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What the Rust Belt can Learn from Booming Toronto

30 August 2013 No Comment

Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis, Dayton, Toledo and kindred cities continue to say goodbye to more people than come in. It is time to look at revitalization differently and it is not managed decline.

Asia Town in Cleveland

Heart felt city policies, resources, and attention are about getting natives to stay in depopulating cities.  Initiatives from local hiring, contracting, and procurement, to work force training, to casinos may be worthwhile, but they are not going make an outgoing tide come in.   I will get to what will shortly. Sandra Pianalto, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, in her Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial “Fixing Cleveland’s housing problem: Sandra Pianalto”, gets the analysis right, but the solution wrong. Sandra says Cleveland has too great a housing supply for the demand for houses.  (true) Sandra continues in the right direction…, she says “we need to focus on the demand side of the market” (absolutely) and then  unfortunately soon after goes off course. Sandra steers the “turn Cleveland around ship” right into a school reform detour.

What's left of Detroit's Chinatown

I am not against better schools, but Cleveland is not going to reverse its population exodus by tweaking , overhauling,  you pick the verb ….its school system.  No underfunded or overfunded US school system has ever led to reversing a city’s population decline. In fact, if Cleveland’s school system performs better, more beneficiaries are likely to leave Cleveland.  Higher educated people are more mobile than less educated people.

Political and civic leaders are in place to serve the people that are there, or remain, as is the case.  Nativism, and native boosting projects, have a strong heartfelt pull and cast votes at the ballot box. However, nativist projects should not be confused with policies that are going to drastically change the trajectory of the city’s population. If a city wants to reverse its decline, it needs to turn its attention toward attraction.  Cleveland and Detroit are not going to self-breed or educate their population to growth and prosperity.  The only way they will come back is by attracting new people from other places.

Chinatown Toronto

New York is the great example.  It hemorrhages talented people and families to other parts of the country. In this way, it is just like the rust belt population losers, but alas, here is the big difference.  New York City is constantly refreshing its population.  Aaron Wrenn of the Urbanophile in his article Migration Matters says it beautifully.

“If you think again about New York, it takes in immigrants-raw recruits if you will-and spits out Americans. It takes in young singles-more raw recruits-and spits out up skilled people with families. There is huge value added in this. In a sense, New York City is a gigantic refinery for human capital. It’s a smelter for people. Perhaps we shouldn’t be any more sad about New York exporting people than we are about it exporting financial services. Taking in people, adding value, then exporting them is one of New York’s core competencies. Maybe we should be thanking it for providing a valuable service.”

All of our cities need some of this quality. Cities should be both exporters and importers of people.  Cities need churn. The good news is that attracting new people is actually probably easier than making Cleveland schools top notch or other lofty city initiatives that have a nativist bent. The answer can be found in a once little hamlet one lake away from Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit.  This not-so-little anymore frosty boomlet has gained more people since 1950 than Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit have lost in that same time period.  In fact, this frost belter has added a net 111,000 people in the last five years and just surpassed Chicago as North America’s 4th largest city.

Attracting people can come in three forms. In migration can come from your region (you can define region), your country, or from distant lands.  The Rust Belt’s cold struggling cities are going to have a hard time achieving a net domestic US migration population explosion for the time being, especially from places south and west.  Toronto- the great lake, frost belt, rust belt, boomlet town shows that foreign born immigration is a lay-up that they keep converting over and over, while nearby American cities keep shooting long jump shots. Natives can go along for the immigration ride and watch their schools, services, and opportunities improve along the way.

Hogtown, yes, that is Toronto’s nickname from its frontier days, is comprised of (just a shade under) 50 % foreign born. This 49+percent immigrant population comprises half of Toronto’s 2.6 million people and a metro area now over 5.6 million. In 1950, Toronto was just slightly larger than Cleveland and about 700,000 warm bodies less than Detroit’s population. Today there are more foreign born Torontonians than the combined populations of Detroit and Cleveland.  Toronto attracts Asians. Cleveland’s Asia Town strategy is a streetscape project!  I am not exactly sure if it involves actually adding Asians.  Toronto does not have better weather, natural resources, or geographic advantages than probably any of America’s big city population losers.  It’s booming economy relies on “innovation and the development of ideas to create wealth”  according to Invest Toronto. Toronto understands immigrants are a central ingredient to their success.  It starts with a friendly immigrant portal for getting started in Toronto!

Cleveland, Detroit, etc.  would be forever changed if they made their primary revitalization strategy to be a top American “port of entry.”  (The Feds would have to approve and cooperate)  Cities need new people and immigrants to America have a centuries long tradition of creating or finding opportunity.

Even better, many immigrants would be excited to come if it came with an expedited US green card (even if it required a start out in a Rust Belt City provision) .  Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit boomed with the help of immigrants from eastern Europe before WWI, and African-american migrants from the American South in WWII.  It is time to avoid native protectionism and tailor a policy to bring new waves of immigrants that would be eager to call themselves Clevelanders et al. Looking across the lake to Toronto is the first step.

This post was written by Jeff La Noue and originally appeared at Comeback City.