Richard Florida Questions Shinking Cities’ Strategy

I think this is the most important article I have seen on the Rust Belt urban condition since this blog began.

Kain Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council has raised questions about the wisdom of mass demolitions in “shrinking cities.” In this article, he points out that leading urban thinker Richard Florida has joined him in this perspective.

Detroit: a wonderful place for agriculture.

Detroit: a wonderful place for agriculture?

Benfield makes the point that Detroit, Cleveland and other shrinking cities are being hollowed out, not by regional population loss, but by sprawl. Returning urban areas to quasi-rural will simply lengthen commute times as investment and population continue to flow to the periphery.

Metro Detroit, the poster child for these supposedly shrinking places, actually grew in population from 1990 to 2003; the population did decline between 2000 and 2008, but only by six-tenths of one percent.  The real problem is that the footprint of its suburbs was allowed to grow during that period, at the expense of the central city.  With demolition and conversion of urban land to neo-rural tracts, that pattern will only be exacerbated, with serious consequences for transportation emissions and the surrounding landscape.

I think this is a very, very good point. From a regional perspective, it just doesn’t make sense to invest a bunch of resources to convert city land into agricultual use while in the meantime investing a bunch of money in the exurbs to convert agricultural land into housing.

How can we stop the destructive pattern of outmigration? The problem is in Cleveland is there is just no political will for this. Everyone seems content to live in a suburban bubble 6 miles from urban apocalypse.

Someone told me yesterday that there is a 24-year difference in the life expectancy of someone who lives in Cleveland’s inner-city Hough neighborhood and someone who lives in the nearby suburb of Lyndhurst. 24 years! Why is this kind of inequality tolerated in Cleveland? Fear? Racism? Complacency? Cosy ties between politicians and developers?

Our cities need to stand up for themselves. Their problem isn’t caused so much by de-industrialization as by their own suburbs. Urban agriculture, to me, is a conciliatory strategy because it doesn’t address the true cause of urban problems it only treats the symptoms.

Check out what the city of Cleveland has done to its now popular entertainment district. My friend Matt sent me these photos. And he asked, what was gained?

Cleveland's Warehouse District today

Cleveland's Warehouse District today


Cleveland's Warehouse District 1960

Cleveland's Warehouse District 1960s


Filed under Art, Featured, sprawl, the environment, Urban Planning

24 responses to “Richard Florida Questions Shinking Cities’ Strategy

  1. Andy

    Without regional planning a la Portland, which is and will forever remain politically impossible in most of the country and Rust Belt metros in particular, there has been no practical policy intervention to stop exurban sprawl.

    However, there are 2 unintended forces, largely beyond regional policymakers’ control, that have proven effective:
    1. The summer 2008 spike in gas prices, which for the first time pushed a significant number of car commuters to switch to public transit and made commuting from the exurbs much less attractive.
    2. The housing meltdown, which essentially halted new residential construction. The crash in the housing market has been the only effective remedy to sprawl, at least from what I’ve seen in metro Detroit. The market has restricted buyers to existing homes, which, while it doesn’t move them back into the core city, at least prevents them from continually extending the frontier of exurban settlement.

    If and when the housing market recovers, the sprawl will resume and continue until the next time we get a spike in gas prices to summer 2008 levels.

  2. erg

    but aren’t the demolition programs tearing down buildings and structures that are so damaged that they’d have to demolished for redevelopment anyway? obviously, the market demand doesn’t exist for redeveloping those sites yet and there needs to be more effort to create that demand but still–i don’t think they intend to be urban prairies forever.

    also, is the 24-year life expectancy thing true? is that from a study somewhere?

  3. schmange

    ERG: My urban planning professor Norm Krumholz gave me the info about 24 years yesterday in class. Caveat, I’m not 100% sure it was Lyndhurst. It might have been Lyndale. Anyway, it was some run of the mill Cleveland suburb. I think it comes from research done at Cleveland State University’s Center for Health Equity.

    There isn’t a demand for buildings in Cleveland because we’ve opened 100s of miles to development in the outlying counties at great public expense. That is the problem.

    I’m going to add a picture to the post courtesy of my friend Matt Klesta. Watch what demolition did to Cleveland’s Warehouse District. We’ll never get that back.

