Q&A: How Rust Belt Cities Can Save Themselves

A century ago, the city of Dayton, Ohio was a center of industry and innovation that supported a prosperous middle class.

A century ago, the city of Dayton, Ohio was a center of industry and innovation that supported a prosperous middle class.

September 11, 2018

A century ago, the city of Dayton, Ohio was a center of industry and innovation that supported a prosperous middle class. But a series of factors, including the decline of manufacturing and outsourcing of jobs led Dayton into a downturn even before the Great Recession hit in 2008.

In Left Behind America, FRONTLINE and ProPublica examine why economic recovery has remained elusive in cities like Dayton, and what people there are doing to help revitalize the economy.

To better understand the decline of Rust Belt cities and the options available to save them, FRONTLINE spoke to Edward Glaeser, an economist and professor at Harvard University who studies the growth and decline of cities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What factors led to the growth of Rust Belt cities? How did they come about?

Rust Belt cities in the U.S. grew as part of a great industrial wave that [freed] the ability to create power from rivers. When you think about the oldest cities, they were very much tied to river power. There were these individual entrepreneurs who were located in different places and exploited the ability of manufacturing to produce goods on a massive scale that they then sold globally.

In the early 1900s, cities enjoyed a particular advantage for transportation and transportation costs. And if you think about the challenge of mass producing a good and then marketing it globally, the ability to ship that good cheaply is a huge part of the comparative advantage. That’s why, if you think about American cities in the 1990s, every one of the 20 largest cities in the U.S. was on a major waterway. And waterways were typically supplemented by mass amounts of rail infrastructure. And industry clustered around the transportation infrastructure.

Then, of course, in the 20th century, we had automobiles, and technologies that made it easier to de-urbanize manufacturing. And first you had suburban plants, like Ford’s River Rouge that was a vast, vertically-integrated logistics hub as well as being a car manufacturing plant. That needed a suburban location… and that just required a huge amount of space.

And then, of course, as transportation costs continued to plummet we moved manufacturing to lower-cost locations. We moved it across the planet. We moved it to right-to-work states.

And all of these facts battered the Rust Belt cities. And as opposed to other different forms of urbanization, Rust Belt cities were notably weak on formal education, partially because you didn’t need a lot of formal education to be a very productive member of an industrial empire. But the downside of that is that having this type of specialized industrial labor makes it very hard for these cities to reinvent themselves.

What are some characteristics that make it possible for a city to reinvent itself?

Education has been statistically, historically the most powerful force. Educated cities have reinvented themselves, while other cities have not. But there are other factors as well. The weather is important. There’s no variable that better predicts metropolitan area growth in the 20th century than January temperatures.

The Rust Belt-ish cities of the south, like Birmingham for example, have had a slightly easier time of it. Whereas the colder cities in the north have to fight against the fact that while they once enjoyed a production advantage that was pretty important with access to the waterways, by the start of the 21st century they suffer from a …disadvantage, which was that people don’t want to undergo Detroit winters or Chicago winters or Dayton winters.

In terms of other factors — the larger the industrial hangover, the more difficult things are. So in some sense the very scale of Detroit’s success makes its troubles the most difficult.

Are there any Rust Belt cities that have found a way to save themselves?

All of America’s older, colder cities were once industrial. I’m sitting here in Cambridge, Mass., which was an industrial city. In 1970, it was dominated by the candy industry in East Cambridge.  Candy factories now house biotech companies. Pittsburgh was as industrial as they come — and Pittsburgh is not successful related to Boston, New York or San Francisco — but it certainly has managed to come back, partially just because it took a lot of years, partially because it had a strong educational establishment in Carnegie Mellon and [University of Pittsburgh]. It took a lot of years for it to right-size itself.

Maybe the right way to view it is that Detroit could be a wonderful city of 350,000 to 400,000 people. The problem was it had 1.85 million. So, it needs to get itself down to a reasonable population level for the level of demand for where it is and what its history is.

There’s also the issue of public services, where the city isn’t able to deal with the occasional correlates of decline including crime, difficult schooling, it becomes even harder to right itself. There’s a natural tendency of the city to focus on the physical, but all the most important things require work on good schools and safe streets.

If it’s not possible for a city to educate itself out of a period of decline, what are other ways that it can serve the people living there?

