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The New Big Three:
New Orleans, Detroit, Phoenix

By Wellington Reiter, FAIA

In this reprint from the National Associates Committee journal Forward, author Wellington Reiter, FAIA, describes how three U.S. cities have “visited the frontlines of the future and are reporting back to the rest of us, a bit wobbly and worse for wear, but still standing…and reflective of the most critical issues of our time.”

Cities are our most enduring and substantial creations. Their scale, durability, and materiality represent our largest investments and the most compelling registrations of who we are as a society. Cities allow for cultural expression, diversity of employment, and social mobility in ways significantly different from agrarian arrangements. As hubs of commerce, government, research, transportation, and entertainment, these organizers of large and diverse populations crystallize much of what it means to be human.

On our current trajectory, urban populations are projected to grow from 3 billion to 5 billion over the next 20 years. According to scientists at North Carolina University, on May 23, 2007, the earth’s population became more urban than rural for the first time in history. (1) This new era is exemplified by many trends including the well-documented migration from rural to urban in Africa, the rise of the city-state in Asia, and the realization of the “aerotropolis” in the Middle East. Most importantly, by 2030, cities will be the locus of ¾ of the world’s energy demand. Universities, foundations and think-tanks have all seized upon this circumstance by launching any number of programs to address the attendant opportunities and challenges facing these burgeoning population centers- especially those unprepared for the abrupt increase.

Cities are not abstractions. They are real in ways that country, province, or states that are circumscribed by political boundaries rather than shared interests never will never be. At a time when science is fodder for political debate, cities serve as the ultimate laboratories for testing hypotheses and then living with the consequences of those experiments. They have an observable life of their own. As any mayor will confirm: your constituents are your neighbors; the buildings in your community are your businesses; the students on their way to school are your most valuable assets. Because a tracing of the past and a picture of the present is painted so vividly by the experience of the city in all of its dimensions, so too can a vision of the future be estimated in very concrete terms. Given the constancy of these reminders, it should not be surprising that our most dynamic, data-driven, and visionary leaders in this country are frequently the mayors of our great cities.

On the front lines of the future: New Orleans, Detroit, Phoenix

Cities are brokers of complex truths, the result of decisions that are registered on their very surfaces. Three exemplars in this regard are New Orleans, Detroit, and Phoenix; in Detroit parlance- the “New Big Three.” These cities are serving as the scouts for the rest of the nation as they confront some of our most pressing challenges. They have visited the frontlines of the future and are reporting back to the rest of us, a bit wobbly and worse for wear, but still standing and some respects, regaining their footing. With plenty of evidence to support their claims, they can speak authoritatively on the impacts of aging infrastructure (New Orleans), economic globalization (Detroit), and climate change (Phoenix). They also share social, financial, and educational inequities that are a drag on their respective futures and the nation as a whole. As such, they are important vitality indicators and reflective of the most critical issues of our time.

An initial consideration of this triumvirate might seem discordant given their differences but no other cities in the U.S. have inspired more documentation of exuberance, decline and rebirth. A wealth of readily available literature on each city captures the origins, drivers of success, and failure to attend to obvious warning signals. New Orleans and Detroit are, of course, the bookends to any contemporary discussion about extreme disruption to the urban core by external forces (hurricane Katrina and international competitiveness, respectively). With less drama but clearly visible stress points, the Phoenix region is coming to grips with self-inflicted temperature increases and reliable access to water, issues, which multiple authors have addressed for decades. The just published, “Bird on Fire, Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City (Phoenix),” by Andrew Ross, will continue the trend: “Footage of the metro region’s outer-ring subdivisions reclaimed by sage grass, tumbleweed, and geckos was as evocative of the bubble’s savage aftermath as photographs of the Dust Bowl’s windblown soil had been of the Great Depression.”(3) Given the preponderance of documentation, these cities tell us a great deal about ourselves in fundamental terms: what we value, what we don’t, and our prospects for the future, regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge the evidence or not.

