The Midwest’s 21st Century ‘Place Proximity’ Asset

This article originally appeared on urbanOut.

Richard Longworth’s recent article A New Year for the Midwest is particularly interesting as he dissects what 2011 may bring for many of the Midwest’s rust belt cities and their ailing economies.  While discussing the region’s antiquated manufacturing base and the need for cities to reinvent themselves around a modern economy, Longworth notes: “A history of heavy industry is a handicap in dealing with the modern global economy, but it’s not necessarily fatal. What is fatal, however, is sticking with that heavy industry to the exclusion of seeking newer, more knowledge-intensive industries.”  If we accept that Midwest cities have to change and reinvent themselves in order to survive in the 21st Century, as Longworth suggests here, then the next logical question is: what can they actually do to make this happen?  From Longworth’s perspective of attracting more knowledge-intensive industries, Midwest cities ought to accentuate it’s ‘place proximity’ asset that can do just that and bring people together in more efficient ways.

As noted urbanist Aaron Renn puts it in his recent piece Century of the City on the site Design Intelligence: “The emergence of city has been driven by the rise of the knowledge economy, in which agglomerations of talent found there are the vital raw materials.”  This assessment on the rise of cities over the past 30 years as drivers of the global economy is one that Midwest cities should understand like the back of their hand.  To put it simply, cities that best bring people together to share knowledge and ideas are the cities that will prosper in today’s city-driven, knowledge intensive economy.  A city’s built form, land use policy and density play an important role in fostering these interactions.  To understand this concept, all one has to do is look towards places like New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C. or Boston to understand how an appropriate building typology and high living density can intensify human interaction and foster ideas on a scale not seen in sparse, low-density metropolitan areas.

Fortunately for many Midwest cities, their historic development patterns pre-date the advent of the car and thus many of their urban cores maintain traditional, unique forms and density potential that cater to true ’placemaking,’ human interaction and idea sharing seen in the New York’s or San Francisco’s and not in the post-car Houston’s or Charlotte’s.  Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine is a perfect example of a pre-car, high-density potential neighborhood that is only now beginning to see the investment it deserves.  If revitalized to its fullest, Over-the-Rhine’s built form alone would better cater to human interactions, knowledge sharing and ’placemaking’ in ways not presently found in Cincinnati.  And by the way, Over-the-Rhine is an architectural gem and offers a unique form and experience not found anywhere in the United States.  Thus, revitalizing the neighborhood is important to maintaining and amplifying Cincinnati’s unique factor as well, something seen as a must in the city-driven modern economy.  It is these neighborhoods that Midwest cities need to invest in at unprecedented levels to better situate themselves for the modern economy.

From an urban planning perspective creating ‘places’ in these areas of cities means transforming land use policies in the core as well as the urban edge, relaxing car requirements for new developments, and above all, promoting stronger transit systems.  And these cities must take a hard look at some of these changes in a serious way right now because, as Renn puts it: “for longer-term success, cities can’t be complacent but need to adopt an only-the-paranoid-survive mindset.”

Much like a city’s built form, a region’s transportation policy and associated network plays an important role in bringing people together and fostering knowledge based interactions.  Fortunately for the Midwest, another characteristic the region can boast is its proximity to itself.  Unlike the southern, southwestern, and western United States cities, the Midwest cities are only separated by 100-300 miles and are easily accessible by car and well-connected by freight rail.  This bodes well for the region’s ability to move physical goods between each metropolitan area as well as to other parts of the country.

To truly leverage this ‘place proximity’ asset for a 21st Century economy, the Midwest has to think beyond the physical transportation of goods and cars and start developing ways to bring together ideas and people to pool resources more effectively.  An efficient way to create a ‘people-place proximity’ asset is to develop a significant network of high-speed inter-city rail throughout the region, something that will allow for people to easily transverse the Midwest in more efficient ways than currently possible.  If we accept the fact that the cities who best agglomerate knowledge and people will be the highest economic achievers of tomorrow, then regional high-speed inter-city rail improvements seems like a no brainer.

In such a system, Chicago would act as the regional hub with links emanating out to the satellite cities of Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Louisville, Cleveland, and Detroit.   Eventually, Midwest fringe cities such as Kansas City and Pittsburgh could be tied in to further strengthen the network.  These transit improvements benefit each individual city, making it easier and more efficient for new ideas and knowledge to get recycled in their backyard and prevent knowledge stagnation from occurring.   On a larger scale, this bodes well for the entire Midwest as high-speed rail improvements would buck the ‘rust belt’ image, prove the region is serious about reinventing itself for the modern economy, and amplify a major asset that is currently underutilized.

At a time when the likes of Richard Florida and Bill Katz are identifying the global economy as one fueled by metropolitan areas, the Midwest needs to take advantage of the great metropolitan areas they currently have.  On a smaller scale, many of these metropolitan areas have historic urban cores with built forms and densities that are ideal for knowledge intensive cities.  On a larger scale, Midwest cities are in such close proximity to each other that they ought to have stronger transit connections to elevate the ability of knowledge and ideas to flow between each metropolitan area.  If Midwest cities and the region as a whole can find a way to sway public opinion in favor of such ideals and get the region behind advancing the Midwest brand, then I believe the Midwest can become an economic powerhouse of the 21st Century.  The ‘bones’ are there but the urgency among Midwest leaders is not.  Regional leaders must accept that cities and regions are increasingly dynamic and in need of change, investment and re-investment in order to not just compete in the modern economy in the short run but to survive in the long run.  With its strong urban and architectural heritage, the typical Midwest city deserves that chance.

Comments 2

  • It is going to be a while until the political dust settles until anything outlined in this article can be put forth. That said, I agree with all your points Greg. This was a well thought out idea, and hope that someday our civic leaders can appreciate this approach to revitalizing our region.

  • We have one model of revitilization in Carmel. Although Carmel is only a suburb of Indianapolis the formation of the “Arts and Design” district and the new downtown anchored by the Palladium is a huge revitilization for such a small city. My concern is it was not organic. It is not like a bunch of art galleries popped up in one area because of high demand but in this case the cart was put before the horse. In a city like Indianapolis it is important to make sure any development is out of demand not out of wanting to create a demand or a city that will hopefully grow into the development. That is why the Market Square towers failed the project was put together without the appropriate demand. Revitilization happens when people are asking or wanting something so you build it. Example: the need for affordable housing off fall creek, the need for student housing near IUPUI, the demand for more condo/apartment living on Mass Ave, the need for more hotel space and convention space to stay competitive with larger cities, the need for a bigger more modern airport……

    Indy has done a good job so far and hopefully keeps moving in that direction.

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