The Obama administration is reportedly considering backing a radical plan to shrink deteriorating American cities by bulldozing entire neighborhoods and returning the land to nature. The idea, which originated in Flint, Mich. -- cratered by the auto industry implosion -- is to persuade disintegrating and depopulated cities to embrace their shrinkage, destroy abandoned infrastructure, save money and thereby stave off fiscal ruin.
The plan makes sense on some level, but it’s disturbing on another. Anyone who’s driven by miles of empty lots in Detroit knows that urban demolition does more than destroy blight. It also erases history and what a city was. Traces of the past have always been jumping-off places for the next chapter (think rehabbed Victorians or sleek post-industrial lofts). And, of course, the back-to-nature plan -- which could be used in cities such as Memphis, Baltimore, Philadelphia and others -- is fundamentally an admission and may be an assurance that these cities will never rise again.
Sure, it is a given that cities -- like nations and civilizations -- rise and fall. We can find comfort in the fact that even as some U.S. cities decline, others thrive. And in the era of environmentalism and a romanticization of nature, the back-to-nature plan is certain to find a large degree of support. But in our rush to curb the excesses of industrialism and reduce our collective carbon imprint -- to “right size” -- I’m not sure we aren’t undervaluing the role of cities in our society.
Indeed, over the last half a century, in studies and the popular imagination, the image of old cities has taken a beating. With a few exceptions, like the ever-buoyant NYC, cities’ amplified poverty, evident inequality, racial strife and crumbling schools are viewed as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with our society. A 2001 survey by the National Assn. of Home Builders found that 68% of Americans preferred a rural, or “outlying suburban,” location in which to live. Only 28% said they’d prefer a “close-in” suburb, and a mere 5% favored the central city.
Of course, millions of Americans have also voted with their feet, and employment opportunities have followed them. In this new century, the loss of jobs in city centers has continued apace. According to an April Brookings Institution study, between 1998 and 2006, 95 out of 98 metropolitan areas saw a decrease in the share of jobs located within three miles of downtown. In the top 98 metro areas, only 21% of workers are employed in the city center. To the extent that we attempt to rehabilitate shrinking cities, it is as amusement parks for yuppies. Those inner-city loft developments that get so much attention in the media have done little to stop the exodus of jobs and people to the edges of urban areas, to the suburbs and single-family-home sprawl.
But before we permanently close the door on a host of aging American cities, we should seriously ponder the significance of cities to culture, both ours and the world at large.
Just two weeks ago, scientists at University College London published a provocative study that puts a new twist on the long-standing belief that the hustle and bustle of cities is the most conducive environment for invention and innovation. Biologist Adam Powell, theoretical archaeologist Stephen Shannon and evolutionary geneticist Mark G. Thomas found that population density was the catalyst for the emergence of modern human behavior. While others have speculated that man’s leap into technological and cultural complexity -- from utilizing symbols to decorating our bodies to creating more sophisticated weapons for hunting -- emerged from advances in language, new and improved brains or the settling of new frontiers, the study’s authors are pinning it all on the emergence of dense population centers, i.e., the precursors of cities. It is density, they argue, that leads to greater exchange of ideas and helps people develop, maintain and extend skills that lead to technological and cultural innovation.
While going several steps further, these findings jibe with other studies that show a link between innovation and density. A 2006 study for the Federal Reserve found that the number of patented inventions per capita is strongly related to an area’s employment density. That study confirmed the view that the country’s densest locations play a significant role in “creating the flow of ideas that generate innovation and growth.” For all their problems, cities have served an outsized role in our development as a nation.
That’s why I find the finality of the otherwise appealing back-to-nature plan for Flint and other traditional cities so discomfiting. Obliterating whole blocks and neighborhoods is just another way of giving up past and future; it will only further encourage the decentralization of residents and jobs. It’s one thing for the people or municipal government of Flint to choose to shrink their own city in this manner. But for the federal government to endorse a broader policy of de-urbanization could undermine any future efforts to create the type of density, interaction, exchange and, hence, innovation that might one day help us figure out how to revitalize not just the cities but a whole lot more.