Do all mayors feel this way: “We’re the envy of what most cities want to be”

The outgoing mayor of Naperville considered his legacy and summed up his community compared to others:

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on

Q: What will be your legacy as mayor of Naperville?

A: It has to be the financial impact on the city. Eight years seems like a long time, but it’s not when you’re trying to turn a ship like that. To turn over the city with tons of cash, not to mention federal money we didn’t touch, they’re going to be able to do a lot. And that’s my gift, to make sure the city was on the right trajectory. We’re the envy of what most cities want to be.

One of the jobs of a mayor is to champion their community. They are often the chief booster. In many American communities, professional staff – a city manager and others – address day-to-day concerns while mayors work with a council and act as cheerleader. The outgoing mayor earlier in the interview described the suburb’s success in planning, development, and revenues. Yet, always highlighting the best of the community is key and Naperville has a precedent: former mayor George Pradel did this for decades. I assume mayors will say their community is great.

Yet, it can be interesting when mayors make statements that involve other communities, implied or otherwise. It is one thing to say your community is great; it is another to say that it compares well to other communities. Some communities can be leaders or models for others. In the United States, this might involve growth or a high quality of life or economic opportunities or tackling particular issues.

Do most cities want to be Naperville or like Naperville? This might be hard to answer, particularly if leaders elsewhere will tend to focus on the good things in their own communities.

The Chicago Fire: a disaster to be celebrated?

The 150th anniversary of the Chicago Fire is approaching and Rick Kogan highlights how the city came to celebrate the aftermath:

Photo by Martin Alargent on

The city, of course, rose from this disaster. But there is a thin line between celebrating and memorializing. One hundred and fifty years is a very long time, time enough, I suppose, for the fire to be viewed dispassionately, without alarm or pain or tears. But we are almost daily reminded that fires are ferocious and deadly, a realization that comes sweeping at us on television as Western portions of our country burn and burn and burn.

Yes, 150 years is a long time and we have grown so comfortable with — even proud of — our Great Fire legends that we don’t want them revised, even if such revision proves more historically accurate. The fire is among our most cherished, because it comes wrapped with enough historical substance to have withstood time’s test.

Perhaps turning attention to rebuilding was necessary to help stop agonizing over the tragedy. Perhaps this is an instance where American boosterism, promoting the growth and status of one’s community, ran and continues to run amok. Perhaps this is just the dominant narrative that we know now; of course the third largest city in the United States and an important global city came back from a fire.

The Chicago Fire was horrific:

The fire ran and it grew, swept by a strong wind from the southwest, eating its ravenous way north and toward downtown and beyond. People ran to the lake for shelter as the city became a vast ocean of flame. After that horrible night and the equally terrifying and destructive day and night that followed, the fire finally burned itself out. The city awoke Tuesday to find more than 18,000 buildings destroyed, much of the city leveled, 90,000 people homeless and 300-some people dead.

I am having a hard time thinking of a more recent urban tragedy that has followed a similar trajectory where despair turned to celebration of rebuilding and activity. Time might help but urban disasters or crises can strike quite a blow and the effects can linger a long time.

Suburbs consider mottos, branding efforts

In an effort to stand out, a number of Fox Valley area suburbs are considering mottos and branding campaigns:

Oswego is looking for a motto, as well as a logo and marketing strategy, to better identify its image and solidify its place in the region.

Michele Brown, community relations manager, said Oswego wants to be a regional destination for economic development and tourism…

Carpentersville’s slogan is “Building a Better Tomorrow…Today.”

Village officials, including staff and board and commission members, are working on a rebranding campaign with the goal of changing Carpentersville’s public perception…

North Aurora last year went through a rebranding process that came up with a new logo and the motto “Crossroads on the Fox.” This came after months of debate over nine design options with dozens of variations.

Usually, these are pitched as efforts to attract businesses and residents. Think of those Bedford Park or Elk Grove Village ads that run in the Chicago area – having a catchy motto or campaign sounds better in an advertisement. Whether such campaigns work or simply help the community feel better about its efforts is another story. At the least, branding is an effort at local boosterism as businesses and residents can choose among hundreds of Chicago area communities.

But, not every suburb wants such branding:

Some towns, though, have made a conscious decision to not wear the label of a slogan or motto, like Wheaton, Naperville and Carol Stream.

Presumably, these are communities that are more comfortable with who they are and/or don’t feel like they have a negative public image.

Of course, mottos can signal things other than being open to growth like New Lenox which was selling itself in ads as “home to proud Americans.”

Did the F5 Plainfield tornado contribute to suburban growth?

Some Plainfield residents feel like the destructive 1990 tornado contributed to the suburb’s later growth:

In the years after the tornado, Plainfield grew from a town of just over 4,000 to more than 41,000 residents today. Some say the tornado and subsequent attention helped put the tiny village “on the map.”

