Rhymes so loud and proud you hear it
It's Christmas time and we got the spirit
Jack Frost chillin, the orchids out
And that's what Christmas is all about
The time is now, the place is here
And the whole wide world is filled with cheer

~Run DMC

Happy Holidays. Back in 2007.

Get on Board

Modern mass transit is no longer an option for Great Lakes cities; it's an imperative. The environmental and social benefits that accrue to cities that invest in rapid public transit are well documented. Now mounting evidence suggests that public spending on transit systems yield significant economic returns as well.

The streetcar is a particularly stong economic engine, according to a presentation at the recent Railvolution conference in Chicago. Among the findings:
  • Little Rock, Ark., opened a 2.5-mile route in 2004 at a cost of approximately $20 million and already has experienced more $1.2 billion in new development.
  • Tampa's 2.3-mile, $56 million streetcar system, opened in 2003, already has leveraged $1 billion in private investment.
  • Tacoma's $89 million streetcar system, opened in 2003, already has generated nearly $1 billion in redevelopment.
Still, the majority of elected leaders across the Great Lakes region continue to view mass transit not as a crucial economic development tool that can revitalize cities and chart a course for 21st century prosperity, but rather as an expensive, big-government social service for getting poor people to work and old people to the doctor.

WMU Engineers Top Talent

Reinforcing the fact that the greater Great Lakes region is equipped with some of the strongest innovation infrastructure in the world, the American Society for Engineering Management recently ranked the engineering management program at Western Michigan University top in the United States.

This is third year that the program has ranked among America's top five, according to a university press release, and the national exposure has fueled significant jumps in enrollment, as well as graduation and placement rates for WMU-trained engineers.

The national acclaim comes amidst mounting awareness that the ability to cultivate talent, develop cutting edge ideas, and deliver new knowledge and technologies to market is perhaps the chief economic challenge confronting America in the 21st century.

Developing top talent has never been a problem for the Great Lakes. Retaining those skilled professionals, and leveraging their creativity in pursuit of prosperity, is where the region struggles.

What's needed to keep more of those smart people in the region, and compete more successfully in the global economy, is a coordinated development strategy that targets investment in research and higher education; modern infrastructure such as mass transit and renewable energy; and the restoration of the globaly unique waters of the Great Lakes. That will make the region a more attractive place to live and work.

Money Talks, River Waits

As the waterfront revolution sweeps across the Great Lakes, a coalition of municipal leaders is rising up to oppose a 50-year plan to transform the Niagara riverfront from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario with parks, trails, and public access, according to an article by Buffalo News reporter Mark Sommer.

The Niagara River Greenway plan is widely viewed as a strategy to help revitalize depressed western New York by making targeted investments to improve quality of life. But the plan is projected to direct some $145 million into the region over the next five decades. And that's ignited a political run for the money.

The fued comes as New York's own Bruce Katz, the urban redevelopment guru from Brookings, argues in a recent piece that reviving cities like Buffalo with, among other things, projects that reclaim riverfronts from industry and give them back to the people is essential to competing in today's knowledge economy.

Still, the Niagara Power Coalition contends the boundaries of the plan are too narrow and advocates funding for a broader area.

"Their position is irresponsible to future generations," Julie Barrett O'Neill, the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, told the News.

Downtown Upturn Part 4

So, what can central cities do to thrive amidst rapidly changing demgraphics, lifestyle preferences, and global competition? Develop places that appeal to young women, according to the recent economic analysis prepared for Denver.

Talented, professional, and creative young women increasingly are emerging as leaders in the knowledge economy, according to the report. In fact, the report states women will make up 60 percent of college enrollment by 2013. Downtowns can cater to, and capitalize on, the trend by offering urban experiences that are clean and safe with plenty of entertainment and shopping.

The report also recommends:
  • Ensuring downtowns welcome ethnically diverse population.
  • Investing in schools, parks, and essential services that appeal to talented people.
  • Establishing a variety of housing choices, priced to attract a multi-skilled workforce and economically diverse population.
  • Establishing and expanding local and regional mass transit.
  • Providing affordable health care.
  • Promoting walkability and active lifestyles.
  • Inspiring and supporting a culture of entreprenurialsm and creativity.
  • Decreasing dependence on fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy sources.
  • Rehabilitate historic building stock.
  • Developing a blueprint to promote growth that is economically, ecologically, and culturally sustainable.

The ideas appear to be working for Denver. The city continues to rank as a leader for its ability to attract 25-34 years olds, the key commodity in the knowledge economy. Meanwhile, Great Lakes cities are known more for their ability to repel the creative class.

