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Ghost Towns in Sprawl Land

Our presidential candidates won't talk about the death of cities. Will our governors?

The truest true fact of American politics is that no candidate running this year is going to upset or even challenge the suburban sprawl industry.

Sprawl is the endless increase in housing supply, the endless outward redistribution of population from cities and older suburbs, the endless federal subsidy for roads, and the endless chatter about “good schools” that is just a code for “schools without poor, visible minorities” that dominates American political life.

Sprawl exists because of a bipartisan commitment to avoiding any talk about reining in the immense power of the real-estate industry.

Americans tend to believe that sprawl is a natural consequence of “free market” forces when, in fact, sprawl is a consequence of governmental decision-making made by governments that are responsive to one single industry.

Alas, the people who would lead our national government are not addressing sprawl. That means that the long-avoided discussions America ought to have on race, on climate-change, on imported energy, on highway construction, and on agriculture will all continue to lack a certain element of reality.

Meanwhile, as the silence continues, sprawl continues to rule. And American cities will continue to die.

A national problem

Folks in Buffalo may be forgiven for believing that this is a Buffalo phenomenon, especially when the major media here hammer relentlessly away at Census reports that the population residing within the 42 square miles of Buffalo’s boundary is getting older, smaller, and poorer.

Did you know that it’s San Francisco’s problem, too? And Boston’s? And Cleveland’s?

In 2005, the Census Bureau measured domestic migration—people moving within the United States—from 1990 to 2000, and from 2000 to 2004. The report provides the number of people moving into and out of each state and the 25 largest metropolitan areas.

What that report showed is that cities everywhere are in steep decline, while suburbs are “growing”—which means that population is being redistributed. Thanks to immense national, state, and local subsidies, population is being shifted out of cities and out of older suburbs and into sprawling suburbs

Look past Buffalo and consider the lovely old river city of Cincinnati, Ohio. It has an amazing cultural diversity—and great sports, great entertainment, a waterfront, serious healthcare infrastructure, and a huge corporate presence. Yet its population dropped over nine percent in the last decade. Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s suburbs keep sprawling, redistributing population outward while the regional population remains flat. After the next decennial Census in 2010, Ohio is expected to lose Congressional representation because Ohio—like all the states of the Northeast and Midwest—is experiencing sprawl without growth.

The main incentive for sprawl: silence

So far, Barack Obama is the only candidate who is speaking about Urban America. But he is speaking within the bounds of the 1960s paradigm about cities. His talk is all about the poverty of the deserted minorities of central cities, and not about the huge countervailing incentives that keep poor people marooned inside central cities.

Obama is speaking—albeit courageously and intelligently—within the bounds of a paradigm that seems to work for politicians but which economists and a couple of insightful ex-mayors understand is obsolete.

A major 2007 initiative of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Metropolitan Studies was to get thought-leaders across many disciplines to start thinking about cities again—not as enclaves but as the indispensable centers of metropolitan regional economies.

Economies, not municipal boundaries, are the issue.

Metro areas, the Brookings thinking suggests, have to be thought of the way we used to think of Athens and Rome—as city-states.

But still, the politicians’ paradigm of cities as defined within old boundaries, rather than as regional economies that need to be managed, governed, planned, invested in, and serviced regionally, persists.

Governmentally, cities remain isolated. Dying cities, in the words of former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk, are dying because they are trapped within “iron boxes.”

Rusk’s challenge to the paradigm isn’t new. He and others spoke in the mid-1990s about how Buffalo, Cincinnati, and most other cities in the Northeast and Midwest cannot annex their suburbs, and have no planning power over their suburbs, and so remain isolated.

That means that suburbs, which are typically organized as townships (like in Erie County, where we have 25 of them), get to make their own planning and spending decisions as if they were independent, supreme, self-sustaining entities rather than components of regional economies.

Towns are the problem. Towns disrupt regional planning. Towns insist on going it alone. Towns poach development from cities and from each other. And towns demand that subsidies flow.

In New York State, at least $1.5 billion of this year’s state budget will be spent on direct government-to-government aid for propping up these little local decision-making bodies.

In Erie County, all—all—of the county road budget will go to maintaining the 1,100 center-lane miles of roads in suburban towns that don’t want to pay for them, and for suburban culverts and bridges. State and federal highway funds pour into suburban towns in amounts that dwarf the funds invested in cities.

So in a marketplace (whether it’s Buffalo or Cincinnati) where there is already a huge oversupply of housing, the availability of county, state, and federal funds to build new roads and to maintain an already-overbuilt infrastructure leads to more and more subdivisions being built.

More sprawl.

And no presidential candidates are saying anything about it.

Are cities doomed?

If our politics is going to be run by towns, is there any hope for cities or for metro regions?

Folks who support and advocate for a new paradigm for governing cities and their regions have been hoping that their state governors would pay attention to the problem, because state budgets prop up this fractured system.

There’s despair about Washington, because Washington has been stuck in the 1960s mindset—which is, to be brutal about it, that cities are for the very rich and the very poor, and that suburbs are for white folks, and that there’s nothing to be done about it because the “free market” means that folks are going to live where they’re going to live, so we might as well just parse out money to suburbs for roads and to cities for anti-poverty programs.

There was hope that regional solutions would get a hearing from former Governor Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer had, as attorney general, seemed alert to the possibility of a paradigm shift. Folks were excited when he appointed former Jamestown Mayor Stan Lundine, along with many current and former elected officials, to a commission to study how to reform local government in New York State.

A preliminary version of that commission’s report leaked. Local politicians have commented, predictably, that its recommendations—for consolidating the many industrial development agencies, school districts, and local governments into many fewer regional industrial development agencies, governments, and school districts—are just unrealistic. Governor Paterson will soon receive this commission’s report.

If we can’t expect to hear anything from the presidential candidates, what can we expect from our governor?

Not much if, as expected, Paterson chooses not to disturb the political status quo.

Cities will continue to get special aid. Suburban real-estate developers will continue to receive their subsidies for further sprawl through the town governments they already control.

Thus town officials in suburban Buffalo and suburban Cincinnati will continue to do what town officials do—which is to facilitate the sprawl that kills cities.

Because the inevitable alternative is something like this: If cities are to live, the power of town governments must die. That’s a paradigm shift that would disrupt everything we think we “know” about race relations, transportation, imported oil, agriculture, and democracy.

But wait—isn’t that what we need?

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