Related to my post yesterday on the repurpose agenda, I found a bit of give and take in the blogs today with Richard Florida at The Atlantic and Ed Glaeser at the New York Times. People versus place as the focus of restorative investment seems to be the subject; chicken or egg seems to be the challenge.
Ed Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor, writes in the Economix column of the New York Times that the bulldozing of shrinking cities would be a pretty good idea. I may agree with him, but there is something in his spirit, as well, that does not feel right. Glaeser recalls the history of settlement of the Midwest since the 1900’s and more specifically their emptying later in the century. He refers to the outmigration as a “move to sun and sprawl” as if climate and pavement were the choice. I seem to recall other motivators, like highly competitive tax breaks to corporations and strong anti-union cultures, being the catalyst for those who provided the jobs to move, causing those who needed the jobs to follow. This was not a climate seeking move but a political and economic one. Rather than arguing against benefits to the emptied cities of the North, Glaeser might want to try supporting some more sustainable incentives that might keep people where the infrastructure is, rather than building new infrastructure in the rural south where no demand existed before.
Richard Florida’s commentary on the subject of shrinking cities, and more specifically on the notion of bulldozing portions of some American cities, also carries some mixed spirit and a bit of false optimism. He agrees with Glaeser that a good policy is to encourage and enable mobility so that people can get to the places where they want to be. We are in a tremendous economic crisis right now because of financial manipulations that have devalued properties, cities, and personal nest eggs. Mobility is in most cases, I suspect, not a matter of education and talent, but of being stuck at the wrong place at the wrong time, having believed in the sustainability of corporations and the trust of financial institutions. To be in New York or California or Toronto and say to the General Motors worker in Michigan or Ohio, “c’mon, get a move on,” seems to suggest Florida’s agenda is to reinforce his migration data but make superficial his consideration of both current and historical underlying forces.
I appreciate booth Glaeser’s and Florida’s focus on people, but I am not ready to give that primacy over place. The “benign” or other neglect of shrinking cities no doubt makes less desirable places, reduces the social and economic diversity of a place, and reinforces both further outmigration and abandonment of infrastructure as well as otherwise unnecessary, consumptive, and perhaps overbuilding of new infrastructure in other places. That is, which is chicken, which is egg.
With them, however, I’d be very interested in exploring the potentials and benefits in forward-looking policies, practices and planning that would make Glaeser’s “older and colder” places more sustainable physically and, therefore, economically and socially supportive. I expect that encouraging growth by transplants to other places (moving Lake Michigan to Arizona?) may eventually generate shrinking cities in other places as mobility makes money nomadic.