Like any organism, the city must receive continual nourishment to thrive and to flourish. Like a calf without milk or flowers without sunlight, cities eventually waste away without a recurrent supply of civic nutrition.
Nutrition for cities comes in many forms. Energy, resources, and pride are but three ways that people and societies throughout history have shown that they care about the places that they call home. The best cities in the world often share common traits like healthy immigration (of both people and ideas), quality infrastructure, and high levels of citizen engagement and volunteerism. These things act as fuel for people to provide around the clock care for their cities, neighborhoods, and streets.
However, when the sustenance wanes, so does the city. Cracks in the sidewalks come first, followed by wear and tear in the building stock, financial stress in civic institutions, economic strain and, if left unchecked, abandonment.
Ambitious People Build Bold Places
I’m a rust belt guy. Some people bristle at that moniker, but I kind of like it. Perhaps it is because I react to it like many native Detroiters do when called upon to defend the state of the city to others, “You either get it, or you don’t. And if you don’t, I’m not sure that I can make you.” Where others see ruin and decay, we see promise. To me, ‘rust belt’ represents a unique chunk of the world built with an abundant spirit and boundless determination for its industries, its cities, and its people. The industrial revolution of the early 20th century gave rise to unprecedented economic growth in what is now called the rust belt, resulting in many important creations, including that most American of all social experiments—the rise of a thriving middle class.*
The word that always comes to mind when I describe the values and tenets of those who conceived of places like Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago, is ambition. Ambition for learning, for evolution, for life, and for people. You see this same desire in many small rust belt towns, too. What they created was a new way of living, imperfect in so many ways, but never short on goals and aspiration. It is apparent in civic structures, architecture, and design.
When I visit many of today’s high growth cities, I look for similar ambition in their DNA. I rarely find it. And I look really, really hard.
Hard Times & Hope
For all my cheerleading of the rust belt, I recognize the irrefutable reality that the last half century has kicked its proverbial butt. Our cities have experienced tough times. Economic downturn, racial tensions, political upheaval—you name it, we’ve seen it. Changes came and cities didn’t react fast enough to meet the challenges. I won’t go into the litany of reasons why this happened, but let’s just say that the burly foundations of many rust belt cities turned out to be as fragile as snowflakes. It is most obvious in failing urban infrastructure, crumbling housing stock, and declining public services.
Other cultures see the value in fostering their cities through tough times. In the U.S., we aren’t as thoughtful, often resulting in communities having to go it alone. In Michigan, whose cities have been some of the hardest hit, the state legislature has redirected over $7 billion in funding for communities to other parts of the state budget since 2002. Austerity, it seems, is the principle urban policy.
Forget about nourishment, these actions have been downright malevolent!
Fortunately for urban advocates, the latest wave of global human movement is decidedly urban. More people live in cities today than ever before. People are moving to cities and businesses are following them. It has long been obvious in cities like New York, but today the trend towards urbanism is taking hold in many less glamorous places, including those in the rust belt. Entrepreneurial activity and civic innovation are palpable in these places. The connection between vibrant communities and strong economies is undeniable, even as state and federal policy makers remain unreceptive to the facts.
Nourishment or Abandonment?
For small victories to become the cement of a lasting turnaround, there must be cooperation from everyone involved. Turning a rehabilitated house into a neighborhood comeback requires a larger commitment. Turning a vibrant neighborhood into a thriving city necessitates strategic investment. And for a city to realize its full potential as a beacon for culture and commerce, it requires continued focus from everyone connected to its fate—citizens, civic leaders, educators, business and philanthropy, along with the state and federal governments.
Failing to capitalize on the current urban momentum through cooperation, focus, and investment could halt the recent gains in their tracks. To date, Michigan’s state government in particular has come up woefully short in holding up its end of the deal.
Today, many cities in Michigan (AKA the Rust Belt’s Ground Zero) dangle precariously on the edge waiting for state lawmakers to cut through the politics and inertia and offer a helping hand. On one side lies the promise of a glorious comeback. On the other, further abyss.
Which direction will they choose?
*By middle class I don’t mean the ping pong ball that the term represents in modern political messaging, but rather the noble idea of the ‘Citizen King’ who works a 40-hour week, owns a home (and maybe a fishing boat), has access to quality public education, and chases, at his or her own pace, the American Dream.