Sunday, October 04, 2009
Getting The Focus Right: It's About Cities
This may surprise you but we’ve got to say it: we’re tired of hearing about the paramount importance of regions and how regionalism is the road to a successful future for Memphis.
And we admit that we were some of the earliest people who talked about regionalism and the need for every one in the Memphis region to pull together and to establish a collaborative agenda.
It was about 20 years ago when we introduced the concept to our community, and a part of us has regretted it ever since. It’s not that we feel that we were wrong; it’s just that it seems more and more that the application of the concept has come at the expense of the city that lies at the heart of the region.
Yes, we know – and we’ve frequently said – that regions are the economic unit of competition in the global economy. There is no argument about that.
We know that solutions to some issues – say, water and air quality and greenways – are best served up in a regional context.
We know there are advantages – like Memphis International Airport – that are supported by and serve the entire region.
We also know that often solutions dressed in the cloak of regionalism are anything but sensitive to the urban core that is the beating heart for the area. The poster child to prove this point is seen in transportation decisions that are more motivated by moving packages through the region than keeping people in our city.
Because our corner of the world focuses more on creating high-quality roads for trucks and new corridors for development, there is always one more unnecessary project (think I-269) and the plethora of road expansion plans so traffic moves faster from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m. each workday.
Flowing Out But Not So Much In
In this way, regionalism can become the basis for so many faulty equations as more and more asphalt is laid as the answer to “economic development” and to transportation plans that define themselves as highways only. It’s the infrastructure equivalent of not only giving up on the city but firing a bullet into its prospects for the future.
Here’s the thing: regionalism across the U.S. is often more outward-focused than inward-directed. As a result, programs supported by the major city that focus on a stronger region are rarely reciprocated by the region’s suburban cities.
For example, it’s not unusual to hear Memphis and Shelby County officials call for regional progress and to urge regional strategies that embraces the best interest of area’s cities. And yet, there’s little of that kind of commitment flowing from the fringes back to the center.
That’s why in some regions, there have been complaints that regionalism is really just racism with a new face. And while we’re unprepared to embrace this level of cynicism, we are prepared to join in complaints that too little of regionalism is aimed at strengthening the urban core.
Getting The Focus Right
We’ve seen it most prominently here in the slow understanding that sprawl is a cancer that threatens our financial and social health. If we are serious about sustainability and becoming the kind of green city that can succeed in the new economy, we’ve got to get serious – not to mention, honest – about the forces (and the public policies that set them in motion) that put us in the condition we’re in today.
So, forgive us if in the midst of the euphoria about the creation of the much-needed and long overdue White House Office of Urban Affairs, we urge it to resist the siren’s call of regionalism for awhile and focus solely on cities themselves.
We know there are a lot of think tanks that hail the metro as the platform for White House actions, but for us, it’s the city that counts most and after a decade of being ignored by the federal bureaucracy, it’s time to give them targeted, concentrated attention.
In the past seven years, in the midst of a period of disinterest in cities, the troubling trends in Memphis quickened – children in poverty dramatically increased, more young professional talent left, economic segregation deepened and middle income families moved.
Regionalism Hasn’t Helped
Today, about 35% of Memphis workers are either unemployed or have not looked for a job in so long that they are no longer included in the unemployment rate.
The poverty rate in Memphis has risen 27.2% since 2000, and the poverty rate for adolescents has climbed 45%. Memphis is losing an average of three families a day that earn $35,000 to $75,000.
Meanwhile, Memphis is losing five people a day with college degrees. Inside the 1970 city limits of Memphis, population is down 28% and density is cut in half.
It’s a vicious cycle: people leave, property values shrink, taxes go up, low jobs growth, talent leaves, well, you get the picture. It’s a vicious cycle that, if not interrupted, escalates and at this exact moment, that’s where we find ourselves. And so do dozens of other cities.
Rationale: Regional Profits
And yet, there are still people and organizations calling for a blind allegiance to regionalism that treats cities as after-thoughts in problem-solving. That’s why we admire the work of CEOs for Cities so much (headed up by our colleague Carol Coletta).
It has an unflinching bias: nothing matters more than cities.
We agree wholeheartedly, because so often in the rush to “regional solutions,” the urban cores are frequently not even mentioned at all. As we said, it’s the dirty little secret of regionalism: generally cities give much more than they get.
That’s partly because so often the language of regionalism is co-opted by business forces, particularly real estate and logistics, that have only a passing acquaintance with the spirit of regionalism. More to the point, regionalism was often used as the rationale for political contributions and influence that chewed up $1 billion in tax money for roads and schools that opened up more and more greenfields for development.
From Rhetoric To Results
Mysteriously, there’s always more money for highways, and despite all the hyperbole about new roads as economic engines, there’s precious little evidence of it here, particularly with our jobs growth lagging behind levels of a decade ago. And yet, any suggestion that we should go slow with new roads is greeted with predictions of economic doom.
But back to our main point. It’s past time that we ease up on the rhetoric of regionalism and concentrate single-mindedly on addressing the challenges of Memphis, beginning with development of a manageable number of transformative strategies that can create neighborhoods of choice for middle income families and young families.
At the same time, our elected officials in Washington, D.C., should urge the Obama Administration to set the hearts of the nation’s regions – their major cities – as their first priority, rather than blindly chasing plans filed under the heading of regionalism.
In truth, there are no silos like the ones of the federal government. We applaud the administration’s discussion about increasing cooperation of its agencies to increase their impact, but if indeed the past is the best predictor of the future, it’s likely that the federal bureaucratic culture will relegate cities to the back burner.
Getting It Right
The officials may mean well, but the gritty problems of cities require innovation, a product that the no-risk environment of federal agencies fails regularly to deliver. That too is something that our federal representatives, notably Congressman Steve Cohen, need to advocate for.
As long as federal agencies are discouraged from the kinds of experiments that are demanded by these trying times (and experiments by their very nature often involve failure), the payoff at the local level will always be incremental and marginal.
Memphis, on the other hand, needs much more than incremental progress. And so do other American cities.
What makes Memphis special is that we have the gritty problems that confront cities much larger, and this makes us the right size to be a national laboratory for the federal government. Our size allows for experiments and for the results to be scaled up for serious measurements of their impact.
Until that is done, cities and the federal government will continue to have much in common. Both will be chasing the wrong goals faster.