  4. I think you are right. Until cities like Detroit and Cleveland overcome the Balkanization of their areas nothing much will change. Oc course much of these divisions are based on race and class, so they will be that much harder to overcome.

  5. BrianTH

    If you want to be hopeful, I think it is worth noting that the country as a whole is still urbanizing, meaning the rural population is still losing share relative to the urbanized area population, and meanwhile existing core urbanized areas are now getting denser even as their metro areas also sprawl, a process (as noted above) likely accelerated by recent events.

    As a result, specifically anti-urban political coalitions are losing potency on a structural level (even if they may briefly make a comeback on a cyclical level, such as in the upcoming elections). Accordingly, I think there is good reason to believe that over the next couple decades, we will see a shift–not necessarily a smooth or consistent one, but an overall trend nonetheless–toward less and less anti-urban policies at the federal level, and also at the state and county level in many cases.

    Given that context, I do think the right question to ask is how can cities best hold on while political conditions at higher levels of government gradually improve, and they should not be overly hasty to assume the indefinite continuance of the development patterns of the last few decades.

  6. You were correct; the 24-year year difference in life expectancy is between Hough and Lyndhurst. The figures were calculated by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. You can see a map on page four of this document. The Board of Health more information.

  7. Chris

    One thing about your use of photos of the “Warehouse District” in Cleveland … you’re not using them in context, because in the 1960s, it wasn’t called the “Warehouse District,” and it was NOT an entertainment district. It was … warehouses. Offices too, but no residences. And it was in the late 1960s and the early 1970s that many of the buildings were torn down, to make way for parking lots for commuters who worked in downtown offices. There was a slow movement beginning in the late 1970s for people to move in to the neighborhood, and for creative companies like ad agencies to renovate the old buildings into new offices. Then after there was a residential population in the neighborhood, restaurants moved in, and then nightclubs, and it became an entertainment district. It became a full-blown entertainment district when the nearby “Flats” area pretty much ceased being a viable entertainment district when it turned into a drunken scene, and scared away the well-heeled diners and nightclub attendees, who discovered the Warehouse District instead. Ironically, the Warehouse District is itself threatened, not by sprawl, but by unscrupulous nightclub owners who are lowering the ages of their patrons and attracting more of an unsavory crowd. It’s also causing some of the residents to move out because of the loud music, the crowds on the streets every night, the fights, the rising violence and crime.

    So before you make your “before” and “after” pronouncements, do some research.

  8. schmange

    Call it whatever you want. The question is was it wise to demolish all those buildings? I’m not saying one way or the other, but it’s an interesting contrast, I think.

  9. carl

    I expect demolition was cheaper at the time than rehabilitation involving asbestos removal and lead abatement. Cleveland proper has been losing population for five decades so there wasn’t as much capital pushing for condo renovations as someplace like Chicago.

    • schmange

      I guess you’re right. I sympathize with Cleveland. It was in a tough spot.
      Do you think demolitions encourage sprawl like Kain Benfield says? I guess in the sense that is removing potential housing, it does. On the other hand, Cleveland officials might tell you that removing blighted structures is the only way to stabilize the population. The problem is, if the urban area is rural and the outer fringe is urbanized, that puts an unnecessary strain on natural resources. I am just kind of thinking aloud now …

  10. JM Schilling

    From the long range perspective Benfield and Florida are right that metropolitan strategies are necessary in order to have a sustainable transformation of America’s most distressed cities, such as Cleveland and Detroit. As much as I or others might agree, we cannot allow current residents in these neighborhoods to live next door to abandoned buildings and vacant properties that pose serious health and safety hazards. Cleveland is moving in the right direction by having the county land bank lead the charge with the demolition, management and control over abandoned, dilapidated and tax delinquent property in an effort to keep out of town speculators from once again causing further dysfunction in the market. Such an approach to vacant land reclamation coupled with the state planning reforms proposed by Benfield and Florida would provide the idea “inside” and “outside” strategy. But the fight for statewide planning reforms is a marathon battle, so in the short term something must be done to protect public health.

