Troubling Truths About Vision Louisville

What follows here is a critique of the city’s VisionLouisville project, including some pointed criticism of the outside help Mayor Greg Fischer has hired to develop this “vision.” My good friend, U of L Professor John Gilderbloom, has done plenty of research on urban neighborhoods. A shorter version of this piece recently appeared as an Op-Ed in the Courier-Journal. Anyone who knows John knows he’s never been brief. This is the complete version, unedited by me.

 By John I. Gilderbloom,  Wesley  L. Meares and Charles Porter Stevens University of Louisville


The earth is literally choking on gas fumes; now causing all kinds of climatic chaos:  wildfires, droughts, record heat waves, wild fires in the West have destroyed 750,000 houses; flooding that shuts down cities like New York and New Orleans for weeks.  We won’t survive as a civilization if cities follow Louisville’s path and projection that cars will double in Louisville in the next 25 years.

Nor will planning survive as an art and science if we allow million dollar “vision”  that  is more ideological than science.   For planners this cannot pass without comment.  Indeed it’s a million dollar study that will never be published but available only as a PowerPoint that is shown in 100 town meetings and on television.  Is this the future of planning?

We need a revolution in our thinking of how cities can survive in the 21st century.   This Vision is not only an embarrassment but cynical and arrogant to give citizens just a stupefying PowerPoint and not a carefully argued written report  that elaborates on the methods and statistics used.   This is not a dream but more like a nightmare in terms of planning.

The future of Louisville is at a crossroads.   The future could be bright like other cities that are growing green and by making cities amazing places to live, work, and play.  Or spiral downhill becoming a wasteland of crime, abandonment, joblessness, and hopelessness.  Newspapers from coast to coast are filled with stories of cities going bankrupt, default, shrinking and dying because of bad decision making.  Detroit is often the most notable example but there are many others on the radar as well.   You can’t just assume that growth is inevitable.

Space Group’s much hyped and uncriticized $1 million dollar Vision Louisville (funded by taxpayers and multi-millionaire pal of President Obama) is perhaps the worst  plan for any medium or large city in the 21st Century.  Phase one consultants mix  fact and fiction, reinforce racial stereo types, completely ignore  cutting edge scholarship on Louisville’s neighborhood dynamics,  cherry pick facts to fit an ideological agenda that sprawl is best, and make  unproven assumptions on growth.  They pit black against white; suburb versus downtown; green against waste; rich versus poor.

Louisville is stuck in a Nixon era vision of designing cities that chops up the downtown historic neighborhoods, demolishes renewable housing for the poor, paints black neighborhoods as giant ghettos, encourages more driving, increases suburban sprawl, widens roadways at the expense of walkers, bikers and trees; ignores creative class theory of young people wanting greater personal liberties, and fails to expand public transportation.

It turns out that the “planners” might not even be planners with a record of scholarship in the U.S. cities. Despite Mayor Fischer’s recent claims that they are worldly experts who can make reliable make economic and population  projections about how cities grow.   But  it appears to be more political than scholarly;  they  certainly are not social scientists with PhD’s in economics, sociology, history or planning.  Turns out they are architects, marketing, image consultants, and branding folks. Partners include: the University of Kentucky School of Design; Bullhorn, a marketing firm from Lexington; 2×4, a design firm from New York;  a consultant from San Francisco; and the main planner the Space group, an architecture and research from far away Oslo, Norway.   If you look at where they are parachuting in its from places that are:  100, 737,  2,310, and 4,184 miles.

Has anyone suggested that jet lag might be a problem for these consultants in making projections?   Should Louisvillians really trust these folks to do a vision plan for Louisville for a million bucks?  Why not U of L’s School of Planning ranked in the top 25 ahead of Harvard and Michigan?    In fact, UofL is the only graduate program in the state that has a certified planning program.   They do planning studies as a profession.   As the saying goes, the best-planned cities are the ones done by those who live here.

Vision Louisville needs a new microscope that is inclusive and recognizes the strengths and weaknesses instead of sweeping it under the dirty rug.   It needs scholar / residents who are  sensitive to the nuances of Louisville, data availability, and scholarship on Louisville.  We got a lot of great local talent that knows how to make a Vision for Louisville for this million-dollar endeavor?

Vision Louisville claims the  amount of cars will double in 25 years doesn’t it stand to reason that we need to double car lanes and put in more multi lane one-way streets to speed up traffic?  Vision Louisville is not only blurred, but is nearly blind in some spots.

Cities that are growing are reducing car usage and increasing alternative transportation modes.  In fact car usage in Louisville is also steadily dropping as people adjust to high gas prices by moving closer to work or school and a desire to reduce their carbon footprint.

If you start a fact checking the claims of Phase One of Vision Louisville it becomes even more disturbing. It is not a scholarly effort based on genuine facts and statistics.  It reads like a promotional document for the Chamber of Commerce over inflating the city’s assets—we have noted these colossal inaccurate portrayals in the past.

Urban scholars identify not just the assets of a city but the problems as well.  You can’t have a vision unless you understand the problem.  Martin Luther King understood that the roots of a problem must be understood before the dream the dream could be realized.  Today’s planners  incorporate global warming,, creative class, green cities, why cities grow or die, fairness,  and equity but these are not concerns for Vision Louisville. Yet,  Louisville is moving forward with a vision that will be a disaster for the cities future.

On Metro TV the hired head consultant from Oslo, whose team was paid an incredible quarter of a  million dollars,  made the incredible and shocking claim that Louisville was the center of the 5th  largest regional economy in the world behind the US, China, Japan, and Germany! But most reliable sources pin Louisville as 47 in the U.S.A. and Louisville is not even ranked in  any top 100  lists for world regional economies.

