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Tough Love to Reinvigorate Heartland Cities

‘If criticism comes from the outside, it’s not valid. We are the real America.’ Unfortunately, that attitude advances no one and in a nation built on diversity, the tone is essentially contra-American. Frustratingly, this if often the widespread attitude towards criticism and efforts to revitalize cities in some parts of the heartland. Disregarding a broadly held perception does no harm to those who hold it, it only harms the entity the perception to which it is aimed. These tendencies can stifle a city’s growth potential, particularly those grappling with post-industrial decline. There are stories of tremendous success, but there are still too many cases of delusions of grandeur, denial of deep urban problems, and a chronic inability to benchmark.

Cities in the heartland are a product of their geographic context and economic history. The Rustbelt within this region, was the nation’s manufacturing powerhouse in the early 20th century. It was proximal to existing population centers, it had access to a nexus of rail infrastructure, plus it had access to ample water, steel, and coal resources.

However, this came at a cost. If a place is highly accessible, it is probably topographically nondescript. If it is built on heavy industry, it probably has a course urban form. If it is a manufacturing center, it probably has comparatively less highly-skilled labor. If it is close to antiquated forms of energy and raw-materials, it probably has unhealthy mining and industrial scars. If it is close to population centers, it likely lacks unspoiled nature.

Unfortunately, natural surroundings and climate are not generally draws to this part of the country. Scenery, natural resources, and quality of outdoor lifestyle are never going to be metrics that the Rustbelt region can compete with montane and coastal regions with on an even footing. All this makes the reinvention of Rustbelt urban structures and amenities more paramount in attracting new talent.

Despite Rustbelt cities having these commonalities, when competing and benchmarking, they must branch out. Competing only with their like-minded, globally unremarkable neighbors offers no new insights. Greatness does not come from competing with your equal or those continually in your line-of-sight. Cities compete in a global arena whether they accept or not. In the national and international stakes of inter-urban economics, middle-American cities are not being compared to one another anymore: Minneapolis is competing with Seattle and Rio de Janeiro; Detroit and Cleveland with the likes of San Jose, CA and Birmingham in the UK; Cincinnati with Austin and Guadalajara further south (GaWC Global Cities Ranking).

If a parochial attitude is sowed, a monocultural, localized crop with result. This is happening. Coastal cities have talent-sheds that are as wide as the equator. ‘Interior rising-star cities’ like Denver and Nashville are even attracting talent from coast-to-coast. Midwestern cities are lagging with primary talent-sheds not exceeding a 500-miles radius, even urban juggernauts like Chicago (LinkedIn: Workforce Report Program).

Cities need to do a better job of self-promotion, but this infers they need real things to promote. Cities need to self-improve and to do so, need to become more self-critical, lateral-thinking, and at times, less self-aggrandizing. The final statement is not a typo. Some average, second-tier cities think they are the best thing since the advent of sliced bread! Whilst there is nothing wrong with hometown pride, if this is broadcast widely and assertively, tangible measures and attributes must be in place to back it up to newcomers.

The recent Amazon HQ2 frenzy illustrates this real-status versus perceived-status disconnect. Of course, there are some urban centers that knowingly take an outside chance on an economic opportunity. However, as much as there are these investment-hopefuls, there are also other investment-confidents. Cities may be so overconfident, it would be akin to Seattle demanding the prize for sunniest winter. Many hopefuls do not vaguely fulfil the basic HQ2 requirements. So, what is wrong with hometown pride run amok? This translates into having a deluded city administration that fails to realistically assess their urban assets in a global context. They expend resources on hopeless endeavors, rather than investing in urban improvements that will better place them in the running for future such prizes.

Cities cannot claim to have a viable public-transit system, when their long-term policy-position has only promoted auto-dependent suburbanism. They cannot claim their city is livable and attracts talent, when their policies are regressive, have been anti-urban, and have kept the city as diverse as a box of saltines. A city cannot profess it is welcoming to a globalized skills-base, when the resident population remains confused by the 3-digits in front of a 7-digit phone number: yes, this does really happen and yes, people can have other area-codes.

While some long-term residents and tourists may find these parochial traits endearing when in the context of charming, small towns. When these traits are true of a place boasting as being metropolitan, neither potential new talent, nor Amazon and its ilk, will take it seriously. Being insular and small is quaint and expected; being insular and large is ignorance at best or anti-intellectual at worst.

People of the heartland may be forgiven for raising the new pejorative of ‘coastal elite’ in labelling such a critique, but if their cities want the money from coastal talent and companies, guess what: those cities are going to have to capitulate to many of their needs to attract them. If new talent wants their city to have more culture than a Yoplait, then said-city is going to have to start investing in urban amenities.

Some cities might balk at this plethora of criticism. How could a city possibly meet all these criteria and still be embedded in the interior of this continent, grappling with the blight of deindustrialization? Some cities in this region have achieved their own economic renaissance. Toronto, as an urban counterpart to Detroit, never experienced the stark decline of its American neighbor. In fact, Toronto is now lauded as one of the world’s most diverse cities, boasting a burgeoning, diversified economy (The Globe & Mail, 22 January 2003). This dichotomy may seem disingenuous, as one is Canadian, and one is American.

Therein is the point being made: this is where different policies can create different futures, even with strong geographic position and natural assets parallels. Notwithstanding, Detroit has made some major strides in proactively dealing with deindustrialization and de-urbanization, including fostering neighborhood and utility consolidation, undergoing downtown commercial revival, and being a leader in urban agriculture.

