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BY many accounts Baltimore is a comeback city. It has a beautiful piece of calculated nostalgia in the Camden Yards baseball stadium, which draws tens of thousands of visitors throughout the spring and summer. It has a lively waterfront district, the Inner Harbor, with charming shops and hot snacks for sale every hundred yards or so. But although it may function well as a kind of urban theme park (and there are plenty of cities that would love to achieve that distinction), as a city it is struggling. For twenty years Baltimore has hemorrhaged residents: more than 140,000 have left since 1980. Meanwhile, the surrounding suburbs have steadily grown. The population of Howard County, a thirty-minute drive from the city, has doubled since 1980, from 118,600 to 236,000. The people who have stayed in Baltimore are some of the neediest in the area. The city has 13 percent of Maryland's population but 56 percent of its welfare caseload. Only about a quarter of the students who enroll in a public high school in the city graduate in four years.
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More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.
From the archives:
"Home From Nowhere," by James Howard Kunstler (September, 1996)
Downsizing Cities, by Witokd Rybczynski (October, 1995)
"How Portland Does It," by Philip Langdon (November, 1992)
"How Business Is Reshaping America," by Christopher B. Leinberger and Charles Lockwood (October, 1986)
See a collection of Atlantic articles on sprawl.
From Atlantic Unbound:
American Graffiti: "At Work in the Fields of the Mouse," by Mark Dery (September 15, 1999)
Interviews: "Landscape Artist" (July 14, 1999)
Flashback: "The Godfather of Sprawl" (May 26, 1999)
American Graffiti: "Suburbia -- Is it So Bad to Be Banal?", by James Surowiecki (April 2, 1997)
The Metropolitan Initiative
The Smart Growth Network
Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse
The Urban Land Institute
And Baltimore is not unique. The image of America's cities has improved greatly over the past few years, thanks to shiny new downtowns dotted with vast convention centers, luxury hotels, and impressive office towers, but these acres of concrete and faux marble hide a reality that is in many cases grim. St. Louis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., lost population throughout the 1990s. These cities are also losing their status as the most powerful economies in their regions. Washington started the 1990s with a respectable 33 percent of the area's jobs. Seven years later it had only 24 percent. The rate of population growth in the nation's suburbs was more than twice that in central cities -- 9.6 percent versus 4.2 percent -- from 1990 to 1997. In just one year -- 1996 -- 2.7 million people left a central city for a suburb. A paltry 800,000 made the opposite move. In the major urbanized areas of Ohio 90 percent of the new jobs created from 1994 to 1997 were in the suburbs. Ohio's seven largest cities had a net gain of only 19,510 jobs from 1994 to 1997; their suburbs gained 186,000. The 1990s have been the decade of decentralization for people and jobs in the United States.
Not even cities that are growing -- southern and western boom cities -- are keeping pace with their suburbs. Denver has gained about 31,000 people in the 1990s (after having lost residents during the 1980s), but the counties that make up the Denver metropolitan area have gained 284,000 people -- about nine times as many. In Atlanta and Houston central-city growth is far outmatched by growth in outlying counties. And these cities, too, are losing their share of the jobs in their respective regions. In 1980, 40 percent of the jobs in the Atlanta region were in the city itself; by 1996 only 24 percent were.
Meanwhile, the poor have been left behind in the cities. Urban poverty rates are twice as high as suburban poverty rates, and the implementation of welfare reform appears to be a special problem for cities. Although welfare caseloads are shrinking in most cities, in general they are not shrinking as quickly as they are in the states and in the nation as a whole. Often cities have a disproportionate share of their states' welfare recipients. Philadelphia County, for example, is home to 12 percent of all Pennsylvanians but 47 percent of all Pennsylvanians on welfare. Orleans Parish, in which the city of New Orleans is located, has 11 percent of Louisiana's population but 29 percent of its welfare recipients. This hardly adds up to an urban renaissance.
Cities -- both the lucky, booming ones and the disfavored, depleted ones -- are losing ground for two reasons. First, they push out people who have choices. Urban crime rates have fallen, but they are still generally higher than suburban rates. Some urban school systems are improving, but in most of the nation's twenty biggest urban school districts fewer than half of high school freshmen graduate after four years. City mayors have cut taxes, but urban tax rates (and insurance rates, too) are often higher than suburban ones. Second, suburbs pull people in. This is not a secret. What is less well known -- in fact, is just beginning to be understood -- is how federal, state, and local policies on spending, taxes, and regulation boost the allure of the suburbs and put the cities at a systematic, relentless disadvantage. People are not exactly duped into living in detached houses amid lush lawns, peaceful streets, and good schools. Still, it is undeniable that government policies make suburbs somewhat more attractive and affordable than they might otherwise be, and make cities less so.
Federal mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions give people a subtle incentive to buy bigger houses on bigger lots, which almost by definition are found in the suburbs. States also spend more money building new roads -- which make new housing developments and strip malls not only accessible but financially feasible -- than they do repairing existing roads. Environmental regulations make building offices and factories on abandoned urban industrial sites complicated and time-consuming, and thus render untouched suburban land particularly appealing.
