The Columbus Dispatch is doing a major week-long series called “On the Brink” on the future of cities in Ohio. It is profiling each of the seven largest cities in the state. It started with an overview that featured this commentary:
Today, however, most of Ohio’s seven largest cities are teetering. With the exception of Columbus, they have shed more than one-third of their population and watched as income, home values and other economic indicators dropped below national averages while poverty, job losses, crime and foreclosures skyrocketed.
But experts warn that Ohio is ignoring the urban plight at its own peril. They say that today’s inner-city problems are spreading to the suburbs, as a rotten core eventually makes the whole apple bad. ‘If we don’t take care of our cities’ problems, they’re guaranteed to swallow up regions outside city borders,’ said Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis.”
Ohio’s major cities haven’t thrown in the towel. All are adopting different strategies to build on their strengths, preserve their assets and build a stable future. But they start by accepting a hard truth: The good old days of Ohio’s big cities are gone — forever. ‘You can’t go home again,’ said Hunter Morrison, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University. ‘You can’t go back to what you once were. … You can’t bring them back. You can reframe them, you can rethink them, you can reposition them, but you cannot restore them to what they once were.’
Today I’m going to take a bit of a Devil’s Advocate view of cities. As we think about the severe decay that has destroyed cities like Cleveland and Detroit, it is worth asking ourselves whether in fact most of these places should even try to be saved, at least in the way that city leaders want them to be. I’m not saying I advocate this, but it is worth at least asking the question. So in the spirit of a provocative thought experiment, let’s consider the case against cities.
I was prompted to think of this question with regards to Cleveland when I saw the media coverage about a proposed I-90 interchange in Avon. Avon is a rapidly suburbanizing area just outside Cuyahoga County. A developer building a major complex there needed access to the interstate and offered to pay to build an interchange. Because of the nature of regional transportation planning, this interchange required the permission of the MPO to be built. But the MPO is dominated by Cleveland and Cuyahoga County entities. They threatened to veto the interchange unless Avon agreed to kickback tax revenue to the project for them. This was, IMO, blatant extortion and a demand for tribute. Apparently unable to attract any development on their own, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have apparently decided to try to fund themselves by figuring out how to tap into their neighbors’ development.
Those who support the Cleveland position claim that what’s really happening is that suburban sprawl is sucking the life out of the central city. What’s more, this isn’t driven by the market place, but by huge subsidies. When developers build, governments will be forced to spend millions to provide infrastructure, so this subsidy needs to be taken into account.
As I thought about that, I started thinking about our central cities and came to the conclusion that, for the most part, they are actually in a worse state than greenfield sprawl. They’ve got infrastructure, but it is built to an obsolete standard and it is way overdue for replacement to boot. The question is, would it be cheaper to just abandon the city and build brand new communities in the suburbs, or to try to somehow renew the city itself?
I don’t have an economic analysis in front of me, but gut feel tells me that there’s a case to be made that it would actually be cheaper to build new, and thus the subsidy clearly goes the other direction. Consider some of the ills facing our inner cities:
- Aging, combined sewer systems. Many of these need enormous repair just to keep properly functional. What’s more, pretty much the biggest public works project in every metro area today is something that flies under the radar, namely a billion or multi-billion project to separate sewers or dig “deep tunnels” in order to keep these old sewers from overflowing during heavy rains.
- Aging, leaking water pipes also require extensive repair
- Old industrial sites have enormous pollution problems. Nuvo (an Indianapolis alt-weekly) once did a story on how even soil on residential properties in inner city Indianapolis feature high levels of poisonous lead. It would be virtually impossible to clean this up.
- Tens of thousands of abandoned homes in almost any city of any size.
- An aging housing stock, mostly made up of buildings of no historical significance and little distinctive character. These are build to older standards and feature small bedrooms, non-code electric and plumbing lines, lead paint, etc. Many if not most occupied residences require extensive renovations.
- Crumbling streets, sidewalks, park facilities, etc.
- Horrible schools and other troubled institutions with no near term prospects for improvement.
- Huge unfunded liabilities like the Indianapolis pre-1977 police and fire pensions.
What would be cheaper, fixing the infrastructural, educational, and environmental nightmares of our current cities, or just building new in the burbs? I know where I’d put my money. Today we’ve got the technology and the wealth to build brand new, modern towns that are oriented around modern design standards and modes of living, and which are much, much more environmentally friendly and clean.
There are also enormous potential benefits to the residents of our inner cities, who are today largely poor and minority. This is a terrible environment in which to be raising our next generation. Surrounded by lead paint and soil, horrible housing, terrible schools, and with only other people in poverty nearby, that certainly puts people in a handicapped position in life. I’ve noticed in influx of minorities into suburban Avon, Indiana where I used to live. They obviously came to the rational conclusion that this was a better life for them and their family than Indianapolis. Why not try to extend this model further? Rather than trying to say we need to reinvest in inner cities in the name of justice, why not invest instead to help those inner city people become participants in the American Dream without necessarily spending a lot of money on the built environment. Rather than try to improve the central city schools, instead get the children into better schools, ones where 90% of the students aren’t mired in poverty.
I think of the billions each city I talk about in this blog out there has spent to try to bring back downtown. While that has succeeded at some level, even today almost no downtown development occurs in these places without some level of government subsidy. And it has done little to nothing to bring back neighborhoods outside of downtown.
Perhaps cities might want to keep a historic downtown intact and invested in as a focus for visitors, a governmental center, a gathering place, an urban playground, etc. But beyond that, why not just demolish the surrounding neighborhoods, clean up the worst environmental problems, and turn the old inner city into a gigantic central park for the metro area? The billions spent on downtown surely would have paid to take care of this. Then you don’t even have to try to solve the problems. Help the people, not the buildings or the streets or the sewer lines.
