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Thursday, September 18th, 2014

The Challenges Of Talking About Quality of Place In a Small Town

For many of us in the urbanist world, the idea of upgrading physical aspects of our cities with a goal of improving quality of life through improving quality of place is axiomatic. That seems to be a tougher case to make in small towns, except perhaps basic Main St. beautification.

One challenge I’ve noticed is that people who live in small towns have a strong belief that it’s already a great place to live. In part this is a self-selection matter: the people who didn’t like it are gone. But in part it’s also because their belief is true.

However, so much of what makes up the quality of place in a small town is the people in it, in their relationships, experiences, shared history, etc. I think about Laconia where I grew up. To me, the quality that makes that place so wonderful to me is my family, the house I grew up in, the church I attended, the schools I went to and the experiences I had there, the relationships I built. When I drive down the road everything I see triggers memories, maybe even memories of something that’s no longer there.

But those are all things that are unique to those of us who are already established in a place. So it can be difficult for us to relate to what a newcomer sees when they drive through. Yes, newcomers can build those experiences too, but that takes time. People and businesses thinking about moving in don’t have those great, positive experiences yet. All they can judge the community by is the numbers they see in their spreadsheet, and what it looks and feels like when they are there and the surface interactions they have when visiting.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get honest, direct feedback on what that is. And because our own experience blinds us, we can’t fully divorce ourselves from it to see clearly like an outsider would. This makes it difficult for a lot of places to see where they need to change. Which is a shame, because stereotypes notwithstanding, it is possible to find a great new home as a newcomer to a small town. But you have to get them there first.

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Beyond Urban Branding

Following on from my Governing piece, here’s a video of a similar presentation I gave on city branding at a symposium on the topic at the University of Washington-Tacoma.

I normally do not like to pick on smaller cities (bigger cities and ones that profess to be world class should be able to take it), but in this case I wanted to make some direct peer style comparisons to cities the size of Tacoma. Here are links to the videos I reference in the talk. They weren’t included in the posted version.

Video 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M1rT9hX1nE (I also wrote a post on this one a while back)
Video 2: https://vimeo.com/70575853 (I only played 3:45 or so of this one)
Video 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZt-pOc3moc

If the embed doesn’t display, click over to You Tube.

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

The World City

Last week’s episode of the Monocle 24 show the Urbanist was an interesting look at the “world city” or “global city.” They take a bit of a skeptical look, showing how, for example, many residents of Istanbul are at odds with the construction boom designed to turn the city into what one critic dubbed a low-grade Dubai. And also how smaller cities like Lisbon and Wellington, New Zealand are following their own path without trying to aspire to compete as peers with the big boys. They also take on Vancouver, though fail to note its extremely high housing prices (it’s not livable if you can’t live there), and also its gang wars and other issues that belie the kumbaya vision the mayor is pitching. And there’s a conversation with an analyst from the Economist Intelligence Unit who talks about that organization’s ratings. It’s a bit eyebrow raising that Monocle, a publication that has done a lot to promote the whole global city idea and transnational norms, values and amenities to which all cities are called on to aspire to (in addition to publishing its own league table), would be critiquing the global city, but it’s a good listen regardless.

If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Technology Assimilation and Generational Change by George Mattei

[ This week a guest post from George Mattei on technology and generational change - Aaron. ]

I remember clearly the first time I saw the internet. It was circa 1992, I was in my late teens, and my best friend’s uncle had just installed an early version of Prodigy internet service on his computer. He showed it to us – describing how you could look up news, get weather and even send letters all electronically. It was a really neat service, and I immediately saw that it would be popular. However, I’m not sure if I realized how transformative the internet would be.

Looking back on that moment, and projecting forwards to the golden years of my life, I can’t help imagining that one day I will be like those old ladies you would meet every once in a while that would tell the story about the first time they saw a “horseless carriage”. Those are great stories, if only because of the context – it’s interesting to imagine what life was like back when cars were a rare and fascinating and before they had permanently transformed life as we know it.

I has been rare so far that a truly transformative technology appears that absolutely revolutionizes our everyday lives. 70-80 years ago it was 2 things – automobiles and the infrastructure they begat, and alternating current electricity – which suddenly empowered people to live in far flung locations and still have access to all of the amenities that previously were only reserved for those in the cores. In recent years clearly the internet and communications innovations have revolutionized how we live and work and play.

