The half-smart city

Could this town get any stupider? Well, yes, in fact it could, according to The Daily Beast’s annual ranking of the America’s smartest (and dumbest) cities.

The survey sizes up the 55 largest metro areas in the country, measuring the percentage of citizens with four-year degrees (20 percent in the Sacramento region), advanced degrees (10 percent) and year-to-date adult nonfiction-book sales (2.27 million in a metro area of 2.1 million people).

Add it up and Sacramento ranks 26th out of 55—right in the mediocre middle.

The River City isn’t halfway between San Francisco and Tahoe, as the old joke goes. Rather, we’re at the intellectual middle point between Boston and Fresno.

At the top of the rankings are the precocious Boston, Austin and San Francisco—that whole clique. Near the bottom, Fresno, San Antonio and Las Vegas are hanging out together in the parking lot, blasting Insane Clown Posse.

Living in a half-smart city can be decent enough. For example, we’ve got Kevin Johnson, a mayor who really knows how to market green tech and sustainability. So that’s smart. But he also goes around calling Sacramento the “Emerald Valley,” which is really dumb.

Likewise, Bites is a bit ambivalent about some recent recognition the mayor recently got from the Urban Land Institute.

The ULI is one of the leading proponents of “smart growth” and sustainable development in the nation. Last week, the group offered Mayor Johnson a “fellowship,” recognizing his leadership on land-use issues and the complicated development challenges he faces as mayor.

The fellowship—also awarded this year to the mayors of Charlotte, N.C.; Detroit; and Houston—will include junkets to other cities and lots of brainstorming assistance from ULI’s team of architects, planners and other experts.

The recognition itself is probably no more meaningful than a listing of so-called smart cities posted on some website. But there is a lot of brainpower at ULI, and Sacramento could definitely use some tutoring.

As the mayor said in a statement last week, “This will give Sacramento the unique opportunity to bring in the best minds from across the nation to help us tackle one of the most important infill projects in the country.”

Kind of a no-brainer that Johnson’s fellowship team—including Sacramento Area Council of Governments executive director Mike McKeever, Sacramento Assistant City Manager John Dangberg and local land-use attorney and developer John Hodgson—decided to use the opportunity presented by ULI to reassess the development plans for the 240-acre downtown rail yards.

Hodgson told Bites there will be public input and a report. Charrettes, anyone? And it’s a good time to rethink. The rail yards property is in flux, with a new owner, Inland American Real Estate Trust, and a new economic reality.

“For example, is 1.8 million square feet of retail realistic?” Hodgson asks. Bites doesn’t know—but hopes that the ULI’s involvement will somehow lead to more ambitious, creative and transformative ideas for the rail yards project, not less.

High-rise housing, parks and public space, a car-less urban grid all come to mind. But Bites worries the ULI study will wind up being just another opportunity to promote the same-old downtown basketball-arena idea.

Is there anything more cliché and middle-of-the-road than a midsized city shaping its grandest redevelopment plans around a pro sports team?

Bites isn’t saying it’s the absolute stupidest idea for “one of the most important infill projects in the country.” But it is pretty half-assed. Then again, what do you expect from a half-smart city?