  11. Jim N.

    It’s easy to point out the negatives about sprawl and loss of buildings in Cleveland — and I don’t disagree that there’s much to regret. But to compare us to Chicago, New York, San Fran or other dense cities — or even to Portland — is invalid. We have sprawl because we CAN have sprawl. Strongsville or Solon are 30 minutes or less from downtown. If people in NYC, Chi or Portland could have easy commutes like that, they would not be rehabbing inner-city buildings, either. They’re not necessarily more enlightened than Cleveland. They just have fewer options. In fact, that was the whole point of Portland’s growth rings: By removing developable property from the table, you make the rest of the property far more valuable — or far more expensive, depending upon one’s perspective. Whether that’s good or bad is a value judgment; there isn’t an inherently right or wrong answer.

    • schmange

      I guess that’s fine if you’re ok with living in a horrible place like Strongsville. As long as Cleveland has that attitude though, it’s young people will leave and never look back. That’s the difference between New York and San Francisco and Portland and Cleveland, people want to live in those other cities.

      If the best Cleveland can do is a bunch of mediocre suburbs like Strongsville, that is really, really sad.

  12. Joe, thanks for commenting. I guess the frustrating thing for me is that the efforts devoted to the short term strategy dwarf those devoted to the long-term strategy.

    Cleveland is investing everything it has in demolition and urban gardening. Nobody’s talking about sprawl and the suburbs.

    Those guys are right. Demolishing the city and building up the suburbs is sprawl and it’s counterproductive. I understand the city is in a relatively powerless position, but what about the nonprofits, and foundations, what about political leaders? They aren’t leading the community to address its unsustainable development patterns, they are building gardens in the city–putting a happy face on a man-made disaster. The result will be country in the city and city in the suburbs and one backwards community.

  13. Anon

    You’ve got to sort out some of the demographics and understand that people have different needs over the course of their life.

    The young people who move to NY or Chicago are only in trendy & dense Lakeview or Williamsburg for a few years. Once they get married and have children, they move to a suburb of Chicago or NY, which, (surprise) looks exactly like Strongsville. For every yuppy couple raising a child in Chicago proper, there are 5-10 who left for the suburbs.

    Imagine you enforced a growth boundary. You halted building on the fringes. What would the city look like? Do you think middle class people would leap frog back into the empty neighborhoods? Would they live in the doubles on 5000 sq ft lots? Or would middle class families stay in the suburbs and low income families stay in the old neighborhoods, instead of moving to the inner rings?

    How would this be more attractive to young professionals? Do they like living next door to the low income households? Next door to the stodgy married-with-children types?

    Yuppies already have several neighborhoods to choose from in the city. What would you gain by forcing the other households to live closer? What would they gain?

  14. I’m not advocating an urban growth boundary. I advocate making people that choose to live in places that require entirely new infrastructure foot the entire cost of that infrastructure and pay for the cost of demolition or whatever other costs they impose on the city through their preferences. Instead the region and the state subsidizes their private investment to the detriment of our very viability.

    And it’s not just young people that want to live in viable cities, it’s smart people. Cleveland could use a few more of them. Instead smart Clevelanders live in places that have managed to make their cities nice instead of turning their back on them.

  15. Two comments from Youngstown. Comment one:

    I identify with J Shilling’s comments. Florida et al can come walk a south side street in Youngstown with me and tell one of my block watch leaders that the house next door to them – which posesses no market value and is a candidate for the next arson or drug house – should remain so that we do our small (largely theoretical) part in helping to prevent sprawl while we fight it out in our city capitals over statewide planning reform. I want to YouTube that response. I also find it interesting that as much as Florida pontificates about “bottom-up” solutions to quality of life rust belt urban dilemma, if you were to ask many of the residents that live in the neighborhoods of the city at present if they think blight removal is important to the long term sustainability of their neighborhood and city, you’d be hard pressed to find a majority “no” vote.

    How we got to this point and what is geographically continuing to happen metro region is important and merits is own (simultaneous) campaign of work but it also does not trump addressing the immediate needs of the present. The vacant properties that remain – by and large – are public health issues of the most severe nature. Properties will come down. Make no mistake about it. That’s a reality that we must be prepared to accept in whatever strategy / formula we pursue moving forward. Blending this with better land control tools such as land banks along with better organized neighborhoods and thoughtful economic and neighborhood (condition) based strategies, figuring out innovative intervention strategies on our local educational and youth development fronts, and electing leadership from these areas where real bottom-up solutions / work is being conducted…that will give us a meaningful chance.