A hallmark of these technologies is that few realize at first how transformative they will be, and it takes at least 20-30 years for their effect to be fully realized. After all, by the year 2000 everyone knew the internet was the next big technology, but few realized how powerful social networking would soon become. In the same way few realized in the early 20th century the impact that automobiles would have on depopulating cities and creating vast, sprawling metro areas.

Interestingly, generations seem to react to these disruptive technologies differently, often based on the period in their life cycle when they appear. There appears to be a definable pattern which – in my opinion at least – is as follows:

  • The old guard fears it
  • The new guard embraces it and molds their life around it
  • The children of the new guard moderate it to fit into but not define their lives

We can draw parallels between the Boomers and Millennials, both the first generations to come of age during the blooming of a disruptive technology, by looking at some of the criticisms of these generations by older generations:

  • They are self-centered
  • They are too wrapped up in their lifestyle which is dominated by (automobiles) (the internet).
  • Their embrace of this technology leads to social ills:
    • For Boomers, the love of automobiles and suburbia drained our cities, led to de facto segregation and stretched our ability to fund infrastructure
    • For Millennials, the love of the internet has led to decreased face-to-face social skills, a need for instant gratification and no less than the death of privacy itself.

To some degree these statements are probably correct. This is not to downplay the obvious advantages that new technologies bring to the table – clearly automobiles and the internet have contributed tremendously to our economic and cultural advancement – but to illustrate a cultural phenomenon. A generation raised during the early blooming of a transformative technology tends to embrace it. They seek to change the world, and see technology as one of the main tools to mold their own future and their generational aspirations. The ascendant generation is quite willing to overlook or minimize the detrimental effects that new technology can have. Even more, their blatant disregard for past social norms and constructs is necessary in order to rewrite the world in their vision. Just as the Boomer’s Summer of Love and Woodstock (not possible without cars) destroyed the Ozzie and Harriet/Superman vision of America, the internet is transforming our society today, with all the benefits and risks that entails.

Older generations, on the other hand, seem to see disruptive technology primarily as a threat – after all, they were once young world-changers too, and they formed the world to their liking. And now suddenly here comes this new generation with this new technology that will upend their functional social framework in favor of a new paradigm…a frightening prospect for them. How else to explain the legions of Boomers and older people that cannot bring themselves to become functionally literate with computers? They are often afraid they will “break it”, when this fear is mostly unfounded. Contrast this to driving. It is one of the most dangerous things we do in a typical day, and yet few of us think much about it. Some of this is due to brain plasticity-studies show that younger brains are more adaptable to technology than older ones are. This combination of less adaptable minds and well-established social construct are leading Boomers to join the legions of past generations bemoaning the ills of a new generation.

This “best of times, worst of times” narrative has another act, however. To explore this, we can look at another interesting phenomenon – that is the trend of Millennials to live in urban areas. As an interconnected generation, Millennials truly are more communal. Even though, as some studies show, their face-to-face skills may suffer from frequent use of digital communication, they have an ethos – partly born of the internet – that respects everyone’s ability to provide input and be part of the group – and this bleeds into how they live. For example, it’s much easier to go down the block in an urban neighborhood to visit your buddy that just posted a good new bar on Foursquare than it is to get in the car to drive 5 miles. That kind of interconnectedness and immediate social gratification seems to be driving Millennials’ living choices.

This is not totally unlike – if somewhat opposite from – the Boomer’s drive for independence. Automobiles at the time represented freedom- from public transit, from parents and from general locational dependence. Suddenly the individual’s ability to choose their own path was paramount, and the freedom of driving seemed to represent this best. While this may have led to the depopulation of our urban neighborhoods, it’s also highly unlikely that the Civil Rights movement would have ever been successful without the Boomer’s viewpoints. They may relish the freedom to live far away from those of a different race or lower income, but Boomers also favor the right of a person of any race to achieve all they are able to. This manifested itself in strong support for the Civil Rights acts of the 1960’s which ended legal segregation in this nation.

While the type of technology itself may partly explain this change, there may be another more overarching reason that Millennials are embracing urban living. The automobile is not the Millennial’s technology of choice. To them a car is a utility, much like electricity. They don’t see it as defining their world or their lives, and they will not allow cars to do so. That’s not to say they don’t use them, but the way in which they use them changes greatly from how Boomers used them. This is why services like Uber and Lyft – not possible without the internet and smartphones – are gaining in popularity in urban areas.

