Durable Growth

Wealth-stealing suburbs

Aging former home in Buffalo, an earlier CNU conference destination

Aging former home in Buffalo, an earlier CNU conference destination

I’ll spend five days in Detroit this coming June, attending the annual conference of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

I’m anticipating the trip with eagerness.  I haven’t been in Detroit since 1999.  And my focus back then was absorbing the atmosphere of Tiger Stadium during its final days.  Although I knew the extent to which the Motor City had already slid and had a hint of the depths still to come, my interest in that aspect of Detroit was confined to making sure that we avoided the more dubious districts in our navigation to the ballpark.

This time, my interest will be in the causes of the sickness that has befallen Detroit and the prospects for a recovery.  (Although I note that the Tigers have a home game on the evening before the conference convenes.  And I’ve never seen Comerica Park.)

I know the causes to which many ascribe the fall of Detroit, the mule-headedness of the car industry, the work ethic of the unionized labor force, the self-aggrandizement of union management, the corruption in City Hall, and I suspect that each is valid to some extent.

But I’ve also long had an inkling that something else, something more fundamental and insidious, was at work.  The biggest hint was that many surrounding cities and counties were doing fine, perhaps a bit dinged by the collapse of Detroit, but surviving well.  Also at play was the attitude shown by the executive for a neighboring county who declaimed, “I love sprawl.  I need it.  I promote it.  Oakland County can’t get enough of it”, as he showed off the expansive collection of chain stores within his jurisdiction.

My hypothesis was that the fall of Detroit, although the mistakes of industry, labor, and government all had roles, was more about the fluke of where the political boundaries had been drawn on a map and the ease with which we facilitate the movement of produced wealth from the urban centers to suburbs.

I suspected that Detroit might be only the worst example of a pattern that could be found elsewhere.

Writing in the Washington Post, Emily Badger and Lazaro Gamio have now done much to support my hypothesis.  (Once again, the Washington Post is proving elusive to links, at least from my computer.  But clicking on the top link from this Google search should get to the article.)

What Badger and Gamio find is that most of the richest counties in the country, as measured by household income, are located on the perimeter around large cities, although most of the cities themselves show much lower incomes.

Furthermore, there are few prosperous counties that don’t adjoin cities.

The most reasonable conclusion is that cities create wealth.  Even when we allow the wealth to be too easily exported to the suburbs, most cities continue to generate exportable wealth, with the exception of the occasional city that craters under the burden and its specific circumstances, such as Detroit.

How do we facilitate the wealth exportation?  We allow suburbs to assume forms, with demographic separation and car-dependence, that are neither environmentally nor fiscally sustainable but seem attractive to many because the residents aren’t paying the full cost.

And we subsidize the costs of the transportation that conveys wealth and economic activity from the cities to the suburbs and within the suburbs.

There is nothing inevitable about affluent suburbs ringing struggling cities.  That distribution of wealth is the inevitable result of policy decisions we’ve made and that we can still reverse.

What are the implications to the North Bay?  First, we owe greater appreciation to San Francisco and Oakland for our economic prosperity than we may sometimes acknowledge.  Second, even on a sub-regional scale, the same effect may well occur.  It’s likely that Windsor or Rohnert Park would be in worst fiscal conditions if Santa Rosa wasn’t filling the role of regional driver.

We need an alternative form of governance that correctly values and rewards the roles of urban centers and ceases undermining them.  And we need to begin modifying our suburbs to function more like wealth-generating cities.

Simply put, we need more urbanism.  And Detroit, far from being a warning sign about cities, should be a case study of why cities need our support.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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