“I think a lot of people saw the community spirit and what a wonderful place this was, and I think that really prompted some of the growth,” said Kathy O’Connell, a lifelong resident who served on the village board.

She and others shared stories of how Plainfield residents pulled together to help one another. In the case of the Kinley family, one resident came forward to take in Don, his wife, Sharon, their son and his family while they rebuilt their homes.

This hints at a feature of suburban communities that many residents and leaders will discuss: their suburb has a lot of community spirit. I am skeptical of such claims for two main reasons:

  1. The people making the argument are often closely connected to civic organizations (local government, charities, business groups, etc.) where there are active community members. This is what they regularly see but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the broader population.
  2. A lot of community spirit compared to what? Would other suburban communities not respond and help if a major tornado hit their community? There is little baseline for levels of community spirit outside of personal experiences and anecdotes.

The case of Plainfield may be different: the response of people to a major natural disaster is likely more forceful than responding to daily suburban life.

Yet, I would argue the tornado just happened to occur right before Plainfield would have grown anyway. The growth was impressive: 186% growth between 1990 and 2000 (4,557 to 13,038 residents) and 204% growth between 2000 and 2010 (13,038 to 39,581 residents). But, Plainfield was not alone. This southwest sector of the Chicago region saw tremendous growth across communities. Naperville was a “boomburb” between 1980 and 2000. Aurora recently became the second-largest city in Illinois. Joliet, losing population through the 1980s, had nearly 40% growth in each of the next two decades. A bit further east, I-355 was extended south from I-55 to I-80. In other words, the open land and easy access to Chicago and other nearby locations (major train lines, major highways) prompted the growth.

What is a suburb selling if it is “home to proud Americans”? Whiteness

New Lenox, Illinois is running radio ads extolling its virtues. They include: a growing population, new retail facilities, and opportunities for business. The final selling point? It is “home to proud Americans.” What exactly does this piece of boosterism mean?

If I was guessing, I would say that this is a largely white, working-class to middle-class community. Using this hint to patriotism hints at hard working, long established families. Perhaps the residents of New Lenox are similar to the counties largely in the South where the largest number of residents claim American ancestry. This doesn’t mean people of other backgrounds can’t be “proud Americans” but they may not phrase it that way or lead with it as a key selling point.

Here are the Census QuickFacts for New Lenox: 96.2% white, 5.7% Latino, 3.5% foreign born, 35.5% have a bachelor’s degree, 2.9% poverty rate, and a median household income of $93,609. New Lenox is largely white and wealthy (though not necessarily educated – the bachelor’s degree rate is only a few percentage points higher than the national average).

This is an example of patriotism as racially coded language. The ad may suggest that New Lenox welcomes “proud Americans” but this is not just about love of country; it is about a particular kind of resident.

How 46 ISO standards for world cities could be used

The International Organization for Standardization has approved a list of 46 key indicators by which to compare cities around the world:

But now, the first-ever set of ISO standards for world cities has been created. And the implications are dramatic. City policymakers will have objective standards to compare their services and performance with other cities around the world. And just as significant, the people of cities — civic, business organizations, ordinary citizens — will be able to access the same new global standards. This means they can ask city leaders tough questions, stoking debate about their own city’s performance on the basis of verified measures ranging from education to public safety to water and sanitation…

But many cities, up to now, haven’t recorded data on all those indicators. Or if they did, they were inconsistent in their precise definitions, making it difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons of cities across continents and diverse societies. Many organizations, in independent media and special interest groups, issue rankings of cities. But in 2008, when the Global Cities Indicators Facility at the University of Toronto compared rankings that had been applied to seven prominent world cities, it turned out that only six of the 1,200 indicators being applied were exactly the same.

Now, cities everywhere will have an internationally agreed upon set of standards indicating data that should be collected, and the definitions and criteria to use in collecting it. They won’t be legally required to do so, but they’re likely to be under pressure from citizen, business, academic and other groups insisting they use the ISO standards so that their performance can be benchmarked clearly against peer cities, both in-country and — in today’s increasingly globalized economy — across the globe…

A technical committee was formed. With McCarney’s institute acting as a de facto secretariat, meetings were held in urban centers from Japan to France and Britain to Canada. Comments were received from cities worldwide — “fantastic for us, really strengthening the set of indicators we started with back in 2008,” notes McCarney. The analysis winnowed down and rejuggled the list to 100 candidate indicators. Finally, 46 (see them all here) were selected as well-tested core measures that cities must report to prove they’re in conformance with the new ISO 37210 standard.

It will be interesting to see how the data is used. Here are some options:

1. The article suggests having clear points of comparison will push cities to compete. Yet, not all the cities are directly comparable. The article addresses this by suggesting there could be different tiers of comparisons – the top global cities and developing world cities shouldn’t be compared head-to-head.