So we see the final phase of this pattern – Millennials are reversing some of the ills of the automobile age, while still recognizing their utility. In fact this is not surprising. Having grown up in the maturing age of the automobile, Millennials are much more likely to have a balanced view of the technology. They have seen both the good and bad it can bring, and will likely keep the best parts of the technology while mitigating the worst parts of it.

Since it appears that timing can shape generational proclivities as much as anything else, we can project this pattern forward to the future of the Internet age. Just as we can now see the side-effects the automobile caused in because of the passage of time, the negative side-effects of Millennial’s technology embrace is just beginning to be understood. But we should anticipate that, as with the Boomers, there will be a more critical judgment applied to the Millennials’ choices as time goes on. Furthermore, while today’s Millennials are likely to overdose on smartphone technology, their children may revolt somewhat against this technology and move towards a more balanced integration of these tools into their lives. In truth, this is where the final assimilation of a new technology occurs.

What will the future bring for our cities and for our communications, and hence for ourselves? No one really knows. However, if I were a betting man, I would bet that this pattern of pendulum swings will continue. For our cities, this is good news – it means that the trend towards urban living is not likely a fad and will continue to strengthen over time until cities reach a more balanced equilibrium with the suburbs. However, for those urbanists that believe the suburb is dead and cities will once again rule the day, a note of caution is in order. Modulation is not conquest, and it’s unlikely that Millennials will give up the best features of the automobile and the benefits they convey.

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

The New Donut

Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut used to like to say that “you can’t be a suburb of nowhere.” This is the oft-repeated notion has been a rallying cry for investments to revitalize downtowns in America for three decades or so now. The idea being that you can’t have a smoking hole in your region where your downtown is supposed to be. This created a mental based on a donut. You can’t let downtown become an empty hole. For reason that will become apparent soon, I call this model “the old donut”:

Filling in the hole became every city’s mission. Pretty much any city or metro region of any size has pumped literally billions of dollars into its downtown in an attempt to revitalize them. This took many forms ranging from stadiums to convention centers to hotels to parking garages to streetcars to museums and more. It’s popular today to subsidize mixed use development with a heavy residential component.

These efforts have paid off to a certain degree. Most big city downtowns have done very well as entertainment and visitor districts, eds and meds centers, etc. More recently we’ve seen an influx of residents, even in places where the overall city or even region has struggled or declined. Cleveland added about 4,000 net new downtown residents in the 2000s. St. Louis added 3,000. With most cities in some stage of an apartment building spree consisting of a few thousand units, these numbers should only improve.

Key weaknesses remain in private sector employment (declining in most places) and retail (not enough high income residents yet). And other than the tier one types of cities like Chicago, few places seem to have reached a sustainable market rate development level yet – pretty much everything is getting public assistance. Yet its pretty evident that most larger downtowns have made huge strides and are experiencing overall reasonable health.

In short, the donut hole has been filled in. Where does that leave us? I’d argue with a paradigm I call “the new donut”:

In this model, the old donut is inverted. What used to be the ring of health – the outer areas of the city and the inner suburban regions – are now struggling. Whereas the downtown is in pretty good shape, and the newer suburban areas are booming. (You might add in a fourth outer ring with troubles – these were the exurbs where very low-end housing proliferated because development standards were very low).

You see this in the population figures. Wendell Cox cranked the numbers and found that major metro areas gained 206,000 residents in the two mile radius from the center, but lost 272,000 residents from the 2-5 mile ring. Growth picked up strongly beyond that arc. This is the new donut area, though the start and end of it vary by metro and some have thicker rings of challenge than others.

We’ve got three decades of experience in downtown revitalization, but much less in dealing with this newer challenge zone. I’ve said that suburban revitalization may prove to be the big 21st century “urban” challenge. This is where it is happening in many cases. These areas have an inferior housing stock (often small post-war worker cottages or ranches), sometimes poor basic infrastructure, and are sometimes independent municipalities that, like Ferguson, MO, are often overlooked unless something really bad happens. Unlike the major downtown, they are often “out of sight, out of mind” for most regional movers and shakers.

