Urban Revitalization is harder than Rocket Science

It is rare in America that an inner city is truly revitalized. Sometimes, cities bounce back like Cleveland, New York, Washington and now maybe Newark.

But with the possible exception of New York no inner city has turned itself into a “shining city on a hill”. No inner city, and Trenton is an example, has turned squalor into enlightened civilization.

We all want our cities to stop being sink holes for bad public spending. We all want them to be seats of higher civilization. We all want them to be safe, clean and fun.

We want it, but we don’t know how to make it happen. Perhaps that’s because our best people aren’t on the job. After all, we wanted to go to the moon so we put our best people on it and sure enough, we made it.

The Trenton Downtowner recently gave out some humorous awards to some of the local bloggers. My award was the Professor award. The editors poked fun at my use of numbers and analysis. The kidding strikes at fear many people have about “thinking” and “analysis”. I know there are citizens in Trenton who are resistant to rational analysis. They’ll say things like “everything’s not about numbers”, or “sometimes you just have to go with your gut”.

Is that how we deal with our most difficult and intransigent problems.

I point to the example of landing a man on the moon. All Americans understand either by living through it or through film and books how difficult Kennedy’s challenge was. The most brilliant minds in this country were put to work solving some of the most difficult physics, engineering and biology problems ever faced. If those scientists, managers and engineers had gotten it wrong, people would have died and our country would have failed in an important mission.

But we did land on the moon. And then, we did it again and again. We were successful in that difficult challenge because we unabashedly used our minds to solve tough problems.

Conversely, we haven’t managed to fix our cities even though we very much want to. The conclusion is clear; revitalizing America’s cities is harder than putting a man on the moon.

Why then wouldn’t we apply our best scientific thinking to the problem? Why not use systems dynamics to understand the complex interactions between causes and affects? Why not use sophisticated portfolio management techniques to organize city spending? Why not apply econometric analysis, demographic statistics and behavioral science to uncover our deeply seated root problems?

If leaders in Trenton and America’s other hard luck cities are going to renew the shining city on the hill, they’ll have to stop thinking with their emotions.  They’ll have to stop shooting from the hip. If we want to succeed like we did in the space race, we’re going to have to think our way to a revitalized urban civilization.

The problem is harder, but Trenton and most other cities aren’t even trying to pull America’s best thinkers into the mix.

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9 Responses to “Urban Revitalization is harder than Rocket Science”

  • JW:

    I’m confused with your use of “inner city” and “city”. You seem to use them interchangeably. But, does “inner city” mean the downtown area?

    There are plenty of cities that have “truly” revitalized and others clearly on the course. New York is not the only one. Boston, Providence, DC, Raleigh, Charlotte and the list goes on. UNLESS you’re referring to cities that have extinguished all social ills as “revitalized” … No, there’s none.

  • Should have used the term “post industrial inner city”.

    Neither Raleigh or Charlotte were ever that.

  • JW:

    I’m still not understanding the “inner” part. What does “inner” mean to you? Shouldn’t it be plainly stated as “post industrial city”?

  • Monique King-Viehland:

    Generally, I try not to respond to blogs especially yours because it will just become a battle…..back and forth. But as someone who is working on economic development in the City of Trenton I am offended by some of your comments….”Perhaps that’s because our best people aren’t on the job.” Believe it or not there are people in the City of Trenton – native Trentonians – who are working everyday to try and revitalize our City. They are just as invested, if not more, than you are. They are smart, rationale thinkers and understand the importance of analysis. They have degrees just as “good” as yours and have a history of turning things around in other cities. And I consider myself one of those people.

  • Monique,

    We don’t even have the best minds in Trenton helping, much less the state or the nation.

    I’m sorry you’re offended, though I don’t know why you would be. At least you’re trying to take a data based approach to our issues.

    However, the facts are the facts. Trenton, has fallen behind NJ and other NJ cities in economic growth (as measured by CPI. It’s population has shrunk and its schools are still in the tank.

    It’s hard to make the case that the best minds in the country are at work in Trenton.

  • JW:

    I’m assuming since you have not defined your insistent use of the term “inner” that you equate a certain level of gentrification in order to be coined a successful revitalization.

  • No. I just didn’t do a good enough job defining terms and using them consistently to withstand the criticism.

    The definitions weren’t the main point of the article. Rather I was attempting to draw a comparison to the space race.

    However, that’s no excuse for being sloppy about terms and definitions. Probably not worth re-writing though.

  • NASA was also given a virtual blank check to get men on the moon, and there was loss of life on the way there. The Apollo I astronauts died because in the hurry to beat Kennedy’s deadline, even as billions were being spent, quality control had seriously lapsed.

    Of course, some say if Apollo 1 hadn’t burned, we never would have beat Kennedy’s deadline, because it took that serious a mistake to shake people out of complacency. And then the failure of Apollo 13 to get to the moon, five years after Apollo 1, was the result of the same sort of QC lapse.

    I think if Trenton had the equivalent of the money NASA had in the 60s to solve its problems, it might very well be more successful than NASA had been at getting to the moon. But Trenton doesn’t need the kind of money it takes to get to the moon, it only needs the kind of money it would take to turn its fortunes around. Still, that money isn’t coming any time soon.

    How I see the NASA analogy fitting is that those billions of over-budget NASA dollars were going toward a distinct goal. You will note that once we reached the moon, the will to spend money on the project dried up to the point where we only did it 7 times, and most people didn’t even know why we went that many times. Without a clear, widely understood goal, the money and will quickly dried up.

    I think you are right, Dan, that analysis and systematization is crucial to success – once a vision of success is established. No such vision exists. Guesswork and negotiated compromise is maybe the best way to ensure that nobody gets what they want. Kennedy’s vision was his own, not the result of a committee. And that’s why it drove people. And he had the ability to inspire, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

    I think it’s the lack of a clear goal that prevents investment in the city – the fact that no one has any idea what millions or billions would be spent on, what end product we would have after it were spent – that is the biggest obstacle to progress.

  • Thanks Joe.

    I think you’ve helped crystallize the analogy.

    It’s not about money. It’s about being smart enough to do it with the resources you’ve got. Sort of the Apollo 13 recovery example.

    We need a goal, a timeline and clear-eyed smarts.

    There’s a little bit of visioning going on over on southtrenton.org. There’s been analysis on this site and also on ruinsoftrenton. At least some of ideas are there but we need more.

    Most importantly we need a “Kennedy” that can inspire and coalesce our own little revitalization NASA – minus the $$$$.

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