Monday, April 19, 2010

Brownfield Political Geography

I like to think of Rust Belt brownfields as greenfield opportunities. But there are barriers to this type of development. Not all regulatory regimes are created equal:

"In Pennsylvania, you get handed one sheet of paper that's the entire brownfield program," said Lee Hoffman, a partner at law firm Pullman & Comley in Hartford, a member of the Town of Windsor's redevelopment authority and member of a brownfields task force the legislature put together in 2006.

"In New York, it's a single, solitary program...In Connecticut, you don't have that sense of assurance, so banks are reluctant to finance projects and investors are reluctant to provide equity," Hoffman said. "In Connecticut, nobody knows, and that's very unsettling for savvy real estate developers."

This is one of the ironies of frontier geographies. The image of a libertarian utopia is misleading. There needs to be a clearly defined legal authority to unleash the potential of greenfield development. However, transparency and simplicity are also important. Dense social network and back-room deals stifle growth (see Sean Safford's work).

I've been reading "The Fabric of America" by Andro Linklater. A book review articulates the relevance to my post:

It is not a coincidence that Ohio, a neatly surveyed wilderness, quickly outpaced the more motley state of Kentucky. Land that could be neatly delineated was worth more: In 1830 an acre in Ohio cost $5, compared with 12.5 cents in Kentucky. Mr. Linklater quotes Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas, to good effect: The family moved to Indiana, Thomas Lincoln said, "partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Kentucky."

In a nutshell, that's the story of the American frontier. Surveying technology allowed the US Government to provide a "sense of assurance". Opening up the urban frontier in Detroit will also require a sense of assurance. In fact, just about every Rust City struggles with this problem. The lack of inmigration is a result of the opaque terrain, which deters investment of all kinds.

This model can also explain the attraction of suburbs. Zoning tends to be well-defined. Developers understand the rules and the chain of command is obvious (i.e. transparent). Sprawl seems to be anarchic, but is that is far from the truth. By comparison, urban spaces are much more chaotic. Land use is in a constant state of flux, at least in terms of how it is appropriated. The success of suburbs are the result of successful planning. Thus, these greenfields get most of the love.

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