    With that being said, I get and agree with the general premise of the article / post which is to ask ourselves: how balanced is our approach to the larger problem (dealing with the physical conditions of the inner city now while fighting for more equitable policy from a regional standpoint)? While I don’t believe that large scale demolition is unavoidable in places like Youngstown and Cleveland, I believe the intent of this article/ conversation is to agitate us around the fact that we need to pick up the slack in regards to aggressive metro equity policy change…and asking the question of how aggressively are we pursuing this agenda. Despite how difficult and time consuming dealing with the physical (and non-physical) problems of the inner city can be alone, this type of evaluation / critique of our work should be ongoing. Given the limited resources and capacity we have to simply address the problems at present inside the cities, I think it underscores the fact that we must find the time and ability to prioritize the work of these types of issues in a more collective, regional manner. If we are still bulldozing houses in Youngstown in 15-20 years from now, we have failed. Good article / post. Thanks for sharing Rust Wire.
    Comment two:

    The point of growing inward as opposed to continuing to sprawl out is well taken. However sprawl can only be contained via state, federal, and regional reforms related to taxation, land use, transportation investment, etc(as Schilling suggests). In a state such as Ohio those types of changes may never happen soon.

    The other generalized point suggests that these regions are not losing population as whole, which is correct for some regions with shrinking cities. Youngstown and Warren happen to be shrinking cities in a shrinking region thus demolition in tandem with other strategies is necessary.

    Finally as is also stated in the comments – the majority of structures that are demolished are dilapidated housing that have NO value as real estate products and would be torn down regardless of whether green space or a new building was being erected.

  16. Anon

    Making exurb developers pay the full price of the new infrastructure is a weaker tool than an outright ban on development. Wouldn’t new home buyers just mortgage the extra $5000 and keep driving?

    All my questions remain. If you stopped all the subsidies, how would the city be different?

    How would you price someone’s cost of demolition? Should we send a bill to someone who interviewed for a job in Cleveland, but took a job in DC instead? Do we owe something to every place we choose not to live in? Should India bill us for all the hard working, smart immigrants they send us?

    I’m not trying to be argumentative, but you’ve got to articulate your case if you’re going to convince anyone who isn’t already an urbanist.

    What is the evidence that smart people want to live in cities? Some smart people do obviously, because that’s where we find them living. On the other hand, if pull from the census all peopel 25-30 with a college degree, you’ll find a majority live in the suburbs (nationally, not just here). 30-65 with a college degree, an overwhelming majority are in the suburbs. College graduates have higher incomes, so they could easily afford many city neighborhoods. If they want to live in cities, why don’t they?

  17. schmange

    Anon: The cost of infrastructure is no $5k. If it cost, let’s say, $40k more to build a home in Avon than buy a fixer-upper in Rocky River, I don’t think you’d see the same pattern. Instead the government picks up the tab and they send people in Rocky River the bill. I’m talking roads, sewers, electric, how about the cost of new schools and other public facilities. Make them pay it all, 100%. A demolition costs $5-10k. Take the average. What is happening is the opposite. Suburban people foist these costs onto city residents because they are paid by the state in large part.

    The trend of well educated people leaving places like Cleveland for San Francisco and New York is so well documented it’s silly to even begin pointing to specific sources. It’s called Brain Drain. If you need a source, check out Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class.

    As for your assertion that all middle-aged people and all families want to live in the suburbs, I just disagree. Families and the middle class are responding to government incentives to move to the suburbs–lower taxes, better schools, better safety services–these are political constructs built around arbitrary political borders. Take Bratenahl. Urban place, great location, good schools, good services, popular among the middle and upper class and families. Demand for urban dwellings is undercut by government policies that undermine cities.

    The way we fund schools in the state is unconstitutional. Why not level the playing field a little, give the city a chance to compete? Why not make road maintenance a priority over road construction, or at least make it equal? Why offer tax incentives for businesses to move from the city to the suburbs? These are specific examples of policies that undermine cities.

    But they undermine the region too by creating vast ghettos like East Cleveland. Like it or not, that is what people from outside the region think of when they think of Greater Cleveland. The fact that there are some cheaply built homes near freeway interchanges 10 miles outside the city where people look down their noses at city residents is irrelevant.

