Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Shrinking Cities Heartland

The latest Brookings post over at The New Republic about revitalizing Detroit makes a big deal about the importance of breaking down the parochial divisions that handicap all shrinking cities. A more expansive economic and political geography is necessary to deal with the overwhelming forces of globalization. Brookings references some of Aaron Renn's ideas published at New Geography, noting the overlap in the regional approach. All of this circles back to Richard Longworth's crusade to free Midwestern communities from their political silos.

I'm all for scaling-up the economic problem solving. But I tend to sidestep such proposals because of the grassroots resistance to this top-down enterprise. I prefer urban networking to the expansion of contiguous geographies. This mental map aligns with the diaspora lens that I use in almost every blog post. One needn't reside within the city boundaries to be a part of the solution.

Conventional geographic constructs limit policy choices. Regionalization inevitably runs into a brick wall of entrenched cultural boundaries. I deal with this tension monthly as a planning and zoning commissioner. Many people choose to live in the unincorporated county land because of more lax regulation. Urban expansion into this space is vigorously contested. Yet the city doesn't see any other avenue but to annex in order to preserve the intent of the comprehensive plan. When in doubt, assimilate.

The territorial warfare is exhausting and counterproductive. So is the annual quest for a brain drain plug. The obsession with population decline, like municipal expansion, is misplaced. The drama surrounding Pittsburgh's tuition tax should make clear that neither regionalization nor talent retention can address the demographic crisis. Shrinking cities will have to be much more creative.

Recently, a shrinking cities roundtable was held in Dayton (Ohio). There is a call for policy ideas to address the demographic drag on Rust Belt cities. The Dayton Daily News defines the region of distress:

“We’re not talking about shrinking in the sense of a short-term blip,” said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We’re talking about cities that have sustained population loss over an extended period.”

Mallach, an expert in housing and urban planning, showed a map of the 21 largest shrinking cities, including Dayton, that runs in a tight cluster from Michigan, through Indiana, Ohio to upstate New York.

The cities, he said, have not only lost between one quarter and 60 percent of their peak population, but they also have much higher poverty rates and have experienced an “explosion” of vacant land.

The organizers are looking for ideas on how to shape federal and state policy to help these cities.

I would characterize the "tight cluster" as the homeland for America's largest domestic diaspora. Flint Expatriates helps to define this network geography:

The Kezar Pub is the unofficial Michigan bar of San Francisco, thanks to the heroic efforts of Powers grad Mike Mahon, a guy who's just impossible not to like and is now back in Michigan. (Last time I was there with my friend Sparky from Flint my car got towed, which enabled Sparky to experience the infamous impound lot at the Hall of Justice — a place every San Franciscan gets acquainted with eventually.)

Think of a city's suburbs like an expatriate sports bar in Manhattan. How might you "tax" them to deal with crushing legacy costs? How you would best answer that question is how you should approach the political entities that ring around your urban core. It's a network, not eminent domain.

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