The "Tottering Chicago?" Series – Part 3


Here’s part 3 in the “Tottering Chicago?” series. Today I’m discussing the third question I raised after reading William Voegeli’s That Tottering Town, a review of the book What Next, Chicago? Notes of a Pissed Off Native Son. Read Part 1 here. and Part 2 here.

Can a non-Sun Belt city employ a Sun Belt growth model?

Back in late March, I was invited to attend a salon in Houston entitled “Restoring the Middle Class”. Conducted by the Urban Reform Institute, it was a gathering of about 50 urbanists, pundits, economists and others to talk policy about supporting the American middle class.

I left Houston deeply unnerved:

“(A)t this conference, nearly all discussion was shaped by coastal perspectives of American cities, with a healthy dash of how Sun Belt cities, especially Texas ones, offer an affordable alternative. If there was ever any question of whether there’s a strong coastal bias in urbanist discussions, with coastal thinkers and coastal issues controlling the narrative, that notion was quashed…

(W)hen I did raise the issues vexing the Rust Belt, the feedback I got from other participants was, well, not particularly favorable. It was polite but clear – your problems aren’t necessarily our problems. Coastal and Sun Belt cities have moved on from any manufacturing legacy they may have had. If and when Rust Belt cities get their act together, feel free to join us at the grownup table to chime in on urbanism topics; that’s what the Sun Belt cities are doing.”

Easily one word can describe how I felt in Houston – irrelevant. Chicago and Midwest/Rust Belt urban issues seemingly did not have a place at the table when discussing coastal or Sun Belt concerns.

I think there’s a sense among coastal and Sun Belt urbanists that American urbanism has been “solved”. The coastal cities have been transformed by the explosion of the knowledge economy – tech, finance, media and entertainment – and grew beyond their previous economic or social constraints. The Sun Belt cities took advantage of good climate, affordability and low taxes to attract new residents. Sure, there are deep issues of housing affordability, homelessness, and inequality in the coastal cities, and concerns of how to manage demand in Sun Belt cities to avoid having coastal city problems, but reps from both groups agree that they have what Americans want; they just need the right tweaking.

In William Voegeli’s article That Tottering Town, Voegeli touts the merits of the Sun Belt growth model by bringing up Columbus, OH, a city firmly in the Midwest but one that’s adopted a Sun Belt economic and political orientation. He suggests Chicago and other Rust Belt cities should emulate the model. But first, what exactly is a Sun Belt “model” of urbanism?

In my view it’s the same economic forces that produced American suburbia, but realized at a national scale. The suburbs of our metro areas developed as an affordable alternative to city living that provided more space, more and newer amenities, and a more comfortable lifestyle. Suburbs offered a chance to “escape” the three “c’s” that plague cities – costs, crime and congestion. To my mind, the Sun Belt is suburbia writ large; metros like Charlotte, Tampa, Phoenix and Las Vegas are like national-level suburbs, in that they draw people to them based on the same factors that attract people to suburbs at the metro level.

Let’s go back to Voegeli’s example of Columbus and see how it’s surged in growth over the last 30-40 years. Columbus is Ohio’s state capital and home to the state’s flagship university, Ohio State University. Being the home of Ohio state government and a large public university gave Columbus access to educated talent to serve as the foundation for later growth. In that sense Columbus is not unlike Sun Belt cities that I’d say utilized the model – Atlanta, Nashville and Austin come to mind. It’s worked for them.

Read the rest of this piece at Corner Side Yard Blog.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine's online platform. Pete's writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years' experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

Photo: Houston's growth in physical size is perhaps more impressive than its population growth. In 1950 Houston covered 160 square miles with 596,000 residents. In 2022 Houston covered 672 square miles for its 2.3 million residents. Only two cities in America have a larger physical footprint than Houston. Source: