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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Rust Belt cities: to avoid more shrinkage, protect & strengthen the core

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 4, 2012

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  vintage postcard of Cleveland (original image by Butler Airphotos, postcard via Brandon Bartoszek, creative commons license)

For some time, I have been on record as believing that the problem with former industrial cities that have lost population isn’t just the changing economy.  It’s also a failure to address suburban sprawl.  A close look at population data reveals that, while the populations within central cities’ jurisdictional boundaries have declined substantially, their suburbs have actually grown.  The result is that, if one defines “city” as the contiguous urbanized area within a metro region, regardless of political boundaries – the definition that matters to the economy and the environment – the shrinkage may vanish or be shown as far less than we think.

In short, “shrinking cities” have really been hollowing out more than shrinking.  Any policy tools that fail to recognize this have little chance of improving the situation, in my opinion.

A new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland lends weight to the argument that a dense urban core is important to the overall strength of a metro region.  The researchers examined population changes in census tracts within 180 metro areas, noting the location of tracts that gained or lost population – and by how much – in the 1980s, 1990s, and from 2000-2010.  persons per square mile (by: Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland)They found that, where regions grew, tracts near the center held relatively steady compared to those in the suburbs.  But, in those regions that shrank overall, a disproportionately greater share of the losses took place in the centers.

Indeed, in metro areas that grew in population (e.g., Sun Belt regions and stronger older regions such as Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia), the greatest growth from 2000 to 2010 took place not just near the center but in downtown census tracts.  The comeback of America’s downtowns and adjoining older neighborhoods is real.  But, in those metros that lost population (e.g., Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo), losses remained greatest near the cores.  A sign of encouragement for the shrinking regions, however, may be that their downtowns lost significantly less population after 2000 than did census tracts between three and fifteen miles from the central business district.  

The authors summarize:

“Overall, in growing cities, population density either remained the same or increased in most areas. In contrast, in shrinking cities, formerly high-density city centers saw the biggest drop in density, while the surrounding low-density areas saw an increase population density. In practice, this thinning out of high-density areas of shrinking cities is consistent with population movements out of urban areas and into the surrounding suburbs.”

The study includes density maps showing how Atlanta and Chicago maintained their core densities between 1980 and 2010, while Detroit and Cleveland lost theirs.  persons per square mile (by: Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland)All four regions show suburban and exurban growth, though to a lesser degree in the shrinking regions compared with the growing ones.  (Atlanta’s map shows sprawl that is, not to put too fine a point on it, just off-the-charts ridiculous.)

So: regardless of what’s happening in the suburbs, holding on to a city’s core population appears important to overall regional success.  Unfortunately, finding policy mechanisms to promote that outcome in the US, with our highly decentralized and fragmented patterns of municipal governance, remains a formidable challenge and well beyond the scope of a brief blog post.  (There’s reason for hope in a few places, such as California.)  But, even in the US, we have some regional and state mechanisms, from metropolitan planning organizations that allocate transportation spending to commissions that regulate utilities.  If properly aligned, those could begin to make a difference.

But perhaps the strongest potential force for bringing sense to our settlement patterns and strengthening central cities may be the business community.  This study cites evidence, for example, demonstrating that density is important to productivity (see related academic papers here, here and here).  The new findings add to its credibility.  Some employers are already reinvesting in core areas (even Detroit) in lieu of further sprawl.  I have a feeling that, if business becomes further convinced that reversing the decline of our older cities and neighborhoods is in its interest, the political tools may begin to fall into place.

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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channel.

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TomJan 4 2012 11:14 AM

Hi Kaid -

Your observations is on the money. There is a reason for this.

To understand what idea drained American cities of population, one should read: "The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defence" by Kathleen A Tobin, Purdue University, Cold War History, Vol.2, No.2, January, 2002.

This is an unrecognized if not suppressed history of the roots of sprawl in the U.S. as a defensive measure. Surviving a feared nuclear Pearl Harbor was the goal. Dispersion was the strategy.

Look for it on-line. If you can't find it, send me an email and I can send a PDF. The suburbanization pattern has led to extreme commuting - 50 miles plus one way - in many regions. It also contributed to the housing cost run-up. Suburban communities, in order to balance the cost of services from residential units, raised requirements so that every new home would pay the cost of any new children that might appear in the school system.

Low density increases the number and distance of trips. Nothing is walkable, as was the case in all cities and towns up through the 1950's. Technology can use communication to substitute for some trips, but it can't get milk and bread.

Industry should have moved to the suburbs, with the cities retained for housing and services. Transit lines could have been supported from population clusters to industry clusters.

Everything is so dispersed that huge park and ride lots are needed to collect a few people for a vanpool.

In the 1970's, transportation was the 15th criterion used by home buyers in selecting a location. They had a car and could get anywhere in a reasonable time. The newly built Interstates had excess capacity to take commuters into the cities. That didn't last.

Dense markets have lots of opportunities and are efficient due to proximity. It can also be a target. Therefore communities develop security and manners so as to benefit.

The clock can't be turned back, but going forward it is useful to understand how we ended up with this beautiful, inefficient and indebted America.


Don BabeJan 4 2012 02:23 PM

As an outsider looking in is the some confusion between cause and effect here. The cities that have lost their centres seem to be industrial cities where the industry has all but disappeared. A lot of those industrial workers would have lived in the central city as it was the oldest and cheapest housing stock. These cities need to reinvent themselves and a vibrant updated core will go some way towards it.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 4 2012 02:36 PM

I think probably a little of both. The reasons people fled the core were probably multiple and in some respects similar to the experience of nearly all big American cities in the 1960s-1980s. The researchers allow for the possible explanation that in the weaker cities newcomers didn't move into the core to replace those who fled because of a shortage of jobs.

Re-invention does seem important, and I would add that it needs to be the kind of reinvention that supports a robust core in order to succeed.

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