cities and regions." In my view, interesting work with immediate relevance.

True to form, Landy offered a compelling and global perspective on what differentiates successful cities and metropolitan areas from those in decline. Each region's approach is key: Is the dominant strategy an "urban engineering paradigm," or "creative city making"? Presented directly to us in the Minneapolis Saint Paul region, Landry asked: Is this a city of projects, or is the project the city?

Most of the audience, I believe, share Landry's underlying confidence that urbanization can and ought to bring about a greener, more productive, healthier and happier world. In that vein, he offered five threads found in great cities. In each case, I've offered editorial comments:

  • Anchorage: What is a region's gravity, which attracts people and ideas? The importance of robust networks of people and activity – industry clusters – can't be understated. It's true for people involved in chemistry, and for people involved in music (and for those involved in both at the same time!). See the Metropolitan Business Plan for more.
  • Possibility: What's the potential for the place? Youth development, education, and workforce development (for the young and mature) are the critical areas of possibility for a place. No urban region can thrive without investing in the young, and their potential to generate new ideas.
  • Connection and Reconnection: Beyond the need for physical connections to give community members and workers access to their most significant destinations (whether work, school, civic, religious), successful regions maintain strong bonds well beyond their borders. High rates of immigration and import/export activity, and the ability to communicate a region's message in the global arena are two examples of such ties.
  • Learning: To me, Landry's citation of the importance of learning extends beyond the realm of education, which (as I suggested above) is a cornerstone for effective regions. Learning needs also to include the degree to which governance is flexible and intelligent enough to incorporate emerging trends and past experience, in planning for the future.
  • Inspiration: Establishing shared values and shared identity are crucial, so that a region can articulate what is its inspiration. Why are we here? What do we have to communicate to the world? What is our contribution to the cultural, economic and political life that surrounds and includes us? 

Landry's framework of these five threads offered a provoking platform to consider how regions like Minneapolis Saint Paul move forward. Unfortunately, the speaker's efforts to speak in detail about the Central Corridor LRT line (and even specific sites along it) were neither specific nor reflective of context. He also appeared unprepared to discuss how manufacturing and other industry play a role as economic engines, job providers or as gateways for workers to earn good wages.

As Ed Glaeser argues in the Triumph of the City, places are powered by people, not buildings. Landry's presentation was worthwhile as a full (if high-altitude) depiction of how "creative city making," focused on harnessing talent, can craft durable regions in the 21st century.

Redeveloping the Cents of Place Blog


From here forward, the Cents of Place blog will continue to focus on the issues in which you and I share an interest: Public finance, redevelopment, land use, urban economics, policy. Posts will, however, be shorter and more frequent than has been typical over the last four years. 

For today, I am pleased to post the final Minneapolis Saint Paul Metropolitan Business Plan, its executive summary, and a companion framing piece produced by our region's partners at the Brookings Institution. These documents will, I hope, remain in development in the near future, to reflect the increasing momentum and consensus around the importance of a region-scale agenda for innovation, human capital, education and workforce, spatial efficiency, key industry clusters and governance. Like other metropolitan economies, ours depends on intential approaches to each.

Thanks for continuing to read the Cents of Place blog – I hope you will find it valuable in this new format.