New Orleans, Detroit, and Phoenix blossomed for very clear reasons: geography, industry, and mobility, the details of which reflect trends in the United States as a whole. Their growth was also abetted by an agent we have only recently come to know through behavioral research and real time images of brain function: the “optimism bias.” As Tali Sharot writes in her book of the same title, “…the architecture of the brain…allows unrealistic optimism to be generated and alter(s) our perceptions and actions. In order to understand the optimism bias, we first need to look at how, and why, the brain creates illusions of reality.” The findings, while directed at individual decision-making, seem to capture the historical record of American urbanism, as well. Given the enormity (if not impossibility) of charting a course for a city and the implications of getting it wrong, it is instructive to keep one of Sharot’s directives in mind: “We need to burst a giant bubble- the notion that we perceive the world as it really is.”(4) This is what is so beguiling about cities- they are simultaneously our most substantial material creations (“what really is”) but also places of illusion, especially for the inattentive viewer.

The optimism bias causes us to imagine a future in which things proceed according to plan thus encouraging the continuation of conventional behaviors and goals setting based on current realities. It is hard to imagine functioning otherwise, the survival aspect being obvious. But, when applied to larger systems the bias can produce unintended consequences of massive proportions. Officials in New Orleans surely suffered from the affliction believing the levee walls protecting the city were sound and the flood relief adequate (video footage featuring then FEMA director, Michael Brown, is a case study). Moving to Detroit, the auto executive in the Renaissance Center or the teamster pushing yet another 4,000 lb. vehicle off the assembly line, both believing that “girth is good” and secure jobs will be available as they have been for generations. (5) In Phoenix, who could blame the developers and homebuilders for discounting the idea that sprawl is unsustainable when only a few years ago lines were forming simply for the right to place a bid on a new home, no matter how remote from one’s place of work, a grocery store, or elementary school? In each case, evidence upon which to base caution was available but our positive inclination blinded us to the underlying and unstable realities.

When an individual misjudges a situation, it is unfortunate. When a city does the same, it is a tragedy of massive proportions. The common denominator amongst these three examples pertains to the evidence-based criteria about the future and how those insights were (or will be) leveraged. Forecasts for New Orleans, Detroit, and Phoenix have been plentiful, urgent, and vivid, as detailed in this essay. And yet, it appears extremely difficult--if not impossible--to use them to better advantage and to build consensus around the need for a change of course. Cities are especially compelling as signposts given their monumental scale and scope. Impossible to ignore. Yet apparently we have that capacity, and long before the digital haze shrouded much of our consciousness in ephemera and triviality. As Ross points out, “Living with the knowledge of steady decline in human and environmental welfare is more soul-destroying than the prospect of being snuffed out by an abrupt collapse of civilization. Yet this kind of knowledge does not lend itself to urgent, remedial action.” (6)

No doubt. Consider Warren and Wetmore’s Michigan Central Station as exhibit “A,” once the “grand central” of the Midwest and front door to the nation’s industrial might. Now it looms over Detroit with a singularity that few buildings in urban settings can command, what one observer called “a forlorn, modern day Cheops.”(7) Is there any wonder why it has become a pilgrimage site for people seeking clues as to diminished American confidence or how even our most robust systems can go so gloriously wrong? “At this point the reflection becomes rather grim,” says the writer Fernando Lara when addressing the topic of urban decline and New Orleans, although his commentary certainly is applicable in this case. “After spending so much of our time complaining that globalization, consumerism, and suburbanization have made architecture invisible if not irrelevant, what do we have to show when all eyes, for moment, turn to our architecture? Let’s face it: when our built environment is made visible, the image is ugly.”(8) His use of the adjective is only partially related to the visual aspects.

In short, the city--absent the filter of the optimism bias--is a staggering presentation, one that is difficult to consume episodically. But cities are legible and present symptoms of stress and opportunity if we can bear to look. If not, we then must wait for a catastrophic event to reveal the subrogated reality that suddenly bursts through to the surface (the banking collapse of 2008 is an example with the same characteristics as many authors have made evident). One has to wonder how we will manage the more subtle but powerful forces shaping our future in fields that don’t provide such appreciable cues at street level. This is precisely why we should aggressively mine our cities for information about our true identities.

