Below is the story (professional and personal) behind urbanSCALE’s creation.
urbanSCALE’s Early Roots
urbanSCALE’s roots go all the way back to the 1980s and 1990s when I was a kid growing up in Lubbock, TX. Was it nature or nurture? I don’t really know, but I’ll bet that the two jumbo-sized laminated wall maps that my parents placed in my bedroom – one of the United States and another of the world – had something to do with it. For as long as I can remember, I have had an infinite attraction to cities. Before age 10, I was ranking the top ten “major” intersections in Lubbock based on my mental map of how busy they were. I spent countless hours analyzing our Rand McNally Road Atlas and comparing the yellow area (built-up land area) of cities in our much older Road Atlas to the newer one, noticing that some cities grew by leaps and bounds over a 10-year period. I regularly dumped the pennies from my giant red crayon (my version of a piggy bank) onto the carpet of my bedroom and placed them next to each other one-by-one, “growing” my city. Annual road trips to visit family in Austin, San Antonio, and Denver, and a visit to New York City at age 12 all further fueled my passion for urban places.
urbanSCALE’s Professional Beginnings
Fast-forward now to May 2011 when I hatched the initial idea for an urbanity index that measures how urban a city is. I was fresh on the job as a project manager with an economic development consulting firm in Austin, after working from 2008-2010 with the NYC Dept. of Transportation. The initial index was very simplistic, containing only five data points (population density, housing unit density, number of skyscrapers per capita, percentage of multi-family housing units vs. single-family housing units, and percentage of population taking transit to work). Small potatoes compared to the 100+ variables that make up the urbanSCALE rating system. In any case, I put the urbanity index idea on the backburner (not to pick it back up until Feb. 2013) as I jumped headfirst into the economic development consulting world in the meantime.
The Aha! Moment
The single most important lesson I learned during my tenure as an economic development consultant working for dozens of communities across the U.S. is this: the key to long-term economic success is to make your community more vibrant and thus, more desirable for people and businesses. In every city I worked in, large and small, I heard directly from the mouths of CEOs and business executives that their biggest challenge was attracting and retaining a quality workforce. I then dug deeper through online surveys and one-on-one interviews with employers, entrepreneurs, and young professionals to find out what exactly was needed to attract and retain skilled workers. The desires people have for their community are shockingly similar across cities and towns of all sizes. Here they are:
- A vibrant downtown and a unique sense of place
- High-quality public facilities (parks, trails, schools, transportation networks)
- Growth (more jobs and new residents)
- A diverse menu of options for: housing, transportation, entertainment, shopping, nightlife, and outdoor recreation
This was my “aha!” moment. Well, it wasn’t exactly a moment, but rather, a growing realization over a 2-year period of working as an economic development consultant. But, it became clear to me that the single most important key to success in economic development is to create a high-quality urban place. Thriving urban places and robust economies are really two sides of the same coin. And while you need both to become a truly vibrant city, the focus should be on creating a desirable community.
In February 2013, I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and made the decision to turn the concept of an urbanity index into reality. My decision was driven by my lifelong passion for cities and my newfound entrepreneur spirit. I settled on urbanSCALE.com (there is also an UrbanScale.org based in New York, which we are not affiliated with in any way) as the name for the new venture, which captures the essence of measuring how urban a city is on a scale of 1 to 10. Over the next several months, I spent all of my free time developing the framework for the urbanSCALE rating system. During this period, my life was split into many realms: advancing the urbanSCALE idea, continuing my work on consulting projects, and serving as a not-quite-full-time stay-at-home dad. All of this left little time for anything else, though I somehow managed to find the time to read 27 books (several of them, I even read twice!) on business, entrepreneurship, and personal growth. (A side note – if you haven’t yet read any audiobooks, I urge you to test it out. More than half of the books I now read are audiobooks, purely because it is such a productive use of time. I find it incredible that you can use your smartphone to learn from some of the greatest minds while you are commuting to/from work, exercising at the gym, or doing household chores. I admit to being a full-fledged audiobook addict.). Each of the 27 books were helpful and a few were truly inspirational. For me, the most inspirational books are: Do The Work! by Stephen Pressfield (author of fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays), Anything You Want by Derek Sivers (founder of CDbaby.com), REWORK by Jason Freid & David Heinemeier Hansson (founders of software firm 37signals), and pretty much any book from author and marketing genius Seth Godin (so far, I’ve read Tribes, Linchpin, Purple Cow, The Dip, Free Prize Inside, and I’m currently reading The Icarus Deception, all of which are very insightful). These are great books for anyone who is starting a business, writing a book, launching a website, designing a product or service, or embarking on any sort of creative pursuit.
Time-Out for Self-Reflection
By early August 2013, I was ready to move beyond the demanding lifestyle I’d been living for the past several months, so I decided on a whim that I needed to step out of my routine for a few days and get some perspective on life. So, I immediately booked a flight to Portland, OR (Another side note – anyone else who has been through an urban planning Master’s program can understand the following. Portland is so frequently held up as the poster child of good urban planning that somewhere around the halfway point during the first semester, everyone’s eyes roll each time Portland is mentioned in classroom discussion. So, part of my reason for choosing Portland was to see if it was all that it is cracked up to be). If you have never taken a solo trip, I HIGHLY recommend it. I’m not talking about a business trip or a family vacation, but rather, a visit to a place where you have never been and where you do not know anyone with the sole purpose of spending time alone with your thoughts. This article from Katka Lapelosa at the Matador Network does a good job of explaining the benefits of traveling alone. My solo trip was a truly enlightening experience for me, both professionally and personally. Armed with a renewed sense of purpose, I returned to Austin and dedicated myself fully to implementing the vision of urbanSCALE.com.
A More VIBRANT Future
While this blog post marks the official “launch” of urbanSCALE.com, I realize that this is only the beginning. As Leo Babauta (founder of zenhabits) wisely states:
Launch is just one moment in the lifespan of a business, and it’s not even one of the most important moments.
This is the first of many posts on The urbanSCALE Blog. The blog will serve as the home for many of urbanSCALE’s opinions and insights on cities and how they work. Above all, The urbanSCALE Blog is meant to spark discussions and encourage shared learning about vibrant cities. I’m excited to continue this journey and hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.