Meet The Urbanophile 

PQ: Indianapolis has its strengths and weaknesses. It's not necessarily better or worse; it's just different.

PQ: There's a mob of people writing about the coasts. To this day, there are almost no regional bloggers.

PQ: Cities are back in favor. The idea that you would want to live in a city has more cache than it used to.

PQ: I think there are a lot of things we could do to improve things visually and, also, to create a sense of identity at very low cost.

Indianapolis is a city people love to talk about. This talk runs a gamut from why does it take so long to get a sidewalk fixed, to which neighborhoods are the most walkable.

Aaron Renn has started more than his share of these conversations; and when he hasn't been an instigator, he's been more than glad to keep any number of ideas rolling via his blog, The Urbanophile (

Renn started The Urbanophile blog while living in Indianapolis, where he worked as a management consultant and served as Director of IT Strategy for Accenture and Focal Communications. The Urbanophile enabled Renn to write at length about his experiences of cities — Midwestern cities, in particular — and to share the ideas about urban planning and design that these experiences inspired.

Loaded with ideas — from Big Picture thoughts to tweaks for everyday details - The Urbanophile was soon a go-to site for anyone interested in thinking about how cities work. Renn's readership grew from local to regional and now is predominately national.

But, from the start, the great thing about the Urbanophile has been its Midwestern orientation and the fact that Renn has never flagged in making Indianapolis a frequent point of reference. As a result, The Urbanophile has become required reading for local policymakers and opinion leaders.

Renn, who was born in Laconia, Indiana — population 29 — recently left Indianapolis for greener economic pastures in Chicago. Nevertheless, he continues to be a frequent visitor to Indy, takes care to refresh his local ties, and agreed to sit down with NUVO for an extended conversation about his former home base.

NUVO: What first attracted you to cities?

Renn: My interest in urban things came out of highway construction. When I was a kid, like a lot of boys, I was fascinated with construction projects — I still am. I loved to watch the way things were done and started asking questions, like why does it take so long? And why does it cost so much? How do they pick these projects?

So I started learning about the planning process, and transportation planning, and highways.

After graduating from IU, I got a job with a consulting company and I lived in Chicago. Then I transferred to Indianapolis and flew all over the country for my work. So I got to see different cities.

I started thinking about the linkages between transit and land use and how, basically, all these urban systems are interconnected: education, talent attraction, economic development, transportation, land use, historic preservation. It's really one, integrated problem, which lends itself well to my management consulting background. You take that top level viewpoint of how you have to integrate all the functions of a company in pursuit of a strategic objective.

NUVO: As you traveled to different cities, did you play the game of asking, "Would I like to live here?"

Renn: I have asked myself that question many times. There aren't too many cities overseas I think I'd want to live in — London and Buenos Aires and Barcelona are the only ones on the list right now — but I think when you travel you go through what I call this process of inadequacy. You're king of the hill wherever you come from, but it's like being a high school senior. You go off to college and you're a freshman again. You want to be in the Cool Kids Club. So you say, "I'm never going back to Indiana."

I finally got over that once I internalized the bigger cities and realized that what they had was nice, but their strengths were tempered with weaknesses. Indianapolis has its strengths and weaknesses. It's not necessarily better or worse; it's just different.

NUVO: What prompted you to start blogging?

Renn: I've always been a message board junkie. I was on the Internet very early. I was a prolific message board poster and I found my way on to sites like Skyscraper City and started debating people about cities.

People would be arguing about some new development in downtown Indianapolis and I found myself typing these really long posts about what I thought and why I felt that way.

I went through a process of asking can I keep this up? And do I have anything to say? The ultimate question of blogging is why start another blog? I'm not coming to this with an established reputation as an urban thinker, so I couldn't cash in on that to draw an audience.

Even from the beginning I wanted to offer a unique viewpoint — interdisciplinary, in depth, non-dogmatic, nonpartisan — and, also, I didn't want to focus on one, particular city. Urbanist city blogs are a dime a dozen. What I found was that, in Indianapolis, we don't really know what's going on in Cincinnati or Louisville or Columbus, Ohio. I wanted to show what was happening and put some of these things in context.

I decided to look at Midwestern cities that have a metro population of a million or more and try to cover them through common themes, focusing more on Indianapolis-size cities than Chicago, which is its own beast, although I write about it, too.

NUVO: What interests you about the Midwest?

Renn: I am from the Midwest, it's my home and it's a region of the country that has struggled a lot. We've had a lot of challenges and are frequently looked down upon.

I think one of the things we suffer from is that almost all the ideas about cities and what they should be originate elsewhere. We are importers of ideas. We import ideas that are developed in different places, with very different contexts, without necessarily thinking how they may or may not apply here, and without thinking about how the marketing, sales and positioning might need to be different.

Cincinnati is trying to build a streetcar system downtown. It's been very controversial. An interesting coalition of Republican anti-tax activists and the NAACP is trying to derail it. Meanwhile, I'm watching the sales plan for what they're doing. The mayor points to a building, saying it will be served by the system and have luxury condos and a Starbucks. But I'm thinking the median income in Cincinnati is $33,000 a year; this vision doesn't speak to most people there.