A dozen topics could be used to demonstrate the overlapping interests, histories, and improvement strategies of the New Big Three. One could include generate volumes on the impact of WWII, city governance, corporate consolidation, zoning, local journalism, the arts, and more recently, the impact of the growth of professional sports industry, to name but a few. Indeed, these topics will be taken up in a future cross-media production featuring the New Big Three. In preparation for that work, a few critical intersections are worth highlighting.

The oil triangle

In the United States, it would be impossible to overstate the impact of relatively cheap gasoline, an issue around which there is deep denial. New Orleans, Detroit, and Phoenix are implicated in an oil dependency triangle with domestic production, consumption, and lifestyle holding down the respective corners. Each has prospered and even spawned unique sub-cities as a result: floating mechanical islands housing workers in the gulf, colossal factories along the Detroit river, and planned communities intended as self-contained worlds in the foothills of the desert. All impressive constructs. But, with “peak oil” in sight (the point at which the quantity of extraction begins to necessarily diminish), they are all testaments to our faith in what lies deep within the earth rather than our ability to build a more logical and sustainable habitation on its surface.

For reasons of defense and transportation, a great city was inevitable at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Thus the establishment of New Orleans and the original city grid (now the French Quarter) at the most propitious bend in the river (thus the “Crescent City”). However, the New Orleans gulf region has since become a critical source of oil for the U.S. and its economy is now significantly dependent upon the industry. But as the 2010 British Petroleum (BP) spill demonstrated, this engagement comes with considerable risk and the imperiling of a delicate but essential wetland. The latter is the front line of protection for New Orleans during the annual hurricane season and prevents it from becoming nothing more than a fortified island stranded in the gulf. Journalist Mark Frishetti explains, “A year from now another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marsh--an area the size of Manhattan--will have vanished. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities.” Anticipating in impact of a hurricane strike on New Orleans, in 2001 he wrote, “Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes.”(9) One of the many scripts written for Katrina long before her arrival on stage.

The need to probe the Gulf at ever-deeper depths is a function of our near total reliance on the automobile as the transportation mode of choice. Of course, car production placed Detroit at the pinnacle of the world’s manufacturing capacity for much of the twentieth century and now the source of its distress. As Edward Glaeser said recently in the New York Times, “Cities work best when they are filled with smart people and small companies that innovate by exchanging ideas. Huge automobile plants, like Henry Ford’s River Rouge Plant, were highly productive, but they were isolated from the rest of the city.”(10) One might go further to suggest not only were the factories removed from the city but the American automobile industry was removed from the reality of fuel efficiency, new delivery methods, consumer demand, and the impact of a globalized economy- the optimism bias in full gear. The decline has been precipitous: “No boomtown ever boomed so long or hugely as Detroit, and the city never got over it.”(11)

The carpeting of the Sonoran Desert with single-family detached dwellings would be unthinkable without Detroit as an enabler in the form of affordable automobiles and the Gulf’s bounty to propel them. Interestingly, the sprawl of Detroit was legendary in its time and produced a footprint larger than Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco combined. Decades later, the expanse of contemporary Phoenix, a city built on personal mobility, is nearly twice Detroit in land area and its metro region could absorb all of the above several times over. Sheltered from the real costs of driving, a developer friendly environment, and relatively low-cost construction labor, the Phoenix metro area incentivized the low density, horizontal city we experience, almost exclusively by car, today. Unprecedented in American urbanism until the federal highway system was in place, Phoenix has been a growth machine and the subject of much interest and documentation. Altering this model is difficult to imagine for those who have benefitted from it- just as it was for the “big three” in Detroit when challengers from Japan first reached American shores.

Hitting the brakes, backing up

In the course of their respective histories, both New Orleans (1830-50) and Detroit (1930-70) were ranked among the top three or four largest cities in the U.S. The Phoenix metro area now hovers near the top five. In sharp contrast to many world cities, which are expanding exponentially, the three American examples under discussion, either by necessity or as a hedge against diminished resources, have been prompted to imagine a smaller footprint or, at a minimum, putting the brakes on growth.

