Economic Engines

The Human Casualties of ‘Winner-Take-All Urbanism’

That famous Boston accent -- “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” -- is rare around Harvard Yard itself. Most professors and students come from elsewhere. So it was with some enthusiasm that I greeted those unmistakable flat A’s coming at me from a neighboring barstool at the joint I had slipped into before the start of a conference near Harvard. It was like sighting a rare bird in its native habitat. It was also an unexpected brush with a culture that, too often, is invisible to so many of us.

The man speaking was a guy around 30. He looked and talked remarkably like the actor Ben Affleck, who was raised nearby and effortlessly produces a rich Boston accent for his working-class film roles. Beside the man was a blond waitress with a permanent grin. She joshed with him, clearly a regular, and they swapped stories. It was a nice scene. READ MORE

The Downside of Pragmatism

‘Pragmatism killed Michigan.” 

When my consultant friend Dwight Gibson said this about his home state, I was taken aback. I always thought pragmatism was a good thing, and I think of myself as a pragmatic person in many ways. My first response to hearing somebody present an intriguing but nebulous policy idea is usually to say, “Yes, but what exactly am I supposed to do to make this happen?” READ MORE

Infrastructure Lessons From Venice

I had the good fortune to travel this winter to Venice, that serene collection of islands filled with grand homes and set on avenues of water in a lagoon on Italy’s Adriatic Sea. And like most visitors, I was smitten with the lovely stone plazas, or “campi,” sprinkled amid its network of small alley-like streets.

Given that Venetians in centuries past had to dredge up and fortify each square meter of buildable land, I was surprised at how many of these plazas there were, and wondered if Venetians simply loved their public spaces that much. I learned that there was a more practical and essential reason for so many campi: drinkable water. READ MORE

Can a Small College Save Its Small Town?

A recent Wall Street Journal article documented the increasing trend of liberal arts colleges in small-town America taking a much more active role in trying to build up their communities. The Journal highlighted two colleges that share their names with their towns: Albion in Michigan, where the school is giving scholarships to local residents and investing tens of millions of dollars into downtown, and Ripon in Wisconsin, where the college’s president has moved his office downtown to Main Street.

This trend made it onto my radar several years ago when I first received an invitation to talk on the subject from another small-town college in Michigan. The invitation surprised me: As a writer on urban economic issues, most of my work had focused on large cities. Still, I am originally from a rural area and have an affection for the people in small towns, even if I don’t live in one today. And many of the techniques of civic improvement in these places are derived from urban redevelopment projects, albeit on a smaller scale. READ MORE

5 Simple Urban Fixes for Unpredictable Times

My older brother John enjoys bicycling on back roads and through unheralded towns, and then writing about what he sees on his blog. Despite our typical sibling rivalry, I’ll admit that some of his observations have merit. When not admiring old modernist motels, John notes that much of the country looks like hell. He rolls on roads that are crumbling, over rusty bridges and past pretty much abandoned everything -- houses, strip malls, office parks, even entire shopping malls.

But there are some places he passes that he says look nice, even “over-funded.” Interestingly, most of these places have a connection to government. They include airports, universities, military bases, courthouses and medical facilities. Amidst the rundown places John bikes past, these stand out as islands of well-kept shrubbery and well-tended buildings. READ MORE