Big Bright Lights, Middle Weights, and Little Gems—The Unpredictable Origins of City Greatness
Posted in Governing Magazine’s "Voices of the Governing Institute" December 9, 2013 under the title: The “Lessons from a Road Trip Across America: Size Doesn’t Matter.”
Motoring across the US isn’t what it used to be. My first few crossings four decades ago while still being educated were marked by tall cups of java and an incessant sprint for the horizon. On my just-completed trip, the pace was slower, the stops more selective, and the itinerary much more serpentine.
After 4100 miles, 20 nights, and 14 cities, a surprising picture of urban America—one of contrasts and contradictions—comes to light. What stands out is not the predominance of old cultural settlements of East Coast elites, but ancient Western desert towns still thriving with innovative art; not the bright lights of major metropolises, but the tiny sparkle of urban gems on the smaller end of the urban spectrum; and above all, the motor survey brings a renewed appreciation for the unpredictable nature of innovation and change in cities, equal parts old-fashioned creativity and new-fashioned smartness. Let’s start with the bright lights. In succeeding posts, I’ll cover the tiny sparkles and the middle-weight wonders.
Atlanta, Nashville, and Las Vegas—metropolitan areas in the one to six million range—have no shortage of light. Atlanta exudes a sense of confidence and expansion. Conventional sectors like health and education, and industries like Coke and CNN, are taken for granted. The brightest light now glowing in Atlanta emanates from the financial sector which has elbowed into Wall Street’s long-held first place in financial trades. New wealth continues to spill into the public sphere. The city’s aquarium stands up to Monterey Bay. Extensions in fixed-rail transit and new sports facilities are testing whether the centrifugal forces of the city’s infamous low density can be overcome by new gravity at the center.
In Nashville, the Opry continues a tradition of polished presentation, fed by a super cluster of honky-tonks on music row. These are living nursery beds of budding musicians whose sounds roll out onto the streets morning, noon and night. They are the fine grain feedstock for a music publication industry that is outsized for the city’s population.
The most striking feature of Las Vegas is the city’s ability to reinvent the same genre it launched in the 1950s, continually turning over (read: demolishing by the dozens) gargantuan venues to meet, and lead, new tastes in entertainment. These cities of big light surprise us in the extent to which innovation builds on and deepens their distinct cultural identities.
Part II: Middle Weight Wonders
Ed Glaeser’s “The Triumph of Cities” argues that big cities produce greater efficiency thanks in part to the multiple interactions made possible by simple propinquity. Not only do large crowds make for more interactions, the innovative product of cities seems to grow faster than population. That’s what Geoffrey West and his colleagues tell us from the Santa Fe Institute. While we’re accustomed to observing innovation in large places, contemporary urban America also gives us many smaller, also innovative places, those well under one million like Chattanooga, Tennessee (core population 150,000) and Asheville, North Carolina (core population 50,000), where striking change seems to be an on-going thing.
Chattanooga has led the way in two major ventures recently. First was managing dense urban living on a flood plain. Three decades ago city leaders were stung by bad press the city received about the polluted Tennessee River that courses through the city. Injury had preceded insult. Chattanooga had long-suffered repeated floods and had relegated the river-way to the urban fringe. To their credit, city leaders moved to completely redesign the riverfront areas, not just to clean up, but to create greater compatibility between risks of flood and convivial urban living. The result is a graceful ribbon of park and recreation land along the riparian zones above, along the downtown, and downstream from the city.
Second, Chattanooga leapt into an early lead on smartness among U.S. cities. When the city utility wanted to take advantage of smart meters for greater efficiency in managing energy and load-sharing, they included high speed internet to utility customers as a side benefit. The result is that Chattanoogans now enjoy broadband speeds several hundred times faster than in most American cities.
Asheville, North Carolina is enjoying its own version of renaissance. Building on a long history of health tourism and art, the city maintains a good living showing visitors the natural fit of things. Traditional Indian trails course through the beautiful hills that surround the city and, in present-day form, convey modern traffic downtown. Grand buildings like the Biltmore estate and the sanitarium where Zelda Fitzgerald tragically lost her life in a fire are alive with new uses. Blossoming on the edges of the city is an art scene so robust that it occupies multiple genres, both in levels of refinement and specialized districts scattered around town.
