September 30, 1997 - From the September, 1997 issue

Brookings: New Urban Center’s Focus is Metropolitanism

The Brookings Institution established its Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy in Dec., 1996. The Center “seeks to change the way decisionmakers think about urban policies and how disparate domestic policies—together—impact cities and metropolitan regions.” The Center sponsored a forum in May entitled “Forging Metropolitan Solutions to Urban and Regional Problems.” Following are the introductory remarks of the Center’s Director, Bruce Katz, who is also Staff Director of the Senate Subcommittee on Housing and Urban Affairs, and was Chief of Staff to former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. 

... As many of you know, over the past six months I have visited with literally hundreds of people… to get advice and guidance on the mission and focus of the new [Brookings Institution] Urban Center. 

I have received almost unanimous confirmation that the driving ideas behind the Center—that cities and metropolitan areas matter, that federal and state policies for the most part ignore these places—are valid. 

What has struck me about these meetings is the frequency with which discussions about urban problems quickly turn to the necessity for metropolitan solutions…

The surprising thing was the extent to which individuals working and living in the city—heads of city economic development offices, local elected officials, private sector businessmen, even community leaders—recognize that the ability of cities to address their myriad challenges—their function and competitiveness in the new economy, their ability to bear the costs of concentrated poverty at a time of reduced fiscal capacity—is dependent on a new vision of metropolitan and regional collaboration.

These conversations are, of course, emblematic of the larger bubbling of metropolitan interest and thinking and action which is popping up in places across the country.

In Minnesota, State Representative Myron Orfield… has pushed through a series of legislative initiatives designed to upgrade metropolitan governance and collaboration in the Twin Cities area. In Pittsburgh, the Allegheny Conference is leading the campaign for a $0.25 regional sales tax which will, among other things, build two new stadiums downtown, refurbish the waterfront, extend the conference center and make downtown Pittsburgh an entertainment and cultural mecca. 

In Cleveland, Mayor Madeline Cain of Lakewood Ohio… has helped forge a consortium of older suburban elected officials—the Inner Ring Suburban Consortium. This consortium is fighting the use of State transportation, sewer, and school to advance exurban sprawl and undermine older economies. 

And clearly there are many more examples: In Portland where there is an elected metropolitan government and an urban growth boundary; in St. Louis, where the metropolitan transportation organization is forging innovative linkages between inner city residents and suburban jobs; in Southern Florida, where there is a joint State-local effort to revitalize an 85-mile long urban corridor from West Palm Beach to Miami.

The list could go on and on. What is fascinating about the rise in metropolitan collaborations and networks and solutions is how eclectic and diverse they are—how the coalitions that are formed and the institutional and policy reforms that are sought vary from area to area.

What is also striking… is how little this trend is reflected in federal policy discussions. For all its passion and potential, metropolitanism is still a political and economic and social trend that is under the national radar screen that has largely escaped detection by federal politicians and national media.

. . . Why is this happening—why the sudden burst of energy at the metropolitan level? What should federal and state policy makers learn from this?

… [T]here are lots of explanations… for why we should work towards metropolitan solutions to so many of our urban and regional problems: the clear recognition that so many of our challenges (transportation, environment, poverty, crime) cross the borders of our political jurisdictions and can only be addressed meaningfully at a larger level; the growing notion that metropolitan areas are the competitive units in the new economy; and the increasing evidence that urban and suburban economies are interdependent and the health of the region is linked to and influenced by the health of the core.

Yet… by far the most important factor driving the recent bubbling of interest is that metropolitan areas across the country are experiencing similar patterns of growth and development—explosive sprawl where farmland and open space once reigned matched by decline and abandonment in the central cities and older suburbs.

Let's review the statistics for some representative American cities and states.

  • Take Chicago. Between 1970 and 1990 the population of the Chicago metropolitan area increased by only 4% but the amount of land in the region used for urban purposes grew by 35%. Altogether 454 square miles, twice the size of the city of Chicago, were converted from agricultural to urban uses over that 20 year span. 
  • Take Baltimore. Between 1960 and 1990 the population of the Baltimore metropolitan area increased by 33% but the amount of land in the region used for urban purposes grew fivefold—by 170%. If Maryland continued at its current rate of development over the next 25 years, it would lose over 500,000 acres of forests and farmland—the size of Baltimore County and Baltimore City combined.
  • Take Colorado. In the last 10 years alone, more than 500,000 acres of open space has been lost. 
  • Overall, the American Farmland Trust estimates that urban sprawl eats up two acres a minute—a million acres a year.

The "leap-frog" expansion of urbanized land has fueled a disturbing concentration of poverty and decline at the core of metropolitan areas. 

  • Some 8 million people now live in neighborhoods where more than 40% of the residents are poor—almost double the number of 1970.
  • The isolation of the poor—as Paul Jargowsky and Marge Turner have shown—is highly racialized. Three-quarters of the African-American poor live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of more than 20%; one-third of the African-American poor live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of more than 40%. White poverty, by contrast, is highly dispersed throughout metropolitan areas.

Children and adults in these high poverty communities face limited opportunities—failing schools, pervasive joblessness, rampant crime, social isolation. And their local governments cannot bear the costs associated with concentrated poverty as more and more households, firms and jobs move to far out suburbs. 

