Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Urban Innovation Geographies

I'm trying to work through my pessimism concerning the transformation of the Rust Belt to the Green Belt. Perhaps I'm erroneously making economic clustering into a zero-sum game, but isn't that the guiding principle of comparative advantage? I've used this perspective to understand the promise of Youngstown, which I see as a unique urban frontier geography. Given the typical inherent political gridlock, I doubt many shrinking cities could follow this path of innovation.

The fragmented political geographies of cities such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati harbor Youngstown-like opportunity. For instance, look at Braddock:

PAUL SOLMAN: [Braddock Mayor John] Fetterman lives in an old warehouse, has added a penthouse of shipping containers. To Mayor John, as he's now known, the near-ghost town is an eco-experiment in Rust Belt renewal.

JOHN FETTERMAN: The attraction I think is the overall malignant beauty of Braddock and the history involved. And what's left, I think, is a community that has to reinvent itself.

For a Rust Belt neighborhood where economic development would seem impossible, Mayor John only sees possibility. As long as commodity prices remain high, urban homesteading and the associated environmental benefits should be viable. Instead of lamenting Braddock as a forgotten part of Pittsburgh, Fetterman is taking advantage of the ample political space. I think Youngstown is part of the same movement.

Instead of consolidating government and upscaling political efficacy, perhaps shrinking cities should embrace the Balkanization that once served them so well (served industrial capitalists, anyway). I have in mind how the evolution of the European Union has engendered the ironic result of increased subnationalism. The increased autonomy of Scotland has benefits for the United Kingdom. A diversity of political economy might be a good thing.

When it comes to parochial geographies, how many cities can hold a candle to Pittsburgh?

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