The American Dream, Part 2

Yesterday, I participated in a program that generated some very interesting discussion. The Urban Land Institute’s event, titled “The New American Dream: The Demands of a New Generation,” brought together four of us with varied backgrounds and perspectives. A few of the ideas on which I focused:

• The American Dream isn’t specific to the postwar suburban boom – it’s a desire for choices and access to ownership (or at least investment) that Americans have long held.  

• The average annual U.S. GDP growth, when examined in constant dollars, has declined each
GDP_Trend_jdecade since the 1940s. The shorthand interpretation is that we have become less able to afford the maintenance of a system of development and financing created during times of economic plenty. Not only is the status quo growing less affordable – it is also saddling us with environmental costs we simply cannot continue to accept.

• Prices do motivate us, including the kind we recognize in full (such as taxes), in part (such as gas, which is heavily subsidized), and the kind we ignore (such as costs associated with stormwater runoff into area waters). As a society, we decide which to recognize and which to ignore, and with rapid improvements in GIS analytics, we can measure costs and benefits more than ever before.

• Younger Americans’ aesthetic is more urban than previous generations, but the extent of this is unclear. For example, even in nearly fully-developed Ramsey County, Minnesota, 70% of 20-24 year olds drive to work solo, as opposed to 75% statewide. Of family households under age 45 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, only 20% live in either of the Twin Cities. (2007 Census data).

I enjoyed the event and the opportunity to engage the prospects for the American Dream, and am enclosing my slides – presented in twenty seconds of fewer each, according to the Pecha Kucha format – here. Contact me for more discussion!

The New American Dream

How does the contemporary American Dream appear? Has it fundamentally changed in recent years as the public will to invest in infrastructure has waned, and Americans grapple with the implications of climate change, fluctuations in energy prices and the current recession? 

What types of development will be in demand in ten or fifteen years in our cities and statewide?

On Thursday, April 16, I will be contributing to an effort to address these questions, and I hope you join me for the event, starting at 3:30pm at the downtown Minneapolis offices of the Dorsey and Whitney law firm. Consistent with a presentation approach called pecha kucha, each of the four speakers will make a brief, rapid-fire series of statements to brew up and engage in a vital discussion.

In their current form, my comments will touch on Athens and Venice, how younger Americans are not as different as they may believe, business improvement districts, and why property taxes may be destined to join the buggy whip and the dodo bird. I hope you will attend and heckle the panel!

Talking Infrastructure Blues, or Trading Places Part 3

Ccmap What if, during his hard travels by road and rail, Woody Guthrie had penned a song he called “Talking Infrastructure Blues”? 


In Minnesota and elsewhere, much verbal back and forth continues to be had over the high-profile and disastrous collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River.  Just this week, conservative-turned-liberal blog magnate Arianna Huffington claimed in her speech at the University of St. Thomas that neglected infrastructure is a direct outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  She’s wrong.

Clearly, the wars – and the way they have been debt financed – have placed and will continue to place stress on the national budget and the dollar for years to come.  Still, it’s unfair to suggest that without American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, infrastructure in Minnesota and elsewhere would be the focus of long-term foresight and investment by policy makers.  In political terms, infrastructure is a more elusive issue that Huffington’s assertion suggests.


It’s an election year.  I will wager very little of the coming campaign messages will (excepting mention of the I-35 bridge, of course) include calls for ramped-up investment in infrastructure.  Transportation systems of roads, rail and intermodal facilities, airports, locks and dams will be missing, as will the real estate needs of university and school buildings.  Three of the reasons why:

• The price tag for quality infrastructure gives the public sticker shock

• The benefits of quality infrastructure, while they certainly justify the investment, are dispersed among private and public parties that use it

• The cost of deferring investment is difficult to measure, though decreasingly so with evolving analytic tools.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has provided ratings of U.S. infrastructure in recent years; the latest report (2005) proffered Cs and Ds in every category, with an overall grade of D, down from D+ in the 2003 report.  Their estimate of national deferred costs is a baffling $1.6 trillion. The Urban Land Institute at the end of April released a comprehensive analysis of U.S. infrastructure that notes

2008 seemingly marks a critical juncture in a rapidly changing economic environment where new approaches to land use, infrastructure and energy efficiency will likely determine and possibly reorder the next generation of winners and losers – countries, companies, investors, and peoples.

If you would like a copy of the whole ULI report, contact me and I will be pleased to email it to you.  I should warn you, it may give you the…


Guthrie would want his song to take place in a particular place, and this being the last of three posts on particular locales, let’s return to St. Paul.  The Minnesota legislative session is required to conclude here this Monday, May 19.

Advocates including the City of St. Paul, City of Minneapolis, St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, Midway Chamber of Commerce and a range of transportation and environmental organizations have been laboring over the last month to restore state funding for the light rail line designed to connect the two downtowns and the University of Minnesota.  Funded with $70 million in the state bonding bill passed by the Legislature in early April, light rail was removed from the bill by Governor Tim Pawlenty.  At stake is $450 million in Federal funding contingent on the State investment.

It’s a case study of the three dynamics I described above.  Without context, a $70 million investment just sounds like a large price tag as opposed to a key step for movement of workforce, connectivity of two downtowns and a major university, and regional differentiation.  From the list of advocates cited in the preceding paragraph, it’s clear that the private and public sector each recognize the value of light rail for the region’s future, but the benefits to be gained collectively are a challenge to gauge.  And last, proponents have not succeeded in shifting discussion to the costs of failing to build light rail now, in part because they are difficult to quantify easily.

As an optimist, I am hopeful in our ability to commit to a program of modernized and well-maintained infrastructure.  It will, however, require more than a talking blues.