Friday, February 17, 2012

Fearing Urbanization

We must save the Heartland. Our identity is at stake. That's a common rationale given for rural economic development. Perhaps in a future post, I will discuss the genealogy of this peculiar cultural geography. Today, I want to highlight how this perspective undermines urbanization and promotes sprawl:

Over the next 20 years or so, the global urban population is expected to rise to approximately 5 billion. This explosion of urban life could be greeted enthusiastically, as a sign of progress and development – moving people off the land and out of back-breaking labour. But far too often, urbanisation is instead seen through the contemporary prism of social, political and ecological concerns: overpopulation, fears about the breakdown of traditional communities, and the dangers cities create for the broader environment, to name but a few.

Emphasis added. Cities pull people from the hinterlands, from established communities. Talent moves from places rich in social capital to an anonymous existence defined by weak ties with fellow urbanites.  Urbanization means more bowling alone. Cities make Alexis de Tocqueville cry. Democracy is dying.

Migration is defined as a detriment to community development. Group interests should trump individual interests. The migrant is self-interested and disruptive, a threat to a way of life. That's true whether one is leaving or a recent arrival. Migration is bad.

For cities, migration means vitality and growth. Too much social capital is bad. Individual interests trump group interests. Concerning nationalism, cities have long posed an existential threat, from anxiety about epidemics to the erosion of state sovereignty. Quite simply, cities threaten the status quo.

Regarding suburbanization, the greenfields of the outer-ring are a bucolic sanctuary from the evils of the city. It's supposed to be the best of both worlds, balancing the urban and rural. Density means filth, disease, and depravity. The rural is, ironically, the cradle of culture. The countryside is a touchstone for our true, good selves. Spend time in the city at your own peril.

The xenophobe is anti-city and anti-migrant. In my view, policies designed to stop brain drain are fundamentally anti-urban and anti-immigrant. These policies are, as Brookings might claim, anti-economic development. Investing in urban amenities in hopes of retaining talent is an incoherent strategy. Successful cities are net exporters of talent:

The notion of American class mobility is deeply rooted in the ability to make more money. But class mobility can also be measured in the ability to actually move. Using IRS migration data from the 2009-2010 period — which measures the inflow and outflow of citizens who file taxes from county to county — Eric Rodenbeck and his team at San Francisco-based design firm Stamen created a map of America that is as extreme as ever. By using the IRS figures and mapping them out on U.S. highways with open-source technology provided by OpenStreetMap, they've created a roadmap of the parts of America that are losing and gaining, and the results are surprising. "We realized that if you look at the biggest 'losers,' essentially what you're looking at are the biggest cities in the U.S.," Migurski says. One of those losers: New York county, which lost $1,306,548,000 and 15,100 people. "But does that actually mean New York is a big loser?" Migurski asks. "One of our ideas was that, you're not a loser if you're losing money. You're an exporter." The sort of exporter, he says, that boosts the rest of the U.S. economy. Traditional Sun Belt retirement areas comprise the gainers; areas like South Florida and Southern California in particular, create what Migurski calls "money sinks." But between the two is a middle that doesn't move, that actually exists in the middle: King and Loving counties in Texas remained unchanged. The rural areas between coasts show movement not from coast to coast, but off the beaten path, within state lines. Stamen presents an America that is in both a state of unrest, and unable — or unwilling — to move at all.

Emphasis added. US global cities develop talent like a university. The entire country (and the world) benefits from these urban graduates. Geographic mobility is economic development. People develop, not places.


Miriam in the Midwest said...

I like your separation and subsequent separate consideration of people and places, however I must assert that identity (individual or collective) is often intrinsically tied to current geographic location or 'where you're from'. (As a constant migrant myself, I'm particularly sensitive to this element of identity.)

I agree that 'people develop, not places', indeed it is for people that all urban design and planning work is done, however it is the people then define the place, attach meaning to a place and are likely to invest (financially or otherwise) in a place.

There is also something to be said for fond memories, loyalty and boomerang or returning residents. In my time in the Midwest, I was surprised by the number of people I met who had left Cleveland, Youngstown, Indianapolis or Detroit for education and growth(instutionalised or otherwise) and returned to their hometowns. When asked "why?", overwhelmingly the response was "why not?" coupled with expressions referring to magnets, steel and cheap house prices.

Thank you for your wonderful, constant and intriguing posts! I wonder what you're quoting in this piece?

Thanks again

Ryan Champlin said...

I always have to laugh at the idea that rurality is the "cradle of culture." It's obvious that this is not true. Farming and animal husbandry most likely started in urban areas and was exported outward, and rural culture is so conservative (I'm not speaking against it) that it changes so slowly over time. How can culture develop in something so static?

Also, you are correct that cities are a threat to nationalism, and even federalism. And yet we consider them as sub-units of States and, thus, politically and economically inferior. We are having this trouble in Utah right now where Salt Lake City, the only center of non-conservatism in the state, is making laws that are being over-ruled by a rural-majority legislature. We (Salt Lake City residents) provide a large portion of the state's talent and wealth, and yet we are seen as not worthy to make our own decisions. Just crazy!