Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rust Belt Refugee Return Migration

Rust Belt cities are interchangeable. I don't intend to be critical. I like most industrial cities and would consider raising my family there. If not for relatives, then which urban renaissance speaks to you? Another boomerang migration archetype:

For decades, people like Mr. Destito — young, skilled, motivated — were exactly the sort who left Rust Belt cities like Syracuse. But recently, in numbers not yet statistically measurable but clearly evident at the ground level, they’ve been coming back to the city, first as a trickle, and now by the hundreds. In some ways it’s a part of the natural ebb and flow of urban demographics. But it is also the result of a new attitude among the city’s leadership, one that admits the failure of the re-industrialization efforts of the last decades and instead invents ways to attract new types of residents and keep current ones from leaving. Call it urban renewal 2.0, gentrification on a citywide scale.

Mr. Destito, for example, grew up in nearby Rome, a small city at the foothills of the Adirondacks. He wanted a bigger city to settle in, so he traveled the country for three years, working in different places and observing what he found appealing in each one — places like Nashville, Denver and Atlanta, many of them “bustling with activity where you could be alone or with people, hang out in parks, ride a bike, find an arts community,” he said.

Eventually, he realized, why not Syracuse? Its low cost of living would let him work less and enjoy life more. Most important, it offered the chance to make a visible impact on a community, something that would be much harder to do in a bustling metropolis. “I saw the potential, the opportunity to recreate some of what it once had,” he said. “I saw interesting things happening and I wanted to be part of it.”

Destito's wandering and ultimate destination is an opportunity. Many Rust Belt cities can offer the same qualities as Syracuse. But its the proximity to his hometown of Rome that was likely instrumental in the relocation decision. We go where we know.

There is also an urban hierarchy for these brownfield towns turned green. Syracuse is turning a corner, but what about smaller Rome? This speaks to increasing geographic variance within the Rust Belt, not a rising tide raising all boats. This trend will pick a few winners and leave many other communities behind.

The return to shrinking cities makes for a good story. But the impact on revitalization will depend on the scale of the migration or the ability of leadership to force multiply the effects. Youngstown is still the only place I know that is out in front of this wave. The Buffalo Expat Network is also another promising program. That's about it.

Meanwhile, the collection of similar tales continues to amass. What will it take to get locals on the bandwagon? By the time they do, it may be too late.

1 comment:

Steve said...

If not for relatives, then which urban renaissance speaks to you?

I don't know if this was meant as a rhetorical question or you're looking for our answers but I would like to answer it anyway.

For me, it's Pittsburgh. I don't have relatives in any rust belt city since Chicago isn't a rust belt city. What makes it Pittsburgh for me is the industry I work in, tech. A lot of it is about CMU.

What is happening to Pittsburgh speaks to me because of what is happening and what could happen. The top tier tech universities near a major city have their own "silicon valleys" near them. (I'm not including top tier tech universities in rural areas because they lack the needed venture capital nexus as well as a few other things.) Stanford has Silicon Valley. MIT has the Route 128 corridor, etc. Some are bigger than others but they exist. The only exception is CMU and Pittsburgh. This may have been because Pittsburgh lacked the needed venture capital nexus (why CMU derived startups left for somwhere else) but that's not really an issue now. Regardless this is how it happened.

As I have talked about before here, all of these "silicon valleys" are very similar. They are auto dependent sprawl with low rise and mid rise office parks. It's understandable why it happened. Startups were looking for cheaper office space. IMO this has been a land use planning disaster, a transportation planning disaster, and even possibly an environmental disaster.

What makes this worse is how it has been exported to other countries. Other countries wanted their own innovation centers so they copied everything that was copyable about Silicon Valley right down to the exurban auto dependent sprawl. You would think a fresh perspective from a different continent would lead to something different than car dependent exurbs but it different. If it wasn't for different languages these Silicon Valleys in other countries look like you could be in California. We associate Silicon Valley with "the future" yet it's land use and transporation is 20th century not 21st century.

This is where Pittsburgh comes in. In Pittsburgh tech startups don't need to head to the exurbs. They can get what they need closer. The reason why this will happen in Pittsburgh is because Pittsburgh has CMU. We have talked about the Pittsburgh option of live in the city, work in the city, and walk, bike or take transit to work. This is different than what the "silicon valleys" offer, live and work in car dependent sprawl with driving to work as the only option.

Imagine if Pittsburgh and not Silicon Valley was what was copied when a city or a country wanted to build an innovation center. It would not be car dependent exurban sprawl.

One thing Silicon Valley has when it comes to tech is a strong community. No matter what you are doing you can run into other members of the tech community and generate potential benefits. However this is limited by the amount of car usage. Imagine the same thing happening in the city in Pittsburgh. There is potential for even more of this and even more benefits. Then multiply by everyone who copies the Pittsburgh model.

This is what I hope to see with the Pittsburgh urban renaissance.