Downtown Upturn Part 3

In addition to pro-urban shifts in demographics and lifestyle preferences, the rise of global economy driven by knowledge and innovation also holds far-reaching implications for central cities, according to the recent economic analysis prepared for the City of Denver.

The report identifies three trends that urban leaders should be mindful of as they position their cities for prosperity in the new economy:

The Rise of China, India, and a planetary middle class. Still don't think China is for real? Consider this: In 2006 alone, the city of Shanghai will add as much residential and office space as currently exists in New York City. The US can stay competitive - and tap the new markets fueled by the emerging middle class in these rapidly urbanizing nations - by promoting inter-active urban areas that spur innovation, incubate dynamic businesses, and invent new industries.

Technological advancement. The 21st century economy uses information as its essential raw material and is defined by technology and mobility. Industries and their workers are no longer bolted to a specific place by the need for iron ore or timber. They can be almost anywhere. The challenge for urban leaders, particularly those in the Great Lakes region, is to understand this modern economic reality and cultivate a quality of life and place that's capable of attracting the top talent.

The pursuit of sustainability. By 2007, the report states, the majority of the world's population will live in cities for the first time in history. So, for urban leaders, pursuing policies, practices, and investment strategies that promote sustainable development is critical. Not surprisingly, the cities on the leading edge of this movement - San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago - also are regularly cited as some of the most attractive places to live.

Despite their downtrodden appearance, the cities of the Great Lakes have all the assets - worldclass educational institutions, entreprenurial spirit, and a rich cultural people - to compete and prosper in the global economy. The region just needs to chart a common and new way forward as the Industrial Era continues to wind down.

Tomorrow: recommendations from the Denver study group.

Dowtown Upturn Part 2

Rising energy and construction costs - due in part to the emergence of China and India - likely will have a dramatic effect on the American lifestyle, making typical suburban development and transportation patterns increasingly expensive, ineffective, and unsustainable.

This creates an opportunity for vibrant central cities to maximize the use of existing infrastructure (housing, roads, transit) and offer an advantageous lifestyle that appeals to Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millenials, according to the recent economic analysis prepared for the City of Denver.

The analysis identified four lifestyle trends that translate into challenges and opportunities for central cities:

Traffic congestion. It cost Americans more than $63 billion and 47 hours of average annual delay, according to the report. Not surprisingly, many of the cities investing in mass rapid transit are not only experiencing dramatic increases in ridership. Portland, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Chicago represent some of the most competitive and attractice places in the nation and world.

Wellness and recreation. As the cost of health care rises, Americans are living longer and seeking more opportunities to lead a healthy lifestyle by walking, biking, and other daily exercise. Studies show a connection between urban living and health, with residents in suburban communities experiencing higher rates of obesity due, in part, to a sedentary lifestyle.

Tourism. It's the world's largest employer, according to the report, and the industry is projected to continue growing. Vibrant downtowns can capitalize on the trend with unique cultural experiences, modern convention centers, and becoming attractive destinations for people to visit and spend money.

Debt. It's a growing burden for Americans, who increasingly live pay check to pay check and remain vulnerable to fluctuations in interest rates, inflation, and a lack of savings. This trend threatens to dilute the economic influence of the nation in a way that slows growth and the pursuit of prosperity.

Downtown Upturn

Trends in demographics, culture, and global competition favor the redevelopment of downtowns and central cities, according to an economic analysis recently prepared to guide the Denver Downtown Area Plan. The document is one of the most insightful and comprehensive breakdowns of the challenges and opportunities confronting cities in the digital age.

Let's first look at demographics. Three generations will shape development in America for the next two decades, according to the analysis: 77 million baby boomers, 44 million Gen Xers, and 70 million Millenials. A significant portion of each group is fueling population growth in central cities as they pursue convenience and traditional neighborhood living, ethnic diversity, as well as access to technology and the innovative spirit of the city.

Then there's immigration and the fact that, according to the analysis, the United States is the only major growing industrial country with expanding population, primarily as a result of immigration. The U.S. - one of five major countries that welcomes immigrants as permanent residents - accepts approximately 800,000 immigrants each year. For many of these newcomers, the city is the portal to America.

Finally, there's the rise of what social scientist Richard Florida calls the Creative Class, and the notion that young, talented workers are attracted to hip, diverse, tolerant, vibrant, and ultimately fun, energetic places to live.

To capitalize on these changing demographics, Great Lakes cities - places like Gary, Muskegon, and Buffalo - must first revinest in their communities with urban projects such as mass transit and river cleanups that reverse the decline and decay of place.

Tomorrow: lifestyles.