Talk, Talk, Talk: In Regions It Works


SALT LAKE CITY – Matt Leighninger published an interesting piece this week on about how local governments are finding new ways to get things done, particularly across jurisdictional boundaries. “Local leaders are recruiting large, diverse numbers of people and involving them in small, deliberative groups, big action forums and ongoing structures like neighborhood councils,” Leighninger wrote.

Leighninger’s “deliberative groups” are the same thing as “convening groups,” my term for describing the new alliances of untraditional allies that are forming serendipitously across the country. These convening organizations, which differ in their form and function from traditional civic groups — chambers of commerce, rotary groups, Lions Clubs, and the like — arise out of the need for communities to find a way to negotiate the conflicts that too often occur at the intersection of politics, commerce, and advocacy.  Their role is to help resolve big public interest issues — like traffic congestion or rapid transit or affordable housing — that cross jurisdictional boundaries and the lines between the public and private sectors.

In their form and function, convening groups are entirely an artifact of the 21st century. They are needed because government by itself, at every level, is incapable of efficiently achieving big ideas. And the new communications technology — blogs, email, Web sites, chat boards — provide convening groups wtth the ready means to communicate with themselves and to engage in dialogue in real time with folks in their communities. 

I first recognized convening groups in Michigan. The West Michigan Strategic Alliance in the Grand Rapids region, which represents businesses, local governments, farmers, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and others, formed to prevent the region between Michigan’s second largest city and Lake Michigan from becoming the Midwest’s version of Los Angeles.

In Traverse City, the Land Use and Transportation Study Coordinating Group is 34 representatives of local governments and civic organizations formed out of a hotly disputed proposal to build a highway and bridge across the Boardman River. The group is now managing a $1.36 million federally-financed scenario planning project to develop the reasoned alternative to the highway.

Here in the Salt Lake City region, Envision Utah formed in the 1990’s to help growing suburbs bring order and environmental sensitivity to third-world growth rates. An ally has been Salt Lake City’s two-term Democratic Mayor Rocky Anderson (see pix), who’s administration has been defined by Anderson’s insistence that the city take the lead nationally in curbing the production of global climate change gases. The city’s single-minded pursuit of that goal, coupled with Envision Utah’s trend setting program of land conservation and growth management has made the largest region in the most conservative state an unexpected model of how to build a clean, green, land-conserving, and prosperous new economy. It’s really something to see.

Media, Place Blogging: A Leader in Detroit

Not long before she died earlier this month Molly Ivins, the great Texas political columnist, noted that the conventional American news media had an odd business strategy: Giving customers less and less of an ever duller and out of touch product. Newspaper readership has been declining since its peak in 1992. Now, instead of individual papers going out of business, entire chains are biting it. Almost a year ago Knight Ridder, which had squeezed the intellectual energy out of Pulitzer Prize winners in Miami, Philadelphia, and San Jose, sold all of its holdings to McClatchy. 

The other side of this story, though, is the rise of independent news rooms on the Internet. They are taking many forms. Yet one of the most intriguing at the moment is the place-based blogs that are telling very different narratives about their communities, and attracting growing audiences. The place bloggers tend to be more immediate, interested in much more detail, less inclined to point cynical fingers, and much readier to probe and keep probing. Here’s a good example from Watertown, Mass.

I’m interested because one of those narratives is the Mode Shift that is the focus of this blog, the emergence of a new green, clean, energy efficient metropolitan development strategy. The new economic model is yielding authentic benefits for residents, businesses, and regions. Salt Lake City, for instance, built a LEED-certified energy-efficient Intermodal transit station (see pix) to serve as the hub of its 145-mile regional light rail and commuter rail system that is reshaping development patterns in one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the United States.  

saltlakeintermodal.jpgA great example of how these old media/new media trend lines cross is now occurring in Detroit. If you happen to read the Detroit Free Press or the Detroit News, southeast Michigan’s two dailies, it’s like following an on-going regional funeral, and not only because of unrelenting bad news from the auto industry. The papers don’t appear terribly interested in digging out the new narratives of entrepreneurial activity in any sphere. I’ve worked for years in Detroit and know 50 great stories about terrifically dedicated people in business, government, law, academia, institutions, philanthropy and the non-profit sector whose work is making a huge difference. 

You’ll find some of those people, though, in Model D, a blog launched in July 2005 that looks at political issues, social and economic trends, real estate news, and the people involved in finely hewn and intelligent journalism.  Yesterday’s edition had a very solid profile of Bruce Katz, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, and one of the important researchers and strategists in American metropolitan affairs. Bruce’s group produced the Charting Maine’s Future report mentioned earlier this month in Mode Shift. 

Bruce has been involved for several years in conducting research and shaping the various strategies Detroit could embrace to improve its well-being. The Model D piece is the best treatment of him and his work I’ve read in any Detroit media. Model D’s journalism falls into the realm of “appreciative inquiry,” which is a new school of reporting that is much less cynical than the frame of the conventional media. Model D’s report highlights the promising business trends that are shaping what Detroit is now and will be in 25 years.   

