Many of our metropolitan cities have taken a huge hit over the past 30 years. Cities such as mine (Jackson MS) quietly watched as people left the city. Led by the “upper class” to the north and the “middle class” to the south and east, Jackson lost more than 15% of its population during this time period. However, Jackson is not alone. Cities such as Buffalo NY, Pittsburg PA, and Cleveland OH have all seen worse drops in population than Jackson.
This trend did not start in the 80’s (looking back, most every trend started in the 80’s was a bad idea). During the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York City, the exhibit “Futurama” showed its visitors how the future city would look, all the way down to the model highway full of little cars. This was sponsored my General Motors of course. Later Charles Wilson, president of GM, would testify before the US Senate “what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”
So started our love affair of the open road and freedom. While countries in Europe and Asia have focused on mass transit systems as transportation, the US has funded billions into roads and highways and subsidized programs such as VA and FHA mortgages to make it easy to “drive until you qualify.” This mentality has produced both ghost towns in the middle of major markets and a sea of low-density communities that are filled with neighbors that have to commute to these town centers daily to do business. It’s estimated that the average Atlanta commuter will spend 60 hours a year stuck in traffic just to get to work and back. While the early “sprawlers” of towns such as Atlanta left to find relief from cramped living conditions and a much-needed privacy, today’s suburbs have turned into rows of gated communities full of McMansions.
Many cities have began to reverse this trend. Denver CO, Washington DC, and Philadelphia PA are example that quickly come to mind. How can other urban cities follow the lead of Washington, Denver, and Philadelphia? It appears to be the case of “What came fist, the chicken or the egg?” Without a strong municipal leadership, the high income families will not move back into a town full of crime, poor roads, and inferior schools. Without a strong tax base it is difficult for municipalities to develop a setting that would be attractive to this group of people. It is time for another phase of urban cities to follow the lead of these pioneers and work hand and hand with real estate developers to create a product that will be inviting to a public desiring to move back to our metropolitan centers.
Although the tasks are great for our cities, it can be done. It must be done for their survival. Second tier cities such as Jackson should learn from its first tier examples. The answer to this problem is right on their empty streets.
One of our first projects in the MRED program was to read Christopher Leinberger’s “An Option for Urbanism” and discuss how it relates to our current market conditions. Needless to say, I was nervous. This was the first academic paper for me to write in seven years. The fact that this paper would be evaluated and graded by my Harvard educated professor only added to the pressure. Feel free to read the paper in it entirety at Who Takes The First Step?.
What do you think?