2. Is this going to be another set of information that is primarily for boosters? Imagine a city in Western Europe could say that it is one of the best of the world in low levels of particulates in the air and then trumpets this in a marketing campaign. Similarly, the media might eat up this information.

3. National or international bodies could use this information to enforce certain guidelines. If there is reliable information on air pollution, outside bodies could then claim other objective standards need to be met.

4. Maybe this is primarily for academics. Consistent data across cities and countries can often be difficult to come by so having set standards and data collection could help. This could be particularly useful for tracking change in developing world cities.

Settling on how to measure data is a start but it is part of a longer process that then includes figuring out how to interpret and use such data.

When a financially troubled suburb buys fake Twitter followers

Fake Twitter followers are not just for celebrities and politicians: a company may have purchased fake Twitter followers for the Chicago suburb of Harvey as part of a social media campaign.

As of last month, the Twitter feed had just 25 followers seeking updates to its posts. After the Tribune asked Harvey about Lola Grand, that number jumped to nearly 1,200. Social media experts said the new followers had telltale signs of being fake accounts bought from online brokers, who sell bulk sets of “followers” to wannabe celebrities, politicians or entrepreneurs trying to appear popular.

For example, one of Harvey’s new Twitter followers was Lieni Alves, who hasn’t posted a Tweet in 19 months, and then it was in Portuguese. The account follows more than 1,700 people besides Harvey, including porn actresses, a Christian music company, Brazil’s president and a host of people who tweet in Arabic and Turkish.

StatusPeople, a London-based firm, created an oft-cited algorithm to count suspect accounts. That algorithm last week estimated that 88 percent of Harvey’s Twitter followers were fakes, a figure called “very unusual” by StatusPeople’s founder, Rob Waller…

Lola Grand declined to say how it boosted Twitter followers. It said it designed a website but is waiting for Harvey to review it before launching that and the blogs. It said its other social media efforts have directed “hundreds” of residents’ requests to Harvey officials. The firm and the mayor’s office touted additional behind-the-scenes work, such as “brand development” and “24/7 monitoring of social media channels.”

This looks bad for a community that is already struggling for cash. But, if everyone is doing it…

It also highlights a new form of civic boosterism. There is a long history of American communities talking up their advantages and trying to sell themselves to potential investors, businesses, and residents. Think the novel Babbitt. In the past, it may have been more about gregarious men working their good old boy networks but today this can include politicians sniping at other states (see these examples of Indiana, Wisconsin, and Texas seeking Illinois jobs), television and radio ads (lots of radio ads in the Chicago area for the city of Bedford Park for all of their available water and industrial space), and online spaces. This can include running Google ads, YouTube videos, and using Facebook and Twitter.

Why the UN is in New York CIty, not suburban Connecticut, San Francisco, Philadelphia, or the Black Hills

I recently read Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations by Charlene Mires. The story of how the United Nations ended up on the East River in New York City in the late 1940s is a pretty interesting tale and I will summarize who was in the running.

1. The Black Hills. From the beginning of the UN process involving multiple conferences and committees, the Black Hills tried to attract the United Nations. This was primarily through the efforts of one persistent booster. The argument was that the location represented a new frontier near the geographic center of the United States with plenty of room for a headquarters.

2. San Francisco. The city successfully hosted the 1945 UN San Francisco Conference and represented a world shift toward the Pacific. In the end, the city was eliminated from the running rather early on because delegates from Europe refused to travel that far.

3. Suburban Connecticut. After focusing on the American East Coast, suburban New York, particularly in Westchester County or near Greenwich, Connecticut was the primary option. UN members did not want to be located in New York City, partly because of a lack of connection with nature and partly because of an interest in building a whole new United Nations city. At one point, the UN had plans developed for several plots of land that would involve tens of square miles for this new city. However, NIMBY concerns from suburban residents put these plans to rest: suburbanites were worried the international organization would disturb their idyllic communities.

4. With the New York suburbs essentially taking themselves out of the running, Philadelphia emerged as a viable option. The city made their pitch as the birthplace of modern liberty. The UN was concerned about corruption in the city. As they wondered if Philadelphia would be possible…

5. New York emerged as the winner after the Rockefeller family put together a deal for land to be offered to the UN on the East River (the current site). While New York wouldn’t allow a large city within a city development, there was enough land for a large building and delegates could take advantage of Manhattan’s amenities. As the UN was deciding on its permanent home, they had been temporarily located on Long Island but the facilities were located near eyesores and the commute was too much for many participants.

To me, the most interesting part of the story was the competition and fervor of boosters from around the United States. Dozens of communities lobbied the United Nations – though some had many more resources than others and only few had realistic chances from the beginning. They envisioned the United Nations providing status as well as economic opportunities.

If New York City suburbanites hadn’t lobbied against the headquarters, we might today know a UN city located 20-50 miles outside of Manhattan. But, of course, it seems natural today that the UN is located in the #1 global city.

