For Release Sunday, November 21, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group
DETROIT — Could this moment — deep recession deficits notwithstanding — be a golden one of opportunity for America’s cities? Is it time to see them not as dragging anchors but rather as key national assets, the defining centers of our metro regions, essential for climate change progress, new technologies, creative arts and growing vibrant, livable communities?
Detroit, hit by horrendous losses in population and property, would seem the toughest big city in all America to make that case. But CEOs for Cities — a national group that’s celebrated urban renaissance since its 2001 founding — consciously selected Detroit for its annual meeting earlier this month.
Detroit’s popular business-oriented mayor, ex-Pistons star David Bing, appeared to stress the city’s new commitment to honest, professional leadership. Heads of Detroit foundations, currently making massive investments in comeback agendas for the city, underscored their support. Tours took in Detroit’s new 12-block “TechTown” and big, prospering anchors including Wayne State University, the massive Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System.
There was honest talk about Detroit’s 40,000 abandoned buildings and the dilemmas of recycling the city’s immense, abandoned land tracts. But a group of young Detroit professionals — “we got tired of drinking and decided to push forward” — appeared to talk about “taking ownership” to reverse blight in neighborhoods, to inspire more start-up firms and attract young suburbanites interested in more diversity. They reported that their formal “Detroit Declaration,” including a focus on Detroit’s strengths in music, film, visual arts and design, has attracted 13,000 Facebook fans.
The Detroit initiatives that may seem “against all odds” do in fact mirror trends working for American cities. Reports are multiplying of a growing cohort of talented young people, many of them college graduates, drawn to cities by their dynamism and excitement. Plus, with the mortgage meltdown, paying city rents may trump the risks of suburban mortgages.
Then there’s a clear trend, notes Carol Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities: recognizing, then exploiting, cities’ sometimes hidden assets. A prime example is the Atlanta Beltline, a year a forlorn and abandoned 22-mile loop of rail lines now being made into a linear park of 1,200 landscaped acres with recouped industrial sites and transit service for 45 neighborhoods.
Ryan Gravel, who’d first proposed the Beltline idea when he was a student at Georgia Tech, told how the Beltline agenda had grown into the largest economic development project in Atlanta’s history. Now it’s projected to generate not just the trails, parks and transit but 5,000 units of affordable workforce housing and an eventual total of $20 billion investment, plus 30,000 jobs.
Give-and-take planning for the Beltline, Gravel noted, brought community organizers, environmentalists, developers, transit experts and city government to the table. Referring to New York City’s legendary heavy-handed planner-builder Robert Moses, Gravel said “We pulled off a Moses-scale grand thing but with a very participatory process.”
The re-use, recovery and asset combining of the Beltline is the clear opposite of the Atlanta region’s — and America’s — decades of helter-skelter, thinly spread, energy-profligate suburban growth. Add today’s growing national taste for lively downtowns, plus the payoff of compact cities for lower carbon emissions, more healthy walking and biking, and it’s clear they do face an era of exciting opportunities.
Two big obstacles remain. One is lack of clout among central cities’ vis-a-vis their surrounding regions. Coletta argues it’s simply wrong to suggest, as some advocates of metropolitanism intimate, “that it’s OK to be place-agnostic, as if anything can go anywhere” in the geographic area. “If you don’t have a strong core city,” she argues, “ultimately the region is going to fail.” The issue’s especially acute in allocating federal transportation funds because cities often find themselves vastly underrepresented on state-designated metropolitan planning boards.
And there’s the migraine virtually all inner cities face: dramatically underperforming public schools that threaten grim prospects for students, and for their cities, high adult illiteracy and worrisome social costs. Detroit’s Bing said school systems need strong outside managers — perhaps mayoral takeover — “to assure businesses the employees they need to compete in a global marketplace.”
Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley said his city’s schools, under his direct control by state legislative decision, have improved, but not enough. He blames union fights against fundamental reforms, even modest extension of school hours. His answer: more charter schools, for autonomy and experimentation. “You can’t stick with the old system; if you do, you’re bankrupt,” he said.
CEOS for Cities founder Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, concurred, saying outside intervention in “moribund” school systems is critical “to dawning of a whole new day in which educational entrepreneurs are free to imagine what kind of education can work for inner-city minority kids.”
The bigger picture, Grogan added: talk of extinction of the American city is itself becoming extinct. And rather than emulating suburbs, it’s time to maximize and celebrate “cities’ role in solving society’s problems.”
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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