1.03.2010

Littler Cities in Bigger Trouble


Living in Philadelphia, and thinking a lot about economic development in Philadelphia in my day job, it's easy to get focused on the trials and travails of the big, post-industrial city. 1950-2000 for Philly wasn't as bad as it was for Detroit, but it was pretty brutal nonetheless: in 1950, we were at a population of 2 million, and bracing ourselves infrastructurally for growth up to 2.5 mil and counting, and yet by 2000, we were at 1.5 mil instead. What happened, of course, was decentralization: people, jobs, and shopping moved to the burbs, facilitated by the mechanization of industry and by subsidized mortgages and highways, and creating a vicious cycle of more crime, greater social service needs, and higher taxes in our rapidly emptying Rust Belt cities.

What has stemmed and even reversed this tide in the past decade has been the emergence of trends that actually work in favor of older big cities. Two big ones are that we have the transit infrastructure in place to capitalize on a future world in which carbon is dearer, and we have the academic/research/medical institutions that draw the funding/brains/jobs of the new knowledge economy. Cities that were left for dead ten years ago, like Pittsburgh and Baltimore and Philadelphia, can argue with a straight face that their best days are ahead of them.

What I am beginning to realize is that the places that face the most challenges are not the bigger cities but the mid-size ones. When you are of a population of 30,000 to 100,000, you are on the wrong end of all of those decentralization trends I spoke of above, and yet you probably lack the scale to justify things like fixed-rail systems and research universities and regional hospitals. Depending on what your bread-and-butter industries were in the middle of last century, you could have major infrastructural wreckage to have to try to repurpose, and major talent mismatches in terms of what you're good at versus what the global economy values.

I have some ideas as to the way forward for the Wilkes-Barres (population ~ 40,000) and the Readings (population 80,000) of the world, but they're still baking; although if you know me, you can probably guess what sorts of concepts I'm gravitating towards. In the meantime, you can read what Ryan Avent has to say over at the Bellows; I found his recent post, "The Urban Economy,"to be resonant with how I'm marinating on the topic.

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