Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Midwest Perspective on Urbanism

Urbanism comes in many flavors.  An urbanist strategy that works in the North Bay would likely be nonsense in London and even worse in Mumbai.  The geographies are different, the economies are different, the histories are different, and the people are different.  One of the best ways to study the universal truths of urbanism is to study urbanism in different places.

The dwindling days of this summer will give me the opportunity to look at urbanism in a new region.

In the sixty years of my life, I’ve seen too little of the Midwest.  I’ve visited the larger cities, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Cleveland, but I haven’t traveled into the heart of the Great Plains.  The deficiency will soon be addressed when I travel to Nebraska and Iowa.

I’m intrigued by the cities of the Great Plains.  Growing up on the west coast and having traveled often along the east coast, the geographical justifications of most cities are evident.  San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, Boston, New York City, Charleston.  It takes only a cursory look at a map to understand why those cities grew where they did.

But the origins of the cities of the Great Plains are less evident.  The geographical advantages of Omaha over other Nebraska locations aren’t particularly evident.  Yes, Omaha is alongside the Missouri River, but so are many sites in Nebraska.  Omaha is where it is because of the decision of a railroad engineer, followed by the successful huckstering of early developers and cemented by a later aura of inevitability.

That type of civic history is fascinating, especially when the importance of railroads has faded.  I look forward to looking around some Midwest cities, trying to get a grasp on their past and their prospects for the future.

But going into a region unprepared isn’t an effective way to learn.  A tour guide is valuable.  With the nom de plume of the Urbanophile, Aaron Renn writes about urbanism for a national audience.  However, his roots are deeply in the Midwest.  And his perspectives about cities are influenced by those roots.

Late in 2012, he summarized his beliefs about cities.  I share many of his thoughts, although he expresses them better than I could have.  But some, such as his belief that urbanism has its roots in God, have a Midwest flavor that I don’t share.  (Personally, I think that humanism leads to urbanism just as surely as God does.)

And there is a self-reliance flavor to his comments that I share, but don’t put as front and center in my thinking.  It’s a sense that Midwesterners don’t expect anything to be given to them, but must work for every step forward.

A brief selection of Renn’s thoughts includes:

“There is no one-size-fits-all model of urban success.”

“Cities are also where the poor come to become middle class.”

“Building on assets is a strategy about defending the past, not embracing the future.”

“We must boldly re-imagine the possibilities of what a city can be and bravely identify what works today and what doesn’t.”

If your day permits, I recommend reading his entire post.  I know that I’ll review many of the Urbanophile’s posts before I leave for the Midwest.  It’s only reasonable to take advantage of an experienced tour guide.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Just because railroads are nowhere near as visible as they used to be doesn't mean they aren't there. The Western railroads, in particular, are instrumental in bulk shipment from West Coast ports to East Coast markets. For Omaha, the original eastern terminus and HQ of one of the most important ones (the Union Pacific) its strategic advantage lay--like Chicago, Kansas City, and (AFAIK) Minneapolis--in its landport status. They are loci of transshipment--where, historically, freight was handled. But even as the economic relevance of railroad transshipment has waned, these cities have diversified so that most of them are able to keep on chugging.

    1. Steve, I agree. The railroads represent a smaller percentage of the Omaha economic activity than they did in the late 19th century, but they're still important. And I'd like to see a world in which railroads grow further in importance.