University Colloquium on Public/Private Interaction


This fall, Donjek principal Jon Commers is again offering a colloquium in the Urban Studies department at the University of Minnesota, focused on the interaction of public and private sectors in cities. He created and has taught a similar course since 2014.

Cities are many things: Buildings, streets and transit routes, infrastructure to collect and distribute water, energy, and communication. More fundamentally, cities are networks of human relationships, drawn together by reduced costs of connection. Typically having developed over many years, cities have a unique history both of physical design and social dynamics, which influence their health and future prospects.

Public and private organizations have different roles to play in the city, different motivations, and perspectives about the other that don’t consistently match. At the same time, government agencies and private firms are truly interdependent in the city environment: Neither can accomplish their objectives without engaging the other. Interdependence of the public and private sectors can be traced historically, and this dynamic produces political tensions that can support or undermine urban areas.M-static

Public-private partnerships are an essential urban redevelopment tool applied in U.S. cities to accomplish a wide range of development and social objectives. This course will explore the history, current condition, and future of how private- and public-sector organizations identify, structure and implement partnerships that shape community development and real estate development in cities.

Through reading, discussion and other media, this course will use the advantages of the University’s urban setting to explore the many types of partnerships that have evolved to support the economic, social and cultural health of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Students will also consider what kinds of partnerships will make a difference in an increasingly urban future. Key themes of the course will include:

  • The City is a Platform for Interaction
  • Roots: Recent and Distant History of Public/Private Interaction
  • Contemporary Tools for Partnership
  • Politics of Public/Private Interaction and Interdependence: “You Didn’t Build That”
  • Future Marketplace and Partnerships
  • Applications of Public-Private Partnerships
  • Using Data to Evaluate How People Use Places

Future Perfect, As Told Downtown

FuturePerfectFuture Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age is author Stephen Johnson’s latest work. It is a city book.

Human progress has always been the fruit of small and iterative innovations, undertaken by individuals acting on what Johnson terms “slow hunches” that accrue from experience. When these individual tinkerers are connected via decentralized networks offering numerous ways for them to interact, the cross-fertilization and productivity of these innovations is magnified.

As a result, Johnson presents his confidence that members of these flat, decentralized networks of peers, using an increasingly broad and powerful set of platforms to work together, will advance human progress in the future. They are, in his term of art, peer progressives. Interaction using these platforms is evolving the way we go about invention, trade, social life, music making, even revolution.

Johnson’s frame of reference is primarily the internet, but his heralding of the power of peer progressive values could not viably take place without both the model of the city, and the contributions of urban networks to nearly every example he cites. Consider this handful of insights from Future Perfect as they relate to urban dynamics:

Faster, Higher, Stronger
“The density and open exchange of a peer network drive up the information productivity of the overall system, because new ideas circulate quickly through the network and can be built upon or expanded at little cost. You can do more with less.” Reducing the transaction cost of developing new ideas, and stretching them into multiple commercial forms, are why Jericho was formed and the essence of why modern cities exist. In Triumph of the City, economist Ed Glaeser expresses the same sentiment in his language: “The increasingly global marketplace means that the returns to innovation have increased. Since urban density speeds the flow of new ideas, an increase in the value of innovation naturally strengthens those cities that specialize in innovation.” Information productivity will vary among cities, but cities will increasingly lead the way. They are the global leaders.

Crowdfunding as Urban Springboard
“Kickstarter, for instance, took an existing problem that markets had traditionally fumbled – how do we find and support interesting new creative forms – and radically increased both the density and diversity of participants. It gave thousands of creative people direct access to the wallets of millions of potential patrons.” Cities provide a rich backdrop for ideas to be conceived and developed as they spread through professional, personal and civic networks forming there. In art and commerce, cities provide a forum for creators to combine and recombine. Crowdfunding sites have taken the assembly of productive, critical masses around specific interests that occurs in cities, and multiplied it using technology.

City Mashup
In one of Johnson’s prior works, Where Good Ideas Come From, the author presented valuable historical context, drawing on examples including the process Johannes Gutenberg used to derive the printing press. In his account, Johnson establishes the connection between the wine presses used in Gutenberg’s native Rhineland in the 15th century, and the design of the printing press, which by economizing published print, unleashed an era of democratization and reform. In Future Perfect, he draws the same thread through to today’s open source world. “When text is free to flow and recombine,” he argues, “new forms of value are created, and the overall productivity of the system increases.” Just as the city is where individuals come to mix and match with others, it is also where their ideas are shaped and shifted and made into new forms. Call it concept arbitrage.

Buckminster Fuller said “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In Future Perfect, Stephen Johnson has delivered a succinct argument that the peer progressive model is at this moment rendering the prior model obsolete. And the peer progressive model’s home field is the city.

Great Inversion – But Not Monolithic Inversion

Alan Ehrenhalt’s latest book, “The Great Inversion,” is valuable reading for nearly anyone in my professional practices: In particular, private and public organizations involved in redevelopment and city building.

The author’s premise argues that the comparative value of proximity to core cities – their economic and cultural assets, diverse building stock, and ease of transit access – is rising. As that shift in value unfolds, says Ehrenhalt, many U.S. metro areas will invert, assuming a pattern where core city neighborhoods typically are among the most desired, while suburban areas offer values accessible to more residents.

Ehrenhalt writes a compelling narrative, observing dynamics that can be observed in cities across the country. In interviews he’s described the shift as “an entire metropolitan area rearranging itself…a true inversion of demographic groups.” Still, at times the premise does not allow full exploration of variation within regions. He stresses the importance of transit in reshaping regions, for example, but does not organize his argument to reflect how effective transit service can itself reshape the city/suburb relationship. If in one area of a metro, transit can move people from city to suburb (and vice versa) more effectively than in other areas, how might they invert differently? Job growth on a transit corridor, for example, may affect residents living elsewhere along that corridor, more than it does other residents living nearer by, even if it’s occurring within the same municipal boundary.

