GO! A Blog about Growth & Opportunity

Below is an excerpt of a post that originally appeared on Notes from the Underground, a blog by Jason Segedy (@thestile1972), director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS). The full version of the post can be found here


Since 1790, 273 cities have made an appearance on the list of the nation’s 100 largest places.

Cities of all shapes and sizes have made the list at one time or another - ranging from New York, which has held the top spot in every single census from the very beginning; to little Chillicothe, Ohio, which appeared once in 1830, at #87, and never made the list again.

Examining this list decade-by-decade is instructive, for it largely tracks the entire history of the nation’s settlement patterns - from the initial cultural hearths of Yankee New England and Tidewater Virginia; through the river and canal era; the railroad era; the industrial era; the interstate highway and suburban era; to the decline of the Rust Belt, and the triumph (for the time being) of the Sunbelt - and beyond.

The list tells the story of the relative decline of many cities - places like Providence (1790-1980); Dayton (1830-1990); and Des Moines (1880-2000), which were ranked in the top 100 for decades, have shrunk to one degree or another, and eventually fell off the list, but remain significant-sized urban centers today.

It also tells the story of the absolute decline of many cities - places like St. Louis, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland - formerly huge cities that all once ranked in the top 10, which have now lost over half of their population. All five of these cities remain in the top 100, but they are all suffering from the seemingly intractable problems that come with massive abandonment and disinvestment - fiscal instability, poverty, inequality, and a frayed civic and social fabric. Here in 2014, their collective future, especially in their current form, is increasingly uncertain.

And that - looking toward the future - is why this topic is truly important. Examining this information is about far more than a trivial jaunt down memory lane. What does it tell us about the future of our cities?

For one, there is this question: Does any of this even matter?

Is the size of our central cities even important? Aren’t city boundaries arbitrary and meaningless? Isn’t it the surrounding metropolitan region that really counts?

Well, it’s a complicated story. For years, pundits, prognosticators, and policy wonks have been telling us that the age of the central city is over; that it is the region that is important. Economies are based on regional job markets, they say, and improvements in transportation and communications are making local places (even large ones) increasingly irrelevant.

The fact that economies are regional is true - as far as it goes. But like anything viewed through one lens only, it does not tell the whole story.

Are regions important? Of course. But so are places. Like so many other things in the realm of urban public policy, this is not a binary, either/or, choice.

Indeed, at the same time that we are being told by one set of pundits about the irrelevance of our cities, we have another set of pundits telling us that this is, in fact, a new golden age for our cities.

Cities entered a long cyclical downturn following World War II, they tell us, but they are now on the rebound, and are experiencing an unparalleled renaissance. Property values are increasing, Millennials are moving to our downtowns, and previously declining neighborhoods are coming back to life, replete with upscale shops, bistros, and pubs. 

But this doesn’t tell the whole story, either. For every gentrifying formerly shrinking city like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, and for every sprawling boom town like San Jose, Charlotte, or Columbus; there is a St. Louis, a Cleveland, and a Detroit; and there is a Gary, a Flint, and a Youngstown.

What does the future hold for these cities? What about the giant places full of the mind-boggling, post-apocalyptic decay and dysfunction that comes with literally losing one million residents, like Detroit?  

And what about the mid-sized places, like Flint, that may not have the assets or the resources to ever turn the corner. Will they continue to die a slow, agonizing death, and literally disappear? Or will they continue on in a shadow-form, serving as a cautionary tale, and inhabiting some type of uniquely American, urban equivalent of purgatory?  

Or can they be restored - if not, perhaps, to their former glory, to at least something that is stable, equitable, and workable for those that remain?

This post is full of more questions than answers. It is an inherently complicated topic.

Big Questions for the Rust Belt

While it is true that cities have grown and declined (and sometimes grown again) throughout American history, it is also true that we have never before experienced the unprecedented population decline that some of our largest cities have experienced over the past 60 years, especially those in the Rust Belt.

Rust Belt cities have experienced the triple whammy of structural economic decline (the outsourcing of manufacturing); continued regional outmigration (to the Sunbelt); and continued suburbanization (in a region with a strong tradition of local government and a deep antipathy toward consolidation). All three of these things make the shrinkage of its cities unique, from a historic standpoint.

When a large city loses over half of its population, whether that equates to one million people (Detroit); 500,000 people (Cleveland); or 100,000 people (Youngstown), there are very real consequences for the very real residents that remain. Even if these particular cities were experiencing widespread regional prosperity and economic growth (they are not), it would not fundamentally change the social and economic reality for city residents living with the consequences of widespread abandonment in these places.

Regardless of what some advocates of regionalism might say, city boundaries are not arbitrary and meaningless. Although some may claim that shrinking cities are no big deal as long as the metropolitan region overall is growing, central cities will continue to profoundly matter, especially to the people (often disproportionately poor) that remain.

Municipal boundaries are not irrelevant, whatever the regionalists may tell you. Economies may be regional, but in most of the nation’s fastest declining cities, government is not.  Municipal boundaries affect taxation, land use policy, public safety, education, public infrastructure, and the delivery of social services. 

When a city’s population declines precipitously, the proportional demand for the public services that it provides shrinks less than its population, with the end result that its residents end up paying more in taxes, for less in services. Even if this were not the case, it is expensive and (politically speaking) exceedingly difficult to scale-back and shrink long-term capital investments in public infrastructure – as “shrinking cities” like Detroit and Youngstown have discovered.  

