The early results seemed to confirm our theories. Not only did the economy grow rapidly but prosperity was widely shared. Every time we built a highway, bridge, or interchange and every time we ran a pipe out to a cornfield on the edge of town, we saw positive results. What my fellow Minnesotan Thomas Friedman would later call “the American recipe for success” was established: government financing of infrastructure plus incentives for homeownership equals sustained growth and prosperity. The American Dream.
Or the American myth. Local governments are starting to realize that this system doesn’t work. While it has historically provided federal and state governments with the economic growth they seek, it leaves cities responsible for maintaining vast expanses of roadways and huge service areas on a comparatively limited tax base. That works fine when everything is new and the cost of maintenance is low, but it quickly becomes impossible as systems age.
What makes matters more desperate is that for auto-based development patterns aging is not graceful. While buildings in the traditional development style have a natural interdependency—they line up in a pattern, often share walls, their value is a function of the quality of the public space they front, and so forth—each auto-oriented building is, by design, totally independent. It will have its own parking. Many are fenced off from their neighbors or have ditches or berms in between. This is done, of course, to facilitate efficiency in construction. The result is that each failure becomes a random blight.
Auto-based development patterns follow a now familiar cycle of growth, stagnation, and then rapid decline. During the growth phase, when everything is shiny and new, the affluent move in and enjoy the prosperity of a place on the rise. But as those random failures emerge and things start to decline, those with the means to move on tend to do so, leaving behind cities of dwindling wealth. As the decline steepens, local governments borrow money in the hopes that their revenue problems are simply a temporary cash-flow crunch. The result over decades, however, is an insolvent city with huge debts serving an impoverished population poorly situated to bear the financial burdens of an auto-dependent existence. thisissueappears
We’re now two full generations into this experiment. Ferguson, Missouri, was one of those shiny new suburbs that expanded rapidly after World War II. As it has experienced the growth and decline typical of auto-oriented development, not only has it become much poorer but during the transition the municipality borrowed heavily and spent much of its fleeting wealth trying to maintain its position. Ferguson today is trapped: in 2013 it spent $800,000 paying interest on debt while being able to devote only $25,000 to sidewalk maintenance. There is a reason people in Ferguson might walk in the streets instead of on the sidewalks.
Amid the disruption being thrust upon our local governments, a new national consensus is slowing starting to emerge, one that replaces an anti-city approach with a fresh vision for urban areas. The two most mobile age cohorts in America today, millennials and Baby Boomers, are leaving the auto-oriented suburbs—albeit for different reasons—and flocking to cities and streetcar suburbs, places built on a traditional, walkable framework.
As Joe Cortright documents on the City Observatory website, the probability (relative to all metro residents) that a 25-to-34-year-old lives in a close-in urban neighborhood quadrupled from 1990 to 2010. In the 51 largest metropolitan areas, between 2000 and 2012 the number of 25-to-34-year-olds within three miles of the central business district’s core increased twice as fast as outside it. Meanwhile, according to the Brookings Institution, poverty has grown twice as fast since 2000 in America’s suburbs as in America’s cities.
The central task of the Millennial generation is not going to be expanding the boundaries of our cities but managing their contraction. We must find a way to unwind all of these widely dispersed and unproductive investments while providing opportunities for a good life—a modernized American Dream—in strong cities, towns, and neighborhoods. And we have to do all of this with the drag of large debts and a failed national system for growth, development, and economic management that largely associates auto-based development with progress.