Economic Engines

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

Globalization's Winner-Take-All Economy

“If you are a very talented person, you have a choice: You either go to New York or you go to Silicon Valley.” 

This statement by Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder and venture capitalist, unsurprisingly caused a stir, given that he made it in Chicago. Simon Kuper had made a similar observation in the Financial Times when he described how young Dutch up-and-comers had their sights set on London, not Amsterdam. “Many ambitious Dutch people no longer want to join the Dutch elite,” Kuper wrote. “They want to join the global elite.” READ MORE

Are Car-Free Bridges the Future?

From a distance, it’s beautiful -- white spears with delicate white strands holding up an arched roadway across the Willamette River. It’s only when you get closer that it hits you: no cars. There are buses, trains, cyclists and walkers, but no cars and no trucks. This is a big new bridge across a major river in a major American city, and cars were left off the invitation list. It’s probably the first of its kind in a century.

The Tilikum Crossing in Portland, Ore., is in a city and state that have been at the forefront of ambitious planning efforts for decades. Since at least 1973, when the state’s landmark growth boundary law was passed, Portland has made itself a denser, more urban city within a state that strongly prioritizes protecting both the environment and agriculture. READ MORE