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.

Donjek Projects: Upcoming Speaking

I'm working on the concluding phases of work on an urban park-oriented redevelopment analysis, a reuse study for a historic manufacturing building, and a feasibility study for a commercial land trust. As each comes to fruition, I look forward to sharing results with you in the coming weeks.

LC2 In the meantime, I'm preparing for two events where I will present as a panelist. On October 5, I will be in Washington, D.C. to participate in an intensive one-day conference on economic vitality, coordinated by the Living Cities Integration Initiative. I will be joining Tracey Nichols, Director of Economic Development, City of Cleveland; Olga Stella, Vice President of Business Development for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation; Leslie Anderson, Executive Director of New Jersey Redevelopment; and Paul Graziano, Commissioner of Housing & Community Development for the City of Baltimore.

The following week, I look forward to walking down the street to the University of Minnesota's Saint Paul campus on October 12 for the 27th Annual Conference on Policy Analysis. The conference topic is this year focused on defining the public good and the role of government in the state; I will participate in a panel with Caren Dewar, Executive Director, Urban Land Institute-Minnesota; Ann Mulholland, Vice President with The Saint Paul Foundation; and Mark Vander Schaaf, Director of Community Planning and Development at the Metropolitan Council.

I'm looking forward to the opportunity to present in each of these forums; even more, anticipating all that my colleagues will have to say on the issues of urban economics and policy that form the core of my work.

Last: While I'm unable to attend (and post from) the Inner City Economic Summit to be held by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City in Chicago on October 3-4, I hope readers present there will share a summary for the rest of our collective benefit.

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.