We had a fantastic turnout for the Toledo Sticky Cities meeting last Thursday! Around fifteen people of different ages and walks of life participated in the forum at Manhattan's on Adams Street to discuss ideas on the future of the city. We also shared notes in real time with Pittsburgh and Detroit. Thanks to Kelly for moderating and organizing the Toledo event, and to Abby and Sarah for planning the simultaneously occurring meetings across the Great Lakes. Here is a run down of my take on some of the ideas we discussed and some thoughts on each:
The consensus seems to be that we need to stop thinking of ourselves as simply "Metro Toledo." This movement toward a more regional focus is reflected in the shift from the old moniker "Northwest Ohio" to the new label "Lake Erie West," which has been endorsed by numerous local leaders and weekly publications. In addition to being easier to pronounce and more aesthetically pleasing than "Northwest Ohio" (I must be frank, even I get a slightly negative connotation from the word 'Ohio,' which I desperately need to shake), it signifies that our region is the Western Lake Erie basin, which helps to shift our geographic focus. For instance, Toledo is about 40 minutes from Ann Arbor, which has a very healthy technology and information based economy. The "Lake Erie West" designation re-emphasizes Toledo and Ann Arbor's geographic proximity, which in turn emphasizes opportunities for coordinated economic development. We need to sell Toledo as a region with three major research universities, not just two. Focusing on the combined research and graduation of the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University and the University of Michigan, not to mention Owens College, the University of Findlay, Eastern Michigan University and the many other institutions of higher education in Lake Erie West highlights the very real glut of talent in the region. North Carolina's research triangle cities are frequently cited as a model for this sort of regional development effort. Ann Arbor-Detroit-Toledo was suggested as a model for a "tri-city" region, one already recognized in many circles. High speed rail connecting Ann Arbor and Toledo was cited several times. Uni-gov, or at least elimination of redundancies in services, was cited several times.
Related to the call for a regional focus is the simultaneous call for a shift to a global focus. The two concepts are not at odds; rather, they are complimentary. Both concepts place our attention on our place in the world. While regionalism makes us aware of the assets we possess in our immediate geographic area, globalism forces us to consider the steps cities are pursuing internationally, and make us aware of our place in the world. When we look at ourselves through this lens, three things come to light.
The first: Global Viewpoint
We are not being as inovative as we need to be to compete on a global scale. North America has long been seen as spearheading innovation in logistics, industry and urbanism (well, maybe not recently the last one, but at some point yes, we were pioneers in urbanism, and most ideas on re-urbanism have come (perhaps by necessity) from American and Canadian circles). Though American cities continue to be at the cutting edge in many areas, they are in no way the status quo. In addition to European cities, many of the biggest innovators are the new players on the global scene: cities in China, South and Southeast Asia, parts of South America, and of course Dubai itself, the fastest growing city in the world. We may be doing a decent job of pursuing new industries like solar and wind (apparently Toledo is one of six "clean energy capitals of the world," though I can't verify this source), we need to do a better job of leverage all of our strengths and re-urbanizing. Toledo's urban core has long been neglected, and while we may not experience problems on the same scale as cities like Cleveland and Detroit, these problems are serious and need to be addressed. While everyday efforts at re-urbanism are certainly a necessity, an economic turnaround is required for these efforts to be truly successful, emphasizing the connectivity between development and re-urbanism. The big winners in the global economy know their strengths, and they leverage them to their advantage. This seems simple enough, but to really know your advantages, you need to see your region in the context of the the globe, not in simply a micro-regional context. In other words, Toledo competing against Maumee competing against Perrysburg competing against Sylvania will get us nowhere. Lake Erie West competing against against similar regions in Asia and Europe will lead to a healthy economy, because as the next section highlights, we have some heavy-hitting strengths we can leverage as advantages.
