Monday, September 26, 2011

Sunburn Belt: Legacy Costs Of Sprawl

Renaming the Sun Belt as the Sunburn Belt comes from Justin Hollander and his book "Sunburnt Cities: The Great Recession, Depopulation and Urban Planning in the American Sunbelt". The current recession/financial crisis is reshaping US economic geography. I like how Richard Florida frames the transformation:

Every era has a “spatial fix” of cities, infrastructure and transportation that is a manifestation of capitalism’s progress, i.e. how and where we live is the result of what we produce and consume. Spatial fixes are only temporary -- their obsolescence invariably leads to crisis and a “reset” as old landscapes are replaced by new ones. But Florida seems more inspired by Joseph Schumpeter, arguing these gales of creative destruction inevitably leave society in a better place than where it was before.

The first reset was the Long Depression of 1873, which led to electricity, Bessemer steel, and the high-rise cities of the industrial age. The second was the Great Depression, which cleared the way for suburban postwar prosperity. This was the spatial fix just ended. “We can literally feel the demise of the old suburban way of life all around us,” he writes.

I can hear urbanist hearts beating faster. The implication is that urban landscapes are the new spatial fix. In a sense, Hollander is observing something similar: Suburbs are dying.

  1. Long Depression of 1873 fuels a great rural-to-urban migration.
  2. Great Depression sets up the great urban-to-suburban migration.
  3. Today's Great Reset equals what kind of migration?

I've speculated that perhaps we are witnessing the end of migration. American geographic mobility is in decline. The middle class is shrinking. The wealth gap is growing. We are stuck in place.

That's the polemical version. I see a Rust Belt Reset, which finds expression in today's New York Times:

For decades, the nation’s economic landscape consisted of a prospering Sun Belt and a struggling Rust Belt. Since the recession hit, though, that is no longer the case. Unemployment remains high across much of the country — the national rate is 9.1 percent — but the regions have recovered at different speeds.

Now, with the concentration of the highest unemployment rates in the South and the West, some economists and researchers wonder if it is an anomaly of the uneven recovery or a harbinger of things to come.

“Because the recovery is so painfully slow, people may begin to think of the trends established during the recovery as normal,” said Howard Wial, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program who recently co-wrote an economic analysis of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. “Will people think of Florida, California, Nevada and Arizona as more or less permanently depressed? Think of the Great Lakes as being a renaissance region? I don’t know. It’s possible.”

The Sun Belt is the old spatial fix. The Rust Belt is the new spatial fix. Mesofacts are rewritten. We are, as Hollander argues, redefining what it means to grow. The migration economy has come to a grinding halt.

What stops can start again. Optimists from California to South Carolina are betting it will. While I am coming to a different conclusion about the new spatial fix, I think Richard Florida is correct that this crisis marks the end of an era. Much of the Sun Belt will be "permanently depressed".

In general, the Rust Belt is the new spatial fix. More specifically, the place is Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has figured out how to prosper economically without substantial inmigration. The quality and density of the workforce is more important than population numbers. Importing talent takes a backseat to developing talent.

The problem in the Sun Belt is the belief that "steel" will come back. Most communities will spend decades waiting for the good old days of boomtown migration to return. The crushing debt from breakneck expansion won't wait. The unemployed will be stranded in blighted suburbs, unable to move where the jobs are.

Meanwhile, companies starved for talent will move to where it is produced. Many of those universities are located in the Rust Belt thanks to the wealth of the Industrial Era. Legacy benefits start to outweigh the costs. Labor in Northern Appalachia is cheap and plentiful. It is also well-educated. Instead of talent migrating, knowledge corporations will.

Where Richard Florida went wrong in his analysis is assuming the Creative Class will pool in cities that are diverse and full of desirable amenities (natural or manufactured). Talent is amassing in places that can best develop it. Such a residence can be relatively homogeneous and downright uncool. The diversity and amenities are a byproduct of developing talent, not the cause or the main attraction.

Instead of reading Florida's "Great Reset" I recommend picking up Hollander's "Sunburnt Cities". Urban planners should be studying Youngstown, Ohio instead of Portland, Oregon. Portland and the Creative Class are so yesterday's spatial fix.


TheLetterAHyphenTheNumberOne said...

This makes sense to me, from a Georgia or North or South Carolina perspective. Cities in those states have grown and sprawled as they urbanized, and their economies played catch-up, decades behind the Midwest and Northeast.

But what about the Southwest? I think those states will continue to grow and benefit simply due to Mexican immigration. Won't Phoenix and SoCal and Albaquerque keep benefiting from this trend? I don't see immigration slowing down much and I don't see the bulk of it leaving the "sun belt."

Jim Russell said...

Immigration has slowed down. I think the emerging spatial fix will be worse in the Southwest than in the Southeast.