The Medium Apples

When it comes to urban policy, midsize cities have much to teach us. A response to Ben Adler.

By Catherine Tumber

Tagged Urban Policy

All too often, students of urban demography report their findings impartially, as though millions of decisions about where to live arise from the alchemy of personal taste and market dynamics alone, unshaped by policy. In his review of Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion [Issue #26], Ben Adler agrees with the author that former suburbanites’ growing preference for urban living bodes well for the future of our long-beleaguered cities. But where Ehrenhalt is neutral about the “moral” significance of our shifting metropolitan demographics, Adler embraces the change wholeheartedly, and proposes bolstering it with public policy intended to secure both urban quality and socioeconomic equity. Adler’s perspective is refreshing. Yet by sharing Ehrenhalt’s focus on big cities, and ignoring small-to-midsize ones, he forfeits the chance to amplify his policy prescriptions and our understanding of today’s fledgling urban sensibilities.

Anyone who has spent time combing the large metropolitan areas to which Ehrenhalt confines his study is aware of the “Great Inversion” he so ably describes: the scramble to meet youthful, affluent, and generally white market demand for center-city living; the suburbanization of the black middle class; and the settlement of low-income immigrant communities in first-ring suburbs, priced out of traditional gateway urban neighborhoods. These geo-demographic shifts, some ten years in the making, reflect a new preference for compact, transit-oriented, walkable urban living among the knowledge and “creative” classes in the so-called post-industrial economy.

Even in the historically downtown-less cities of the Sun Belt and in suburbs strewn with dead malls, planners have been tasked with designing mixed-use residential-commercial corridors and town centers with Main Street aesthetics to accommodate this shift in taste. Meanwhile, leaving aside longstanding oases of affluence such as Brookline, Massachusetts, and Winnetka, Illinois, the suburbs (if not the exurbs) are growing down-market and unsafe—a reflection, perhaps, of worsening wage inequity and the evisceration of the American middle class. As this millennial-generation-fueled demographic inversion proceeds—and Ehrenhalt sees no reason to think it will not—the “future of the American city” will increasingly resemble the old cities of continental Europe, such as Paris and Vienna, where since the late nineteenth century affluent cosmopolitan elites have enjoyed the human-scaled public life of the boulevard and café, while low-paid immigrant service workers huddle in cheap suburban slums, commuting exhausting distances to their urban jobs.

“[F]or all its imperfections and inequalities,” Ehrenhalt believes, “demographic inversion ultimately will do more good than harm” in facilitating community “in and around many of our big cities.” Adler concurs, supplementing Ehrenhalt’s rich documentation of neighborhoods in cities ranging from Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to Phoenix, Houston, and Atlanta, with policy ideas intended to safeguard socioeconomic diversity and promote alternatives to automotive transportation. After all, cultural variety and dense, lively, walkable street life are the very qualities the young, the creative, and the affluent find appealing about city living in the first place.

Without local zoning reform and federal support for “smart growth” initiatives tying mass transit to affordable housing, Adler argues convincingly, today’s demographic inversion could deepen the geo-economic inequities it already reflects. He reminds us that, in spite of the Obama Administration’s initiatives along these lines, the radical-conservative hold on Congress does not bode well for policy reforms that might prevent the Great Inversion from becoming gentrification on steroids.

Adler might have also scrutinized Ehrenhalt’s concentration on large cities, but perhaps he too shares the metropolitan bias that has prevailed among urban theorists over the past 30 or so years. Its lineage extends back to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which explicitly excluded smaller industrial cities from consideration. Together with two later books on urban economics—The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations—Jacobs’s classic work of social criticism shaped the next two generations of urbanists, including, most recently, Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida.

Like them, Ehrenhalt has written an important, potentially influential book—and Adler, with his policy recommendations and richer appreciation of millennial-generation culture, fleshes out the utilitarian market analysis toward which the author leans. But both writers’ Jacobsesque preoccupation with the “Great American City” blinds them to significant geo-economic shifts taking place in smaller cities, particularly in the historically industrial Northeast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic states—shifts at variance with the big-city model. Taking these cities’ peculiarities into account is important not only because some 35 percent of the U.S. population resides in smaller metros, but also because these cities can play a distinctive, production-based role in our future low-carbon economy.