For the rest of us, no matter where we live, sprawl also has costs. It diminishes the competitiveness of metropolitan areas, worsens traffic congestion, increases the costs of highways and other infrastructures, and abandons existing assets that could still be used. 

Moreover, these problems extend beyond economics; as Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has said, this "destructive, soulless ugly mess called sprawl" erodes the very sense of community and place that binds us together.

Now the good news .... [S]prawl and concentrated poverty are creating a strong foundation for coalition building at the local and regional levels. 

First, mayors, downtown corporate leaders and other local civic, business and community leaders increasingly recognize that they cannot "go it alone" in the effort to revive urban economies and neighborhoods and… address the challenges of welfare reform. Central cities—particularly those with fixed boundaries in the East and Midwest—are compelled to seek regional collaborations. 

Second, as Myron Orfield has demonstrated, leaders in the older suburbs surrounding central cities increasingly realize that they share not only similar economic and demographic trends with their urban neighbors but also lack the fiscal capacity to address these problems. In many ways, the older suburbs are worse off. The notion that the suburbs are not monolithic—that the central cities and older suburbs might actually form a majority coalition—has profound political and policy implications at both the state and federal levels. 

Third, farmers and families in small towns are bemoaning the loss of quality of life in rural areas with the onset of people and congestion.


Fourth, environmentalists are concerned with the loss of open space and the ecological damage wreaked by the extension of sewer and water lines and other development…

Make no mistake about this. This is not easy stuff. In many parts of the country, suburbs and cities are horribly divided—by race, by ethnicity, by income. But the acceleration of sprawl—with all its consequences—has created strange bedfellows. 

Perhaps the most important glue holding these coalitions together is the simple notion that our current growth and development patterns are reversible. 

They are not the inevitable product of the marketplace and consumer preferences. Rather, sprawl depends on many government subsidies in the form of funding for new roads, sewers, schools, fire and police protection. Without these subsidies, many new housing subdivisions, malls, and industry on the outer fringe of our metropolitan areas would simply not be economically feasible. And who helps pays for these subsidies? Often the very central city and older suburban communities that are the ultimate losers when sprawl takes hold… 

The implications of all this for federal and state policies and practices are enormous. Over the past four decades, the feds and states have been part of the problem—facilitating and fueling suburban sprawl through transportation and housing and infrastructure monies. While much attention has focused on targeted urban initiatives—whether it's model cities in the '60s or UDAG in the '70s or empowerment zones in the '90s—the truth is that the real urban game is elsewhere and it's mostly not positive. 

There are some hopeful signs, however, that business as usual will not prevail. 

With the enactment of the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 and the [ISTEA in 1991], the federal government began to change the rules of the game governing the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars of road and transit money, shifting some of the power over how to allocate federal funds to metropolitan planning entities. 

States and localities and increasingly the federal government are experimenting with innovative ways to preserve farmland and open space…  

More recently, States have begun to experiment with a variety of efforts to curb sprawl, promote smart growth and rebuild established communities. 

... Maryland has recently enacted Governor Glendening's "smart growth" legislative package which steers billions of state road, sewer and school monies away from farms and open spaces to existing areas targeted for concentrated growth. Colorado, Delaware and other states are now working on alternative versions of smart growth to curb sprawl in their own backyards. Yet we have a very long way to go:

The federal government for the most part continues to allocate housing, jobs, welfare and other monies in a fragmented and balkanized fashion.

Take affordable housing. Some 3,400 public housing agencies now administer the Section 8 rental voucher program. Although housing markets are clearly metropolitan in nature, these public housing agencies are highly localized and impede the ability of recipients to exercise choice in the larger market.

The service delivery areas for job training and the county administration of welfare replicate this problem… 

Even ISTEA in many metropolitan areas is still a work in progress. Many inner cities and older suburbs are not given fair representation when state and metropolitan transportation decisions are made. And basic information about how and where federal funds are spent is rarely shared with the public or presented in a form that average citizens can understand.

I believe all this will change in time. The metropolitan bubbling from below is changing the landscape of American politics. It sends a clear message to the federal and state governments about the role they can and must play.

They should be a partner, not just an observer, in these metropolitan efforts. They should remove administrative obstacles that are blocking the development of integrated and holistic solutions—solutions that connect jobs to housing to welfare. They should seed efforts to connect the churches, community development corporations and community builders who are working day in and day out in America's inner city neighborhoods to the metropolitan agenda.

They should reward and enhance moves toward state and metropolitan solutions that curb sprawl, promote smart growth, and rebuild established communities…

… For the urban center, this [forum] is… a first step in the metropolitan arena. We are hoping to launch this year a major analysis—nationally and in strategic metropolitan areas—of the net effect of federal and state policies on suburban sprawl and on inner city economic development…  

In closing, I think we have the potential through the development of metropolitan solutions to accomplish many things that we as a society say we want: stronger urban and regional economies, less inequity between different political jurisdictions, more open space for our children to enjoy, meaningful solutions to so many of the social, environmental, and transportation problems that plague us.

We also have the chance to lessen the divisions that have separated city from suburb and bring a greater sense of community into our lives. The word metropolis literally means in Greek "mother city"—and I can't think of a more powerful image of unity to guide us into the next century…  


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