Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rust Belt Zero Carbon

Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) points to an Alex Steffen TED Talk that should excite shrinking city boosters. I watched it last week and the lasting impression is the clarion call to employ a new framework to achieve the goal of sustainability. For example, don't retool automobiles. Instead, get rid of automobiles. That requires a different kind of public investment:

On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured a lengthy piece on the Obama Administration investment in advanced battery manufacturing. At Market Urbanism, Stephen Smith berates the policy as “sprawl-promoting”:

I’m not going to lay out a long case against electric cars right now, but suffice it to say I think they’re just another subsidy to the auto-based system, and that the true environmental harm in cars is not their actual emissions, but the land use patterns than they necessitate, and an electric battery doesn’t change this one bit.

I’ll buy his main lament—the Administration, and local governments, desperately needs to focus on land use policy. Development regulations, for instance, can often do plenty more for job creation than rehabilitating the manufacturing sector. Relieving zoning restrictions does wonders for growth, which can then foster jobs, stabilize housing prices and combat sprawl.

From a job creation standpoint, there is a gaping hole in the invest-in-manufacturing strategy gaining traction in the Rust Belt. It's traditional thinking misplaced in a new global economy, a la population growth equals economic growth. The Industrial Era lives on. There is no acknowledgement of having to do more with less labor.

Replace "population" with "density" and a different economic calculus emerges. Education isn't the only way to improve human capital. The sprawl subsidy undermines economic development and wastes regional talent. It discourages density.

Favoring advanced battery manufacturing is anti-innovation. But funding entrepreneurial networks yields no ribbon cutting and the job growth takes much longer. So, we opt for the former. Promoting innovation is a tough sell (e.g. encouraging more geographic mobility). The industrial way of thinking is familiar, comfortable. The Rust Belt ethos: We make things.

That ethos begets suburbia, the endgame of industrialization. Cleveland. Drive your battery-powered car there and see what the sprawl subsidy will get you.

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