Had Adler and Ehrenhalt examined older cities of smaller scale—and I do mean cities of, say, 40,000 to 400,000, not small towns—they would have discovered different yet related demographic shifts, also full of promise and peril. For example, both authors observe that immigrants are no longer “landing” in cities but in suburbs. Yet many small-to-midsize industrial cities struggling with population loss in the wake of manufacturing decline have also become landing places for recent immigrants who now bypass traditional big-city ports of entry. Cities such as New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Allentown, Pennsylvania are home to Hispanic commercial corridors filled with independently owned stores and foot traffic that would be the envy of any New Urbanist were they not also low income. The second-largest Cambodian community in the United States is settled in Lowell, Massachusetts. Why? Because rent in these cities is still affordable. Many other smaller metros, mainly throughout upstate New York and in the Midwest (such as Syracuse, New York; Dayton, Ohio; and Muncie, Indiana), while also home to rising immigrant populations, have not seen significant demographic inversion at all but have retained the “doughnut effect,” with African Americans still concentrated in urban neighborhoods surrounded by leafy white suburbs.

Leafy isn’t the half of it; these outposts are also loaded up with concrete and pavement. Another trend all too common in smaller industrial cities, and one that reinforces the doughnut effect, is the fiscally draining phenomenon known as “sprawl without growth.” Decades of population decline have hardly thwarted sprawl in these places. On the contrary, their suburbs are often more far-flung and less dense relative to their center cities’ sizes, thanks to rural townships offering developers tax incentives and other subsidies to build out farther, and to farmers (and speculators) on the urban fringe eager to cash in on their rising land values.

As a result of their expanding footprints, these metros have about the same number of people living in them as they did in, say, 1950, but they require as much as three times the infrastructure costs in sewer, water, and electrical lines, police and fire protection services, schools, and road-building. This development takes its biggest toll on urban dwellers, who see none of the shiny new benefits yet are on the hook for each expansion’s legacy costs: While kids in the exurbs attend state-of-the-art schools and arrive there on new roads, inner-city students are left with decrepit old school buildings and pothole-ridden streets. This state of affairs is not only unjust but fiscally irresponsible—a scandal, really, over which liberals and conservatives should be able to find common cause. The consequent high urban property taxes also deter young middle-class families of all ethnic backgrounds from investing in homes in the city, no matter how cheap the real estate or high the quality of the pre-World War II housing stock.

Nonetheless, a small but growing number of young adults entering their child-bearing years are returning to the more modest metros where they grew up, after enjoying the nightlife and mind-expanding hipness on offer in Chicago, New York, and Boston. They, too, share the taste for urban life driving the Great Inversion in large cities, but with skyrocketing student-loan debt and stagnating or non-existent mid-level wages (depending on one’s field), they can’t afford to stay.

Adler, like Ehrenhalt, doesn’t follow young middle-class urban dwellers into this next stage of life. It turns out that many have affection for their cities of origin, a sense of place continuous with their family histories and personal narratives. Not surprisingly, given the marginalization of smaller cities as an urban type, systematic studies of this sort of reverse migration—from big cities to smaller ones—are rare and generally ignored by our most prominent urban economists, who focus instead on the “brain drain” afflicting these “rural” places. Moreover, all too often, generalizations about trends in all Rust Belt cities are extrapolated from those of the ur-Rust Belt city of Detroit—a big city and, in many ways, a special case.

Ehrenhalt also neglects an important part of the millennial generation’s preference for urban living: growing concern about climate change. Adler touches on this green sensibility, and seems to sympathize with it, but he doesn’t take its true measure. He chides Ehrenhalt, for example, for underestimating the appeal of automobile-free living, pointing out that if former suburbanites are bringing their cars into the city, it’s because they lack mass transit, bicycling, and walkway alternatives. (This is especially true in smaller cities, whose subway and light-rail systems were systematically removed in the mid-twentieth century.)

Yet Adler misses the array of low-carbon strategies that comprise what some call the New Environmentalism centered on urban placemaking, which has seized the youthful imagination with special force. Part hipster-locavore, part common sense, its ethos is entrepreneurial and pragmatic, more concerned with making and repairing things rather than simply consuming them, and intent on relocalizing food and retail systems in a quest to retain community wealth currently drained away by distant corporate leviathans.

