Rochester and the Curse of Cataclysmic Money

Rochester is one of the most important cities in Minnesota. It’s the home of the Mayo Clinic and, with the intellectual resources that institution attracts, the most important cultural hub of the state outside of the Twin Cities. If I put on my nativist hat, it’s what keeps Southern Minnesota from just being Iowa.

I’m teasing on that, of course, but the central point stands: Rochester is an important city. I’ve had an opportunity to speak there and they have an active Strong Towns conversation happening. There are a lot of good things going on in Rochester.

One of the catalysts is the Destination Medical Center, a massive (billions of dollars) public/private collaboration to transform Rochester, particularly the downtown, to better serve Mayo’s patients and employees while also improving the quality of life for the city’s residents. At its core, it’s not a Strong Towns approach—it is a series of large-scale, transformational investments, what we would call “big bets”—but it’s happening.

The last time I spoke in Rochester, I said that the central challenge they face is finding a way to learn from their mistakes as they go, to work iteratively with a mind towards adaptation, so that they transform Rochester for real and not just add a veneer of prosperity for a generation. Jane Jacobs called the challenge Rochester faces “cataclysmic money” for its tendency to transform large swaths of our cities, without the attention to fine-grained detail necessary to make a place work.

We have called this the difference between an “orderly but dumb” approach and one that is “chaotic but smart.” As a Minnesotan vested in the success of Rochester, I’ve kept an eye out to see whether I could detect some chaos amid the grand visions and bold action, some sense that the process in place would not just be one of institutional order with its predictable results. Thus far, I’m disappointed.


It might have been last year—I’m not sure—that I became aware of the human fence they erected to keep people from crossing the street. If there ever was an object that screamed “orderly but dumb,” there it is.

On both sides of the street you have people with money in their pockets wanting to spend it and businesses that want to (need to) receive it. The only thing slowing down this advantageous set of transactions is the wide gulf of concrete that separates the two sides and the unnecessarily high speed of the auto traffic conveyed along it.

Their analysis of this situation is, perplexingly, that the people trying to cross are somehow the problem. Thus, the human fence. People. Must. Cross. In. Orderly. Fashion. Only. At. Designated. Crossings.

And check out the materials they used here: high-end, top-of-the-line stuff. They are not messing around with their human fence. Did I mention cataclysmic money?

Now this week in Rochester you have the quintessential orderly but dumb approach to keeping people safe when they are trying to walk around the city: the pedestrian shaming….err….the pedestrian safety campaign. Rochester’s version is called “Heads Up!” as in, get your eyes off your smartphone. Here’s how they describe it:

Pedestrians and motorists are equally responsible for pedestrian safety. The goal of Heads Up! Pedestrian Safety Week is to increase safety for pedestrians in Downtown Rochester by providing information and increasing knowledge about current traffic safety laws.

Pedestrians (also known as “humans” or even “people”) and motorists are equally responsible for pedestrian safety? No, they are not.


Humans on a street are traversing the earth by a means, and at a speed, that our bodies are evolved to handle. We don’t get reports of human-on-human sidewalk collisions putting people in the hospital. Or the grave. That’s because we’re designed for this: just ask the doctors at Mayo.

What is not natural—if we want to be honest about who’s the interloper or the responsible party—is the individual encased in steel, protected by anti-crash devices, who is traveling at speeds that are lethal to humans, mere feet away from where we’ve designed for said humans to be.

To suggest there is equal responsibility here is to be ignorant of the incredible asymmetry. It’s almost as if they are only talking to a small group of professional insiders, drawing on comfortable examples from other institutional campaigns for how to proceed in their happy place.

Did I mention cataclysmic money?

Safety tips for pedestrians (“pedestrians” being the institutional pet name for our friends and neighbors when they are separated from a vehicle) include:

  • Remove headphones and stay off cell phones when crossing the street.

  • Wear a reflector.

  • Mount a safety flag on a wheelchair or stroller.

Safety tips for motorists include:

  • Turn off your radio to avoid ALL distraction that will take you away from focusing on driving.

  • Be extremely cautious when driving on city streets. Honk your horn and flash your lights repeatedly so everyone knows you are there.

  • Always remember, if you hit someone who is out walking, you are likely to kill them. There are no second chances, so drive with a paranoid level of caution.

Actually, those were not the real safety tips for motorists. In Rochester, during pedestrian safety week, motorists get to sing along to loud music while they drive, talk on a hands-free cell phone, and drive at speeds that will kill anyone they strike. All that is not only legal and acceptable, but not even discouraged, despite pedestrians and motorists allegedly being “equally responsible” for pedestrian safety.

Motorists are asked to stop for pedestrians (“pedestrian” being their cute nickname for Mayo’s patients when they are out walking the streets, among others), watch for pedestrians, and even to “never pass or drive around a vehicle that is stopped for pedestrians.” So, essentially, try not to kill anyone.

These campaigns are the kind of thing that large, out-of-touch bureaucracies do when they want to appear like they are doing something without actually changing anything about what they are doing. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you are not getting real feedback. Like when you have cataclysmic money that separates you from reality.