In the case of New Orleans, Katrina required emptying the city and the dispersal of its citizens, many never to return. A host of post-hurricane plans explicitly called for the contraction of the city onto land that was more resistant to flooding- essentially the irrefutable logic of the founders. The city planner and keen observer of process, Kristina Ford offered a post-Katrina analysis of the possibilities: “…in one terrible night and day, a new recourse for correcting old mistakes had become thinkable. In the face of this destruction, rebuilding and reuniting the city’s absent population were now unarguably necessary. By this disastrous stroke, city planners were given an opportunity to do the jobs they were trained to do- to devise how to use the city’s lands to the betterment.”(12)

While this was not a new concept, the re-imagining of New Orleans under duress provoked intense and contentious conversations about the wisdom of rebuilding, the transformation of below sea-level neighborhoods into parklands, and most importantly, who was driving the process of change. Even with the horrors of the storm fresh in the minds of its former residents, the desire to return “home” resulted in a piecemeal planning strategy and the triumph of optimism over vision. For the sake of those once again occupying difficult locations, including less than optimal services, one can only hope they are spared the ravages of another direct hit in their lifetimes. But there is no doubt about the likelihood of a future challenge to the city’s storm defenses.

For Detroit, rather than a singular catastrophic event, its reversal of fortune is directly tied to a nostalgic view of the automobile and the insular culture surrounding it (see the recently published, “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters” by Bob Lutz, the former auto executive and Vice-Chairman of GM from 2001-2010, to see the limitations of an insider’s perspective). As the once bustling factories were shuttered and business migrated overseas, the resulting loss of opportunity, poverty, and disenfranchisement is reflected in once thriving neighborhoods being returned to a nearly rural condition. In the most impacted areas, aerial views of present day Detroit and post-Katrina NOLA have an uncanny resemblance and necessarily prompt questions about how best to respond to a condition of erasure. For Detroit, maintaining a city of several hundred square miles while suffering the loss of 50% of its population over the past half century (accelerating to 25 percent in the last decade) remains daunting.

The images of abandonment are comparable and so too has been the difficulty of advancing a vision of the future. As in the case of post-storm New Orleans, it has not been for a lack of trying--especially at the political, business, community, and philanthropic levels. In fact, there are extraordinarily positive stories of a rebound in both cities to which I will return at the conclusion of this essay. But absent a comprehensive urban strategy, a situation consistent with a loss of faith in government accountability and the common good, Detroit is left to simply demolish thousands of disused properties in anticipation of future decisiveness.

If Detroit’s land-to-population ratio seems challenging, imagine reducing the density by half and, at the same time, doubling the city’s footprint. The result is contemporary Phoenix. It was the application of the factory efficiency model established by Henry Ford transferred to the production of housing that painted the landscape with a thin suburban gloss. Overlay this new residential model with extended drive times, measurable heat island effects, reduced air quality, uncertain water sources, and systems level questions are necessarily prompted. Most recently, images of halted developments as the result of the mortgage backed security debacle alerted citizens and community leaders alike to the undesirability, if not impossibility, of unmanaged growth on the periphery of the metro area. The notion of an acre of Sonoran desert being consumed by development ever hour is eerily similar to the statistic associated with the disappearance of the Louisiana coastline.

With more than half of the homes in the region “under water” (a mortgage amount greater than appraised value), there is a quiet erosion of confidence in the previous models of development. Many who profited greatly from “sprawl” are speaking openly of a need to turn their gaze inward. But given the relative prosperity of the region and expectations of a rebound (i.e. Phoenix has not faced a calamity of Detroit’s or New Orleans’s proportions), finding the strategic equivalent to the Rust Belt’s “shrinking city” planning strategy will be astonishingly difficult even though it is just as necessary. When business is so good that it can be measured in 10,000-acre units, pausing to consider the consequences is nearly impossible. The recent slowdown has afforded the region a period of contemplation, which may prove to be a liberating opportunity for reinvention.

Not where, but who

In many cities, more highly charged than the numbers of residents is the question of their distribution. Once again, the commonalities of the three cities in question are instructive and say much about the unfinished work of the nation.