That caveat aside, it’s clear that fiscal scarcity, changing pricing caused by climate change (essentially unaddressed to date), shrinking households and shifting cultural attitudes about cities are converging powerfully to reshape metro areas, and increasingly channel investment toward the center. For public agencies and firms involved in redevelopment, such as Donjek clients, this return to a pattern based on proximity will produce a whole universe of new opportunities.

The news narrative around these issues is usually simplified in an unhelpful way (see this critique of coverage of recent demographic data released for the Minneapolis Saint Paul region), presenting these trends as “core cities up, suburbs down.” None of the ingredients here are so simple: The physical geography and amenities of regions, job location criteria, and the politics that shape transportation investments are just a few examples. Instead, shifts like the Great Inversion will create opportunities and troubles which are different than the recent past, but very familiar in history. Creativity is required for good redevelopment, now more so with these dramatic demographic shifts underway.

New Form Follows New Function

Note: This post was co-published at Strong Towns, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on improving U.S. land use patterns.

At Strong Towns, we’re part of a growing chorus, spanning across disciplines, bearing a message that communities making forward-thinking, high-return public investments will be positioned more strongly for the future. The mechanisms of growth we’ve outlined at Strong Towns are each unsustainable in the long run, as is much of the development they have enabled us to produce.

Form follows function.

While I am always reluctant to quote secondary online content, I would be remiss to skip the following Wikipedia commentary about the origins of this phrase, which architect Louis Sullivan (evidently) made famous:

Sullivan developed the shape of the tall steel skyscraper in late 19th Century Chicago at the very moment when technology, taste and economic forces converged violently and made it necessary to drop the established styles of the past. If the shape of the building wasn’t going to be chosen out of the old pattern book something had to determine form, and according to Sullivan it was going to be the purpose of the building. It was “form follows function,” as opposed to “form follows precedent.”

Sound familiar? We are together part of a dialogue about how to harness all the interrelated processes that cities accomplish, in ways that secure tandem environmental and fiscal sustainability. We don’t have a choice. Truly functional places in the future will house spaces that perform at much higher rates of return than what we currently have. They will produce energy as well and use less of it. They will perform more than one role at once. Our definition of function is shifting rapidly, hence will form.

On that much we all agree. The dialogue gets more colorful at finer grain, however. An aesthetic approach, for example, prioritizes fostering of attractive places that will draw talent (especially talented younger people), cultural vitality, private investment and job creation. An operating approach, for lack of a better term, establishes higher-amenity areas based on criteria ranging from proximity to transit, existing infrastructure, or job concentrations. More broadly, a regional approach emphasizes investment in connecting productive nodes (of employment, housing, et cetera) into a network. Urban/suburban rhetoric doesn’t fit in any of these approaches. They overlap. One size won’t fit all.

What is common among the successful cities of the future, and the neighborhoods and submarkets that bind them together, is functionality. Effective networks of people and institutions, vital job markets, courageous civic leadership are essential for transition to a new form. But each is undermined by the burdens of unproductive land use and infrastructure providing low return on investment.

The key function of modern cities is to harness the talents and skills of its people. The form that follows is a city of intentional and high-return infrastructure and design.

Confusing a City and its Structures – On Purpose

Much has been written about shifting preferences toward urban living. I admit to skepticism, despite my hopes as a city resident and redevelopment consultant, of convergent preferences among the Millennial and Baby Boom generations. Alas, it appears real – extensive survey data from the National Association of Realtors, amid other quantitative and anecdotal evidence, is unambiguous. These two demographic groups, which comprise half of the U.S. population, are reshaping the landscape by leaving a less urban land use pattern for a more urban one.

The transition is noticeable. Residential building permit data for Minneapolis illustrate the fundamental reversal from market emphasis on single-family unit construction (maroon) to multi-family unit construction (blue), starting in 1996. Denser living will never be for everyone, but it seems to be increasingly attractive to many.

Human networks are the premise of urban economies. By providing a physical format for exchange of ideas, development of trusting relationships, communication about reputation and quality of products and services, cities reduce the costs associated with trade (as well as training and education or cultural events, for example). As Bob Weissbourd presents in his collaborative “Dynamic Neighborhoods,” concentrations of people and investment follow the development of stable, vibrant networks.

The majority of population, intellectual assets and economic activity located in U.S. metro areas continues to grow. We have to wonder: How can cities’ physical form be encouraged to fill in, to maximize the product of this combination of ideas and relationships? Public and private actors share a compulsion to intensify what fruits emerge from urban economies.

Ed Glaeser has asserted that decisions falter when based on “the all-too-common error of confusing a city, which is really a mass of connected humanity, with its structures.” With increasing market demand for structures that increase human connectedness, Glaeser’s bifurcation loses some of its value. As the housing crash reminded us, the development pattern of core cities isn’t a mistake – it’s an eclectic but durable form that has withstood the stresses of growth and prosperity as well as economic crash. Cities, and the neighborhoods that comprise them, are strongest when most flexible. Denser land use makes more efficient use of infrastructure for transport, housing, training and education, leaving more public resources to invest in people, who are the most essential asset in any city.

In Glaeser’s words, a city is a mass of connected humanity. True. But the degree to which that humanity is connected in a city is influenced by how the city’s structures allow people to interact. The growing momentum of higher-density building will provide basis for experimentation, and for us to better understand the relationship of structures, land use, innovation and productivity.