Beyond Throwaway Cities: How To Build An Export-Proof Local Economy
Photo Credit: Lisa Chamberlain
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Americans face a unique challenge in solving the climate crisis. Unlike other Western countries and Japan, where population is projected to be relatively constant, the U.S. population is set to grow by at least 100 million—and likely 150 million—people by 2050. Where and under what conditions these people live present serious challenges to sustainability planning. American cities today are so spatially and economically unstable that anything beyond superficial sustainability planning is impossible.
Alternatively, we can radically change existing community and regional planning strategies to more sustainably house and serve the growing population. Fortunately, emerging approaches are capable of helping with this shift. One involves building local economies that anchor capital in place through community, worker, or public forms of ownership—so-called green community wealth strategies. By linking such stabilizing forms of economic organization to democratic forms of local, regional, and national planning, cities can regain the capacity to target jobs and investment to specific locations.
Beyond Throwaway Cities
A good starting point is a clear understanding of America’s “throwaway city” habit. Simply put, as jobs move in and out of cities in uncontrolled ways we literally throw away housing, roads, schools, hospitals, and public facilities—only to have to build the same facilities elsewhere at great financial, energy, and carbon costs. All the while, the instability makes it impossible to carry out coherent transportation and high-density housing planning.
The most dramatic examples are places like Detroit and Cleveland, where the devastated landscape in many areas looks like bombed-out World War II cities. But these cases are not exceptional. Of the 112 largest U.S. cities in 1950 with populations over 100,000, 56—fully half of them—had experienced population decline by 2008. The people moved elsewhere, where all the usual facilities had to be built anew to serve them—and, built under conditions that were inherently likely to be subject to future instability and disruption.
Cities in general, of course, have gained population since 1990, but the long-term trend of instability is dominant. Between 1990 and 2008, 35 of 111 cities lost more than 5,000 people, including such cities as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Syracuse, Birmingham, Norfolk, and New Orleans (which had been losing population even prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005).
Central to the climate change problem is that, at present, 39 percent of U.S. carbon emissions come from buildings, 33 percent from transportation, and the remainder from industry. So the built environment and transportation are critical to climate change mitigation efforts.
Nancy McGuckin, in Transportation Management and Engineering Magazine, reports that carbon emissions in communities with very high densities (5,000–9,999 households per square mile) have half the per capita carbon emissions of rural residents (0–50 households per square mile). And a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development found that New York City had a per capita average of 7.10 metric tons of carbon emitted per resident, compared to 23.92 metric tons nationwide; likewise, London residents emitted 6.18 metric tons of carbon each, compared to a British national average of 11.19 metric tons.
While, in theory, rural development could be highly sustainable, as McGuckin notes, in the United States today rural families “own twice as many vehicles as households in high density areas—and these are likely to be less efficient.” Moreover, average vehicle miles traveled for rural households exceed those of metropolitan households by roughly 7,000 a year (28,238 vs. 21,187).
There is no question that reducing carbon emissions will require public policy support. But achieving serious reductions requires focused attention on the questions of how our communities are developed. Given that the economic fate of most cities is dependent on decisions made by mobile investors of capital, this will require major efforts, first, to improve quality of life within cities; second, to reduce gaping social disparities within cities (a major cause of “urban decline”); and third, and critically, to stabilize the economic underpinnings of cities—that is, the job base. As we shall see, the solutions to problems in existing cities intersect with strategies needed to deal with the unique U.S. problem noted at the outset—namely, America’s unusual population growth.