How did they come to make this astounding claim?  They gerrymandered Louisville as the center of Midwest economy to include such satellite cities such as Chicago; Charlotte, West Virginia; Indianapolis, Indiana; St. Louis, Missouri,;  Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Lexington, Kentucky; and Nashville, Tennessee.  By the way, that was not a typo in the last sentence:  the Vision Louisville consultants have moved Charlotte, North Carolina to West Virginia—nobody has objected to this cool vision for improving the quality of West Virginia.  The branding folks want Louisville to become the new Rome and the new Caesar is the Mayor.    When do we march to Chicago to dismantle the L train and insist that citizens drive more?

How they came up with that declaration is more shrouded in mystery than the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa.   What’s next?  Louisville ranks fifth in the world as a ski destination by including Colorado, West Virginia, Indiana and Ohio?  (The same crazed logic works here as well; or you could make the claim about neon brothels  or murders or HIV).

The Phase one slideshow also states that the city will add about 115,000 new residents over the next 25 years, which works out to a steady 10% growth rate. It makes the critical error of ASSUMING that Louisville will continue to grow over the next 2.5 decades, without professing any understanding of what makes 21st Century Cities grow.

Inflated claims such as these are not only false, but also dangerous because they leave Louisville open to ridicule whether it’s at the local Idea Festival or the New York Times.  The structure and organization of Vision Louisville’s with its bevy of outside consultants comes off as arrogant and cynical.  Where is the document?  Where are the footnotes, references, methods?  Is this all we get for a million dollars at nearly $10,000 a slide?

Scholars show that the economically dynamic cities are places like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Portland. What do all of these cities have in common? They are going green, investing in their downtowns, installing bicycle infrastructure, and building modern mass transit systems. Basically, they are doing all of the sexy green things that are attractive to the millennial generation. The young educated work force is flocking to live an urban lifestyle that is environmentally friendly.   Portland, for example, has the largest number of educated people in the nation.

Inflated claims such as these are not only false, but also dangerous because they leave Louisville open to ridicule whether it’s at the local Idea Festival or the New York Times.  The structure and organization of Vision Louisville’s with its bevy of outside consultants comes off as arrogant and cynical.  Where is the document?  Where are the footnotes, references, methods?  Is this all we get for a million dollars at nearly $10,000 a slide?

Vision Louisville’s take on the West Louisville  is especially troubling. The information presented on the slideshow unfairly and falsely portrays the neighborhoods west of 9th Street as one giant slum; in terms of home values, household income, and vacant housing.   Worse is that the slides on West Louisville looks like a giant forest fire of red and orange while nearly all white East Louisville is a sea of green (prosperity and profit equals green).  Reintroducing the  fifty  year old stereotype of black Louisville is hurting the remarkable renewal efforts of West Louisville’s neighborhoods.

Vision Louisville hurts black West Louisville while covering up the real problems in white East Louisville.  Vision folks don’t even call for the removal of the multi-lane one-way streets through residential West Louisville or statues that honor the Confederate army.   Moreover,  nothing is said about cleaning up the high number of toxic waste sites that are sprinkled disproportionately throughout black Louisville.   Indeed, the study glosses over the real problems of Louisville’s outer suburbs: rising poverty levels, foreclosures and low to zero increases in housing valuation (except Norton Commons).   The city knows this, but dismisses it as an inconvenient fact that would disrupt the city’s desire to promote more sprawl to accommodate 60,000  housing units.   Currently, the best investment returns are not in outer suburbs but downtown historic neighborhoods.   The city and the consultants from Lexington to Oslo were aware of this research but chose only facts that were more to their liking, the studies have been sent to City officials multiple times along with head consulting guru. If the city looked at our published research in the top academic journals they would see that a much better way to understand the city is to look at Louisville’s 170 plus neighborhoods where you would find that some of the highest neighborhood price increases over in the past ten years can be found in such black neighborhoods as East Russell, Park Duvall, Liberty Green, and Portland along with other inner ring neighborhoods close to downtown.

Nearly all of the neighborhoods with the lowest housing price increases are in outer suburban areas.  What is the rationale for demonizing West Louisville for the 1,000th time?  Why not put out the latest research that strikes a blow against the racial stereotypes with real data (these observations have also been summarized in at least five of my op-ed pieces in the Courier Journal and on my website: about the revitalization of several dynamic West Louisville black neighborhoods?

Vision Louisville has the potential to do some good things for the city of Louisville, but it could also turn into a case study of the worst “plan” ever made or the greatest waste of money ever spent by a city.    Where is the outrage over misspent million dollars, demonizing black neighborhoods, trumped up myths?

Vision Louisville is a blurred vision. It is no Burnham Plan of Chicago; it is not a genuine exercise in long range civic planning. Vision Louisville is just a very bad vision.   For those who use planning as a way to reduce the frightening specter of global warming it is a nightmare not a vision. Mayor Fischer is now calling for 45,000 ideas. Here is an idea Mr. Mayor:  fire your consultants and go back to square one.  Get some local pros with real experience in planning great cities.  You are being ripped off.  For the total cost of airfares from New York, San Francisco, and Oslo along with the cost of 4 star Hotels, meals and taxis (around $100,000)   a great dynamic Vision for Louisville could be produced by the home team of Ph.D. planners, architects, economists and historian and street smart citizens who love and care about Louisville much more than a tired consultant flying in from Europe, who has no ownership of the outcome.