Because the US needs to abandon sprawl and invest in its cities in order to have a sustainable future, I try to encourage people to move into existing denser neighborhoods. Needless to say, when you start off every conversation with “have you thought about moving downtown” you get to hear a lot of excuses.
While the historic drivers of surburbanization have mostly been replaced with new concerns, many of the residents’ complaints are still valid. White flight, that odd concept of leaving a city because of minority residents, doesn’t seem to be too relevant. Some people, however, seem to be uncomfortable in neighborhoods where people are out walking on the street. The sight of citizens walking along the sidewalk seems to be enough to scare them away. It just seems too different, too alien. In general though, people focus on the more mundane concerns such as school districts, crime, taxes, and real estate prices.
Suburbs often have an advantage on these issues, but it is an unfair advantage. The urban core hosts many of the necessities required to attract and support a large, working population. Arts, events, sports teams, welfare services, indigent care, and many other aspects of city life still reside in the city. Suburbanites contribute a certain amount of talent and productivity to cities, but much of the tax base continues to decline in US cities. As cities struggle to balance their own budgets, essential city services are cut and the region becomes less attractive for everyone.
It is imperative that cities find out how to both improve services and lower costs if they want to continue to exist. American cities must be resurrected, it is the only way to modernize our economy and prepare for the high energy costs of the future. It falls to us city-dwellers to figure out how to make cities attractive once more.
I think the first topic that any city should address is their school system. In many cases, our urban schools have failed. Even the schools that have brilliant teachers and motivated students are associated with a system that has lost favor in the public eye. Improvements must be system wide or they will not be relevant.
Schools are important because parents want to invest in their children. Parents will change jobs, move across the globe, even sacrifice their own welfare just to give their children an educational advantage. City leaders who neglect their school systems are doomed to see their tax base disappear.
I have no silver bullet solution for this problem. However, I don’t think business-as-usual attitudes will suffice. Strong leadership must come from somewhere, and soon. The public school system, including each individual piece of it, must be held accountable to high performance standards. The charter schools, operating independently of the conventional school system, are a good start but don’t serve enough of the population.
The other issues that give suburbs an advantage are:
- housing costs
These issues are important, but even if you have low taxes / responsible spending, incredibly low housing costs, and low crime rates, you won’t be appealing to the parents who are choosing suburbia. Indianapolis meets these criteria, but has not made progress in attracting residents to the urban core. People are still moving to the suburbs in large numbers.
The cities always roll out the same marketing campaigns to address this issue. The historic homes, the diversity of urban areas, the walkability of urban neighborhoods, the vibrance of the urban core are highlighted. In the end, Indianapolis does manage to attract the young urban types, but only for a few years as they usually start families and move outwards to the suburbs. So, if there is any confusion about the issue allow me to clear it up: people prefer living in older, well-built historic homes with walkable neighborhoods. They tell me all the time. But that isn’t the important issue. Safety and education of the family will always trump other concerns.
People typically don’t understand how to determine if a school system is good or how much crime a certain area has. But they are generally smart enough to spot patterns. Urbanists often criticize suburbs for their homogeneity, but in some ways this is a huge advantage for suburbs. Parents can trust that the local suburban school system will be just as good as the one in the next jurisdiction over, and that the crime levels will be similar too. The commoditized style of living assures parents they are making a safe decision if they locate their family in the suburbs.
We need better schools in our cities. For all, not just some. We know how to achieve this, but nobody has been willing to step up to the plate and fix the entrenched bureaucracy and unions. We also need to learn from the suburbs and provide something easy to understand. The patterns must be easily recognizable. Remove the key advantage that suburbs have. Fix the school system and automatically cities can fix the tax base issue. Once they restore the tax base, cities have a lot more options about fixing the other problems.