THE BROAD BRUSH OF URBANISM

Quit Trying to Make The New Urban Crisis Universal. Many Big City Problems are Theirs and Theirs Alone.

Like everything else under the sun, it appears the critical issues that some big cities are facing have come to dominate the national urban discussion. Serious problems like an affordable housing crisis, sharply rising inequality and a host of related fast-growth issues are now enveloping North America’s “star” cities — the tech, venture capital and finance hubs like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, New York, Boston, Austin and the rest of today’s “too successful” places.

Richard Florida, author of The New Urban Crisis.

Currently this is driven by the well-known urbanist and educator Richard Florida, whose recently-released book, The New Urban Crisis, is now a rallying point for every big city urban planner and urban studies enthusiast who want these problems addressed. Though perhaps not a mea culpa, Florida offers an admission that many of the strategies he championed in his 2002 book, The Rise of The Creative Class, may have resulted in the unrestrained growth and resulting Pandora’s Box of problems that have been unleashed.

Florida is a smart man; perceptive enough to have initially grasped and then given substance and shape to the trends he identified when writing The Rise of The Creative Class. It’s hard to say whether most of the big cities now reeling from The New Urban Crisis consciously followed the advice of his first book to the letter. It could be that his preferred strategies to attract smart, creative people — fostering the arts, creating walkable communities, adding bike lanes, etc. — were well in-play and may have been likely to happen one way or another.

And they did happen. A few cities have prospered greatly as a result; they attracted talent and money and jobs like interstellar behemoths, their irresistible attractiveness drawing everything unto themselves. The urban crisis Florida now outlines has not only left many less-fortunate cities dim and lifeless, it could even threaten to overwhelm and collapse the star cities into themselves — each like a giant red Betelgeuse.

Then what happens? Does the resulting explosive supernova scatter all that matter (jobs, money, brains) back out into other parts of the country? Those who say “it’ll never happen” only have to look at some of the great cities of the 20th century Midwest to know that it can. Those cities were the country’s prosperous star engines of economic growth until aging infrastructure, high labor costs and air conditioning made it easy for companies and people to pick up and go somewhere else.

A busy, bustling downtown Akron in the late 1950s

In Akron, for example, the rubber jobs didn’t go overseas in the 1980s or 90s due to NAFTA. They went to Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas, starting in the late 1960s, due to cheaper labor, new factories and efficient AC that made it possible to live and work productively in the summer heat. The long-term migration of jobs and economic power across geographic regions is a much more complex story than some coastal “experts” and media often care to address.

All economies eventually find equilibrium, one way or another. Like air conditioning, broadband internet makes it possible to live and work just about anywhere. Regardless of how many art galleries or hip restaurants you have to offer, you can expect that smart people will eventually tire of paying millions for a 1800 sq. ft. house while reading about similar houses in other places that cost a fraction of the price.

These other places aren’t Rust Belt ghettos, either. They are cities with world-class orchestras, great museums, lakes and national parks 20 minutes away, plenty of buildings ripe for reuse, four manageable seasons, and no earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, wildfires, floods or tornadoes. Best of all, bold and adventurous types can open their own art gallery or restaurant for a lot less money.

CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?

Perhaps the real point is — while some of North America’s great cities seethe, the rest of us are not losing sleep over the prospect of their entering a crisis stage. Overcrowded, congested, expensive and unequal?

Been there, done that.

Between 1910 and 1920, Akron experienced all these things during a period when it was the fastest-growing city in the United States. Severe housing shortages, serious environmental and infrastructure issues, assimilating a flood of immigrants — they were all in play during the city’s “Rubber Boom”. While many of those issues were dealt with successfully, some still haunt us to this day — like the hundreds of millions now being spent to remediate a hastily-built combined sewer system.

100 years ago, fast growth led to many problems for cities. It’s not new.

Analyzing the inevitable decline in many Midwestern cities over the last 50 years, one comes to understand that there was little that could have been done to hold back some of these internal and external forces. In many places, the primary job of most city leaders was to keep the doors open and the lights on, and wait for the pendulum to eventually swing back the other way. Like it always does.