Katrina exposed what was known to anyone familiar with New Orleans: the areas most likely to suffer from the inevitable floods were primarily composed of minority residents of limited means. For many days following the hurricane, television reports from the scene made this abundantly clear. Acknowledging that many of the disadvantaged families who were forced to flee might not have the financial wherewithal to return gave post-storm meetings about reconstruction and relocation a sharp edge. As a new demographic profile for the city was contemplated, Mayor Nagin gave voice to the tension: "We as black people, it's time, it's time for us to come together. It's time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. And I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day."(13)

Similarly, one cannot view contemporary Detroit without an understanding of race, politics, and critical points in history such as the riots of ’67. While not racial in their origin, the mayhem that followed served to conflate inner city America with “trouble.” This, in turn, accelerated the flight to more stable suburban locales for those with the capacity to do so, including members of the minority community. Four decades later, no other city in the U.S. can produce a map with such abrupt boundaries separating racial and socio-economic groups.

In Detroit, as in New Orleans, questions of governance, representation, and motivations are especially fraught. But like the “Crescent City,” there is a minor renaissance taking place in Detroit featuring the arrival of young people seeking opportunity. “Recent census figures show that Detroit’s overall population shrank by 25 percent in the last 10 years. But another figure tells a different and more intriguing story. During the same time period, downtown Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35, nearly 30 percent more than two-thirds of the nation’s 51 largest cities.”(14) The challenge for both New Orleans and Detroit is to balance support for those who have endured in these cities under desperate circumstances while at the same time encouraging the influx of others who may be the key to a brighter future.

Downtown Phoenix also enjoys the benefits of a youthful and engaged creative community determined to provide the cultural density and excitement associated with thriving urban centers, a noble undertaking in a region where the car dominates and walkable districts are few and limited in scope. But not far from this activity, one can find contrasting neighborhoods that were the first iterations of Fordist production methods with their emphasis on speed and uniformity rather than the less quantifiable aspects of community building. Like the lowlands of New Orleans or the abandoned city blocks of Detroit, these areas are proximate to the center of the city and were prosperous in their day (John Long’s Maryvale, a “planned community,” is the premier example). But absent the charm or craftsmanship reflected in many examples to be found in New Orleans or Detroit, the idea of contingency was built into the very walls of these homes. Predictably, these generic structures and areas around them are perpetually in flux and home to those trying to gain access to the lower rungs of the American Dream. While the original residents of the post-WWII era took advantage of the new mobility, the next wave of aspirants, mostly Hispanic, has moved in to take their place. Imagining a vital Phoenix without the rejuvenation of these neighborhoods and instilling upward mobility in their populations is simply not an option.

Just as we are approaching peak oil, census numbers suggest that “peak whiteness” or a majority position in the U.S. population is about to become an historical footnote. The demographic future arrived long ago in places like Phoenix where the simple act of watching children on their way to school announces the change. An emergent Hispanic majority is inevitable in Phoenix just as former “minority” populations have been critical to the histories of New Orleans and Detroit. Unfortunately, we remain slow learners and the transition has not been fully acknowledged or its potential embraced, in part, because the beneficial by-products are hard to quantify. As Andrew Ross reminds us after having scrutinized the many neighborhoods of Phoenix, “…there are no indexes for measuring environmental justice, no indicators for judging equity of access to the green life, and no technical quantum for assessing the social sustainability of a population.”(15) The proof will most likely be found on the streets of the city, not in census data, and we would do well to mine this information with equivalent vigor.

Say it ain’t so

One can see how the topics of fossil fuels, environmental footprints, and demographic shifts overlay neatly upon the three cities in question. Obviously, they share many comparable challenges that can be found elsewhere in the country. What separates them is the singularity and fragility of their dependencies. The literature dedicated to exposing this circumstance is plentiful:

    “New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms.”(16)

    “Detroit’s twentieth-century growth brought hundreds of thousands of less-well-educated workers to vast factories, which became fortresses apart from the city and the world. While industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and education lead to innovation, the Detroit model led to urban decline. The age of the industrial city is over, at least in the West.”(17)