What’s more, while downtown provides a concentrated location for massive public investment, this more spread out area is too big to fix by throwing money at it. And how many stadiums and convention centers does a region need in any event?

This is where we need to be doing a lot of thinking about how to bring these places back, look at what’s being done, etc. And also, given the inequality in the country, to try to think about ideas that don’t involve gentrification. One project that appears to be in this kind of zone, for example, is Atlanta’s Beltline project, though there’s a gentrifying aspect to this one. Regions that figure this one out will be at a big advantage going forward.

Friday, September 12th, 2014

If Cities Want to Succeed, They Need to Focus on What Makes Them Distinct

My latest column is out in the September 2014 edition of Governing Magazine. It’s called “If Cities Want to Succeed, They Need to Focus on What Makes Them Distinct” and long time readers will find the themes consistent with what I’ve long argued. Here’s an excerpt:

Bike lanes are great. But bike lanes are the civic equivalent of what might be called “best practices” in the corporate world. They are things every well-functioning city is now expected to have. They don’t, however, generate differential value or make a city any more competitive in the market. Just as you can’t build a successful company on simply a collection of best practices, it’s hard to build a successful city just on these things. You need them, but they aren’t enough. They are the new urban ante — just table stakes.

If we think of the places that have the greatest resonance in the public mind, it’s generally those places that are unique. People visit New Orleans or Las Vegas because no other place is like New Orleans or Las Vegas. There’s no place on earth like New York or San Francisco. If there’s nothing unique about your town, then your town is just a commodity. And we know that commodities compete on one factor: price. Being a commodity player leads to weak marketplace leverage. That’s why firms are always trying to differentiate themselves in a marketplace.

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Time Lapse Portugal

This week a time lapse video of Portugal by Kirill Neiezhmakov, featuring Sesimbra and Lisbon. The scene transition technique is very cool. A beautiful piece but my gut reaction was that the beauty seems at odds with the country’s economic malaise. Best in full screen high definition. if the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo. h/t Likecool

As a bonus time lapse, here’s another installment in a series on LA, “Time-LAX 3.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Brooklyn Is Getting Poorer by Daniel Hertz

[ Analyst Daniel Hertz found some interesting maps of Brooklyn back in May that tell a different tale about Brooklyn than the one you've probably heard - Aaron. ]

I’m trying to make more of an effort, whenever I write or talk about gentrification, to point out that the real issue is larger: that gentrification is only one aspect of income segregation – specifically, the part where the borders between rich and poor neighborhoods shift – and that the real problem is that we have such sharply defined rich and poor neighborhoods to begin with.

I might also throw in that income segregation used to be much less severe.

Anyway, one problem with our obsession with gentrification as the end-all of urban equity issues is that it discourages us from talking about other important things happening in our cities. In some instances, gentrification has become such a dominating narrative that it has completely erased broader trends that we really ought to be concerned about.

Case in point: Brooklyn is getting poorer.

Does that shock you? Were you under the impression that all of Brooklyn was in the process of becoming one giant pickle boutique? That would be forgivable, given that nearly every article filed from Brooklyn for a decade or so has been about gentrification. But no.

I recently ran across a post from data-crunching blog extraordinaire Xenocrypt, which noted that from 1999 to 2011, median household income in Brooklyn fell from $42,852 to $42,752. That’s not a huge drop, obviously. The national median income fell from $56,000 to $50,000, so Brooklyn is actually catching up, sort of, to the country as a whole. But it still got poorer in absolute terms.

Moreover, if you map (as Xenocrypt did) the borough’s neighborhoods by change in median income, you get a really striking picture:


Credit: Xenocrypt.blogspot.com

…which is that, indeed, a good three-fifths or so of Brooklyn is actually getting poorer. Have you read any articles about that? No, I will wager that you have not. Neither have I. I strongly suspect that is because they don’t exist – at least not in any outlet that might be considered mainstream.

And what about housing prices?

Brooklyn Gentrification Map: Increase, Decrease in Home Values 2004 vs. 2012
Credit: http://www.citylimits.org/

So in large parts of Brooklyn, real estate prices are falling.

