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Urban Renewal: A Tale of Two American Cities

April 16, 2013 - 1 Comment

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

For those who love irony, the story of Detroit is its epitome. Here’s a city that created an industry devoted to automobiles, which, because of their widespread acceptance, become the single greatest contributing factor to people leaving cities … like Detroit.

Granted, Detroit has had to deal with other contributing factors, but the fact remains that its population is a shadow of what it once was; over the past 60 years, its population has shrunk from 1.8 million to just over 700,000.

As it struggles with its current issues – dysfunctional city government, high crime and unemployment rates – it’s natural to ask the question: could broadband save Detroit? When the Intelligent Community Forum named the finalists for top cities for broadband deployment, co-founder Lou Zacharilla said, “Any struggling American town or city can, on its own, emulate these [cities] to stimulate job and wealth creation while creating safer, more creative environments.”

Here’s another irony: one of the cities on the ICF’s 2013 list is Columbus, Ohio, which was to buggies in the 19th century what Detroit was to cars in the 20th century. The tale of these two cities puts the caveat to Zacharilla’s statement: perhaps any city can, but – based on conversations with people in both cities and impartial observers – not every city will.

As we’ve discussed in Common Traits of Intelligent Community Superstars, you can see the same characteristics in some of the cities on the ICF’s list. There are other characteristics, of course, that help tell the comparative story of Detroit and Columbus.


Sustained Focus on Growth

There’s no doubt that Detroit’s municipal government is distracted. Its budget has just been put in the hands of a state overseer. Its former mayor has just been convicted on corruption charges. In Columbus, on the other hand, Michael B. Coleman has been mayor since 2000. “It’s very helpful to have a progressive mayor in his fourth term,” says CIO Gary Cavin. “That’s hard to get.”

That longevity has given Cavin the luxury of not having to convince a new mayor about the importance of broadband. “Broadband is the fourth utility,” he says, “and I convinced Mayor Coleman we needed to lay fiber every time we tore up a road, even though he wasn’t exactly sure what it would do for us and kept asking when it was going to pay off.” Columbus now has two major fiber networks, one ringing the city and one downtown.

Why Collaboration Matters

As Fast Company noted in How A Young Community Of Entrepreneurs Is Rebuilding Detroit, Detroit has more than its fair share of tech entrepreneurs. According to the story, in its May 2013 issue, Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, “has invested $1 billion in downtown so far … with little help from Detroit’s hapless government …” Detroit is having trouble getting “all its wood behind one arrow,” acknowledges local economic development consultant Mike Montgomery. “We’ve thrown a lot of spaghetti against the wall. One of our challenges is that we have a little revitalization in 20 different spots instead of a lot of revitalization in two or three.”

“You need an intimate but eclectic leadership team with a bias for action and a respect for collaboration,” notes Robert Bell, executive director for ICF. “You need a group of less than a dozen people representing multiple constituencies who get to know each other and trust each other. They’re all at the table, they all have their own agendas, but they all need to participate. It’s a small enough group to get something done.”

A Win to Build a Dream On

Consultant Montgomery says that broadband connectivity for the most part isn’t a problem in Detroit’s downtown and midtown. “Other parts of the city still have inadequate service, though.  That greatly reduces opportunities for new ventures to benefit from the really low-cost Detroit commercial and industrial space that lies outside the currently fashionable areas,” he says.

ICF’s Bell points to the efforts of Riverside, Calif., last year’s ICF winner. One of its biggest problems, as a logistics and transportation hub, was the backups caused when freight trains came through town. It deployed a fiber optic network to control the traffic lights and re-route traffic based on train schedules, and then used the network to install smart grid applications and public safety cameras. “One network solved multiple difficult problems,” says Bell.

For Columbus, it was the development of a 311 application to piggyback on the fiber optic network, which citizens use to contact the city about everything from garbage collection to potholes. “People can take pictures of potholes with their mobile phones and send them in,” says Cavin. “It cuts the time down from weeks to days in getting issues resolved.”

The Willingness to Think Big

If Detroit wants inspiration, all it has to do is look across the river to Windsor, Ontario. According to Bell, it lost 17,000 auto industry jobs even before two of the three major manufacturers declared bankruptcy. Eddie Francis, Windsor’s mayor, he says, “If it’s not a big enough idea, he’s not interested.” On a flight to Frankfurt, Francis sat down next to the guy who manages that city’s customs-clearing facilities – and realized this could be one way to revitalize Windsor.

Montgomery thinks that Detroit can still be motivated by fear. “One of the few upsides when a community is economically desperate is that because people have less to lose, they have more willingness to accept risk.”

Progressive Tax Policy

You’d think that it would be counter-intuitive to raise taxes when a city is in trouble, but that’s exactly what Columbus did. Cavin credits the city’s progress in large part to the increased tax revenues the measure brought in. “We hadn’t had an income tax increase in 20-plus years,” he says. “If not for that, I might be telling you a different story.”

Montgomery concurs, though he’s less optimistic for Detroit. “You need a regulatory environment that’s responsive and flexible. That’s a challenge for any established urban community. You need tax policies that aren’t destructive to new business. We still have zone-based tax incentives carried over from the Clinton era, but we don’t have a lot of those tools left.”

There’s no doubt Detroit is in tough shape. But as the Fast Company article notes, it has a lot of support from entrepreneurs young and old. There’s undoubtedly an energy there that a revitalized city government could easily tap. There’s no question it’s possible.

Would anyone visiting the downtrodden New York City in the 1970s recognize the city today? And if nothing else, it has the inspiration and guidelines to follow from other cities in the region that have left their buggy whips behind, literally and figuratively.

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