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself. As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population: the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale. To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

But it is not just city residents that are affected by decline. The health of the entire region suffers as a result. The shrinking tax and resource base of City “A”, is not simply counteracted by economic growth in nearby cities “B” and “C”. In a region anchored by a declining central city surrounded by dozens of separate municipalities, the redundant duplication and proliferation of local government services (education, public safety, public utilities, transportation infrastructure, social services) ends up costing all taxpayers more. 

The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with an overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and continued outward expansion. In a region like this, there is not only more costly “stuff” (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more “stuff” with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.

And while the conventional wisdom may be that regional, not local, economies are what matter, it is important to understand that regions comprised of dozens of separate local jurisdictions do not typically behave very effectively as “regions”. It is not impossible for them to do so, but it is exceedingly difficult. 

So why don’t we just go ahead and combine everything? Problem solved, right?

Not so fast. 

It has always been interesting to me that the Sunbelt is the region of the country that tends to have the fewest number of local governments, the most liberal annexation laws, and is home to most of the cities that have undergone major city/county consolidations (such as Jacksonville, Nashville, Augusta, Lexington, and Louisville). 

This wasn’t always the case. Philadelphia consolidated with its neighboring suburbs (some of the largest cities in the country at the time) in 1854, and New York City did the same thing (merging with Brooklyn – then the nation’s 4th largest city, and the other three boroughs) in 1898.

From a public policy standpoint, most of the South and the West is typically regarded as “conservative”; while much of the Northeast and Midwest is viewed as “liberal”. In this stereotypical telling of the tale, conservatives are supposed to be laissez-faire in terms of urban planning and public policy and are supposed to reflexively favor the local over the regional.

Yet it is precisely in the “conservative” South and West where the people have been most willing to change the model of government and public service delivery to align with modern social and economic realities. Effective government and accountability is still viewed as extremely important, but voters have recognized the benefits of having less duplication and more efficient delivery of services, as well as the regional cohesion and political power that annexation and consolidation can bring with them.

Urban development patterns and public policy decisions on infrastructure are often different in the Sunbelt as well – especially in the West. New development tends to be denser and more compact than it does in the Rust Belt. Not many people know that “car crazy” Los Angeles is actually the most densely populated urban area in the United States, or that “sprawling” Las Vegas ranks 10th. The Los Angeles “suburb” of Santa Ana is twice as densely populated as the “city”of Cleveland.

Some of this has to do with the fact that scarce water supplies don’t allow for scattershot suburban development, and some of it has to do with an increasingly urban ethos that has evolved, especially in California, over the past 50 years. Cities and urban residents are not viewed with the same degree of mistrust, suspicion, and disdain that they are viewed with in the Rust Belt.

So, the Sunbelt is usually posited as an economic success story, especially in comparison with the Rust Belt.

But the questions remain: Was it due to less duplication of local government? Was it in spite of it? Or did it have nothing to do with it one way or the other?

No one really knows for sure.

There is little doubt in my mind that some of the reason for the growth and economic prosperity of Sunbelt cities, and for the corresponding decline of Rust Belt cities, is the failure of most Rust Belt cities to adjust their local government paradigms to reflect modern economic realities. 

One only need contrast Cleveland with Columbus, or Detroit with Indianapolis to at least get a general sense of the divergent paths that several pairs of Rust Belt cities have taken, and to make some general comparisons between their regional economic outcomes.

But, these comparisons are not “apples to apples”, either, and it is extremely problematic to claim that the key to Columbus’ economic success (in comparison with, say, Cleveland) has solely been due to its aggressive annexation of nearby communities.

But, with Columbus sitting as the 15th largest city in the U.S. today, and continuing to attract new residents, and with Cleveland dropping from 5th to 45th, and continuing to lose population, it is probably fair to say that it had something to do with it.

If Rust Belt cities had annexed or consolidated with surrounding communities earlier, they would be larger and more cohesive today, and it is probably fair to say that they would have more political clout at the state and national level. They also could have been better positioned to shape how their surrounding regions grew – into something denser, more compact, more cohesive, and less duplicative of public services and infrastructure.

Could have, would have, should have. That horse has largely left the barn.

Today, it is a fair question to wonder how effective (never mind politically feasible) it would actually be to retroactively superimpose the Sunbelt model upon Rust Belt cities. Making Buffalo look and function like Charlotte, on paper, would be very different from making it look or function like Charlotte, in reality. 

In most Rust Belt cities today, the fact of the matter is that the incoherent and incohesive development patterns have already occurred, the infrastructure has already been duplicated, and the social and economic mismatches and inequities already exist. 

These problems need to be addressed, but clumsily imposing a model that has appeared to work throughout much of the Sunbelt, without taking the time to understand how it would work here, might not be the answer for our region. It might just be trying to force a very ineffective square peg into a very politically infeasible round hole.

So, what will the future hold for our cities? How can we knit them and their surrounding regions together to create an effective, politically feasible, governing framework that works for all of our residents, rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban? 

I don’t know, but I know that it has to do with starting small, working on fundamentals, building trust, inspiring hope, and building authentic relationships between real people. 

It is the urban policy question of the 21st Century in the Rust Belt, and it is something that urban advocates, political leaders, policy wonks, and everyday citizens will need to grapple with for the rest of my lifetime.