Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Burnt By The Sun

As the US Census numbers trickle in, we see that the Rust Belt is still shrinking (i.e. dying). The Sun Belt is still booming. Business as usual, right? Wrong:

"There's an extraordinary potential for 'sunburnt' cities to embrace the idea of smart decline" — doing more with less, whether it's fewer people, fewer home buyers or fewer jobs, says Justin Hollander, urban planning professor at Tufts University and author of Sunburnt Cities, which was published March 1.

Boomtowns that have been scorched by the housing crisis could learn from struggling Rust Belt communities, Hollander says.

Sunburnt cities have a chance to limit growth for growth's sake by allowing dense development and reducing parking requirements to encourage walking, public transportation and more green space, Hollander says.

"In each place there are a lot of opportunities to think smaller," he says. "It hasn't happened yet. Largely, these cities are in denial."

There is ample room for a debate about whether or not the Sun Belt will regain its swagger as the US economy rebounds. I'm in Hollander's camp. I view the latest recession as informing a "new normal". I foresee the slump in Florida lasting decades.

One reason the deck is stacked against the Sunshine State is ironic, to say the least. The lack of affordable housing:

Given its high volume of housing vacancies, Orlando seems an unlikely backdrop for any discussion about more housing. The same could be said for any of the economic boom's high-growth areas now experiencing unprecedented home foreclosures and sharply depressed home prices.

However, the issue of work-force housing is not about a shortage of housing in urban areas. It's about a shortage of affordable housing where it's needed in urban areas, including those hardest hit by the housing crisis.

At ULI, we learn from development mistakes as well as successes. And this is a lesson learned from the past two decades: The ever-expanding urban edge — driven by workers seeking housing they could afford — wound up being a costly location choice, in terms of living expenses.

The recent spike in gasoline prices should make the issue clear. Pay is not keeping up with the journey to work costs in sprawling Orlando. The residential geography is out of step with the emerging economic geography.

More ironically, it is the Rust Belt cities of the Sun Belt benefiting from the new normal. I think these places are the best example of how the landscape has been tilting in a different direction for a few years. Consider talent attraction Birmingham (apparently still the Pittsburgh of the South):

Birmingham was ranked the sixth best "brain magnet" in the country, according to a recent report by Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in California and executive editor of NewGeography.com. The report ranked the 52 metro areas with more than 1 million people based on gains in people with college educations between 2007 and 2009 compared to the overall population older than 25. During that time, the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area gained 21,111 college graduates, almost 3 percent of the people older than 25.

Birmingham trailed only New Orleans, fueled by people moving there after Hurricane Katrina; Raleigh, N.C.; Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; and Kansas City, Mo., in the greatest percentage gain of graduates.

"Birmingham's strong showing on this list is likely due to the rapid growth in its surrounding suburban counties," the report said. "One big development sure to lure brains: the rapid expansion of the University of Alabama's medical center and surrounding private medical industry."

Birmingham is a steel bust-town with a crushing municipal debt. Yet the college-educated are flocking there. The growth in Birmingham should be cause for grave concern in Orlando. Migration patterns are slow to change. Even if Sunburnt cities do recover, Birmingham will still look relatively more attractive in terms of opportunity. As the economy improves, the exodus often picks up speed. People are less risk averse and more willing to move. For Florida, the darkest days are still ahead.

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