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Ed Glaeser has some very sensible things to say about the shrinking cities brouhaha. Despite the growing hype, there's not a shred of evidence that the Obama administration is considering bull-dozering anything. Glaeser says it makes a heck of a lot more sense to favor people over places. Invest in human capital and encourage people to be mobile, Glaeser contends, promise much better long-term economic payoffs than undertaking expensive and dubious strategies to try to revive dying places.
It's useful to put the current debate in historical context. "Planned shrinkage" was originally proposed in the 1970s by then NY housing commissioner Roger Starr. Even earlier, the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan advocated for the related idea of "benign neglect" as a pillar of urban policy. Both resulted in a slew of unintended and nasty outcomes - like increased arson and violent crime. And as the market for some central locations, like NYC, began to improve, a whole bunch of neighborhoods that were candidates for government-assisted "shrinkage" (read: slow demolition) once again became valuable - parts of Brooklyn, Queens, Hoboken, even Jersey City. Economics is a big part of their comeback. But this would not have happened if the building stock of those places had been allowed to completely decay or was demolished.
It's abundantly clear that the contemporary shrinking cities movement in the U.S. and Europe is much more sensitive to urban conditions. These contemporary approaches recognize that globalization and market forces work against some older locations. They sensibly suggest that such places would be better served by proactively managing the process of economic transformation and adjustment. Flint and Youngstown provide useful models of how older communities can strategically adjust to the strong forces of economic concentration and spiky globalization. Pittsburgh's economic transformation - feted by Newsweek's Howard Fineman among others as a model for Detroit and other places - is a case study of how to shrink smart and strategically.
The most successful shrinking strategies, like Pittsburgh's, are not top-down affairs driven by all-knowing governments, but organic, bottom-up, community-based efforts. While Pittsburgh government and business leadership pressed for large-scale urban renewal - stadium-building, convention centers, and more far-fetched schemes for local mag-lev trains - its real turnaround was driven by organic, bottom-up initiatives. Community groups, local foundations, and non-profits - not city hall or business-led economic development groups - were the driving forces behind neighborhood stabilization and redevelopment, university-based economic development, water-front revitalization, park improvements, and green building among others. This kind of bottom-up process takes considerable time and perseverance. In Pittsburgh's case, it took the better part of a generation to achieve stability and the potential for longer-term revival.
All of which brings us back to a big question: What about people versus place strategies? I agree with Glaeser: people must be the priority. Especially in tough economic times, public investment should flow toward people. Early childhood investments, as James Heckman has shown, are the most important, longest-running and highest-paying investments we make.
But places also matter. Sure, there are plenty of things that urban policy has done wrong - like large-scale, top-down urban renewal - things that we need to stay wary of and not repeat. That does not mean public policy should ignore places.
The quality of the place we live is a key component of our happiness and subjective well-being. We now have solid empirical evidence about what people want and need from places: safety and security, good schools, economic opportunity, the ability to connect to other people, ethical and forward-looking leadership, opportunities for civic engagement, a place that gives everyone a go with abundant green space, a clean environment, and a strong sense of its own history, among other things.
There are plenty of small-scale, locally rooted investments that can and do make a difference - the kinds of things Jane Jacobs and others have long advocated - that don't cost an arm and a leg and which provide broad public goods kinds of benefits: improving run-down buildings and community sore spots, encouraging community engagement in schools, upgrading parks and open space, planting trees and urban gardens, adding bike lanes, widening sidewalks to encourage both pedestrian use and outside activity, updating zoning and building codes to enable upgrading of commercial strips, live-work conversion and mixed-used development.
As with so many things in life, it's the small stuff that can really make a difference - in this case not just to cities, shrinking and otherwise - but to the quality of life and happiness of the people who live in them.