Two other examples of middle-weights—Albuquerque and Oklahoma City—have managed their own points of pride. The Brickworks area in downtown Oklahoma City is not unlike San Antonio. It is an inviting, walkable, and entertaining center. We enjoyed a juicy filet mignon at Mickey Mantle’s, perched on the edge of the waterway. (We didn’t go to Oklahoma City for Mickey’s or the waterway, but once in town, that’s where we wanted to be.) Albuquerque has much to offer, but nothing quite as arresting as its annual International Balloon Festival. This year, 500 globes lifted gracefully into a perfect azure sky like so many brilliantly-colored dandelions floating in the wind. How many cities hold international balloon festivals?
As with the bright lights places mentioned earlier, the point is not to merely tout creative ideas, but to spot these outliers and to raise the question about the origins and impact of innovative urban places. If creative urbanism can happen in middle weight cities, urban wannabes anywhere need not be discouraged by small size. It seems there’s something more in the magic recipe of innovation. Next and last stop: Tiny Gems.
Part III Tiny Gems
The tiny gems in the American urban system are in many ways more striking than their larger cousins, not only in their innovative accomplishments, but in the cases of Branson, Missouri (population 10,000) and Columbus, Indiana (population around 50,000) a deliberate aim to invent a synthetic, but impressive urban environment. One slightly larger gem, Santa Fe, New Mexico (pop. 70,000) arose around settlements that go back nearly a millennium. The city stands apart from other places in many ways. Much older than the first settlements in the original colonies, Santa Fe is a wonder of handsome urban design and superlative art, both of which built on the special environmental endowment—both natural and manmade—of the of the city’s ancient founders.
Branson spent four decades building an entertainment industry around a man-made lake and a turn-of-the-century novel about life in the Ozarks, the regional mountains in southwest Missouri. Today, Branson is a vibrant entertainment and tourism economy that boasts more seats than the theater district around Broadway in New York City and hosts more than 2 million visitors a year.
Columbus, Indiana (population under 50,000) meanwhile, launched a distinct cultural vision of its own, more or less along the same timeline as Branson. Drawing on the architectural proclivities of local philanthropists, including Cummins Engine, a major diesel engine exporter, Columbus fostered more than 70 public and private buildings designed by world class architects, the likes of I. M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, Thomas Moore, Kevin Roche, and Cesar Pelli. The city is a veritable museum of modern design (ranked 11th in the US for historic destinations). Some buildings, such as the community college technology training center, function as tools to renew and refine local talent that redound back into the local economy in high tech industries and the learning and conference services.
These examples fall outside the prediction by Geoffrey West and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute. West focuses on the power law (innovation, efficiency, whatever grows faster than population) to explain urban features. The little gems I have discussed are outliers, to be sure. Neither Columbus nor Branson, and arguably not Santa Fe itself, would rank very high, if they appeared at all, on the list of centers in entertainment and design (as would be predicted by the power law).
But what then are we to make of the outliers? This is not to say the mathematical regularities about cities are useless or wrong. They are both productive and insightful. But these examples, in the context of the norm, raise questions about the conditions of innovation and the process of creativity in the rich collective domains we call cities.
In this brief motor tour, we get small glimpses about this creative process. These outliers show that policy makers need not feel chained to the power law and the characteristic features of cities in their size range. But where are cities to get their mojo if they want to be an inventive place? The cities of bright lights and tiny sparkles suggest that fundamental forces—like human values of vanity, pride, and identify—have played some part. Shame played a role in Chattanooga; pride was important in Columbus. People care very much about where they live. They identify with place and this gets expressed in multiple ways in the term “pride of place.” Of course leadership and vision also matter. Asheville has worked hard to enhance its legacy assets and mix them with emerging artistic expression. These same combinations are found in Santa Fe.
These forces also play some role in the bigger places. Atlanta, Nashville and Las Vegas rumble ahead on trajectories that result from many complex factors. They may or may not be as prideful as others, but they show a consistent pursuit of identity. In Las Vegas, demolitions suggest that projecting identity is not without experiment. Whether you like these places or not, leadership and a search for identity are in the mix. Appealing to pride of place among citizenry maybe deserves more attention as contemplate their futures. Above all, the fates of cities large and small are not written only in the laws of large numbers.