I have nothing particularly intelligent to say about this – these maps were news to me – except that it’s maybe the most dramatic example I’ve seen yet of just how limiting our fixation on gentrification is. I mean that both in a sort of journalistic sense, in that we’re being deprived of an accurate sense of what is actually going on in our cities, as well as from an advocate’s perspective: how can we claim to be working for fairer, more equitable, etc., cities, if we’re ignorant of their most basic economic and demographic changes?

This post originally appeared in City Notes on May 3, 2014.

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

When the People Are Corrupted

This is another installment in my series on corruption. The New York Times ran an article last week about Buddy Cianci entering the race for mayor of Providence. Cianci is a larger than life figure in Rhode Island. Dubbed the “Prince of Providence,” he served two previous stints as mayor of the city – both times ending up forced from office due to felony convictions.

I don’t know the details of the first case, in which he pleaded no contest to a felony assault charge over attacking someone with “a lit cigarette, ashtray and fireplace log.” There’s got to be more to that story than I know because I can’t imagine a felony charge resulting from something like that, or that he’s plead no contest knowing it would get him removed from office.

The second time was he was convicted of racketeering charges (though actually acquitted of all but one of the things he was charged with) as part of an FBI investigation called “Operation Plunder Dome” that resulted in a number of convictions. He did 4+ years in federal prison as a result.

Now Cianci is back and running for office again. Apparently he remains quite popular and there is so much fear among many that he’ll actually win – he’s running as an independent – that various candidates have dropped out of the race in an effort to avoid splitting the vote and letting Cianci somehow slip in.

The fact that Cianci is considered a viable candidate for mayor despite being notoriously corrupt shows something that tends to happen in communities where corruption is the norm. Namely that the people themselves become corrupted in the process.

This actually happened long ago in Rhode Island, which seems to have been crooked about as long as it’s been around. One of the most famous pieces of writing about the state is Lincoln Steffens 1905 McClure’s Magazine screed called “Rhode Island: A State of Sale.” Here’s what he had to say about the matter:

And Rhode Island throws light on another national question, a question that is far more important: Aren’t the people themselves dishonest? The “grafters” who batten on us say so. Politicians have excused their own corruption to me time and again by declaring that “we’re all corrupt,” and promoters and swindlers alike describe their victims as “smart folk who think to beat us at our own game.” Without going into the cynic’s sweeping summary that “man always was and always will be corrupt” it is but fair while we are following the trail of the grafters to consider their plea that the corrupt political System they are upbuilding is founded on the dishonesty of the American people. Is it?

It is in Rhode Island. The System of Rhode Island which has produced the man who is at the head of the political System of the United States is grounded on the lowest layer of corruption that I have found thus far — the bribery of voters with cash at the polls. Other States know the practice. In Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, and Pennsylvania “workers ” are paid “to get out the vote,” but this is only preliminary; the direct and decisive purchase of power comes later, in conventions and legislatures. In these States the corruptionists buy the people’s representatives. In Rhode Island they buy the people themselves.

Rather than just businessmen buying politicians, the politicians bought voters, and virtually ever voter in the state was on the take, and in fact became quite peeved if their vote wasn’t purchased:

Nine of the towns are absolutely purchasable; that is to say, they “go the way the money goes.” Eleven more can be influenced by the use of money. Many of their voters won’t go to the polls at all unless “there is something in it.” But there need not be much in it. Governor Garvin quoted a political leader in one town who declared that if neither party had money, but one had a box of cigars, “my town would go for that party — if the workers would give up the cigars.” In another town one party had but one man in it who did not take money, and he never voted. A campaign marching club organized for a presidential campaign paraded every night with enthusiasm so great that the leaders thought it would be unnecessary to pay for votes in this town; few of the members voted. Another time, when no money turned up at a State election, one town, by way of rebuke to the regular party managers, elected a Prohibition candidate to the Assembly.

In this environment, the public is mostly indifferent to corruption and can even embrace it as part of the civic identity. Hence the viability of a known crook as a mayoral candidate.

It’s the same in Illinois. Even many of my highly educated professional friends there actually take pride in the state’s corruption, cracking boastful jokes about how it only proves Chicago is the best or something.

As Scott Reeder put it in an article earlier this year:

Well, another state legislator is heading to prison. You won’t hear much outrage in Springfield. Or dismay for that matter. In the grand scheme of things, the conviction of state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, on bribery charges is picayune. You’ll hear it whispered around the statehouse: “He ‘only’ took $7,000.”

llinoisans have become jaded to criminality among those we elect. A few years back, some Springfield wag printed up bumper stickers that said, “My Governor is a Bigger Crook than Your Governor.” This kind of cynicism has metastases through the electorate leaving political tumors of apathy, inevitability and suspicion.

