Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rust Belt Archipelago

Located in the Sun Belt or Deep South, whichever you prefer, Birmingham belongs in the Rust Belt cohort of shrinking cities. As most of you likely know, the reason a major city in Alabama has more in common with Pittsburgh than Atlanta is the steel industry. The problems that shrinking cities share reminds me that the climate variable isn't that important:

Over the past year, The Birmingham News has explored critical challenges that face metropolitan Birmingham-Hoover -- race and trust, fragmented government, inner-city crime, blight in our industrial core, uneven economic growth, disparities between urban and suburban classrooms. People across the area agree: On each of those fronts, leadership is key to progress. Can someone or some group craft a vision that leads our communities forward?

The legacy of the urban industrial political economy is the reason shrinking cities are struggling. The tired refrain consists of superficial policy ("We should be more like Austin!") and the longing for leadership. Instead of asking for someone or something to follow (beware of the Music Man), more shrinking city citizens need to step up and take the initiative. There is no magic solution in the pipeline.

Most of the dynamos we are seeking have left our regions. In fact, the best of any area tend to leave. Thus, immigration is crucial to urban vibrancy. Trying to keep human capital from leaving is a waste of resources. The game is one of attraction, not retention. However, I suspect that ample immigration tends to gloss over the many inefficiencies of a given city. All the policy geniuses of Sun Belt boomtowns can't solve the problems of Rust Belt shrinking cities. The lot of them stands on top of good fortune. Akin to fast growing companies, you find out who has a good business model when the economy turns sour.

1 comment:

Frank said...

It's interesting to hear how attitudes can be similar across different cities. I've always felt that one of the big things that needs to change about Pittsburgh is the lack of leadership--we are constantly waiting for someone to come in from the outside to fix out problems.

But, I think when people think of leadership, they think only of the biggest kinds. Pittsburgh, and probably most similar rustbelt cities, doesn't need a savior. Pittsburgh needs hundreds, if not thousands, of leaders to do more of the little things: start businesses, organize events, play shows, etc. Those are the people who start the momentum moving.

The Blurgh