Inside the Pavilion

What Prosperous 21st Century Cities Do

1) Be the Big City —

I suspect we all agree, Spokane has opportunities for improvement. Understanding what we are as a product and acknowledging what we can do to improve it is a big step toward doing just that.

We’re the big dog, the central city. Others in the metro can be the best suburban products they can be. The City of Spokane, however, has an obligation to be the best urban product it can be. Where some might argue: “We like Spokane just as it is. There’s no reason to grow into Seattle or Portland.” I would argue it’s not about growing into Seattle or Portland, it’s about growing into Spokane.

Say what you will, but the results are in; prosperous twenty-first century cities elevate walkability, transit, and mixed land uses into economic development priorities. The same prosperous cities are not pointlessly paranoid and distracted by Agenda 21 and snobby bike riders.

Additionally, whether we want to be or not, we‘re a 650,000 thousand person metropolitan area. Although some of the same pot holes still exist, Spokane has changed since we were kids – we’ve crossed over into significance. We’ve got inner city neighborhoods; we’ve got ever expanding suburbs; we’ve got real traffic that’s a pain in the ass during rush hour; we’ve got real political scandals; we’re leaking retail; and we’ve got all those challenges that big central cities tend to have.

In the next census or two, we’ll be lapping at the shores of a million-person metro. We’re no small town anymore. We’re real-deal, the big central city, and we’d do well to act like it.


2) Embrace a Little Chaos


…innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.

Carlon’s Law

A great local example of orderly but dumb city planning is STA’s Central City Line. Only Spokane’s political culture could take a great idea like light rail in the city’s core and turn it into a bus that looks like a train.

All of us bureaucrats know the pattern: design, defend, dumb-down, and then it’s our fault when the project fails (or turns into a bus that looks like a train). But all these boards and committees around town are to blame, too. Our passive-aggressive urge to try to appease all stakeholders is a sure-fire way to turn a good idea into something mediocre. And traffic engineers – don’t even get me started on the orderly dumbness of traffic engineers.

In recent years, a new approach has grown from those tired of being punished for proposing big new ideas (innovating) or constantly dealing in the abstract of comprehensive plans and zoning codes. Daniel Burnham coined the phrase, “Make no little plans…” Although I suspect Jaime Lerner agrees, he also points out that sometimes the simplest place to start is with a pin-prick, a little Urban Acupuncture. Others, like Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, call it Tactical Urbanism.

On the other side of the coin, from a consensus building standpoint, it’s been called crowdsourcing innovation. In a 21st century economy, this is the new public consensus building tool that is chaotic but will solve challenges and engage a sector typically not associated with participating in the municipal arena. They’re young, tech-savvy, engaged, intelligent; they work for free, collaborate around problem-solving issues, naturally self-correct, and resolve conflicts internally; and they’re market driven, which is to say, they will organically develop profit-making solutions to help solve a given problem. It’s worth metro Spokane’s time to develop a platform that taps this energy.

Sure beats leaning on starchy old bureaucrats and the business elite to divine what economic development is.


3) Compete on the World’s Stage

Do we want to be a backwater, or do we want to compete? As we sit, we’re probably a backwater. But we don’t have to be. The only thing that keeps Spokane from being considered one of the best metros in the world is ourselves. In my post Ever Pubescent Spokane, I try to sort out what’s holding us back.

Likewise, as I point out in The Golden Circle, but for Gonzaga and the Public Facilities District, most folks living east of Denver would still think we’re a suburb in northern Virginia.


4) Embrace Diversity

Spokane could use a few more Ava Sharifis. Cities of the future don’t fear diversity, they embrace it, and see it as one of the pistons that pump economic growth. If we’re going to compete on the world’s stage, than understanding the value of diversity is a big step forward.


5) Adapt

Do any of us really think Greater Spokane, Inc. (GSI) is adaptable? They’re dinosaurs, and they’re on a collision course with a comet called Everybody Under The Age Of 50. Interestingly, GSI is already trending toward old news. The bubble they have created for themselves is drifting away on the gentle breeze of irrelevance.

In the meantime, the City of Spokane is busy leveraging economic development tools that make real differences, such as the University District Public Development Authority, the Kendall Yards tax increment deal, and the combined storm water/street improvements funding mechanism. Not to mention, about $65 million going into Riverfront over the next few years. And that’s not the half of it. There are a handful of other significant economic development plans circulating that don’t involve Greater Spokane, Inc. And why would they? GSI’s economic development strategies belong in a museum.


6) Engage and Leverage the Market (AKA, be proactive)

“Let the market decide” is a common refrain amongst those disinterested in making their city a better place. Locally, Spokane Valley is a great example of what happens when the market decides. If cities want to lead from behind, that’s a choice they get to make, and I won’t begrudge them for it. (But I’ll sure point it out.) What it means, however, is Spokane can capture all the things that Spokane Valley isn’t willing to capture, and thus represents one of our many competitive advantages. We’re two different products. If we want to compete with Spokane Valley, or any other municipality in the region, on a suburban level, the City of Spokane will lose that competition because we’ll just become one big, rotted-out slum full of tweakers.

We have downtown and inner-city neighborhoods that could use a strong dose of market engagement. So, when someone says, “we have to let the market decide,” I’m unsure what they mean by it. Does it mean they don’t care if our city decays? Are cities not players in the market? Are they not a public corporation with revenue and expenses whose stock holders are the ones who pay taxes? To me, if a city isn’t engaged and influencing the market in an effort to get the market’s best, then the city isn’t doing its job. So stack the deck, count the cards, and weight the dice because twenty-first century cities actively influence and leverage the market to create positive outcomes for themselves.


7) Have a University District

I can’t think of a prosperous 21st century city that doesn’t have a university district that is dynamic, active, high energy, and fosters the creative spirit (in all its forms). Spokane’s University District is almost there. About 15,000 students from five different institutions cluster in the area.

What’s left to do? Provide more mixed use high-density residential choices, continue to foster walkability, and spend that TIF money to make more TIF money.


8) ‘Quality of Life’ is Economic Development

This relates to Rule 1: Be the Big City. Quality of Life may be the most nebulous of all economic development strategies because different experts will give you different definitions. That said, however, all of their definitions will orbit around the same foundational theories. Partly rooted in contemporary urban design strategies and partly rooted in sociological theories, quality of life is increasingly seen as the one economic development strategy that binds them all. Simply put, if you can only implement one strategy, implement quality of life. Then, everything else will happen naturally.