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Beyond Throwaway Cities: How To Build An Export-Proof Local Economy

We invest billions to create a functioning city. How do we create local businesses that won't be tempted to pack up our jobs and leave town?

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A central premise of contemporary urban policy encourages communities to become more attractive investment sites. Even when this approach succeeds, however, the communities concerned remain fundamentally dependent on the investment decisions of outside parties, whose concern is profit making, not community well-being—and, critically, often with little regard for sustainability.

Regional planning precedents can be found in European traditions of bolstering economically depressed cities, regions, and industrial areas. The European Union has employed a variety of “cohesion,” “solidarity,” and development funds aimed at redressing inequalities across countries so as to create an elevator to the top rather than a race to the bottom in terms of labor, environmental, and regulatory standards. Regions and nations with per capita gross domestic products below 75 percent of the EU-wide average, for instance, are eligible for “structural” assistance. The funds also assist communities harmed by natural disasters and provide support to middle-income and more affluent regions seeking to remain competitive. Taken as a whole, these funds amount to one-third of the EU’s total budget.

The key principle of regional planning must be the preservation and stability of existing communities and their productive capacities. We need policy that assures the continued use of productive capacities and provides assistance where conversion to a different product is required. Most often this will mean adopting some form of joint venture, including community, public, or worker ownership.

Population Growth and Sprawl

Stabilizing population centers—whether old or new—is also a first step to building the high-density, well connected hubs that will house the next 100 million Americans in a low-carbon future. The current pattern of American suburbanization has created a social pattern—one in which poverty and social problems are dramatically concentrated in central cities—that is itself a major impediment to the needed inside-out revitalization of metropolitan America. Current trends are not encouraging: A 2010 study of residential construction in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas in two periods (1990–1995 and 2003–2008) found that while the central-city share of residential construction showed some increases in the latter period, suburban areas still accounted for the majority of new construction in every metropolitan area except New York—indeed, over 85 percent of new construction in nearly half the areas.9 (This analysis excludes metropolitan areas that underwent significant expansion of central city boundaries via annexation during this time period or where the central city and surrounding county have consolidated.)

Instead of simply allowing the next 100 million Americans to add to sprawl, the dual strategy of creating anchored community wealth building institutions on the one hand, and using an overarching community-stabilizing approach in regional planning on the other, could help concentrate and support the population in old cities, in new areas, and around small existing towns viewed as “nodes” of new city development. The result could be the capacity to achieve sufficient stability to allow sustainability planning in both old and new areas.

Traditional means, of course, can also achieve benefits in the realm of sustainability. Portland, Oregon, has used urban growth boundaries, reinforced by an elected metropolitan regional government, to redirect development toward the city center, putting a firm limit on the extent of outward development. Montgomery County, Maryland, and Seattle, Washington, have used “transfer of development rights” programs to encourage infill development.

International examples are another guide. High-density suburbs linked to a central city and one another by mass transportation could serve as an update to Ebenezer Howard’s vision of planned decentralization (in his influential 1898 text Garden Cities of To-Morrow). Howard’s vision helped spur Britain’s New Towns movement, which led to the construction of over two dozen new towns in the first half of the twentieth century and is widely credited with reduced sprawl. Vauban, Germany, (outside Freiburg) provides a more contemporary example, creating a “carless suburb” based on the assumption that residents will notown cars.

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