One good thing about not being so busy is that you have plenty of time to think about things. If you happen to be a city, you have opportunities to try things out, see what works and what doesn’t. Time to decide what’s worth holding on to, and what’s not. Being hungry allows you to lose that troublesome belly fat. Eventually you get a little leaner and sometimes even a little better looking — and you can buy some new clothes, too.

Looking at history, one can see that The New Urban Crisis isn’t all that new; a lot of big Midwestern Cities experienced it about 100 years ago. Somehow, they muddled through, prospered for a long time, then gradually deflated like a soufflé. It’s highly likely that the process will repeat itself for at least some of today’s too-successful cities.

Most of today’s left-behind cities also suffered through decades of ill-advised “urban renewal” — which promised much but only resulted in clearing acres and acres of old and often attractive buildings from the landscape. We’d like to have those buildings back today. We tried adding new connecting highways, which only served to divide and isolate neighborhoods. Now they are being removed. We tried large scale; we’re finding small-scale to be more useful, manageable and productive. We’ve also got a head start on learning to do more with less — especially when it comes to Federal funding.

One useful remnant of those long-ago decades of success is the fact that many of these same cities still benefit from large foundations and endowment funds that are making it possible to rebuild, experiment and transform. The imprint of the major American companies who were founded in these cities (and which still operate locally, in some cases) can still be seen in the tens of millions of dollars they deliver to innovative community programs.

Another thing many of these cities have learned — after years of mostly-fruitless effort — is that devoting too much time and money to luring major employers promises too much and delivers too little. The focus now is on smaller-scale growth; encouraging local entrepreneurs and small business, encouraging collaboration and matching smart people with funding and other resources. This is especially relevant in a place like Akron, where leading 19th and 20th century industries like rubber, printing, cereal, farm machinery, clay products and trucking were all home-grown via small local businessmen and immigrants.

Gentrification is a bad word in star cities today, but the common feeling in my neck of the woods is that, if gentrification ever becomes an issue here, it means we must be doing something right.

It’s a by-product of housing demand, and up till now, the problem facing left-behind cities is that there hasn’t been a lot of demand. It is hoped that new strategies like tax abatements for residential construction and rehab will help, along with all the other enlightened approaches to community planning and development that are currently being tried and tested. The good thing is, having had some experience with too-fast growth, many of these cities can better appreciate the periods of loss, consolidation and slow-growth that make it possible to plan more thoughtfully. Also, clearly seeing the issues that follow gentrification, we would hope we can anticipate them and manage them a little better.

THE JURY IS OUT

We’ll know soon enough if Richard’s Florida’s dire predictions for America’s star cities will come true. New York will always be New York; places like Boston and Seattle will manage, and others — like San Francisco, may see significant challenges ahead. Like stars in the sky, it is inevitable that some will shine brighter, some will fade and others may collapse in one form or another.

There is no sense of schadenfreude here, as the wailing and gnashing of teeth that surrounds Florida’s book makes its way up and down my Twitter feed. I love New York, I find San Francisco to be enchanting, and I truly enjoy Florida’s Toronto as a magnificent cosmopolitan city. There is no satisfaction in knowing that these cities, and other like them, are struggling with these issues; any failure on their part would be a failure for all of us. But perhaps some consolation and perspective can be found in the realization that other cities have struggled with many of the same issues long before. History tells us that today’s cities’ success or failure may be dependent on forces that are not entirely under their control.

The other point to be made is that the future of the so-called left-behind cities may not be quite as dark as Florida would have us believe. Economics, climate change, and the freedom of people to come and go when and where they please are not wholly predictable and often indeterminate. Less hustle and bustle makes it easier and not unsatisfying to take the long view, tidy up the house, make plans for tomorrow, enjoy low mortgage payments and go celebrate on dollar beer night at the local watering hole. That’s not wishful thinking. That’s the lesson of history.

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