Development trend spotter and user of hard evidence (undoubtedly a unique trait) Joel Kotkin takes a critical eye to the urban renaissance myth
sweeping U.S. cities, including our own:
In virtually every region of the U.S., economic growth has been far more
robust in the suburbs than in the cities. Take Philadelphia, whose "center city"
renaissance has become the stuff of urban legend. Over the past decade, the
city, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has lost 4.4% of its jobs. In
contrast, the surrounding south Jersey suburbs have gained 23.2%. Even more
disturbing, these job losses in Philadelphia and other urban centers have
included those very fields -- finance, professional business services and
information -- which ostensibly would employ the erstwhile members of Dr.
Florida's "creative class." Since 2002 professional business service jobs in
Philadelphia have dropped 2% and financial services by roughly 8.5%. In
contrast, the south Jersey suburbs have enjoyed an 18.7% jump in professional
business service jobs and a 10% increase in finance employment.
As a result, the gain in an affluent population in center city has
clearly failed to revive the economy of Philly's core. Some estimate that since
1990 the number of jobs downtown has actually dropped as much as 15%. So central
city residents increasingly "reverse commute" to where the jobs are, the
This certainly doesn't bode well for Buffalo, since the prevailing strategy here has been to build more lofts, open more restaurants, and "class-up" our image in hopes of attracting the hip creative class into, or back to, the city. These actions are changing the makeup of Buffalo's population ever so slightly but so far there is no obvious large-scale white collar job creation or retention. The reverse-commuting Kotkin mentions is very real in Buffalo. Amherst still holds the majority of good white collar jobs sought after by the urban creative class.
Philly is only one example of the urban core successfully rebounding in domestic terms like housing, dining, and entertainment while still hemorrhaging jobs. The growing success of the suburbs (not necessarily our suburbs, mind you) does not imply the failure of the city, however. Both can be prosperous (see Chicago in particular) but it will take a change of perspective from urbanists, politicians, residents, and just about everyone else. "The City" as a concept will continue to fail if we continue to define is as narrowly as it has been defined. The urbanists will tell you that a particular aesthetic standard must be met, in addition to high density, walkability, and mixed use, in order to pass the "city" test. As much as you and I might dislike the idea, perhaps the definition of "urban" needs to change. If you ask an economist--and apparently Joel Kotkin as well--the great majority of people want to live in the suburbs for space, privacy, safety, and school quality. It isn't because they like the looks of cheap strip malls (though the readers of Buffalo Rising might beg to differ). Job creation is a whole different topic, but in terms of urban residential renewal, the above issues can be addressed:
1. Space: Buffalo is a very un-dense city. It is a misperception that city lots are smaller than suburban lots, and it is also wrong to conceptualize downtown as "the city" since it is true that in any American city the majority of urban residential density is outside of the central business district. Most new housing in the suburbs is subdivision style, and those lots are getting smaller and smaller and those neighborhoods are getting denser and denser. They have just as few trees as Buffalo lots, if not less, and are just as inconvenient when it comes to plowing in the winter. Perhaps this is a better selling point than claiming that the city has lofts and trendy restaurants.
2. Privacy: Neighbors are equally noisy and nosey in the city and suburbs. If you drive through any suburban subdivision or even older connector streets, the houses are very close together. It would seem as though the city=loss of privacy argument is based on the assumption that all city housing is apartment or two-family style. There are duplexes all over the suburbs. You simply live next to your neighbor instead of above or below your neighbor. The perception of a lack of single family dwellings in the city is false.
3. & 4. Safety and School Quality: These are two areas every city has been struggling with in recent years. They are very real concerns, and very much in the news lately. With McCarthy Gipson and Byron Brown came the zero tolerance law enforcement policy. If you read early content on this site you'll learn that I support total enforcement of the law. Unenforced laws on the books are to the benefit of no one. However, the success of "zero tolerance" is questionable right now due to the laws and crimes they chose to address or neglect. That is a simple policy implementation issue that can be corrected easily by refocusing efforts away from parking tickets and toward violent crime and property damage--the things suburbanites are concerned about when they mention safety.
Buffalo Schools Superintendent Williams jumped headlong into solving the problems plaguing Buffalo public schools. It is going to take some time and the support of the community, but you certainly cannot accuse the man of being disengaged. He has made himself very visible and very accessible. He supports charter schools, which just might be the kind of "crazy experiment" that solves the issues facing public education, and he's shown himself willing to take on the teachers union, which has shown itself to be thoroughly afraid of innovation of any sort.
"The City" can offer residents what they need whether the jobs return to America's urban cores or continue to move to the suburbs. "Reverse commuting" shouldn't be viewed as a negative; outbound commuting will need to be accepted into the definition of "commute" alongside inbound commuting. Mobility and sprawl are here to stay. There will come a point when population, retail, and business balance out across the cities and their suburbs, and the concepts of urban
will become substantively irrelevant. That loss of distinction scares a lot of people, but if urban cores are to remain relevant at all, they need to succumb to economic reality and a broadened definition. If Buffalo and other cities continue to cling to a concept of the urban attractive to no more than 15 percent of the population
, our cities will see a real manifestation of the king of all myths- rich and poor with no discernable middle class.
Not all of what Joel Kotkin discusses is relevant to Buffalo's particular situation, but lessons can be learned nonetheless:
The evidence we have today should suggest that a different approach may be
in order. Instead of luring the "hip and cool" with high-end amenities, cities
need instead to address issues that concern businesses as well as working- and
middle-class families. These include such basic needs as public safety,
maintenance of parks, improving public schools, cutting taxes, regulatory reform
-- in other words, all those decidedly unsexy things that contribute to
maintaining a job base and the hope for upward mobility.
Given the growing challenge posed by the emerging boomtowns as well as
the suburbs and exurbs, wannabe "hip cool" cities need to realize they can't
thrive merely as amusement parks for the rich, the nomadic young and tourists.
To remain both vital and economically relevant, they must remain anchored by a
large middle class, and by families and businesses that feel safe and committed
to the urban place.
Don't we know it.
(HT to Out of Control