Together these policies have set the rules of the development game. They send a clear signal to employers, householders, builders, and political leaders: build out on open, un-urbanized, in some cases untouched land, and bypass older areas. These policies were never imagined as a coherent whole. No individual or committee or agency wrote the rules of development as such. No one stopped to consider how these rules, taken together, would affect the places where people live and work. The rules are simply the implacable results of seemingly disparate policies, each with unintended consequences.
When the policies that made it easier for people to flee the cities and move to the suburbs hurt only urban neighborhoods, the people who chose or had to stay behind suffered. Now, however, these policies, together with the problems of decay and decline in the cities and rapid suburban development, are causing problems for suburbanites, too -- most notoriously the problem known as sprawl.
Thus much of the unhappiness of the cities is also the unhappiness of the suburbs. The familiar image of a beleaguered urban core surrounded by suburban prosperity is giving way to something more realistic and powerful: metropolitan areas in which urban and suburban communities lose out as a result of voracious growth in undeveloped areas and slower growth or absolute decline in older places. The idea that cities and suburbs are related, rather than antithetical, and make up a single social and economic reality, is called metropolitanism.
METROPOLITANISM describes not only where but also in some sense how Americans live -- and it does this in a way that the city-suburb dichotomy does not. People work in one municipality, live in another, go to church or the doctor's office or the movies in yet another, and all these different places are somehow interdependent. Newspaper city desks have been replaced by the staffs of metro sections. Labor and housing markets are area-wide. Morning traffic reports describe pileups and traffic jams that stretch across a metropolitan area. Opera companies and baseball teams pull people from throughout a region. Air or water pollution affects an entire region, because pollutants, carbon monoxide, and runoff recognize no city or suburban or county boundaries. The way people talk about where they live reflects a subconscious recognition of metropolitan realities. Strangers on airplanes say to each other, "I'm from the Washington [or Houston or Los Angeles or Chicago or Detroit] area." They know that where they live makes sense only in relation to other places nearby, and to the big city in the middle. Metropolitanism is a way of talking and thinking about all these connections.
The old city-versus-suburb view is outdated and untenable. We can no longer talk about "the suburbs" as an undifferentiated band of prosperous, safe, and white communities. There are two kinds of suburbs: those that are declining and those that are growing. Declining suburbs, which are usually older and frequently either adjacent to the city or clustered in one unfortunate corner of the metropolitan area, are starting to look more and more like central cities: they have crumbling tax bases, increasing numbers of poor children in their schools, deserted commercial districts, and fewer and fewer jobs. For such suburbs to distance themselves from cities makes about as much sense as two drowning people trying to strangle each other.
Growing suburbs are gaining, sort of. They are choking on development, and in many cases local governments cannot keep providing the services that residents need or demand. Loudoun County, a boom suburb in northern Virginia, epitomizes this kind of place. The county school board predicts that it will have to build twenty-three new schools by 2005 to accommodate new students. In February of this year the board proposed that the next six new schools be basic boxes for learning, with low ceilings, small classrooms, and few windows. "We cannot ask the voters to keep voting for these enormous bonds," a county official told The Washington Post earlier this year, referring to a $47.7 million bond issue in 1998 for the construction of three new schools. "Nor can we continue to raise taxes every single year to pay for school construction." Predictably, parents complained about the cutbacks in amenities -- after all, they had moved there for the schools. "I just think they have to maintain their standards," a disgruntled parent told The Washington Post. But these suburbs cannot maintain their standards. There are simply too many new people who need too much new, expensive infrastructure yesterday -- not just schools but also sewer and water lines, libraries, fire stations, and roads.
Whether they moved to these places for rural tranquillity, lovely views, and open space, or for good schools, or for the chance to buy a nice house, or just because they wanted to get away from urban hassles, residents of growing suburbs sense that frantic, unchecked growth is undermining what they value and want to keep. The old paradigm of cities and suburbs as opposites, or partisans in a pitched battle, doesn't explain the relationship between these gaining suburbs and their declining older cousins a few exits back on the highway.
Suburbs are not the enemies of cities, and cities are not the enemies of suburbs. That is the first principle of metropolitanism. Cities and suburbs have a common enemy -- namely, sprawl. The cycle described above, of draining the center while flooding the edges, is familiar to almost anyone who has driven from one edge of a metropolitan area to another. It is endlessly repeatable, at least potentially: the center just gets bigger, and the edges move out. Metropolitanism is a way of thinking that might break this cycle.
Alas, the city-suburb dichotomy is alive and well in law and in policy. The result is a tangle of regulations and programs that are excellent at throwing growth out to the edges of metropolitan areas and ineffectual at bringing it back to or sustaining it in the metropolitan core. One reason the problem of growth has not been solved is that the city-versus-suburb analysis doesn't properly describe it. The metropolitan reality requires different kinds of policies -- ones that take connections and the varying impact of growth into account.
(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)
Illustration by David McLimans.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.