What should be done about the nation’s rustbelt cities–or, as they are being repackaged by marketers, “Legacy Cities”? The populations of at least a dozen major cities declined by more than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, including Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and of course Detroit and New Orleans (whose population decline has little to do with the rest of them). In many cases, such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis (which declined between 8 and 9 percent in the 2000s), recent declines are merely a continuation of trends since 1950.
A new report from the Lincoln Land Institute offers a set of prescriptions for these cities. While they may sound good at first glance, close scrutiny reveals that they are the same tired policies that have been trotted out by urban planners for decades.
These policies include:
- Urban renewal, funded with tax-increment financing and other subsidies, to “leverage assets” in the city;
- Regional government “to better distribute the burdens of urban infrastructure and other costs,” i.e., make the suburbs pay for the central cities’ mismanagement;
- “New urban forms,” meaning high-density, mixed-use developments;
- “Re-establishing the central role of the city,” meaning demands that employers move to cities rather than suburbs; and
- “New governance structures,” meaning “economic development corporations” that can “leverage assets” (use tax dollars) to benefit selected developers in selected neighborhoods with little public scrutiny.
The report gives examples of cities that are doing some of these things, but fails to show that any of them have actually succeeded at attracting new people and jobs. In fact, the higher taxes and increased regulation called for by this report is more likely a recipe for accelerated disaster.
Here’s a completely different set of recommendations that I suggest is more likely to succeed:
- Improve schools, probably by using a voucher system to create a competitive environment for both public and private schools;
- If the city has a large African-American underclass, make absolutely sure that all elementary students have caught up to their middle-class peers by the time they reach high school, and gather private funding to insure that all high-school students who graduate with decent grades know they will get scholarships to a major university, thus giving them an economic path out of poverty;
- Eliminate cronyism and corruption in city government, problems never mentioned in the Lincoln Land Institute report but which could actually be exacerbated by the report’s recommendations. Cities are the creation of state legislatures, and if cities can’t reform themselves, the legislatures should take action by rechartering the city governments;
- Reduce crime by doing things like changing the gridded city streets that planners love into cul de sacs so that criminals have fewer escape routes;
- Reduce taxes by eliminating all but the most essential urban services–this means no government-funded convention centers, sports stadiums, hotels, streetcar lines, or other things that ought to be privately funded, if they are needed at all;
- Reduce regulation, including zoning rules, so property owners can engage in urban renewal without government subsidies or top-down planning. Historic preservation ordinances may sound cool, but they are one of the biggest obstructions to private redevelopment;
- Fix city pension and health care funds, even if it means going bankrupt to allow cities to renegotiate unsustainable contracts with public employee unions;
- If it hasn’t been done already, legalize the sale of beer from the same premises in which it is made. As I’ve argued elsewhere (see page 6), the micro brewpub revolution has done more to revitalize cities than rail transit, urban renewal, and the other expensive programs planners and city officials love.
In short, rather than adding to the layers of taxes and regulation that already hinder city growth, government should get out of the way.