We have to be able to articulate how these progressive urban policies are good for the average person.

I wanted to provide more indigenous R and D capacity to think about how this region could have its own ideas in a better way. There's a mob of people writing about the coasts. To this day, there are almost no regional bloggers.

NUVO: Why are we not generating more ideas of our own?

Renn: If you look at our heritage, it's been agriculture and industry. Originally, this area of the country was the Silicon Valley of the Industrial Age. Dayton, Ohio, has more patents per capita than any city in history. Think about all the things that were invented in Chicago and Detroit: the internal combustion engine, large-scale assembly line manufacturing, the railroad.

There was so much in the Midwest that was innovative for so long and I think we were victims of our own success. We stopped innovating. We fell into a pattern of complacency.

I also think this part of the country was settled by northern Europeans — Germans, Scandinavians — and there's a culture of modesty. In Scandinavia, they have less income inequality, they're more egalitarian in that regard, and the nail that sticks up gets pounded down. That's probably some of it.

And the reality is that government is based in Washington, D.C. New York is the cultural capital. The oldest university, Harvard, is in Boston. It's logical these will be the places where ideas come from. We're actually more decentralized in terms of idea production than most other countries, but this is still the hinterland.

NUVO: What trends in cities are most intriguing to you now?

Renn: Cities are back in favor. The idea that you would want to live in a city has more cache than it used to. I don't think we've had the wholesale reversal that some would suggest about this, but in cities across the country people want to move back downtown. There's condo development.

Although, unfortunately, it seems to have passed Indianapolis by for the most part, there is also a new design consciousness, a desire for better quality architecture and more beautiful spaces.

NUVO: You say design consciousness bypassed Indianapolis to a great extent. Could you elaborate on that observation?

Renn: We've stuck to our knitting in traditional architecture and types of design. You don't see a lot of modern or contemporary design in Indianapolis. When we added the expansion at the IMA, for example, we went with a very conservative, traditional addition. Whereas pretty much every other city in the last decade that had done a major museum expansion went out and hired a world renowned architect to design a structure that would be a major, civic statement. Milwaukee hired Santiago Calatrava.

Now unless you think I'm wholly praising them, I actually think a lot of those designs are lacking. In the case of the Milwaukee museum, it's all about Calatrava and very little about Milwaukee. It seems a little self-indulgent.

But there's an opportunity here. Maybe we could get this right if we took the best of that kind of "starchitecture" style and the best of what we have locally to create a truly indigenous type of really high quality, forward-looking architecture. I would call that "world class Indianapolis," not "world class in Indianapolis." I think there's a very big difference.

NUVO: What is "indigenous" to or about Indianapolis?

Renn: It's challenging, but what are we most known for? Auto racing. And yet, to a great extent, Indianapolis has really downplayed auto racing. Part of it is that we don't want to be known as a one-trick pony. We want to be taken seriously as a real city, not some overgrown small town that has a racecourse. It's sort of like when you go to college, you don't want to be wearing your high school letter jacket.

But I think auto racing is our number one brand. It ties into industry, it's masculine, high energy, solid. It's one of those images you can use, like scientists in lab coats at Lilly and tractors in the fields. It's part of that self-reliant, ornery Hoosier ethos. Those types of values are what we need to uncover — a sort of masculine, unpretentious, yet competitive spirit.

It's difficult, but I think we have to take these strands and weave them into a narrative. When you think of Portland, you think of people on their bicycles, or sipping lattes by the light rail or micro-brew.

What comes to mind when we think about living here? How can we create an authentic, aspirational narrative? That's what we have to do to make a brand that can start attracting people who were not previously attached to the place.

We have to be willing to make a bold statement about what we want to be. One of the things we can do — and that we did in the past — is innovation in an urban context. If you go back to the Lugar and Hudnut administrations, we did some innovative things. Unigov was way ahead of its time. The amateur sports strategy — using sports to renew a city — nobody had thought of that. The Circle Centre Mall: we did retail in a downtown context right.

We need to bring back innovation. I think the Cultural Trail is one example of that. If we're just going to import ideas like bike lanes and light rail, then we're perpetually going to be playing catch-up. Cliques are, by definition, exclusive. So places like Chicago and New York and Portland are going to define themselves as cool in opposition to places like Indianapolis. It's like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. The minute you think you've got it, they've moved on to something else.

With something like the Cultural Trail, other cities will say, "Why can't we have one of those?" I think our challenge is trying to figure out how to be innovative in a low-cost manner; to do it a lot faster and a lot cheaper and execute rapidly.

NUVO: You place an emphasis on everyday design. What details should we be looking at?

Renn: We have done a great job at statement-type things. Monument Circle is simply one of the finest public spaces in the Untied States. It passes the Paris test — that is, if you transported it to Paris, would you still think it's cool. Yes!

But 99.9 percent of the city is not that. So what do we do with the rest to create a sense of place, to let you know, if you're standing on a random street corner on the Eastside, that you're in Indianapolis?

I think there are a lot of things we could do to improve things visually and, also, to create a sense of identity at very low cost.

