Shrinking the Rust Belt


An article in the London Daily Telegraph suggesting that President Obama might back a major program of bulldozing parts of cities in the Rust Belt has put so-called “shrinking cities” back in the spotlight. Many cities around the country, especially in the Rust Belt have experienced major population loss in their urban cores which has sometimes spilled into their entire metro area. They have thousands of abandoned homes, decayed infrastructure, environmental challenges, and no growth to justify a belief that many districts will ever be repopulated.

Cities in the Rust Belt grew in an era when large scale manufacturing required large amounts of labor. Today, productivity improvements mean that the United States can set new industrial production records with a fraction of the workforce of yesteryear. With much of its traditional labor force no longer as in demand in the modern economy, many Rust Belt cities lack an economic raison d'etre. Some may transform themselves for the modern economy, but many will be forced to accept the reality of a significantly diminished stature in the 21st century.

In this world, size can prove a liability. One of the biggest problems in turning around Detroit is the sheer size of the region. The metro area has a population of 4.5 million – not including nearby Ann Arbor or Windsor, Canada. Is there really any need in the modern day for a city the size of Detroit in Southeastern Michigan? It seems doubtful. As I've argued before, transforming that city's economy would be much easier if the region were smaller.

One challenge is that a decline in population, which is already occurring naturally, doesn't shrink the area of urbanization or the accompanying infrastructure that needs to be maintained. Indeed, although it is losing population and can't support the infrastructure it has, Detroit still wants to build more, such a new regional rail transit system. And legacy debts such as pension liabilities don't get smaller just because people leave. As with leverage, scale economics works in declining places as well as on the growing ones. The people who operate new transit systems or police who secure expanded areas must be paid. Roads, sewers, and water lines need to be maintained. In many places that are losing people, jobs, and tax base, such fixed costs could prove ruinous over the long run.

Under such conditions, Rust Belt cities require both outside help and a program of managed shrinkage. The first challenge will be getting these cities, especially larger ones like Detroit, to admit that they need to do it on a regional basis. Medium sized cities like Flint and Youngstown have been more willing to face up to challenges. In contrast, places like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo still see themselves as important national cities. Pride is blocking the effort to undertake a major managed shrinkage program. Instead of adjusting to reality, these cities continue to pour hundreds of millions into projects that vainly attempt to restart growth. .

What would a federally assisted managed shrinkage program look like? No one can say for sure since this is a new field in America. Clearly, study of what has happened in Europe, particularly in Germany, where managed shrinkage has long been on the agenda, is warranted. But these ideas can't just be transplanted via lift and drop. We need to create a distinctly American program informed by the best practices of elsewhere. That program should include the following elements:

  1. Education. Raising educational attainment not only makes people more employable in the new economy, it makes them more mobile.
  2. Relocation Assistance. Many people in the Rust Belt might want to move but be unable to do so because they are upside down on a mortgage or can't sell their house. As more people leave, that will put downward pressure on the housing market. Hence, some government relocation assistance to help buy out people who want to move might be helpful.
  3. Shrinking the Urban Footprint. The quantity of urbanized land needs to be reduced so that the excess housing and infrastructure can be retired and the cost of servicing it eliminated. This means painfully identifying areas which will not receive reinvestment, and encouraging and assisting the people and businesses that remain to relocate. This will be difficult as these neighborhoods are still the locales for people’s homes and they have a strong emotional sense of ownership. Sensitivity is clearly called for. We need to increase localized density in areas targeted for redevelopment and convert other areas to non-urbanized uses such as nature preserves or agriculture. This will be a long process.
  4. Financial Restructuring. Older cities are often hobbled by mountains of debt, underfunded pensions, overstaffed payrolls, and too many municipal fixed assets. The government needs to be right-sized. Federal assistance may be needed to take over pensions and to give cities some tools to restructure unsustainable debt loads outside of bankruptcy.
  5. Development Restrictions. In return for federal assistance, there ought to be a real insistence that these cities sign up to the shrinkage programs. This might include enforceable restrictions on their ability to adopt policies that are oriented towards servicing growth such as restrictions on the ability to use federal funding for net new infrastructure. For example, if Detroit wants to build a federally funded rail system, it should retire an equivalent amount of other infrastructure elsewhere to offset it.

Participation would be voluntary, but the federal government should make it clear that it will not finance futile attempts by these cities to try to recapture the glory of their pasts.

This is of course only a conceptual outline of a program. Significant thought, analysis, and research would be needed to develop a program. Given our lack of experience in the field, experiments should be encouraged, flexibility granted within broad parameters, and real world feedback continuously incorporated back into the program. Clearly, we will not get everything right the first time around. We need to have the courage to learn from our mistakes and not forge headlong into failure simply because it would look like a political retreat.

This won't be pleasant or easy. It is not a path anyone wants to take. But given the condition of much of the Rust Belt, the only viable options appear to be painful ones. As local blogger Tom Jones recently said, “Too often, dealing with urban problems in Memphis is like the stages of grief. Just this once, maybe we can move past denial, anger, bargaining and depression, and unabashedly move to acceptance and develop the kinds of bold plans that can truly make a difference in the trajectory of our city.”

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

immigration is higher in western great lakes than eastern

The Eastern Great Lakes region has some nice old neighborhoods, but I agree that it's time to break out the bulldozer. Interesting how Grand Rapids is attracting more immigrants proportionally than Detroit. Over 10% of Grand Rapids is foreign born, compared to less than 5% of Detroit. Similarly, Milwaukee is attracting more immigrants than Cleveland.

Also not sure educating the existing population will do much, because they're old and their education levels are at or above national averages. Median age in Pittsburgh is nearly 40, so you not only get declines in employment, but declines in labor force participation. Cuyahoga County, OH, Erie County, NY, and Allegheny, PA also have average levels of adults with bachelor's degrees, even though they're all losing population.

Most of these places, except Detroit, grew in the late 19th century and early 20th because they were between Chicago and NY, while at the same time cities to the south of this line, like St. Louis, Philly, Baltimore, and Cincy, were dropping in population rank.

There are some great 1920s neighborhoods in and around Buffalo, Cleveland, Erie, and Pitt, but economically there's not much that can be done to bring these places back to life.