The city needs educated people. It can either train them itself or try to attract them. So, having a quality of life strategy that induces at least some smart, innovative, entrepreneurial people to show up is important. Education and safety are both critical elements. And it’s not critical that every city have a million residents, but it is critical that every public sector does the best that it can to provide some form of opportunity for all of its children.

In the case of schooling, it’s appropriate particularly in more troubled areas to be humble about knowing what works. Some part of this may be traditional public schooling, some part of it may be creative after-school programs or other things we can evaluate using randomized control trials to figure out if they have any impact on the future of the kids.

In an article for The New York Times, you wrote that “America’s declining cities have tried to find magic bullets that would bring them back to their former glory,” and proposed dealing with urban decline by shrinking cities. How would that work exactly?

It is working. It’s happening around us all the time. That’s just what I meant by right-sizing. The “shrinking to greatness” line is very much the view that Detroit is too big, it has too many houses and consequently, more people than it really should have given its level of demand. And over time, the footprint shrinks, the public service onus shrinks, and eventually you can end up providing not weak service to too many people but better service to a smaller number of people.

What Detroit did was it decided that there were whole areas of the city that it was going to be unable to provide decent services for, which is unfortunate obviously, but it is a necessary corrective measure.

Another way to do it is in fact if you can imagine cities that are unable to handle land, literally, letting the land carve itself out and create a new city that’s got a different set of rules. We’re so used to thinking of cities as just expanding, perhaps we’ve underestimated the role cities shedding space can have as well.

How does shrinking a city benefit the people still living there? What evidence do we have that shrinking can save a city?

The Detroit strategy is quite simple, which is you’ve got a limited set of public money, it costs a lot of money to cover a very large land area, and if you’re sending all your trucks out to handle some large land area, you can’t provide anything for the bulk of the people who are living in more densely populated areas. So, you’re simply trying to save costs by focusing on that densely populated area and providing better services for where the people are instead of wasting a lot trying to get where you have a very small number of people.

In terms of shedding actual land, in terms of allowing areas to secede, …there are a lot of suburban areas right now that would not like to be incorporated into a large city. What do the residents in those areas see as the plus in that? Sometimes good things, sometimes things we don’t find as laudable. There are lots of times when we think a smaller, nimbler government might be able to deal with things better, perhaps with fewer legacy obligations in different ways.

If you have a bunch of underpopulated land or unpopulated land that currently you know you can’t provide services for, it’s not unreasonable to try and figure out if someone else can give you some resources so that you can make some use of that land, with a different governmental system.

You mentioned Detroit as an example. Are there other cities that have tried this strategy, and is it working for them?

The Youngstown [2010] plan involved a certain recognition of needing to shrink to greatness, so Youngstown would be an early example — before Detroit.

All of the Rust Belt cities which have 30 or 40 percent fewer people than they did 50 years ago, which includes Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, all of them have had to deal with shrinkage in different ways. Some of them have acknowledged it more, some of them have acknowledged it less. But all of them have had to re-think their policies, given that they have so many fewer people than they once did.

If a city decides to take the shrinking approach, who gets left out? And what options do they have?

The original Detroit plan featured relocation from marginal neighborhoods to neighborhoods that were deemed to be salvageable. The relocation option can reduce public costs, but it also creates so much pain that it seems unlikely to become a common method for shrinking.

Shrinkage without relocation is certainly less heavy-handed. Nonetheless, declining cities always have to make choices about areas to prioritize. Some areas — Youngstown (at least in theory) — Detroit (as well in theory) — had in mind the stabilization of salvageable neighborhoods and less investment in more marginal neighborhoods.

The losers from such prioritization are those who live in the neighborhoods that the government deems marginal. They will have neighboring vacant homes demolished, which is likely to be a long-term plus but a short-term minus. They will also receive less investment from the city in other services. The winners are those who live in the neighborhoods where the city continues to invest.

What policies can mayors and lawmakers put in place to help cities on the decline?

There are a couple of critical things, one of which is to continue to invest in the future of the children — so continue to figure out how to make education work. Remember that quality of life strategies that attract educated people are an important part of enduring urban resilience.

And third, plan for decline. In 1980, it was pretty obvious that Detroit’s future revenues would be lower than its current revenues, that the city was moving downward, the real estate values were declining. So the important thing is to recognize that decline is predictable, to accept that some decline is inevitable no matter how well you run the city in certain circumstances.


Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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