Argument: many Chicago suburbs have boring mottos

The Daily Herald suggests a number of Chicago suburbs have dull mottos that don’t say much about the communities:

Town mottos are like nicknames in that the best ones, such as “City of Big Shoulders” for Chicago, are bestowed by others and not self-proclaimed, such as “Urbus en Horto” (“City in a Garden”) for Chicago. At least there is a story behind Des Plaines’ destiny. Most suburbs adopt bland, easily forgotten mottos that tout development or vague hopes for the future, such as Schaumburg’s “Progress Through Thoughtful Planning,” Bloomingdale’s “Growth With Pride,” or Bolingbrook’s “A Place to Grow.”

Wauconda’s “Water. Spirit. Wonder.” is unique but might sound a little cold compared to neighboring Island Lake, which is “A Community of Friendly People” who settled there instead of in Huntley, “The Friendly Village with Country Charm.”

Hanover Park opts for “One Village — One Future.” It doesn’t say much, but no one can argue with the math. No one should quibble about Elgin’s “The City in the Suburbs.” But Naperville’s “Great Service — All the Time,” also a favorite motto of pizzerias, might fuel discussions. One Wikipedia entry falsely touts Libertyville’s motto as the impressive “Fortitudine Vincimus,” Latin for “By Endurance We Conquer,” which basically means “We Will Win By Hanging Around Until Everybody Else Quits.” But Libertyville never used that motto and currently sports only the phrase “Spirit of Independence” on its red-white-and-blue logo…

Lombard, “The Lilac Village,” still boasts a motto that brings to mind something pretty and fragrant. Roselle hosts a rose parade and includes roses in its village seal, but it uses the motto “Tradition Meets Tomorrow,” which is pretty similar to the “Where Tradition and Vision Meet” motto of Batavia. (Given Batavia’s link to the high-energy physics of Fermilab, it might consider the motto “Village of Density.”)

These mottos sound like classic talk from city boosters: they tend to contain grand visions about the future without getting into too many specifics or highlight a small part of the community’s character. I think they are primarily about trying to impress businesses, trying to attract them to relocate in a place that is thriving and will continue to thrive.

Unfortunately, when all the mottos sound similar, they all don’t mean a whole lot. How does a business really differentiate between communities based on their mottos? The biggest issue for a suburb might be having a motto that is significantly different. This might lead people to ask why that community is so out of line.

Critics of suburbs might see these mottos as more evidence of the homogeneity or blandness of suburbs. Many communities seem to be striving after the same things. Yet, we know that suburbs are actually quite different, whether that is due to different functions (like comparing a bedroom suburb and an edge city) or different histories (date of founding, specific historical circumstances) or a unique set of self-perception (like suburbs that view themselves as extra friendly or full of volunteers). So perhaps more suburbs should work to differentiate themselves in their mottos, move away from bland American notions of progress, and more explicitly highlight their more unique features.

Houston a relatively unknown city despite being the 4th biggest in the US

An interesting profile of Houston as the “next great American city” includes this bit about how the city is viewed:

If nothing else, the Kinder Institute’s reports underscore how little the country really knows about Houston. Is it, as most New Yorkers and Californians assume, a cultural wasteland? “The only time this city hits the news is when we get a hurricane!” complains James Harithas, director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. “People have no idea.” Its image in the outside world is stuck in the 1970s, of a Darwinian frontier city where business interests rule, taxation and regulation are minimal, public services are thin and the automobile is worshiped. “This was boomtown America,” says Klineberg of the giddy oil years. “While the rest of the country was in recession, we were seen as wealthy, arrogant rednecks, with bumper stickers that read, ‘Drive 70 and freeze a Yankee.’” Today, he adds, “Houston has become integrated into the U.S. and global economies, but we still like to think we’re an independent country. We contribute to the image!”

Several thoughts about Houston’s profile:

1. Part of the issue may be that Houston is trying to join the group of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles that has been set for decades. Houston is the newcomer and perhaps besides oil, doesn’t yet have the broad appeal these other three have. Plus, these top three are world-class cities, top ten global cities, and that comparison can be harsh.

2. It sounds like Houston could benefit from a strengthened booster campaign. Cities often have to sell themselves and their assets. This requires business, civic, and political leaders (the growth machine) to band together behind some common appeals. What might draw people to Houston? What would attract businesses and tourists?

3. I wonder if there is some conflict between being part of Texas and being from Houston. From the outside, perhaps particularly from the coasts, it is easier to lump all of Texas together, even though it has a variety of communities (some big differences between Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio). Additionally, Texans tend to like to play up the uniqueness of their state. Compare this to cities like Chicago where there is a very sharp divide between the metropolitan region and “downstate.” Perhaps Houston needs more of a city-state mentality to separate it from Texas.