Aaron Renn

A colleague of mine Aaron M. Renn, known as The Urbanophile, is receiving national acclaim for his insights on emerging urban issues. Aaron’s mission is to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century. His particular focus is the oft-overlooked cities of the Midwest.

Recently I asked Aaron to weigh in on a short list of emerging issues impacting midwestern cities and regions:

On the future of high-speed rail in the Midwest:

It’s a legitimate question as to whether it makes sense to build high speed rail. It’s a gamble on the benefits vs. the cost, but in a region that’s struggling, you’ve got to lay a few bets. This is one I’d take. The best bet is a real high speed rail system though, that would change the transportation game in the Midwest, not “Amtrak on steroids” pseudo-HSR.

Discussions afoot on consolidating Dayton and Cincinnati into one metropolitan region:

The emerging real center of the region is the I-75 corridor in Butler and Warren Counties. These two regions might be combining, but neither is growing fast. This means it is really sprawl driving this. There could be some branding benefits from a bigger population, but probably minor.

Efforts on the part of rustbelt cities to reinvent their built environments:

Rust Belt cities have experienced huge population loss in the core along with aging infrastructure.  Frankly, in some cities, the infrastructure was never that great. Investments to renew it however may be beyond the abilities of the cities to pull off. That’s why you are seeing targeted investments and even “shrinking cities” movements. The Rust Belt can’t just imitate Portland (OR) though.  They have to have unique innovations and a differentiated product to attract people.

Detroit’s plans to create an urban farm economy

Whether or not urban farming is Detroit’s solution, the fact that there are so many people coming there to try out different things is great.  Detroit could potentially be one of the great urban innovation laboratories of the next decade.  This makes it arguably an exciting city to be part of.

The impact of homelessness on Midwestern cities:

I’m less interested of the impact of homelessness on the city than I am on actual homeless people.  Clearly there are people who either have mental problems or severe substance abuse problems and we can take a more aggressive line with them.  But there is work to do in figuring out how to get everyone else the services and help they need, especially in this economy, and ultimately find them housing, a job, and get them back on their feet. This is a problem we shouldn’t allow in a country as rich as America.

The future of rural towns amid the economic slowdown:

Rural towns are drying up and I don’t see any real change in that, unless there is some unique local catalyst like suburban engulfment, some particular amenity, or something like that.  Perhaps things like a renewal of small scale organic farming, some telecommuters opting for a rural lifestyle, recreation, etc. may ultimately change things, but I’m not optimistic in the short term.  It’s kind of sad.  As a former resident of one of those towns, I can tell you they’ve got a lot of great qualities.

Chicago’s deep recession and Mayor Daley’s future:

Whether Mayor Daley will run again is the question on everyone’s mind.  People tend to assume he will, and there is no obvious successor.  There’s no doubt the recession has hit Chicago hard.  There have been huge job losses, the city got big fiscal problems, there were transit cuts, etc. But Chicago is still a talent magnet and boasts a very diverse economy along with an array of urban amenities that most other cities envy.

According to Renn, Chicago still has a major upside despite huge job lossess, city fiscal problems and questions about whether Mayor Daley will run for another term.

The growing urban versus suburban debate that generating a lot of media attention:

I’m not anti-suburban. I think a great city needs great suburbs and vice versa. We need both a thriving core and prosperous suburbs. In an ever more competitive global economy, every part of a region needs to bring it’s “A game”.

Cities that are likely to positively emerge post-recession:

Houston, Dallas, Austin, Raleigh-Durham, Seattle, Nashville, New York City, Washington DC, Oklahoma City.  Plenty of other places will do ok too. This is a resilient country with a bright future ahead of it.