Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Great Inversion

One of the pleasures of taking mass transit to work is that I can read. Quite a bit. While my commuting reading routine varies, I generally read the Economist on Mondays, the New Yorker on Tuesdays, and books on the remaining three weekdays. It has worked pretty well, and I’ve kept on top of my reading load this year, mixing up fiction with non-fiction regularly.

This past week I read Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. The Great Inversion came out last month, and is as readable as his other major work (The Lost City: Discovering the Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s, which looks at three distinct 1950s neighborhoods in metropolitan Chicago). Ehrenhalt’s readability is due in part to his career as a journalist and editor of Governing magazine, an excellent periodical which yours truly subscribed to for a number of years.

The Great Inversion argues that some American cities are becoming much more like European cities in terms of their spatial structure. That is, affluent elites live in the urban core and enjoy cultural amenities and easy commutes to their jobs, while poorer people live at the periphery of the metropolitan region, enduring long commutes to their jobs, and have few of the comforts that many of us take for granted. Ehrenhalt also argues that many immigrants are skipping living in historical gateway communities located in the urban neighborhoods surrounding downtown, and are instead living in exurban communities that generally provide excellent schools and readily available employment opportunities.

However, the inversion of American cities is dependent on three crucial prerequisites. First, any successful core city needs to limit the amount of employment sprawl and steadily increase the overall number of jobs in the metropolitan region if it is to control its destiny. Ehrenhalt notes that cities such as Chicago and New York have been able to do this, and this is due in part to the massive size of these cities. Both dominate a large geographic region, where cities such as Detroit and Baltimore cannot throw its weight around in the same way. Secondly, while transportation beyond the automobile is not a must, cities that give people an additional option to their use of a car are far more likely to succeed. The second prerequisite is why I don’t consider Philadelphia to be as doomed as Ehrenhalt does. Neighborhoods on the outskirts of Center City (such as University City, Northern Liberties, and Graduate Hospital) are well positioned for continued revitalization. Finally, strong central cities must have a local government that provides services in a cost-efficient manner. Philadelphia faces many problems on this final requirement, as its pension structure and archaic governmental institutions make its tax load enormous for residents and business to bear. The same would apply for a city like Detroit, which is perhaps the most fiscally pressed large city in the United States today.

Ehrenhalt also looks at how many suburbs are trying to change their existing spatial form to one that is more urban. I’d simplify things by saying that many communities are trying to increase their residential density, but have had limited success, in part because nothing has been done to improve job density. There are many factors that impact employers locating to one particular geographic region, but two of the major reasons are transportation accessibility and tax benefits extracted from various local governments.

I really enjoyed The Great Inversion, and immediately thought of how lessons from this book might apply communities past and present that I have lived in. Thinking about my hometown of Grand Rapids, the location of the Michigan State Medical School in the downtown core has gone a long way to improving the livability of the city. The same goes for the expanded mass transit network around the city’s core; while rapid bus transit is not as sexy as trolleys, they will do a better job at providing public transportation at a fraction of the cost. Downtown Grand Rapids (which I define as bordered by Leonard Street to the north, College Ave to the east, Wealthy Street to the south, and Seward Ave to the west), can easily handled another 50,000 residents, especially if new residential developments are done at a human scale that supports mixed use development and also includes the expansion of the city core’s existing greenway network. While it would cost a bit, moving the city’s Amtrak Station to drop passengers near the Grand Rapids Community College campus would also improve intermodal transit networks.

Like Grand Rapids, Dallas’s downtown could support many more residents. I will defer to Patrick Kennedy on the actual number, but I would think that the area within the Interstate 30/Interstate 35/Interstate 45/Highway 75/Woodall Rodgers Freeway loop could add 75,000 people and function quite well. The number of surface parking lots that could handle eight-story residential buildings that have retail on the ground level are simply astounding, and as Patrick recommends, setting up a split tax on land would improve the odds for developers. John Kromer’s Fixing Broken Cities showcase’s Philadelphia’s experience using property tax abatements to revitalize the downtown residential housing market. Dallas could certainly try to do the same, although it might not have as much financial flexibility as Philadelphia, as property tax revenue provides a much larger share of Dallas’s total revenue. Just converting every vacant parking lot into eight-story residential buildings would go a long way to revitalizing Dallas’s urban core, and lead it on the beginning of its own great inversion.

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