Saturday, December 8th, 2007

Are Cities Necessary?

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.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Regionalism, Strategic Planning, Sustainability, Talent Attraction
Cities: Cleveland, Indianapolis

10 Responses to “Are Cities Necessary?”

  1. Crocodileguy says:

    Looking at the spec sheet, I’d be inclined to agree on the cost/benefit analysis. That said, there is just some kind of charm to old cities that is intangible. At least in Indianapolis, the aging infrastructure isn’t making Meridian-Kessler unattractive to live in (the tax gouging, maybe)…but in fact it is a very desirable place to live.

    Not to go all Jane Jacobs here, but the older cities are far more walkable and have a hell of a lot more character.

    Other than the sewer issues, I can’t think of a problem in Indianapolis that is too daunting to overcome. Yes, old houses aren’t up to code, and there is contamination in many parts due to pollution, but building codes are constantly in flux (houses from the 70s often aren’t up to current codes), and pollution can be cleaned up.

    Indianapolis’ biggest problem is the “nothing to do here” problem. It also has far too many national chains and not enough local businesses. It suffers from an “Anywhere, USA” dilemma, but that too can be remedied.

    You mention crumbling streets. Yes, that is an issue–but one that could be solved with gas tax hikes (which are honestly long overdue).

    Indianapolis is way behind the curve when it comes to development, though. They need an affordable housing initiative, and they need to embrace “new urbanist” ideas in their neighborhood developments. I think offering developers incentives (TIF or not) to redevelop old, crumbling neighborhoods with newer infrastructure to provide a nice mix of residential (of all socioeconomic classes) and commercial retail will go a long way to revitalizing the area.

    Your post reminded me a lot of Robert Moses’ philosophy of tearing down the old buildings in NYC to put up freeways and tower-in-the-park development. IMO that was not a successful strategy. What also isn’t a successful strategy IMO is Indianapolis’ tendancy to spend money on fancy lightposts and “gateway” structures in areas that quite honestly are ghettos. That money can be better spent.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have had similar thoughts often. Like crocodileguy says, Indianapolis has the “nothing to do” problem. I tend to think that people will go where the jobs are. Creative class or not. In Indy, most middle-to-high income jobs aren’t downtown, unlike NYC. Most of the people I know do not work downtown. I feel that (in general) you have to be a lawyer or banker for me to take a guess that you work downtown. Personally, I wouldn’t mind living downtown if I worked there, but when my job is out by the pyramids, why shouldn’t I live nearby? If Indy can find a way to attract corporate offices closer to the city, that might get the ball rolling the way they want it to.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Instead of building totally new, I think it would be smarter to build new on old grounds (for example, suburban Marion County). Yes, it may be cheaper to just build new, but the more you do it, the more you wind up paying. Infastructure and water/sewer will eventually have to be updated. Indianapolis metro is a very centralized metro. Over 81% of workers work in Marion County, so why keep building out more and more north/south/east/west ? America will soon face major problems if we don’t get it together.

  4. & DAGGER says:

    It is true, one day those suburbs you’ve glorified (as devil’s advocate) will be just as problem-riddled as the core. But I reject the Dispatch’s apple analogy. It is not the city’s problems spreading from the core, it’s humanity’s problems spreading wherever we go.

    The sub-sub-suburbs will always become the attractive, cheap locale simply because they are new and make false, temporary promises. The core will continue to grow in size and decline (whenever flight is an option) because it is old. Wherever you have a significant mass of people, there are always significant, inevitable problems.

    The quick-fix, and more importantly, impossible solution is to keep spreading out so people don’t actually infringe on each other’s space and lifestyles. That’s an option that will eventually disappear.

    The honorable, more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding solution is to stay in the trenches and continue to fight when the going gets rough. Sadly, too many Americans have the abandonment mentality and are quick to dispose of anything that has significant problems or takes any real work or sacrifice to overcome.

    PS I’m so glad that you were just playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps a follow-up “Why Cities are Necessary” will be next?

  5. Kevin says:

    Able is right here. I’ve often thought the opposite: “Are Suburbs Necessary?” Because if any place is a teetering house of cards, it’s the place where a trip of any type has to be done in a car.