But isn’t a thriving central city necessary to a successful metro region? Tellingly, most of the arguments in favor of this are negative arguments. That is, they stress the negative effects a festering, cancerous mass at the core of the region would have on the suburbs, but don’t necessarily give a positive vision of how a thriving central city would help the suburbs. Take a look at those Dispatch quotes above about a “rotting core” and “swallowing up” regions outside the core for classic examples of this. I actually agree with that. But rather than trying to convince the cancer cells to go back to being normal, why not just cut out the tumor instead? Remove the diseased tissue, and let the healthy places go on living. And again think of the potential enormous improvement in the prospects of inner city residents if they are able to get into safer neighborhoods with better housing and better schools in the suburbs. Also, most central cities are already economically irrelevant in their metro area region. It may still represent the single largest employment base, but nearly all new jobs are being created elsewhere.
Now perhaps this is too radical a prescription. Nevertheless, I don’t get the sense, contrary to what the Dispatch says, that most central cities have come to terms with their place in the world. They instead take a look around at the handful of largest cities in America and the world, like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston, see the thriving hordes of people in robust neighborhoods, shiny transit systems, many visitors, etc. and think that is what they can be someday. But that is just not realistic for the vast majority of places. Cleveland is not going to be Chicago, no matter what it does.
The one place, interestingly that appears to be coming to grips with this is Youngstown. It has embraced the permanent decline in its fortunes. Perhaps not with enthusiasm, but with realism. It is a poster child of the Shrinking Cities movement. It has decided that rather than trying to completely revive its inner city, it is going to try to right-size itself for a permanent population of 80,000. This includes large scale demolition and abandonment, a reorientation of city services, and trying to provide the best quality of life for the people that remain.
The Youngstown approach is not likely to win many converts among the crowd of civic boosters who constantly pine to be a “world class city”. (Never mind that many true world class cities like Geneva, Switzerland are far smaller than your typical decaying American metropolis like Cleveland). However, it might be something that smaller cities like Youngstown will go along with. If Youngstown is able to show success with this, perhaps others will imitate it.
The Youngstown path is clearly not for every place. But it illustrates the type of thinking that needs to go on. The Indianapolis Business Journal had a great cover story [dead link] on property tax reform and the possible impact on Indianapolis. Some fear that this will starve the city of funds. Also, this article shows how Indianapolis is losing the battle to attract citizens, as people rationally conclude they are better off living in a brand new suburban environment that is both better and features lower taxes.
I saw one quote that was most telling: “Michael Hicks, who has analyzed Daniels’ plan, said residents of many U.S. cities are willing to pay a tax premium to live closer to the urban center. They perceive value for the higher cost of living. He said that’s not the case here. ‘The disconnect in Indiana, and I can’t stress this enough, is there is no linkage between the quality of public services and the price we pay by taxes'”. That hits at the difference between a place like New York City and Indianapolis. In NYC, people are willing to pay a premium to live there and to receive the high level of services that they get. In Indianapolis, people aren’t willing to pay a premium for a product that is not sufficiently positively differentiated from the ones the suburbs are selling, and which costs more for fewer services to boot.
If a central city wants to survive and thrive, an alternative to the Youngstown approach is to figure out how to sell a differentiated product that people are willing to pay a premium to buy. However, most cities today appear to be aiming to turn themselves into mini-NYC’s, focusing on re-creating the 19th century urban form in the hopes that this will itself magically revitalize the city through attracting a “creative class” of young singles and gays along with a few empty nesters.
Now trying to appeal to these groups isn’t a bad strategy when you have a horrible school system that few parents would voluntarily send their kids to. The problem here is that:
- This notion of the creative class is overblown. I plan to write a future article on this
- None of the cities in question will ever be able to build real competition to NYC, SF, Chicago, Boston, etc.
- Every other city is doing the same thing, making the approach not very differentiated, at least not between metro areas.
- It will likely not appeal to more than a narrow segment of the population. Even Chicago, which has had probably the largest urban condo building boom of any American city, is losing population. The creative class is flocking, but everyone else is leaving, driven out by rising taxation and soaring real estate prices.
- It is focused on the economic elite, and thus is an incredibly regressive economic policy. Cities that have somewhat successfully followed the model, such as Portland, have become relatively unaffordable.
So where should cities go? I honestly don’t know the answer. Probably this notion of urban development has something to it. As I’ve noted many times, this mode of living will appeal to some such as yours truly, even if that is a minority of people. And because the central city is the only game in town, it can act as a sort of monopoly provider in this regard. But as I just noted, that probably isn’t the only answer.
Any answer requires an honest appraisal of the situation and the willingness to implement unpopular solutions as was the case in Youngstown. It also requires a central city to understand what it is, and just as importantly what it is not. Now shooting for something that you aren’t, aspiring to be something greater, is certainly a sentiment I am much in agreement with. But it takes more than the “build it and they will come” approach I’ve seen from most places.
Ultimately it takes acknowledging that the city, to a great extent, no longer really is the economic or demographic heart of a region. Figuring out the best role the central city can play in a metro area is crucial. It can’t always be the dominant player at everything, as places like Cleveland apparently feel they are entitled to be.
Solving the problem of the American inner city is an incredibly difficult challenge. There are no silver bullet solutions. If there were, it would already have been found by now. But the standard approaches advocated by planners and others – rail transit, etc. – are nothing more than the silver bullet du jour. Previous silver bullets such as “urban renewal” proved to be disastrous, so one would think that previous experiences with this sort of thing would inspire a bit of humility in current generations of planners. Alas not. There is way too much conventional wisdom out there, and not enough hard thinking and reflecting going on outside of a few places like Youngstown.