Monday, September 28, 2009

The Youngstown Paradigm

Grow or die. That's conventional economic development thinking. But the current global malaise is lending itself to the challenges to this approach. The status quo fires back:

A recent study reiterated the conclusion that population growth ought to be controlled in order to combat global warming, and other world problems. I beg to differ. The authors of studies like these have exaggerated the benefits of population control, because they ignore some of the significant economic benefits of large populations.

I happen to disagree. Show me the greater innovations of large populations and I will hold up the power of density, how the concentration of talent yields regional economic dividends. If I'm wrong, then shrinking cities have a bleak future:

Go to Europe, and you'll trip over the remnants of all kinds of empires. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German government moved residents to concentrated areas in cities like Leipzig and turned off the lights elsewhere.

But in North America, where people spend more time every year commuting to work than vacationing, the idea of planning decline is foreign.

"In the U.S., everything is about reaching the next frontier. Growth is progress," says Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective program at the University of California at Berkeley. "So talking about shrinking is taboo. It's a very painful insight to say we have to cut back."

Still, there are some local models. Facing a population a third the size of its glory days, former steel hub Youngstown, Ohio, has offered to move residents out of dying neighbourhoods into denser ones, where city resources are concentrated. It plans to demolish leftover homes, yank up street lamps and let nature take over.

"It's like taking a segment of an orange out," says Joe Berridge, a partner with Toronto's Urban Strategies, which helped draft Youngstown's "right-sizing" plan.

Flint's former acting mayor, Michael K. Brown, recently spoke about following suit and "shutting down quadrants of the city."

While running for mayor last spring, Bing raised the prospect for Detroit.

I wouldn't say it is planning decline as it is unleashing the power of density, one of the dominant urban patterns for globalization. I don't see the human capital angle often expressed in the right-sizing narrative. Intentionally or not, Youngstown is moving in that direction. The trick is to entice as many businesses and residents as possible to pack into the city core. Save a big bump in birth and in-migration rates, density is one of two ways to tap into the knowledge economy. The other is diaspora networking, which deserves its own post.

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