  6. nick bilz says:

    thanks for the “Devil’s Advocate” disclaimer, otherwise we all might have thought we’d time-warped back to 1952 when statements such as these:

    “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.”

    would have been believed without question. &Dagger is right to mention the suburbs as a land of false promises, a place to run away from societies problems, burry your head in the neatly manacured lawn and forsake the inner city as “dangerous, outdated and unhealthy.”

    just as you point out there is no “magic bullet” to fix the myriad problems of the city, there is no single cause for them either. blaming the form for failure of function is easy, but if the form–densly located houses with “small” rooms, narrow streets, etc.–of the older urban fabric were the only problem all of Europe would be nothing but one massive slum. but there the opposite is true, central cities offer vibrant, hopefull lives and the slums are in the suburbs.

    and as crocodileguy noted, the form isn’t hurting Meridian-Kessler, Broad Ripple, the Old Northside, and dozens of other older neighborhoods around the country. neither the form nor its age are the problem, but the people who chose to maintain it or abandon it. it is my belief that the form is fine, it’s the function that needs addressing. running away from problems won’t solve them, they have to be dealt with at the source. the decaying citys are a symptom of a decaying society, not the cause.

  7. IndyIndie says:

    I just wanted to make an observation pertaining to the first anonymous posting. Having lived downtown for nearly 15 years I have seen myself, my friends, and my family have to deal with commuting out off the city for work. Whether it is from downtown to East or West 86th St., North Keystone, West 38th St., Rockville Road, etc. I have never seen a commute that was more the 15-20 minutes, unless there was unusually bad traffic or the commute was to outside marion county. Reverse commuting is a beautiful thing.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Urbanophile’s argument discounts (by lack of mention) the economic and environmental benefits of undertaking land use and transportation planning on a more regional scale, the high “transportation energy intensity” of non-stop exurban development, the existing “embodied energy” of the built urban core, and the social justice issues surrounding transplanting folks to new city centers – which are described only as “better”. If better is auto-oriented (read unwalkable) neighborhoods and town centers, homogenous new construction, and a daily 30 minute car commute, then I’ll take the city. What’s so “environmentally friendly and clean” about that?

    The problem in my opinion is the never-ending marketing hype (echoed by Urbanophile) that would have us believe that “newer is always better.” It’s easier, not better. Is it easier to build a new exurban neighborhood (or city) than to revitalize the urban core? Yes. In new development, every developer pays the same impact and development fees, which subsidize new infrastructure, schools, and public services. It’s “fair” and “market driven” and formulaic, and fairly easy to project costs, profit, etc. Which makes financing easier. Is it more difficult and time consuming to develop financing models that provide the same subsidy to revitalize existing infrastructure and urban core neighborhoods? Yes, but I would argue that the end product is more livable, more sustainable, and more sustaining. We end up with vibrant, human-scale places. It takes more thought, creativity and planning up front, but reaps greater rewards in both the near- and long-term.

    And speaking of “clustered poverty” in the city, how many new, large-scale exurban developments in the Midwest are providing housing options at various price levels, affordable to very-low income folks all the way up to market rate? Few. Portland has more affordable housing options than Indy – they’re just not all 3500 square foot single family homes. Demand in Portland is driven by quality-of-life amenities – that’s why similar housing types are relatively unaffordable. Are there low and very-low income people living in downtown Portland? Yes. And they’re quality of life is much higher than if they lived here, because they live near their job, have access to high quality public transportation, and are able to enjoy most of the same city amenities as the “economic elite.” They just don’t have to spend half of their income and 40 hours a year commuting to-and-from work or some “gigantic central park” to play ultimate Frisbee.

    Most “new” exurban development happening today will be the “rotten core” in a generation. It’s short-sighted. We need to capitalize on our existing urban core while we engage in intelligent discussions about regional land use and transportation options.

  9. Franklin says:

    The suburbs are not going to be the place to be one day. The Southern California model has not worked out well. And the suburbs of Washington D.C. are hell on earth as far as traffic, and parking. The day of the suburb will end with peak oil. And America will be hurtin, for certain. Nice blog, I live in Indy, too. Chuck Franklin

  10. SpeedBlue47 says:

    For those who would like a very fascinating insight into the current deterioration of American cities, I highly suggest “Blight Ideas: How statism is destroying America’s cities” by David Wilens. You can buy a used copy for as little as 4.95 at Amazon.

    I am in no way related to the author, but just a big fan of this book. I wish that he had the time to write another book on this subject.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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