We have a great city flag. The Flag Association rated it among the top ten city flags in America. It's a really great design. But you don't see it very much. The iconography of the city flag should be everywhere. Why don't we create a new street sign design and put the city flag in the corner?

NUVO: You've distinguished the Indianapolis product from the Indianapolis brand.

Renn: Look at Midwestern cities and the first thing you have to recognize is that we're Number 1. By any measure, we're at the top or near it. We are the Number 1 large city in population growth. You think about the Midwest as a place everybody's leaving — but not here. We actually have something that's very rare in the Midwest, which is net in-migration. More people are coming here than leaving. Between 2000 and 2005, 60,000 people moved here. The vast majority of the Midwest is having out-migration, even Minneapolis-St. Paul. The ultimate judgment on a city is people voting with their feet.

We're adding jobs. We added 45,500 jobs between 2000 and 2005. The recession hasn't been good, but it's been far better here than in almost any city.

This is the cheapest major city in the U.S. to buy a house.

The reality is, in many respects, the city is rocking and rolling.

Are we like Nashville, Tennessee, Houston, Texas, Denver, in terms of growth? No. We're not hitting the top of the charts. But we're better than a lot of people would give us credit for. From a regional perspective, this city is doing great.

I think we have two fundamental challenges. One, there's a big disconnect between the performance in Indianapolis and the performance in Indiana. We added 45,000 jobs, the rest of Indiana lost jobs. That's from 2000 on. We exceed the national average in median income, the rest of Indiana's far below it. We cannot have a successful Indianapolis without a successful Indiana.

The other thing is, for all the attractiveness of Indianapolis as a region, Marion County — the city of Indianapolis — is an increasingly hard sell. If you look at the statistics I just gave you — in Marion County, it's the reverse. 46,000 people have left Marion County. The population is starting to flatline. The tax base is eroding. Three of the four largest townships have declines in assessed valuation.

Unigov basically bought us 30 years. Now we're right back where we were in the pre-Unigov era.

The big challenge we have in Marion County is that our product is insufficiently differentiated from the collar counties. We can focus on policing and lean government, we can work on improving education. No matter what we do, Marion County is always going to have higher taxes, more crime, worse schools and older infrastructure than those collar counties.

So how do you get somebody to buy your product when it has these characteristics? That is the question we have to answer. It's critical that we reverse this inflection point and keep growth going because the dynamics of growth and decline are self-reinforcing. If you're in a decline cycle, it's very difficult to pull out of it.

NUVO: It sounds like the challenge is reconciling suburbia with an urban idea.

Renn: One of the things we need to do as a city is realize we cannot compete with the collar counties head-on. When we build things like strip malls downtown, or you put Arby's, Subway, and White Castle right there on South St., you're basically saying we're going to compete with the suburbs on their terms. If you give people a choice between a real suburb and a city trying to act like one — but with all those cost and infrastructure issues — you're going to lose most of the time.

We have to have a different product. It's going to take courageous leadership to articulate a more urban vision for Indianapolis that people will buy into.

We don't need to Manhattanize this city. If we just changed our zoning so that anywhere you have a single family home you could build a double with a carriage house in back, you would triple the effective residential density of Indianapolis without any change to the visual scale of the city. Moderate densification is what we need.

We have had a very powerful civic sector. Business and community leaders coming together to get things done in a way that doesn't happen anywhere else. That leadership culture has served us very well.

The challenges we face today, though, are different. That leadership culture is perfect for projects. But what we need to do is lay up a new vision and make the case for change in public policy and planning, land use, zoning and public transportation in a way that's probably not going to be popular initially. That requires someone to make the case in the political realm. Somebody has to have democratic legitimacy in saying, "This is where we're going." I know everyone hates Carmel, but [Mayor] Brainard in Carmel has done that. We have to have someone to stand in the kitchen and take the heat for a new vision of the central city.

It's great we have strong suburbs. But as Mayor Hudnut said, you can't be a suburb of nowhere.

NUVO: What does it mean to be a large Midwestern city at the beginning of the 21s century?

Renn: People who have big dreams, plans and aspirations for themselves want to live in a place where the civic aspiration matches their personal aspiration. You can't tell someone who wants to cure cancer to live in a place where good enough is good enough.

We need a 21st century Burnham Plan, laying out what we want to achieve. I think we should want to get a little bigger — 2.5 to 3 million over the next 25 years is not a bad aspiration.

I think we should say we want to be one of the top five Black cultural centers in America. We're 26 percent African-American population in Marion County, so any vision of the city that doesn't include African-Americans is a loser. Look at Atlanta and see what being the Mecca for Black culture in America has done for them.

The thing about urban visions being pushed right now is that they're updated versions of Jane Jacobs' ideas from the 1950's. But we have a radically different world today. What should cities look like now? I think we could be the innovators in defining what it means to be a city.

We can own what it means to have sustainable agriculture. Given the size of Indianapolis and ease of getting out of town, we could build linkages between our urban and rural areas that are difficult to do in much, much larger cities. I think that's one of the imperatives for us in bringing Indiana along on the journey.

If you set out an agenda, you can rally people by the promise of what is to be. To some extent, all of Christianity was built on that: the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven that we'll never see here.

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