    "The big question is this: how vulnerable are our modern societies to hydrological breakdown? When the rivers run dry, will our own civilizations buckle? Is salt waiting to turn our best endeavors to dust? One place to look is the American West, where the epicenter of the coming water crisis may be Phoenix, Arizona."(18)

What makes this commentary so confounding is its contrast with the lead sentence in this essay: “Cities are our most enduring and substantial creations.” If cities are not only physical but collective societal investments, what does it say about our command of the future if we are unable to absorb and digest the messages that they convey so powerfully? One response is offered by curator, Barbara Tannenbaum, commenting on the exhibition, “Detroit Disassembled,” a collection of the photographs by Andrew Moore: “That dissonance between the beauty and sense of waste and destruction and decay leads you to really consider not just the situation of Detroit but to put them in a larger context of the rise and fall of civilizations, the deep relationship between human endeavors to build and nature’s ability to overwhelm and overcome.”(19) Knowing the optimism bias- literally the wiring of our brains- not just corporate miscalculation, lies behind these set pieces makes them even more revealing.

The disconnect between expectations of permanence and cities in extreme distress turns us all into gawkers. It is simply hard to rationalize the scale of the enterprise/demise equation. Piranesi fully understood Rome to be mythic in this regard and built an industry around our fascination with empire and decay. Hollywood exploits this attractor and levels city after city on a regular basis (New York has been particularly susceptible (i.e. War of the Worlds, Escape From New York, Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, I am Legend, etc.).

But nothing is as mesmerizing as the real thing. Said one resident, “Detroit is being descended on by a plague of reporters. If you live on a block near one of the city’s tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, you can’t toss a chunk of Fordite without hitting some schmuck with a camera worth more than your house.”(20) A Grayline bus tour in New Orleans announces: “An eyewitness account of the events surrounding the most devastating natural- and man-made- disaster on American soil!” It goes on, “The direct connection between America’s disappearing coastal wetlands, oil & gas pipelines, levee protection and hurricane destruction will be explained.”(21) Just as so many authors were doing decades before Katrina.

Not to be outdone, it is instructive to remember that the notion of the “ghost town” is an Arizona legacy and now a contributor to its tourism economy. Of course, Phoenix has yet to suffer a crisis comparable to its sister cities but cannot be complacent. Matters of integration, education, and economic opportunity for much of the population are just as pressing. So too are extreme environmental imperatives including the verifiable raising of the night time temperature (the “heat island effect”) by way of man-made construction and transportation networks. If one needs a more explicit visual cue to future challenges, the bathtub rings circling Lake Mead should give pause. But as Sharot reminds us, while we need to be observant of the urban landscape, we need to be even more so of the mechanism processing the information: “The brain is organized in a hierarchical structure. It is this precise arrangement that allows our expectations to influence both our perception of reality and our actions- thereby altering reality itself.”(22) Thus to some, Lake Mead is still half full. To others, it provides the clearest signal that our expectations of an uninterrupted supply of water cannot be met given current rates of consumption and changing environmental circumstances. What then to do?

If harnessed and used to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in our path, the optimism bias can be a powerful tool for change. Indeed, this is precisely what is happening in New Orleans, Detroit, and Phoenix, each of which are being infused with a shot of expectation as newcomers undaunted by the remnants of past endeavors “create illusions of reality” that can be productive drivers. This is part of the American ethos from which we can draw strength. In his recently released book, “That Used to Be Us,” Tom Friedman identifies the people who are reprogramming these cities as those “who didn’t get the word” or “who are just too dumb to quit.”(23) The “Make It Right” housing development in New Orleans, the comprehensive Detroit Works planning project, or the New American University initiative at ASU in Phoenix are all examples of people “not getting the word” about what is impossible within the world as it is conventionally presented.

