Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Can rust belt cities revitalize?

Edward Glaeser, a prominent Harvard economist, argues no. His article, "Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?", outlines the rise and fall of Buffalo, a declining city that holds much in common with Detroit. In his view, Buffalo will never regain its past glory, and federal policies aimed at saving the city as a geographic place are destined to fail. "The best scenario," he concludes, "would be for Buffalo to become a much smaller but more vibrant community—shrinking to greatness, in effect. Far better that outcome than wasting yet more effort and resources on the foolish project of restoring the City of Light’s past glory."

His assessment is the same with regard to Detroit. He speaks of the city in a New York Times Magazine profile:

"I believe very strongly that our obligation is to people, not places, and I think we certainly have an obligation — ethical, economic, what have you — to the residents of Detroit," he told me. But he sees no economic or geographic reason to have a large city there anymore, and he views the prospects for any rebound as dim. (Detroit ranks last among cities with more than 500,000 residents in percentage of college graduates.) The city produced the cars that produced the sprawl that helped destroy the city; such tragedy might have been lessened had it produced more universities too. "There are no reasons why it can't, and shouldn't, decline," Glaeser says. "And I would say that for many other cities. There's no reason not to let decline go forward." The greatness of America is dependent in part upon regional evolutions and migrations, he adds. "Places decline and places grow. We shouldn't stand in the way of that."
His insensitivity is shocking: "There's no reason not to let decline go forward." The decline of Midwestern cities is not benign. That decline has meant suffering, poverty, and environmental degradation. While I agree with him that people matter more than places, places matter too. We cannot build cities today only to abandon them tomorrow. The costs, human and environmental, are too great.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

While I see the logic in what he is saying, I can't shake my (perhaps) illogical attachment to Detroit/Michigan. Concepts of home do depend, in large part, on geographic location. You've got to have some blind loyalties, after all! Besides, does he have any suggestions about how and where to transplant a large mass of people? We can't even get transit within the city...