Questioning the Rust-Belt-Cities-as-Laboratories Concept

This is a popular concept. You hear it about Detroit most often. Detroit, laid low by population loss and poverty, is a breeding grounds for experimentation.

Everyone is waiting for someone — just anyone — with a good idea that will change the whole dynamic there. Often the trial solutions tend toward almost utopian — urban gardens, artist settlements, etc.

I have been slowly coming of the opinion that this is wrong on a few levels. Hear me out.

For one, I find it a little insulting/patronizing. Detroit, home to 700,000 people is a “laboratory”? That sort of implies that the stakes are somehow low. That there is room for a fair amount of failure.

In fact, Detroit is a desperate city, full of desperate people. And its resources are scarce. Here more than anywhere, it’s proven strategies that should be employed.

Here is the thing. The field of urban studies/urban planning is relatively new compared to fields like medicine or even psychology. But it is becoming increasingly sophisticated. We as a society have made investments in skilled researchers who are constantly arriving at new conclusions — conclusions that justify certain courses of action and condemn others. These experiments are designed to take the guesswork out of city planning and development, to save communities from making costly errors.

Urban planning and development, as I see it, is a lot more sophisticated a field than beautification. Transportation planning, development planning, taxation, the flow of capital — it’s complicated stuff, infused with lessons from architecture, engineering, real estate development and other fields. Those with the most experience in these realms are those who are best equipped to solve the problems of Detroit or Cleveland — not just your average joe off the street, it is my belief.

It seems to me, redevelopment efforts in Cleveland and Detroit are often tinged with just a touch too much Disney. The solutions so often seem so whimsical, so simple. Plant gardens on empty lots. Draw artists to empty homes. Plan a slick marketing campaign.

The actual business of urban planning I observe in cities that are having a lot of success right now is, by contrast, very technical. It took decades for Portland to plan its streetcar system. And it took almost another decade for the city to develop guidelines for transit oriented development, establishing the proper tax incentives, the right guidelines for residential development and parking, that would satisfy the city’s need for investment, while maintaining its commitment to sustainability and respecting the public’s investment. It was complicated. And it is a science. Not a hard science, but a science none the less.

My day job allows me access to some of the world’s top planning professionals. And I had the opportunity last year to speak with one such professional about Detroit. One thing he said to me is that there is really a need for a new lending dynamic, a new way to finance housing investment, because the old 30-year mortgage model no longer works there — and that is self-evident. A new model for funding housing investment by individuals, something that respects the special dynamics of a weak market city like Detroit. That is the kind of innovation needed, I feel like, but it’s not s flashy as public art. We need a finance nerd to innovate that financial industry custom.

Perhaps, on blogs like this one, we are too focused on urban design innovation and not focused enough on policy. Detroit and Cleveland don’t need experimentation, I don’t think, as much as they need to implement proven strategies that more successful cities have adopted — Portland’s land use planning, Minneapolis’ commitment to transit and density, New York’s innovation in livable streets.

Now people will respond: You can’t compare Cleveland and Detroit to Portland and New York. And on some level they are right. Of course, something that worked in New York couldn’t be copied and pasted — the biggest reason is because of differences in the housing market. But I see no reason why the same campaigns couldn’t work — with some skilled adaptation.

Last week, a friend suggested something that I thought was a really good idea for Rust Belt cities for the first time in a long time. He suggested Cincinnati land bank its publicly owned parking lots for development. Wonky right? You probably aren’t going to form a neighborhood coalition around that. But that is the type of innovation that I think is needed — things that will return development and old-fashioned vibrancy to the central city, with a helping hand from the government. Planning is about guiding the hand of development. And Rust Belt cities are failing at it, although to be fair, it is more challenging here.

I think in a lot of ways, Detroit’s failures, Cleveland’s failures, they are the result of bad planning (or no planning) and unsophisticated government leadership. Cleveland’s multiple botched lakefront development attempts are a classic example.

I think these cities, they need not necessarily be in a class of themselves, or not quite as much as they have been. Rust Belt cities don’t need totally new solutions. They just need the same solutions — with modification — and they need to break down the political obstacles to change.

I know I am outside the mainstream in my thinking on this. But I think that the only solution to Detroit and Cleveland’s problems must be political. Cleveland cannot pull itself up by its bootstraps. Only through a concerted regional effort can the central city be saved from continuing decline — and only if that happens can the region, including its suburbs, be saved.

But it doesn’t need to, and isn’t equipped to, reinvent the wheel. The solutions are right there for the taking. The real struggle is convincing these cities to confront that and move forward, I think.

-A.S.

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2 responses to “Questioning the Rust-Belt-Cities-as-Laboratories Concept

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere « Visualingual

  2. Pingback: Questioning the Rust-Belt-Cities-as-Laboratories Concept | Civic Strategies | Scoop.it

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