Education may be the way forward and a leading indicator of vitality. Thanks to the leadership of President Scott Cowan, Tulane University, an institution whose very existence was in doubt following Hurricane Katrina, now attracts more applications from prospective students than any other private school in the country and has been instrumental in the rebound of this great metropolis. Similarly, the New Orleans Recovery School District is producing results in a city identified with a failing model. A recent Wall Street Journal article characterized the turnaround, “Hurricane Katrina wiped out resistance from politicians and unions and improbably made the Big Easy a national laboratory of educational reform.” Superintendent John White outlines the major difference: "In other cities, charter schools exist in spite of the system. Here charter schools are the system.” The WSJ report offers the following encouraging statistics:“Five years ago, 23% of children scored at or above "basic" on state tests; now 48% do. Before Katrina, 62% attended failing schools; less than a fifth do today.(24)

The New American University project at ASU conceptualized by current President Michael Crow is a highly touted initiative that has gained national and even international recognition. It has been transformative for the Phoenix metro area and, most importantly, was initiated without a calamity to provide a jump-start but is a direct response to observable environmental, societal, and economic storm clouds on the horizon. Essentially the University has adopted the city as its laboratory and has been insistent that the measures of its success are to be found in the community, which it directly serves. It is also notable for combining the success of the city and knowledge creation, a theme that Friedman echoes: “While infrastructure has underpinned economic activity since the time of the Roman Empire with its impressive roads and aqueducts, research and development has become vital only in modern times, and its value is growing. Economic growth in the United States will increasingly come from innovation, and innovation is more and more the product of both incremental advances and decisive breakthroughs in science and technology, which funding for research and development supports.” (26) And where does this work take place? Almost invariably, the research universities attached to the majority of our GDP are located in the major cities of the United States as each nurtures and reflects the best qualities of the other.

Whether we can operate in a reactive or proactive mode says everything about our prospects for the future. Just as there was knowledge of the inadequacy of the surrounding levee walls, so too was the need to overhaul the New Orleans schools system in 2005. And post-Katrina, we have proven that we have the capacity to imagine a different reality and implement more effective systems. Yet it was a totally unrelated infrastructural breakdown, an observable and documented condition, which ultimately led to the long overdue attend to the needs of our children and their education in this city. One can only ask what other clues to prosperity are directly in front of us but camouflaged by the optimism bias. The question these cities frame is obvious- can we, as a society, adjust our trajectory based on obvious need without the prompt of a catastrophic event? Or can we recognize that we may be experiencing such an event right now and not know it? The New Big Three offer a wealth of indications.

In conclusion

Whether insufficient engineering in New Orleans, foreign competition invading Detroit, or uninhibited growth in Phoenix, the issues sure to impact these cities have been widely disseminated well in advance of the perverse spectacles they would (or in the case of Phoenix, could) become. So is their massive potential if challenges are converted into opportunities. In Watergate parlance, “What we knew and when we knew it,” are the essential long-range questions presented so brilliantly by cities in a way that cannot be distorted by the perceived crises of the moment. But history raises the question of whether we have the fortitude to influence political, economic, environmental, and cultural trajectories without the ingredient of fear. How we did, can, or will respond to available information in a proactive manner says much about our ability to speak convincingly about “sustainability.” If nothing else, the definition must include the courage to respond to critical signals like those provided by our cities.

As difficult as the message might be, it is worth listening to the historian Richard Longworth and his tell-it-like-it-is explanation of why the system that has served the United States well in its first two centuries might be inadequate for the third: “Globalization really does lead to an urban-rural split. In too many states, the present is anchored to rural areas and small towns that control state governments and state legislatures. More and more, these rural area and their people are being left behind, cut out of the global conversation, far from the global action, embittered by loss and resentful of the global elite in cities and college towns. To the degree that state governments are controlled by global losers, they’ll be crippled in meeting globalization’s challenge.” Without question, this judgment is harsh and flies in the face of the current trend in Washington to avoid critical issues by hiding in the bunkers of states rights and “American exceptionalism.” Longworth is correct to suggest the need for a new and competitive game plan: “The job of state government in this new world is to get out of the way of this new regional future, while providing some sort of safety net for those left behind. The job of the new dominant cities is to join in new and powerful alliances, to mount a twenty-first century power base, to leverage their strengths.” (28) Much of the rest of the world has adopted this game plan while we are on the sidelines arguing amongst ourselves.

