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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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At the micro level, bike-friendly, transit-oriented Dutch cities—such as Amsterdam, but also provincial cities—provide a model for truly multimodal cities in which cars are present but decidedly secondary. A range of other European policies that raise the effective cost of driving, combined with ample public support for transit, have largely succeeded in making it possible for middle-class and working-class urban residents to have full access to the city and its opportunities without depending on a car. Distant as it may seem, that is the goal American cities must aim to achieve over the coming generation if they hope to meet the larger sustainability challenge.

A serious strategy must obviously “walk on two legs”: We need to do whatever can be done through traditional reforms. And at the same time we need to develop new green wealth strategies to anchor jobs and new national and regional strategies to increase community stability now—and as new populations continue to challenge planning at all levels.

Building a Road Map for a New Politics of Sustainability

Most promising in all this is rapidly growing interest in and awareness of the connection between healthy urban America and climate change: Americans are increasingly concerned with how to build a sustainable metropolis, and advocates are working in parallel to find new ways to create green jobs.

There are obvious links between these two agendas, but more is required. Neither sustainable urbanism nor green-jobs advocates have fully faced up to the need to secure the long-term economic stability of cities as a precondition for achieving sustainability, nor to the fact that our existing practices militate against just that outcome.

In this article we have identified two strategies for stabilizing jobs and capital in existing urban areas: (1) developing forms of green community wealth building that are inherently rooted in specific places; and (2) tapping into resource flows generated by public spending as well as quasi-public institutions to support place-based ownership. Numerous green development policies can be incorporated in both approaches—policies that place top priority on preserving communities and their productive capacities.

The beginning points for such far-reaching community-stabilizing approaches are within reach—including strategies that both provide ongoing jobs to older cities and help stabilize the new communities built for the growing U.S. population.

Creating sustainable metropolitan areas in the United States is a massive challenge, one similar to that facing other nations and yet unique in several respects. For America, there are two “elephants” in the room—highly unstable local economic patterns and population growth—that must be acknowledged. A major national effort to stabilize the economic basis of our communities is not only a moral or economic imperative; in the era of global warming, it is an ecological necessity—and one that needs to be taken on using every available policy tool.

We greatly acknowledge the research support of Weite Zhang in writing this article.



Gar Alperovitz is the Lionel R. Bauman professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative. He is the author of the forthcoming book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About The Next American Revolution, Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @GarAlperovitz.




Steve Dubb is research director of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, and the co-author of the forthcoming book "The Road Half-Traveled: University Engagement at a Crossroads."


Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law at the University of Richmond, whose research focuses on urban politics and sprawl, community economic development, politics in the city of Richmond, and sports, justice and ethics.  His latest book, co-edited with Martin O’Neill, is Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond.

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