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 Project: Site Evaluation and Selection

Over the last few months, I’ve been partnering with a client to examine potential redevelopment sites along a planned rail transit corridor. As I described in this previous post, some property owners and users are in search of sites that are not only near station areas and other nearby assets, but clearly and conveniently connected.

In my home market in the Minneapolis Saint Paul region, the same impulse can be observed. Take, for example, the 34-story residential redevelopment recently approved by the Minneapolis Planning Commission, which is adjacent to a light rail transit platform at the Nicollet Mall station, next to the prospective Gateway Park, and reachable (both by pedestrian and transit mall and skyway) from all work, civic and entertainment locations in the central business district.

The Minneapolis example, however, made for easy site selection – its value is obvious. As customer preferences shift and transportation (both in mode and in cost) evolves, new opportunities will arise to identify and redevelop less evident, but very high-potential sites. Welcome to the future.

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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.

Comment on the Minneapolis Saint Paul Metro Business Plan

ProspectusCoverLast week, Mayors Chris Coleman of Saint Paul and R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis took the stage as part of the Global Metro Summit, an event held to elevate the metro-scale business plans developed by thinkers in Minneapolis Saint Paul, Seattle and Cleveland, in conjunction with the Brookings Institution. The event (video and print materials available here) provided an opportunity for these three U.S. regions, as well as counterparts from Barcelona, Munich, Torino and Seoul, to highlight the importance of approaching economic development on a metropolitan scale.

I have served as the project manager of Minneapolis Saint Paul's role in this work (see a previous piece about the work), and continue to find the idea of business planning to be an effective way to analyze strengths and weaknesses in those elements that differentiate those regions that thrive.

The draft plan explores how fresh, disruptive ideas are developed, passed through networks, cross-applied and used to create businesses and jobs. It considers to what degree all students – young and older – are able to access education and training opportunities, and transfer these skills to a workplace setting. It addresses the networks that comprise "clusters" among industries or among people involved in the region's high concentration of business headquarters, and how the region's systems and development pattern (transportation, housing, open space) serve or undermine competitiveness.

I hope you'll take a look at the materials. Please take time to look at these products and share your response. Specific questions about content may be directed to me at, and comments or changes may be sent to Snezhana Bessonov at Urban Land Institute – Minnesota, at The documents are:

@Strib: Foreclosure Continues Regional Damage


Minnesota’s housing market is stabilizing, but prices dropped more here than the national average. Mortgage delinquency is at or over the national average in Isanti, Sherburne, and Chisago counties. These three, as well as Anoka and Scott counties, are among the state’s ten counties currently hardest hit by foreclosure, according to the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

A new study suggests this is consistent with a national trend. Households located in areas far from jobs and services are more reliant on long car commutes and their expense, creating another hurdle for households as job losses have accumulated. These maps illustrate who pays the largest share of household income to transportation and housing costs – exurban residents.

Foreclosure and vacancy is toxic for any community, urban or elsewhere. It’s not particularly constructive to introduce “slumburbia” as a new label for hard-hit exurbs and suburbs. If access to parts of our region is contingent on cheap, subsidized gas prices, people who buy property are exposing themselves to changes in those prices. If many homeowners in one area do so, the effects can be brutal for neighborhoods.

The Twin Cities region has grown by up to 25 acres per day in recent years. Providing houses with water and sewer, roads and other infrastructure demands a long-term and expensive public commitment. The foreclosure wave serves to highlight how households, local and state governments are all leveraged by development that relies on cheap, distant commutes to workplaces and services. As we’ve relearned in recent years, leverage works just as swiftly in reverse as it does moving forward.

Note: This piece is also published on the Star Tribune website in its Your Voices forum. See Commers posts on Your Voices here