Urban winners and losers

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Eye from Albany
March 2006

Urban winners and losers
by Paul M. Bray

Not since the post World War 11 suburbanization and the rolling out of a carpet of grass lawns from sea to shining sea has the nation faced as major a prospect of radical change in our pattern of land use.

The nation’s population is expected to increase by 70 million between now and 2025 with New York City’s population increasing by 1.4 million by 2025. At the same time, places like the incredibly shrinking upstate New York and in the middle of the nation large, mostly agricultural portions of states like Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin are declining in population. For example, 74 of Nebraska’s 93 counties have lower populations than they did in 1920. Yet, the city of Omaha, Nebraska is booming.

We are seeing a new era of urbanization globally and nationally. A huge migration to cities is going on around the world. Steward Brand in his article “City Planet” in the business publication strategy+business declared, “Increasing urbanization is accelerating the economic development of the world with remarkable speed.” For the first time globally, the overall population of cities exceeds the population in rural areas.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers report (click here) is based on a belief that globally cities will be the engines for developing the society of the future and we are at a defining point in how our urban future unfolds.

Nationally, the picture is mixed between building out and building in. NY Times columnist David Brooks uses Brookings Institution numbers to support the notion of a $25 trillion building boom on the fringes of urbanized areas. Brooks views the “story of American development” as a contest between privacy and community. While he sees communal impulses rising to counter the suburban privatizing, decentralizing trend, the new development won’t go to reviving traditional cities like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, but rather to create an “archipelago” of amenity rich, walkable villages. This is urbanization lite.

The emerging trend is for a future of urban winners and losers. In New York State, we have a big winner with New York City flourishing. On the other hand, upstate cities like Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo may go the way of other rust belt cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh whose decline may be inevitable.

So, what will we do in New York State? The city administration in New York City is preparing to plan to be sure its growing population have enough places to live, work, attend school and recreate and transportation and energy are adequate.

Real planning is not going on at the state and local level for upstate cities that have to swim against the tide of growth and development. Like those that argued for “planned shrinkage” for the Bronx when manufacturing precipitously declined in the late 1960s and 1970s, we are increasingly going to hear a doomsday scenario for upstate cities. Columbia University economist Edward L. Gleaser is quoted in the NY Times in saying about cities like Detroit, “There are no reasons why it can’t, and shouldn’t decline. And I would say that for many other cities. There’s no reason not to let decline go forward. Places decline and places grow. We shouldn’t stand in the way of that.”

However, today, the Bronx is projected to grow in population by 16% by 2025.

Bottomless decline is not inevitable but will likely happen of we don’t plan and intervene. It is time to discover the lessons of New York City’s recovery from the depths of pain in the mid-1970s. There are no quick fix solutions for upstate but certainly the State needs to prime the pump as it did for New York City when it took over costs like the costs for local courts and the city university system. It needs to explore for equities in areas like transportation funding where suburbs benefit because once upon a time cities were richer and it made sense to assist suburban and rural areas. Now the upstate cities need help. Upstate needs to figure a way to attract immigrants who are younger and more entrepreneurial that upstate’s aging population.

It is worth considering each of New York’s upstate cities in light of the six areas of significant challenge PricewaterhouseCoopers identifies for creating a city strategy for the future:

Intellectual and social capital – to compete in the international knowledge economy means ensuring the appropriate people, skills and capabilities are developed.

Democratic capital – city administrations need to be accountable and transparent in their dialogue with citizens.

Culture and leisure capital – a strong city brand provides visibility propelling the city into competition for residents, business relocations, tourism and international events.

Environmental capital – cities consume significant resources and have to provide a clean, green and safe environment.

Technical capital – technology must be able to support the changing needs of citizens. This includes basic needs like transport, housing, water and energy as well as new demands for effective communication like broadband and electronic networks.”

Financial capital – growing demand for services and diminishing revenues needs creative and flexible financial strategies, often in partnership with the private sector.

The recovery of the Bronx and New York City as a whole suggests there can be a vibrant future for upstate. The questions is whether there is the political and civic will in the upstate and the corridors of government in Albany to reverse the course of upstate’s decline.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.