Unlike most gentrifiers and environmentalists of the boomer generation, the millennials make the enviro-economic connection between suburban sprawl and disinvestment in both manufacturing and urban neighborhoods. For that reason, their urban yearnings are not likely to be placated, as Ehrenhalt suggests, by malls repurposed as town centers with the usual homogeneous retail outlets. And if the upscale culture of urban affluence spreads to places like Brooklyn, Adler rightly observes, the next generation of rebels might end up hanging their trucker’s caps in the shambling suburbs. Had either writer taken into account Generation Y’s experience in smaller industrial cities, however, they might have discovered not simply a duplication of Brooklyn hipsterdom on a smaller scale (as Ehrenhalt describes in Cleveland Heights), but a difference in kind, with a longer-term commitment to the city nurtured, in part, by the possibility of living within one’s means. Urban agriculture, ecological preservation, cultural diversity, the arts, the challenge of mass transit, the place of manufacturing, even “innovation,” take on a whole different quality, an urgent one, in smaller cities such as Syracuse, New York, and Youngstown, Ohio, ravaged by decades of population loss.

All these oversights and blind spots spring from an assumption Ehrenhalt shares with urban economists who project into the future demographic trends under way over the past 30 years: that the neoliberal “post-industrial” economy is a given and will only expand. In this view, college-educated knowledge workers will continue to congregate in large and growing metros, and smaller former manufacturing centers will continue their descent into oblivion. Among its shortcomings, this view not only fails to account for disruptions to global supply chains caused by climate change, but it also doesn’t reckon with the short-sighted decision to separate knowledge work from manufacturing in the first place.

Manufacturing matters, as it turns out, to national security, to protecting investments in research and development, and to keeping high-end service jobs in the United States. For these reasons and others, manufacturing is beginning to re-shore, albeit in different, more “advanced” forms. Where better to do that work than in historic manufacturing centers with the infrastructure, skill base, supply chains, and culture of production found throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and parts of the South? By historical happenstance, smaller industrial cities have other assets that put them in good stead for the productive green economy, should we muster the political will to nurture its growth. They are generally situated amid some of the most fertile soil on earth and along inland waterways, both crucial to regional food systems and low-carbon energy generation. We squander these natural resources on petroleum-drenched commodity agriculture at our peril.

For example, Dubuque, Iowa, a city of some 57,000 that rests along the bluffs of the Mississippi River, has been working since 2006 on a “replicable model” of sustainability for cities of under 200,000. It includes, among many other features, initiatives for controlling water use with “smart” technology to safeguard water tables degraded by years of toxic agricultural runoff, and for getting regionally produced food to urban markets. In 2008, Muncie attracted a wind-turbine gearbox manufacturer that anticipated a wind-farm building boom in central Indiana. But without a national commitment to a renewable electricity standard, a carbon tax, feed-in tariffs, and other low-carbon energy incentives, Indiana’s wind market failed to materialize. The factory is now making hydraulic equipment for oil and gas extraction.

Successful cities, Jane Jacobs claimed, are large and will only grow larger, thanks to their economic diversity and thick labor markets—their capacity to “create new work out of old.” Ehrenhalt, along with a host of other neoliberal purveyors of the New Economy, falls in line with this thinking. Chicago, he observes, may have “escaped the fate of other industrial cities” due to the “simple reality of size.” Yet critic and historian Lewis Mumford, who fell out with Jacobs over her pointed case for the superiority of the ever-agglomerating megacity, offered a compelling schematic alternative: a web of smaller cities in productive relation to the ecological region, supported by renewable energy and engaged in a mix of for-export agriculture, manufacturing, and small industrial-service firms.

Mumford has been derided by Jacobs and her successors for promoting small-town nostalgia and suburbanization. Yet a careful reading of his work dating back to the 1920s reveals that he had smaller industrial cities in mind, such as “Pittsburgh, Springfield, and Dayton,” that had been forced by ”pyramid building… metropolitan bankers” bent on “monopoly profits” into dreary one-industry servitude.

Moreover, Mumford’s notion of spatial democracy was intended to complement, not supplant, the metropolis. Here is how he put it in testimony before Congress in 1967: “The new form of the city must be conceived on a regional scale: not subordinated to a single dominant center, but as a network of cities of different forms and sizes, set in the midst of publicly protected open spaces permanently dedicated to agriculture and recreation. In such a regional scheme, the metropolis would be only… the first among equals.”

Mumford’s vision remains compelling, even more so in the age of climate change. To realize it, our so-called thought leaders must recognize smaller industrial cities as cities with distinct urban virtues, not as either small towns or hopeless backwaters, casualties of post-industrial progress. Bicoastal “liberal elites,” as both conservatives and liberals down there in flyover country are apt to call them, would be wise to take off the blinders. If they did—who knows?—we might just be able to bridge our current, dangerous political divide.

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Catherine Tumber is a visiting scholar at Northeastern University's School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the author of Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.

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