The transformation of metropolitan regions in the United States into places worthy of attention and investment, places that attract the brightest minds and best companies, hasn’t received nearly the focused conventional media treatment it deserves. I’m in Salt Lake City this week, one of the greenest, most energy efficient, politically progressive cities in the United States . It has received scant attention for its good work.

One important reason this is so is that the American Mode Shift is essentially a story of change based on collaboration and optimism. It’s not a story of conflict, not about bad news.  And because it isn’t, it violates one of the basic tenets of conventional American journalism.

Jeremiah Owyang, the director of corporate media strategy at and one of the astute observers of social media, attended the WeMedia conference in Miami earlier this month and reported in his blog on the dynamic tension between the conventional media and the new Internet media. That growing and fractious distance is due to the speed of technological change and practices that has influenced where readers and viewers are found now. It’s also due to how the old media look at and cover the world. See Jeremiah’s postings from February 10, 2007.

The Great Western Train Race

SALT LAKE CITY —  In the 1990s, before one of the most successful and popular regional rapid transit systems in the United States was built at the foot of the Wasatch Front, the very same criticism of light rail and commuter rail now occurring in Detroit, and to some extent in Grand Rapids, was also heard here. It’s too expensive. Nobody will ride it. The region is too spread out. It makes no sense. Build highways not rail. 

All this week I’ve ridden Salt Lake City’s 19-mile Trax light rail system, which opened in 1999, and now carries nearly 60,000 passengers a day. The system is fast, safe, convenient, and cheap. It cost $4 a day to ride anywhere, anytime. I didn’t need to rent a car. The light rail conductors care so much about their line that they pasted Valentine’s Day messages to riders on the windows.

Last year, ridership increased 23 percent, more than any regional rapid transit system in the country. People like rail so much that last November voters in Salt Lake County and neighboring Utah County approved a tiny sales tax increase (2.5 cents on a $10 purchase) to speed up construction on an extension, three brand new lines, and to double the length of a new commuter rail line that is set to open later this year. Suburban communities that were the most virulently anti-rail in the 1990s are clamoring to be the first to open new stations. 

saltlakeplatform.jpgAs an icon of efficiency, usefulness, environmental-sensitivity, and metropolitan prosperity, regional rapid transit is hard to beat. That’s especially true when contrasting Michigan’s largest and sagging metropolitan region with the modern, fast-growing, clean and green cities of the West. A great train race has broken out across the Rocky Mountain region and the Pacific Coast, with cities challenging each other to build the best transit systems and to find new ways to raise money to do so, including taxing citizens and leveraging federal dollars.

Denver is building a 172-mile light rail, commuter rail, and rapid bus transit system. Portland last month opened a $57 million tram to add to its world-class system of light rail and street cars. Seattle is close to  completing a light rail system and is already planning expansions and a street car. Phoenix is building its first line, and San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles have systems in place and are in various stages of planning expansions. 

While regional rapid transit systems do not, by themselves, ensure that regions can compete in the global economy, they are essential equipment for attracting the bright minds and active people who make regions prosper. In interviews here with young entrepreneurs, every one of them said that the Salt Lake region’s commitment to rail transit was a big factor in why they either built their companies here or relocated. 

Just before the Super Bowl, Dave Barry, the Miami Herald columnist, lampooned Miami’s light rail system for its expense and low ridership. “It does not go to many other places that many Miami residents would like to go, which is why most of them do not use it,” Barry wrote. “To them, the Metrorail train is a mysterious object that occasionally whizzes past over their heads, unrelated to their lives, kind of like a comet.”

Miami’s transit problem results principally from poor planning and support. I hear the officials critical of rapid transit in Detroit cite Miami as an example of a system that is not working as anticipated. I remind them that people are pedestrians before and after they ride light rail. So to make systems work well zoning that encourages mixed use developments that connect people is just as important as economic investments that yield walkable destinations. It’s all in the linkages and connections. 

The West’s cities understood that, and none more so than Salt Lake City. The light rail system, coupled with the 2002 Olympics held here, have given this region of nearly 2 million people a new view of itself as a global competitior. Incomes are rising. New companies are piling in here, particularly those in the recreational sports industry. Salt Lake City has a federal wilderness region at its doorstep, the only major metropolitan region in the country like that. And the city’s government has been led for nearly eight years by Rocky Anderson, a Democrat who has organized much of Salt Lake’s economic development strategy around the need to be more environmentally intelligent especially in reducing the production of global warming gases. Toyota hybrid Prius’s serve as municipal vehicles.

What is occurring here, the largest metropolitan region in the most conservative state in the country, is evidence of three things. First, rapid transit, environmental progress, and economic prosperity are tied together in ways that were foreseen long ago by visionaries, but are just coming to be fully realized in the dynamic cities of the American West. Second, these issues have transcended partisanship. And third, Michigan’s largest metropolitan region, and by extension the state, is far behind and losing ground in global competitiveness every day. Detroit has an opportunity to launch a commuter rail line to Ann Arbor that by itself won’t resolve the region’s massive economic migraine, but will go a long way to showing itself and the world that southeast Michigan is a place that matters.