Another local example is the city of Pittsburgh, having pulled off nothing short of an image metamorphosis and economic reinvention. It has gone from declining Steel City, to knowledge-economy hub of the Allegheny. Amazingly, it is the first placed, second-tier US city, in the Economist and Mercer urban livability rankings.

Most Midwestern cities of a similar size are so globally obscure, the agencies do not even rank them. Pittsburgh has two tremendous triumphs, it is playing beyond a regional arena and its getting noticed, and it is a pleasant, post-industrial city to live in. Along with progressive policy and sound urban management, three factors that boost the Steel City’s appeal are: a compact downtown that has consolidated rather than sprawled; a transit backbone and a non-antagonistic view towards it; and a unique hill-and-river, peninsular location. It is therefore no surprise that these factors have compounded in bringing Uber, Apple, Facebook, and Google to set up regional offices in this up-and-coming, post-industrial city (New York Times, 22 July 2017).

If Toronto seems like one border too far, Rustbelt cities could take a lesson out of Pittsburgh’s playbook. They could be using urban design regulations and progressive policies to consolidate their urban cores and neighbourhood business districts.

Other cities could stop thinking with their gas-tanks and start thinking ahead, and refrain from de-prioritizing and undercutting public-transit projects. Other cities could balance the need for just any development, with the need for smart, urban-enhancing development. A doughnut city of soulless strip-commerce and parking lots, is not going to sell to an HQ2 or to most of the upwardly mobile workforce. Propagating these urban forms are not going to facilitate an image metamorphosis required to catalyze an economic reinvention.

Even if urban form or concentration of amenity is less-than-ideal, some Rustbelt and heartland cities still have the critical mass of size and the Fortune 500 companies to attract talent. Cities will often employ cosmetic urban development initiatives to keep them interested. Albeit, this only works temporarily. Subsequently, when the thin urban veneer is exhausted, recent transplants start to spend their entire social existence in the car or on a plane to elsewhere. Soon thereafter, they are handing in resignation letters and booking U-Hauls to the usual magnet cities. Some cities and many companies are learning that attraction does not necessarily equate to retention.

This phenomenon is costly to companies, finding that millennial recruitment and retention are becoming onerous in an increasingly tight labor market. An unreliable new tax-base is also dangerous for these cities. The revolving door of talent can go on for numerous years, untraceable in population statistics, but inward skills migration and population growth could easily plateau or reverse if sufficient word gets out that something about this city is amiss.

Quick talent turnaround can be combatted. Most importantly, cities need to get the basics right, if they want to translate talent attraction into retention. Some skilled newcomers may find these Rustbelt cities undesirable for long-term residence, as they are often accustomed to places that function as heterogeneous, cooperative, and multigenerational urbanized societies.

Problems arise if simple mistakes in governance are compounded. If a city does not know how to enforce simple by-laws that make a city livable; if a city does not know how to stimulate diverse retail and enable active streetscapes; if a city focuses narrowly on developmental rewards; if a city enables contrived urbanism; if a city consistently elevates the needs of cars over people; if a city gives parking and developer interests an inordinate amount of power; if a city overprioritizes suburban needs.

All these actions exacerbate urban imbalance, subverting livability, sense-of-place, and the people within it.

Citizens, not just city administrators, also need to look externally to positively contribute their city’s progression. Residents need to reflect on their urban-social conduct in a wider context if they wish to be attractive to a broader talent pool. Some cities in the heartland that extol their normality, have aberrant urban social behaviors.

The danger is that given a culture of, and a spatial structure that, enables pervasive individualism, it can lead to a social manifestation of a selfishness. A deep unknowing of how to co-inhabit limited space disrupts collective harmony.

Cities that function in harmony do so, because the majority of its residents abide by the unwritten contract of public reasonableness. Whether people are choosing isolated cul-de-sac living, or relegated to decaying inner-cities, public reasonableness is oft usurped by contestation of place and space. This leads a city that fails to function on an intangible level. This intangible malfunctioning manifests itself by turning neighborhoods into contested spaces of non-belonging, it changes sidewalks into zones of passive-aggressive and antisocial behavior, it fashions vehicles into pedestrian battering-rams, and it makes law-enforcement turn a blind-eye to gross societal misconduct.

Furthermore, an awkwardness towards outsiders, an aversion towards otherness, and an underlying passive-aggressiveness eventually causes societal alienation, leading to outmigration.

There are many proud residents of such places that will recoil is abhorrence saying this is just the opinion of outsiders, perhaps haters, or spoiled, worldly folks, who have no grasp of the American heartland and its Rustbelt. This is a valid criticism. People being proud of where they hail from is perfectly normal.

This article may not embody the opinion of many middle-Americans. The people who call these places home have every right to decide how these places evolve or remain. In a democracy (at least more so on a local level), you ultimately get the government, thus the policies, and therefore the places you deserve (paraphrasing Alexis de Tocqueville). Remember however, as you can decide on your city’s trajectory, so upwardly mobile people can also decide whether to call it home or not.

Cities have a right to decide if they want to chase the limelight, or if they prefer the tranquillity of parochialism. The game of chasing the limelight is not for every urban area and rightfully so. However, if you are not in the game, do not complain when you are not winning. Worse still, don’t make up your own game, with your own rules, while playing against yourself, and convince yourself you are still winning.

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