The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Can the Rust Belt Learn From Dixie?

Buffalo, NY lakefront.  Source: University at Buffalo.

While doing my daily reading on planning and urbanist topics, I came across this piece by Urbanophile Aaron Renn at New Geography.  In it, he says the Rust Belt has some formidable strengths that can be the foundation of its revitalization, but it has a set of structural problems that must be confronted to achieve true revitalization.  Current revitalization strategies, he suggests, are outside of each city’s system or fail to bring the appropriate heft to lift all those who need lifting — largely because they only obliquely address the structural challenges.  The challenges:

  • Racism
  • Corruption
  • Closed societies
  • Two-tiered environment and resulting paralysis
I won’t rehash Aaron’s assessment, but I do agree with it.
What occurred to me is that, if you think about it, the South’s cities were in the same position following the Civil War — and faced the same obstacles — until after World War II.  Racism clearly plagued Southern metros and hindered growth during that era; many places were well known for their corruption.  The South certainly had a reputation for being a closed society, unwelcome to outsiders, and its history of reliance on low- and moderately-skilled labor made the South perhaps more skeptical of highly educated labor, just like in the Midwest.

Following World War II, however, Southern metros began to make great strides to catch up with and even surpass Northeastern and Midwestern cities.  I’m no scholar on post-war Southern growth, but it appears Southern metros took on these strategies to move upward and onward:

Tolerate Newcomers.  After World War II Southern cities realized that they could no longer rely on intra-region growth if they were going to prosper, particularly during a period with widespread migration of blacks to Northern cities at the time.  Southern business leaders rightfully recognized opportunities to bring businesses and residents to the South from other parts of the country.

Seeing education as an asset.  It’s no coincidence that the Southern metros that have developed the strongest post-war economies — Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Raleigh, Nashville — are home to significant educational institutions.  After the war the colleges and universities of large Southern metros became integral to their growth.

Becoming a low-cost alternative to the rest of the country.  Prior to their turnaround Southern cities probably described themselves in terms of what they lacked in comparison to Northern cities.  They did not have the impressive skylines, the classic neighborhoods, the exceptional park systems or the infrastructure that were the legacy of Northern cities.  However they did have cheap land and cheap labor, and those factors became the driver that facilitated the development of what they lacked.

The above strategies, combined with the widespread use of air conditioning that made the Southern climate more tolerable, allowed for the growth of Southern metros.

The Rust Belt should take note.  While the South only address race as the federal government made them, perhaps the Rust Belt can become a leader in addressing race matters.  If the South can learn to become more tolerant of outsiders, the Midwest can as well; it does have a legacy of immigration that can serve as a foundation.  Advocates of the Rust Belt Chic movement may turn the low-cost strategy on its head — the Rust Belt has a unique physical and social legacy that those who’ve grown up in places with less would welcome.  And the Rust Belt has perhaps the greatest collection of public research universities in the nation (even if most are located in smaller metros and not the big cities), and they could be a huge driver of revitalization.

Clearly, the South did not get everything right.  But when faced with an existential crisis not unlike what the Rust Belt faces today, they adapted.  The Rust Belt must find its strengths and play to them.

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