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Save Our Forgotten Cities! Save Our Forgotten Cities!

Save Our Forgotten Cities!

by Cliff Kuang
November 2, 2008

In support of our economic engines and the true "real America"

Congratulations, Sarah Barracuda! You and your grumpy chaperone are now the loudest merchants of the small-town pander: the silly claim that rural America is "real America." I guess that means cities are where those socialist varmints nest; if so, bring your hunting cap and popgun next time you're in town.Is pitting small town against city just another ploy devised to hide distortions on taxes and foreign policy with a grotesque quilt of resentments? And what if that pastoral vision is blatantly false?Hoopla aside, with the economy sowing so much worry, the town vs. city-issue should be a reminder of an important fact: Towns have not kept our country's economy vital, no matter what Eleanor Fudd says. Cities have; and they present our best prospects for creating the jobs and prosperity that will pull us out of the economic hole we're in.Most Americans simply don't understand the role that cities play in their own economic well-being. Citified swells make for satisfying whipping. In fact, Americans often view themselves as small-town creatures even when they're not. In a survey commissioned by the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based public policy think-tank, 50% of respondents believed they lived in a metropolitan area; 82% of them, however, actually did since, based on commuting patterns, a metro area encapsulates both a city center and the surrounding counties that depend on it.Let's clear the air about what cities do for our economy: Brookings recently found that America's 100 biggest metro areas hold 65 percent of our population, while accounting for 76 percent of knowledge-economy jobs (positions in anything from architecture to electrical engineering), 78 percent of all patents, 75 percent of graduate degree holders, 81 percent of R&D employment, and 94 percent all venture funding. In short, cities churn out the innovations that produce growth.But the cities don't just care for themselves: their wealth vastly benefits rural areas. According to the Tax Foundation, a non-partisan research outfit, the most recent data show that in 2005, New York State sent $24 billion more to the federal government than it received in federal spending; California's loss is $48 billion. In both states, nearly all revenues-and thus taxes paid to Washington-come from metro-area residents. (That's not a one-year glitch-the trend has endured over time.) By contrast, the 32 states that made out like bandits are among the country's most rural, including South Dakota, Louisiana, West Virginia, and-you betcha!-Alaska. Socialism indeed: Without those extra federal dollars, those states would be laid even lower, as our economy inexorably shifts away from manufacturing and towards services, like nursing or computer programming.As important as our cities are to the national economy, they are woefully underserved, if not outright scorned, by the federal government. As Alan Berube, research director at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, says, "The federal government is not maximizing the productivity of our cities. It's running a playbook from the 1960s." Back then, zoning and massive highway programs favored sprawl, eventually creating our current unsustainable situation.Mayors and city governments don't have much power to reach across county and state lines-to tackle quality of life issues that put a drag on growth, such as worsening traffic, exacerbated by non-existent public transport. What's worse, the federal grants that do benefit cities are scattershot and often ineffective: According to Brookings, 14 federal departments and independent agencies administer 180 economic development programs. With so many separate programs and no overarching aim, our tax dollars can't be used to maximum effect.That's a gob-smacking, missed opportunity. Cities display massive economies of scale: Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that in the 1990s, holding everything else constant, doubling the employment density in a city center leads to a 20% increase in inventions per resident, due to greater opportunities for idea sharing.Thus, the solutions to those problems, as proposed by Brookings, read as common sense: greater interagency communication, federal policies that support cities, and empowering city agencies so that they can solve their own problems.During the election cycle, Barack Obama is sometimes referred to as the "first metropolitan candidate" since the 1920s. This isn't just a matter style (and could be his least appreciated strength). His campaign platform includes grants for green innovation and city transportation, as well as a White House office of urban policy. Those might seem like luxuries, given a roiling financial crisis and a rural America that's still bleeding. But, in the long run, we'll all suffer if we don't double down on the places that promise the most return: Cities.(Photo from Flickr user Joel Bedford.)
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