The Lesson from a Road Trip Across America: Size Doesn't Matter

Urban innovation and creativity can be found in cities both large and small. It's a mistake to underestimate the power of the pride of place.
by | December 9, 2013
Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, 2013 Tim Campbell

Motoring across the United States 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 4,100 miles, 20 nights and 14 cities, a surprising picture of urban America comes to light. What stands out is not the continued predominance of the old cultural settlements of East Coast elites but the ever-brighter lights of major metropolises across the southern tier of the country; the tiny sparkle of urban gems on the smaller end of the population spectrum; and ancient Western desert towns thriving with innovative art and architecture.

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. And it suggests that, contrary to some current theories, when you're looking for urban creativity size doesn't matter that much.

Let's start with the bright lights, which surprise us in the extent to which innovation builds on and deepens their distinct cultural identities.

Atlanta, Nashville, and Las Vegas -- metropolitan areas in the one- to six-million population range -- have no shortage of light, and not just the electrical variety. Atlanta continues to exude a sense of confidence and expansion. Conventional sectors like health and education and industries like Coca-Cola and CNN are taken for granted. The brightest light now glowing in Atlanta emanates from the financial sector with the acquisition of the New York Stock Exchange by the Atlanta-based Intercontinental Exchange. New wealth continues to spill into the public sphere. The city's aquarium stands up to Monterey Bay's in California. Extensions in rail transit will test whether the centrifugal forces of the city's infamous low density can be overcome by new gravity at the center. (That question is reflected in the current professional-sports turmoil, with the Braves decamping for the suburbs at the same time that a new football stadium is planned for downtown.)

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 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.

Crowds and Creativity

Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City 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, but the innovative product of cities seems to grow faster than population. That's also what Geoffrey West and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute tell us. But while we're accustomed to observing innovation in large places, contemporary urban America also gives us many smaller, equally innovative places, those with populations of well under one million where striking change seems to be an ongoing thing.

Chattanooga, Tenn., 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 about the polluted Tennessee River that courses through the city. Not only was the river dirty, but Chattanooga had long suffered repeated floods and had relegated the riverway to the urban fringe. City leaders moved to completely redesign the riverfront areas, not just to clean up but also 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 the city, along the downtown and downstream.

Second, Chattanooga leaped into an early lead in what might be called a "smartness" race among American cities. When the city's electric utility wanted to take advantage of smart meters for greater efficiency in managing energy and load-sharing, it included high speed Internet service to its customers as a side benefit. The result is that Chattanoogans now enjoy broadband speeds several hundred times faster than in most American cities.

Asheville, N.C., 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 such as the Biltmore Estate and the sanitarium where Zelda Fitzgerald lost her life in a fire in 1948 are alive with new uses. An arts scene is so robust that it occupies multiple genres, both in levels of refinement and specialized districts scattered around town and on its edges.

Two middleweights, Albuquerque and Oklahoma City, have managed their own points of pride. The Brickworks area in downtown Oklahoma City is not unlike San Antonio's celebrated River Walk. Oklahoma City's version 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 Fiesta. 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?

Santa Fe, N.M., 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 are built on the special environmental endowment -- both natural and man-made -- of the city's ancient founders.

Innovative Outliers

The point here is not to merely tout creative ideas, but to identify some of these outliers and to raise the question about the origins and impact of innovative urban places. If creative urbanism can happen in middleweight cities and even smaller places, urban wannabes anywhere need not be discouraged by small size. It seems there's something more in the magic recipe of innovation.

Indeed, some of the smaller gems are in many ways more striking than their larger cousins, not only in their innovative accomplishments but in a deliberate aim to invent a synthetic but impressive urban environment.

Branson, Mo., has spent four decades building an entertainment industry around a man-made lake and a turn-of-the-20th-century novel about life in the Ozarks. Today Branson is a vibrant entertainment and tourism economy that boasts more seats than the theater district around Broadway and hosts more than two million visitors a year.

Columbus, Ind., 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, Columbus fostered more than 70 public and private buildings designed by world-class architects, including 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 U.S. 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 services.

Beyond the Power Law

These examples fall outside the predictions by Glaeser, West and their colleagues. West focuses on the "power law" -- the idea that population, more than any other factor, explains innovation and efficiency -- to explain urban features. The smaller gems I have discussed are outliers, to be sure. Neither Columbus nor Branson 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.

So what then are we to make of the outliers? This is not to say that efforts to explain why cities innovate based on the laws of numbers are useless or wrong. They are both productive and insightful. But the examples in this narrative raise questions about the conditions of innovation and the process of creativity in the rich collective domains we call cities.

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 is a city to get its mojo if it wants to be an inventive place? The cities of bright lights and tiny sparkles suggest that fundamental forces -- such as human values of vanity, pride and identity -- play some part. Shame played a role in Chattanooga; pride was important in Columbus.

People care very much about where they live, and this gets expressed in multiple ways in the term "pride of place." Of course, leadership and vision also matter. Asheville, for instance, has worked hard to enhance its legacy assets and mix them with emerging artistic expression. These forces also play a 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, the seemingly endless 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 the citizenry perhaps deserves more attention as cities of all sizes contemplate their futures. Above all, the fates of cities large and small are not written only in the laws of large numbers.

Tim Campbell, chairman of the board of the Urban Age Institute and author of "Beyond Smart Cities: How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate," has worked for more than 35 years in urban development with experience in scores of countries and hundreds of cities. He is currently a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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Tim Campbell

Tim Campbell, chairman of the board of the Urban Age Institute and author of "Beyond Smart Cities: How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate," has worked for more than 35 years in urban development with experience in scores of countries and hundreds of cities. He is currently a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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