While the globe is constantly being smoothed or “flattened,” cities have emerged as the most meaningful points of differentiation. In the United States, the path to a greater understanding of the definitions of resilience, sustainability, and reinvention surely leads through New Orleans, Detroit, and Phoenix, a trio that is uniquely instructive in this regard. Accumulating the collected wisdom from these examples and applying it in advance of an averted crisis will be the challenge of our generation and a model for governance at the national level. How our children envision the American city as a place of innovation and opportunity will be the test of our success and the determining factor regarding our place in the world community.

Wellington Reiter, FAIA

Over the past twenty years, Wellington “Duke” Reiter has played numerous roles: academic administrator, faculty member community leader, architect, urban designer, and public artist. In the course of his career, he has established a track a record of highly effective partnerships with public office holders, the business community, non-profit groups, professional organizations, developers, and universities. Central to his diverse portfolio of experience has been the construction of mutually beneficial relationships between the institutions he has led and the cities in which they are located. A student of higher education, urban design, and entrepreneurship, Reiter is particularly interested in the economic, cultural, and sustainability of major U.S. metro areas and the engagement of the top tier colleges and universities that are embedded within them. With this objective in mind, he helped to spearhead the collaboration between the City of Phoenix and ASU that resulted in the new downtown campus and was responsible for the urban design aspects of the project.

In his role as the Special Advisor to the President of Arizona State University, he has been asked to train his design talents on the subject of Knowledge Enterprise Architecture. Reiter is the past President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the former Dean of the College of Design at Arizona State University, and a long-term faculty member at MIT. Reiter is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and the recipient of numerous design awards.


Michigan Central Station. Image courtesy of Chris Luckhardt.

Image courtesy of Christopher Gielen.

Image courtesy of Alex MacLean.

The Rouge, 2009, from the series Detroit Disassembled. Image courtesy of Andrew Moore, courtesy of the Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



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    2. Richard Longworth, Caught in the Middle, (Bloomsbury, New York, 2008) p. 237

    3. Andrew Ross, Bird on Fire, Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, (Oxford University Press, London, 2011) p. 3

    4. Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias, (New York, Random House, Inc., 2011) p. xvii

    5. “Average U.S. Car is Tipping Scales at 4000 Pounds,” New York Times, 5 May 2004

    6. Andrew Ross, Bird on Fire, Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, (Oxford University Press, London, 2011) p. 24

    7. “Capturing the Idling of the Motor City,” New York Times, 21 August 2011

    8. “Explicit Ruins: Architecture is More Visible When It Fails,” Fernando Lara, from What is a City, Phil Steinberg and Rob Shields, eds. p 59-60

    9. Mark Fishetti, “Downing in New Orleans,” Scientific American, October 2001

    10. “Can Detroit Find the Road Forward?” New York Times, Economix, 22 February 2011

    11. John Gallagher, Reimagining Detroit, Opportunities for Redefining and American City (Wayne State University Press, 2010) p. 36

    12. Kristina Ford, The Trouble with City Planning, What New Orleans Can Teach Us, (Yale University Press, 2010) p. 4

    13. Chocolate City Speech,

    14. “Detroit Pushes Back with Young Muscles,” New York Times, 1 July 2011

    15. Andrew Ross, Bird on Fire, Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, (Oxford University Press, London, 2011) p. 245

    16. Mark Fishetti, “Downing in New Orleans,” Scientific American, October 2001

    17. Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City, (Penguin Press, New York, 2011) p. 8-9

    18. Fred Pearce, When the Rivers Run Dry, (Beacon Press, Boston, 2006) p. 193

    19. “Capturing the Idling of the Motor City,” New York Times, 21 August 2011

    20. John Gallagher, Reimagining Detroit, Opportunities for Redefining and American City (Wayne State University Press, 2010) p. 26

    21. Grayline Tours,

    22. Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias, (New York, Random House, Inc., 2011) p. 204

    23. Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us, (FSG, New York, 2011) p. 298

    24. “The Big Easy's School Revolution,” Wall Street Journal, 7 July 2011

    25. Andrew Ross, Bird on Fire, Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, (Oxford University Press, London, 2011) p. 29

    26. Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us, (FSG, New York, 2011) p. 355

    27. Source: p 26

Richard Longworth, Caught in the Middle, (Bloomsbury, New York, 2008) p. 263


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