Shrinking Cities, Growing Populations

Taking a tour of historic sites in the old city of Baltimore can be a rewarding experience—until you turn a corner in the central business district and find—devastation. What was described in the guidebooks as a block of pubs with architecture reminiscent of London is now mostly rubble and boarded-up bars. What happened to Baltimore? The same thing that transformed other cities in the so-called Rust Belt, which stretches from the Northeast into the Midwest. These were the company towns, engines of American industrialization left in the dust of the great migration to the Sun Belt and the suburbs. But recent research shows that even declining cities can grow, through the “magic” of suburban sprawl.

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<i>Typical suburban sprawl, which may be reaching the limits of expansion in some states. Some Northeastern and Midwestern cities are sprawling without population growth.</i>© Corbis

Professor Janet Rothenberg Pack of the University of Pennsylvania researches long-term national population growth trends. What she finds confirms what many of us instinctively believe to be true—There has been a tremendous exodus from colder U.S. climates to warmer U.S. climates. In a study of 277 cities, she found that from 1960 to 1990, Western municipalities grew nearly 100 percent in population, while in the South they grew 70 percent. In stark contrast, cities in the Midwest and the Northeast grew by a more modest 25 percent and 12.5 percent respectively.

As Pack sums up in her recently published book, Growth and Convergence in Metropolitan America, “From the interregional perspective, rapid growth in metropolitan areas—both cities and suburbs—is found predominantly in the South and West. In the Northeast and Midwest, by contrast, metropolitan areas have been growing much more slowly, and in many cases city population has actually declined.” Her list of the top 50 slowest-growing cities is filled with Rust Belt cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit.

How much of this growth is taking the form of suburban sprawl? Nationally, Department of Agriculture data show that suburban sprawl is accelerating. From 1982 to 1992, the average annual rate of open space development increased 50 percent to a staggering 2.1 million acres from 1992 to 1997. And in their recent paper “Who Sprawls Most? How Growth Patterns Differ Across the U.S.,” Bill Fulton and Rolf Pendall studied metropolitan areas and found that virtually every city is sprawling—94 percent of 281 cities decreased in density from 1982 to 1997, despite overall population increase.

Thanks to Fulton and Pendall’s analysis, we can take a look at regional growth patterns, where things really get interesting. As Fulton and Pendall point out, “Fifty-six metropolitan areas lost population from 1982 to 1997. Virtually all of them were in the Northeast and Midwest. Every single one of these metro areas increased their total amount of urban land by at least eight percent.” Even former industrial stalwarts like Philadelphia, St. Louis and Detroit urbanized between 100,000 and 300,000 acres despite stable or only slight population growth.

How can cities sprawl but not grow? In late 1995, the Kansas City Star performed a great public service by running a series of pieces documenting the city’s incredible sprawl. The reporters described a ring of prosperity moving outward from the city. From 1970 to 1990, the ring moved steadily out at a two-mile-per-decade pace.

And in his 1997 classic, Metropolitics, Minnesotan Myron Orfield suggested the existence of a favored quarter of development outside of the Twin Cities. He demonstrated convincingly that increasingly concentrated poverty exists in older suburban quarters as well as the central city. The reduced tax base that comes with lower incomes compounds the problems of these areas by reducing government’s fiscal capacity to adequately deal with social issues like high crime and decaying schools. Says Orfield, “Ironically, as the various economic classes leave central-city areas, all the social and economic changes that occur in the core of their housing markets eventually follow them through the vacancy chains out into the suburbs.” As sprawl spreads outward, older suburbs are declining along with central cities.

These are the patterns that many cities in the Rust Belt are carving out—entire rings spreading outward relentlessly, or pie-shaped pieces doing the same. Left behind are devastated neighborhoods in formerly industrial cities. So natural landscapes aren’t the only victims of the public policies and private preferences that have suburbanized America. They’ve also taken a toll on aging built landscapes and the people remaining in them. Another recent study commissioned by the Brookings Institution confirmed this by surveying 70 cities, finding that cities in the Northeast had the highest number of abandoned structures.

In what’s referred to as “densification,” Western cities as a whole continue to grow and sprawl, but they are growing more than they are sprawling. As California planner Fulton described in another recent report commissioned by Brookings, “Sprawl Hits A Wall—Confronting the Realities of Metropolitan Los Angeles,” the city deemed “the granddaddy of sprawl” by the Sierra Club will run up against a dearth of buildable land in the near future. Ocean, mountains, harsh desert areas, federal ownership, Endangered Species Act protections and agricultural land protections virtually surround the vast expanse of urbs and suburbs.

Sufficient available water is also becoming a hot issue throughout California and the arid West. Natural constraints, federal ownership of land, and other factors may increasingly rein in some of the sprawl in the fast-growing dry region of the Sun Belt.

Census 2000 figures show that some Rust Belt cities may well be on the verge of a growth comeback. In a recent examination of the new data, Fannie Mae researchers found that density increased in the downtown areas of unlikely cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore. Some cities have certainly benefited from successful waterfront revitalization projects in places like the Flats in Cleveland and the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. However, it should be noted that while their downtowns grew, figures still show the cities’ overall population decreasing.

Advocates of smart growth point to this silver lining. And market research confirms increasing interest in downtown living among aging baby boomers emptying their nests as well as twentysomethings interested in a more lively atmosphere than is available in too many of our suburbs. But advocates have to build a lot more demand for downtown living if smart growth is to be the rule and not the exception in Rust Belt cities. An awfully big cloud of suburban sprawl continues its relentless expansion across the United States, leaving wrecked natural and built landscapes in its path.