The second: The Unique Strengths of Lake Erie West
We have a near unrivaled capacity for inter-model transportation that is largely lying dormant. It was suggested that Toledo Express Airport needs to focus on cargo rather than passenger (it will always lose to the much larger Detroit Metro), we need to emphasize our rail, highway and shipping capabilities. We are doing a great deal in this area, but we could do more. The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority has offices in both Beijing and Shanghai, which is a huge positive step. Second, we need to to a good job of commercialization of research driven technology. UT is a leader in this area with solar, and they are starting to do it more with bio fuel and medical. This is tied in to selling the education and training levels of our regional workforce. Third, be have a glut of natural resources, which will come into play as water becomes increasingly scare. This is tied in to a sound infrastucture and complimented by a very affordable cost of living and doing business. These are all great strengths on which to capitalize.
The third: Make Global Connections
The Port Authority's China offices are a noted positive step in this area. UT is considering opening either a Middle Eastern or Chinese campus, which would be fantastic. We need to open an international office either at the level of the city or at the level of the Lucas County Commissioners. We have been cited as the top city for foreign investment by Foreign Direct Investment magazine, and this is also a good sign. However, we need to keep emphasizing global connectivity as the future of economic development. I'm a bit torn here. I've studied international human rights law extensively, and in my capacity as a human rights lawyer (if I can successfully argue that I act in this capacity!) I abhor China's human rights record. In many aspects China is one of the world's largest prisons. However, at the same time they have a monster economy that is developing at a rapid pace. I don't think it would be a good idea to discourage Chinese investment in the region, and in my opinion, the most effective long-term strategy for bringing human rights to China is to integrate China fully into the global economy. Democracy will necessarily follow as China's economy is liberalized and fused with those of every other country. However, the same pro-investment attitude must apply to every country on the globe. To be certain, we cannot afford to take a xenophobic approach and shun foreign investment. While the best investment comes from within the community and then back into the community, foreign investment will spark the local economy, thus increasing the wealth of the community and ultimately our capacity for direct community investment.
This is possibly the most visible problem Toledo (and probably every other Great Lakes city) faces on a day to day basis. We need people to understand and value the positive economic impact of a healthy urban core with good public transportation (the latter which we don't have in Toledo). There was a recent article on the Fifth Third foundation's investment in downtown Toledo paying off big time, with the ongoing transformation of the Warehouse District (for those who wish this transformation was occurring at a more rapid pace, please remember what was there prior to Fifth Third Field: pretty much only the Erie Street Market and the Spaghetti Warehouse. We currently have over 20 viable business, plus many great residential developments). Moreover, there have been several studies and books published on the economic stimulation provided by the young urban class. They contribute to creativity based jobs like graphic designing, fashion and the culinary industry, and contribute to the preservation and redevelopment of old urban neighborhoods. While in many cities this has resulted in gentrification that ultimately increases pockets of severe poverty within a city, in Toledo this hasn't happened as much. Our strongest continuous urban-class neighborhood, the Old West End, is a model for racial and income diversity. Fortunately, re-urbanism is one of the steps the average person (like myself) can take to help transform cities like Toledo. One specific example is a friend's idea to start the "Walk Adams Street" campaign, which would encourage the use and perception of uptown Adams Street as the commercial and entertainment corridor between the Old West End and Downtown. We already have Mahattan's, Wesleys, Pub St. George, and Bretz, and soon the new Ottawa Tavern, as well as the Glass City Theater companies playhouse in the Frame Shop, as well as many other offices and shops like Scrap for Art and Creative Plexiglass. We need to keep focusing on revitalizing the Old West End-Uptown-Downtown-Warehouse District corridor. Even the Vistula neighborhood to the North of Downtown is starting to show some signs of life. Toledo actually has an advantage in this area with its size: our downtown is small enough to accommodate a strong mixed-use redevelopment which would turn it into an area that possess a very strong urban feel in a smaller sized city. I'm very optimistic that these developments will continue to progress
There were many more ideas discussed at the meeting, some of which I'm not well versed in. One example is public education, another is increasing the presence of the creative class in Toledo. My suspicion is that these problems are best addressed through economic development and re-urbanism, but they certainly warrant attention on their own. I'm looking forward to discussion many more ideas at the next Sticky Cities meeting!