Derrick Smith, the representative of $7000 bribe fame, was expelled from the House back in 2012 after being indicted, but actually won re-election with 63% of the vote.

And this bit in an article about corruption in Springfield:

Larry Sabato, a nationally recognized political analyst from University of Virginia, adds insight while talking about Illinois in an article written by Dave McKinney for Illinois Issues: “The central and most vital point about corruption is it flourishes where people permit it to, in part because they expect it in the normal course of events. A classic case comes from your state with Otto Kerner being caught solely because the people extending the bribes to him actually deducted it from their taxes as a necessary and ordinary business expense,” he says. “Their argument was, ‘This is how business is done in Illinois.’ That’s what has to change. It’s always up to the people. It’s a democracy. They have to go beyond the images.”

It’s one of the challenges that makes cleaning up corruption so hard. Once it has dug roots deep into the civic soil, the public becomes co-dependent and so there is no constituency for change.

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Reinventing Higher Education

It’s no secret that the status quo in higher education is facing a lot of pressure from things like skyrocketing tuition, ballooning student loan debt, people questioning the need for higher education, difficulties graduates are getting established in careers, etc.

One organization focused on helping universities navigate the transition to a new future and boost higher educational attainment rates in the US is the Lumina Foundation. Lumina is a $1 billion foundation in Indianapolis – no, they don’t give out scholarships! – focused on “increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025.”

I recently sat down with Danette Howard, VP of Policy and Mobilization for Lumina, and talked a bit about their work and the future of higher ed. Danette was formerly Secretary of Higher Education for the state of Maryland. If the audio player embed doesn’t play for you, click over to Soundcloud to listen.

As a preview, here’s an excerpt of her response to those, especially in tech industry, challenging the idea, particularly heard in the tech industry, that people don’t need to go to college:

We hear all the time about these incredible outliers. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are not your traditional college dropouts, and I really wish that people would stop holding them up as the example. Because for every one of them, there are millions of others who also didn’t complete college and whose lives are not nearly as successful as they would be if they had some type of post-secondary credential, in my opinion. And, it’s a fact that post-secondary education is still the best predictor of lifting oneself out of poverty. So if you want to have a better life for yourself, and you are starting at the lowest income levels, your surest best of doing that is getting a college degree or credential. That’s an undisputed fact.

Update 9/9: I want to add as a disclosure that I’m a finalist in a competition that’s being sponsored by Lumina. Though as far as I know Danette has nothing to do with that. I first made contact with her as part of researching an article on college tuition.

On the same topic, City Journal also has an article out called “Slimming the College-Tuition Beast.” Here’s an excerpt:

Some states are proposing to get rid of pay-as-you-go tuition altogether. Citing the “increasing unaffordability of college education,” Oregon’s legislature unanimously approved a plan last summer—“Pay It Forward, Pay It Back”—that would make tuition free for resident students attending the state’s public universities and community colleges. In exchange, the students would sign “binding contracts” requiring them to pay a percentage of their future income, over a set number of years, to the state. Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) will determine how much students will pay and for how long, and come up with a funding source for the first 15 to 20 years of the program. After HECC works out the details, it will send its recommendations to the 2015 legislative session. The plan will launch initially in a few pilot schools.

Given the good deal that Pay It Forward offers students, it’s no surprise that the program emerged from a classroom—one belonging to Portland State University professor Barbara Dudley. A cofounder of Oregon’s left-wing Working Families Party, Dudley wanted to offer a senior capstone class on a subject that was, in her words, “relevant to the community.” So she chose the economics and politics of student debt, asking her students to propose a solution to the growing tuition burden. After reviewing research from Seattle’s Economic Opportunity Institute, the students came up with Pay It Forward. Kevin Rackham, one of Dudley’s former students, tells me that he lobbied for the idea “because of my experience with debt, because I know how much this debt is going to impede my ability to do things like buy a car and house and start a family.” After developing Pay It Forward further with the Oregon Students Association and the Working Families Party, Dudley’s students approached a group of state legislators, who introduced a bill based on their suggestions.

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