  18. Anon

    I’m trying to help you here. You need a lot more facts.

    Start with Bratenahl is part of the Cleveland school district.

    What is the tax structure in this region/state. State revenue is mostly in two forms – sales tax revenue and personal income tax. These are the same state wide. The state builds and maintains state routes. Local roads are built and maintained with local taxes. Electric utilities and water infrastructure are paid for with user fees. New schools are funded with local property taxes. The bill sent to Rocky River is not that big.

    Claiming suburban people place a cost on the city is ridiculous. That’s like saying you put a cost on Walmart every time you shop at Target. Demolishing a property is at most, a cost that should be borne by the last owner, or like restitution you might pay if caught illegally dumping. In most cases, the people buying new homes in the exurbs were born and raised in the suburbs. How can you hold them responsible for a transaction they were never a part of?

    Richard Florida’s work, from an econometric stand point, is garbage. Everyone in academia knows that. Its a bunch of correlations with no test of causation. People may just as well be moving places with jobs or well-heeled patrons to support artistic endeavors. No one is moving to places without suburbs or sprawl because *there is no place* without suburbs or sprawl. Phoenix, Charlotte, Atlanta, DC, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle … sprawl sprawl sprawl everywhere.

    Are these metros successful? If yes, how did they succeed without stopping sprawl? They attracted enough people to fill in most of their existing housing. Did they fix their central city public schools? Heck no. Chicago and DC have horrible schools. Boston and NY are only slightly better. Did they eradicate crime? To some degree in some neighborhoods. Other neighborhoods still see a lot of violence.

  19. Sean Posey

    American metro areas have reached such a condition due to the central conflict and tension regarding two incompatible urges: the desire to embrace growth and consolidation in urban areas, and the desire to also maintain local control and economic and demographic isolation.

    The importance of general incorporation laws in the nineteenth century proved to be a central development on the path to a fractured metropolis. Legislatures during this time period essentially ended up abrogating much of their responsibility to decide the who, what, and how of incorporation. Instead much of this responsibility passed to local voters and local business and cultural interest groups.

    The evolution of municipal disorder was far from a foregone conclusion, at least in other parts of the North Atlantic world. In Great Britain a much different attitude developed regarding the evolution of metropolitan areas. While self-determination seemed to win the day in the states, the British example was one much more focused on centralized control over the planning process.

  20. schmange

    Anon: This is a blog not a dissertation. It’s not that I don’t appreciate your feedback. You make some good points. But it is what it is. Take it or leave it.

    I present a source on Brain Drain, you deny it is happening and question the source nevermind that the book;s premise is generally accepted by experts across the country, at this point. I don’t have time for what you are suggesting. If you’re interested, look into it more.

    For people to move to formerly rural places, someone has to build a lot of things. Unless the new residents foot the bill entirely that cost is paid by people who live in areas already served by infrastructure. This is how existing residents, whether they are urban or suburban fuel sprawl. Cleveland is 450k people in a county of $1.29M and their combined state taxes, no matter how low their incomes, is significant. When the state takes their money and builds highway interchanges in the exurbs, they pay for their own undoing. Do you understand my argument?

    My argument about suburban people imposing a cost on the city is simple. Metro Cleveland’s regional population has been stagnant since 1970. But we have expanded our urbanized area over that time. The result is vacant housing. My argument is that for every house built on formerly agricultural land, necessarily a house will be abandoned in the urban area.

    The city must pay for the demolition. That is a cost that the exurban resident imposes on the city and it is one of many. If you can’t agree with that logic then I guess we’ll just never see eye to eye on this, because that is my general premise.

  21. Jey

    I support you schmange, I really do, but as far as Cleveland is concerned, it’s hopeless. As long as Cuyahoga County, the adjacent counties, and the Ohio General Assembly are all dominated by anti-city suburbanites, it’s hopeless. Just look at the people running for Governor and Senate. Or the Cuyahoga County council seats. Just look at the all the disgusting comments on every article. Nothing will ever change in Northeast Ohio. It’s too many of “them” and too little of “us”.

  22. Pingback: “Job creation” in 21st century America | Under the Mountain Bunker

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