Aaron Renn, a leading urban affairs analyst, will be coming to Indianapolis on Thursday to speak to the inaugural #designindy2013, a new event for commercial design and construction professionals.
The Downtown event, coordinated by the Indianapolis chapters of the American Institute of Architects, the Construction Specifications Institute and the U.S. Green Building Council, will include a trade show of design innovations and technologies.
Renn, also known as "The Urbanophile," wants to help America's cities thrive in the 21st century.
A native Hoosier now living in Providence, R.I., Renn is the founder and CEO of Telestrian, a data analysis company and was a former partner at consulting firm Accenture. He is an acknowledged expert on transit issues and his Urbanophile website was cited as one of the most influential sites on urban planning by Planetizen.
We recently asked Renn his thoughts on where Indianapolis has succeeded and what the city could do better as it moves forward.
Question: In your talk to the AIA, the topic will be Downtown Indianapolis' past, present and future. How have the city's challenges changed over the years?
Answer: The difference is what I call the "new doughnut" vs. the "old doughnut." The old doughnut was Mayor Hudnut's famous saying that "You can't be a suburb of nowhere." That is, you can't have a gaping hole where your downtown is supposed to be.
Indy fixed that problem. Today the hole is filled in, but the ring of the old doughnut -- the broader urban core and inner suburbs -- are the problem, while the outer counties boom. In effect, the boom and bust areas have inverted in 1960. That's the new doughnut. It's about the ring not the hole.
Q: What in your mind have been the biggest factors in curtailing growth of the city's urban center?
A: Indy's urban core has an "urban lite" environment that is broadly similar to the auto-oriented suburbs only it is older, are not built to current market tastes, feature higher crime and taxes, but worse schools. When you are selling an inferior version of the same basic product as your competitors only at a higher price point in terms of taxes, don't be surprised if you don't have many takers. The urban core also has numerous features like an obsolete zoning code that inhibit development.
Q: What can Indianapolis do to stave off "brain drain" and retain or attract more young, talented professionals and their incomes?
A: I prefer to think attract, rather than retain. There's only 1.9 million people to retain, but there are 7 billion to attract.
In fact, metro Indianapolis is attracting people at some of the highest rates in the Midwest. It's just that other than immigrants, most of them aren't choosing the Marion County, and the people who are in Marion County are often choosing to move to the collar counties -- 82,000 of them with $2.5 in annual income during the 2000s.
One piece of the puzzle that is missing on attraction, however, is recruitment. Indianapolis does a bit of "marketing" for new people but no "sales." For example, Gov. Pence is on a trade mission to drum up business in Japan, but who ever goes on a "trade mission" to find people?
Q: Should Indianapolis try to build stronger neighborhoods and neighborhood identity and is that key to the city's future success?
A: Indy has quite a few neighborhoods that are fairly strong. It needs more and needs stronger identity and distinctiveness in its neighborhoods. Again, the idea is to create an urban core product that is more differentiated from suburbs.
Q: Indianapolis has long marketed itself as the "Amateur Sports Capital of the World." Has it succeeded and is it time to update that image?
A: I think it goes well beyond amateur sports. Indy has succeeded fabulously at hosting sports events, period. The Super Bowl proves that. That clearly needs to be retained in the future.