When Jane Jacobs published her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, she specifically noted that, by “great,” she was referring to large cities. Her book, which analyzed the qualities that make cities work, was concerned with cities on a New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles scale.
But one could certainly argue that, in 1961, America’s cities were all “great” in another sense. It was when they had reached their zenith – in population, in economic strength, in quality of life and services.
For most American cities, particularly those in the Northeast and Midwest that grew with American industry throughout the first half of the 20th century, it’s pretty much been all downhill from there.
The cities that helped make America an economic power have lost much of their population. They have higher-than-average rates of poverty and unemployment. They have taken the brunt of the nation’s surplus of housing stock, leading to high rates of vacancy and blight. Crime is high; hope is low.
The decline of our cities cannot be tied to any one single factor. It is the culmination of more than a half-century of well-intended policy decisions – at the local, state and federal levels – that had disastrous effects on the American urban landscape. Which did the most damage is a subject that’s hotly debated, but largely academic. The only two questions that are important today are:
1. Are America’s cities worth saving?
2. If so, how can we save them?
There are those who would argue that, no, our cities are not worth saving. Perhaps some are not. But as we enter a third generation of Americans with a majority born and raised outside the urban environment, it’s important to remember what our cities are: the hubs of our financial, technological, cultural and governmental systems.
Michigan is typical of the states that have suffered from the shift from urban to suburban development and the changing landscape of industrial America. Yet Michigan’s 14 urban core cities are still home to more than 80 percent of the state’s population – and, even more importantly, nearly 90 percent of its GDP.
I will leave the argument about the value of cities to others; those who are most likely to argue against their value don’t live in them and don’t – or, more importantly, won’t – recognize the importance of their health. Without the core cities that anchor our metropolitan areas, we lose the critical mass that brings us key utility, transportation, telecommunications, entertainment and cultural, educational, financial and economic assets. For a variety of reasons, we assume here that the answer to question one is “yes.”
Which makes us move on to the next question: How do we save them?
Michigan has lost millions of auto manufacturing jobs, even as suburbs spread like purple loosestrife. We have chronically been the nation’s leader in unemployment. Detroit, Flint, Pontiac and Saginaw are among the nation’s most violent cities.
Since its heyday in the 1960s, Saginaw has seen its population decline by just under one-half. Our median home value is well under half that of Michigan, and more than one-third of our housing units are vacant. Our median household income is just over one-half the statewide median, while our unemployment rate is nearly twice the state’s. A third of our families live below the poverty line – including 45 percent of our families with children under age 18. A staggering 65 percent of our children are born to unmarried women. More than 60 percent of families headed by a single mother are in poverty, and in almost 13 percent of our households, grandparents are legally responsible for children under 18. Black infant mortality is twice that of whites.
Having lived in Saginaw my whole 57 years, I’ve been able to watch the rise and fall. In 2005 I was elected to Saginaw’s City Council; in 2009 I was elected to the first of two terms as Mayor in our Council-Manager government. So I have seen first-hand the difficulties faced by our cities in a time of declining revenues and increasing legacy costs. My work with mayors of Michigan’s other urban centers has shown me that our problems are not unique to Saginaw.
More importantly I learned that the problems experienced by Saginaw, Flint, Detroit, Pontiac and other Michigan cities cannot be solved entirely – or even mostly – at the local level.
Too many parts of the system are broken – not just at the local level, but at the state and federal levels as well.
This is not to say that cities should throw up their hands and say, “there’s nothing we can do.” There is much individual municipalities can and should do – and are doing – to turn themselves around.
But those things are highly individualized and vary from city to city. There are common themes – streamlining and consolidation of services, reduction of legacy costs, diversifying revenue streams – and these must be practiced.
However, many cities can do all those things – some have – and it still won’t be enough. The playing field has become so far out of balance that without significant intervention, many cities will only continue to decline.
My experiences in Saginaw, my discussions with other elected and appointed officials, businesspeople, citizens, educators and many others, lead me to recommend eight initiatives that will help reverse the downward slide of our cities, help put them back on the path to prosperity and improve quality of life in them.
Not doing them means more of the same. Not doing them means we will continue to throw billions of dollars worth of misdirected state and federal money into increasingly deeper holes. Not doing them means many of our cities will continue to slide toward third-world standards of living.
The initiatives follow in subsequent posts … which will eventually all be linked:
Michigan Statewide Initiatives
- Replace the Property Tax System
- Honor the Spirit of Revenue Sharing
- Stop Me-Too-ing Urban Incentive Programs
- Introduce Municipal Fiefdoms to the 21st Century
- Educate Better, More Prepared Citizens
- Stop Subsidizing Surplus Construction
- Untie Poverty from “Community Development” Funds
- Invest More Wisely in Children