The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Rust Belt New Urbanism

Scene from Downtown Buffalo, NY.  Source:

The rise of the Rust Belt is upon us, but it doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before.

A lot of attention has been given to our global cities and their rise to the top.  New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, DC seem to epitomize the ascension of the global city.  Each has the economy and global networks, in financial services, technology, education and politics, to accelerate their growth.  That’s who they are and what they do.

Similarly, a lot of attention is given to our nation’s growing second-tier cities, primarily in the Sun Belt.  The booming U.S. energy economy is boosting the growth of many cities in the midsection of the nation, including Houston and Dallas, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, and Denver.  Other cities like Austin, San Antonio, Seattle, Nashville and New Orleans are showing growth in technology, education and health care, and are becoming attractive locations for young educated persons seeking more affordable and more livable metros.  Many Sun Belt metros that were heavily reliant on good weather, new home construction and affordability (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Riverside/San Bernardino, among others) haven’t fully bounced back but are awaiting their comeback shot.

But what of Rust Belt cities?  Curiously, they seem to show patterns similar to both global cities and second-tier Sun Belt cities, without substantial population growth — which obscures what’s really happening.

Blogger Conor Sen noted some months back a few factors that appear to be the foundation of post-2008 economic growth:

1) An educated workforce: home-grown, or the ability to attract it from elsewhere. Local universities.

2) Access to global markets: world-class airports

3) World-class amenities and events: professional sports, tourist attractions

4) Transportation infrastructure: airports, highways, subways/rail, bike lanes, walkability

5) Available housing/land: cheap housing and/or the ability to build cheap housing

These are the factors that are driving growth in global cities, which have these assets save for affordability, and in second-tier metros, where these assets are growing but not necessarily complete.

How do Rust Belt metros differ, and how are they situated for future economic growth?  First, they already have many of the amenities that Sun Belt and second-tier metros aspire to — the sports, the tourist and cultural attractions.  They have the transportation infrastructure in place, even if it requires significant investment for necessary improvements.  After decades of decline, they now have cheap housing and available land.

But they also have two other factors that weigh heavily in their favor.  They have an “authenticity” and “rootedness” factor that Sun Belt cities often lack because of their relatively recent development.  They also have a level of familiarity among Sun Belt migrants, often because of family connections, causing people to revisit them.

In other words, the Rust Belt will become the nation’s leaders in an emerging “growth without growth” phenomenon.

This isn’t exactly new.  In 2002 the Brookings Institution produced a report that examined this very issue.  The report looked at the 100 largest metro areas in 2000 and categorized them on scales of per capita income growth and population growth.  The categories:

Wealth Builders: Metros with higher than average per capita income growth, but lower than average population growth;

Population Magnets: Metros with lower than average per capita income growth, but higher than average population growth;

High Growth Traditional: Metros exceeding the average in per capita income and population growth; and

Low Growth Traditional: Metros lagging in average per capita income and population growth.

It’s interesting to look at the metros on the four tables, and evaluate them from a post-2008 economic perspective.  Of the 23 Wealth Builders, 11 were Rust Belt metros, led by St. Louis and Pittsburgh.  The Rust Belt is nearly absent from Population Magnets table, which features a few of the metros hit hard by the 2008 housing collapse.  The Rust Belt is also nearly absent from the High Growth Traditional table, but shows up strongly on the Low Growth Traditional table.  It would be fascinating to see an update of this information.

There are huge economic implications for Rust Belt metros, as they begin to demonstrate to the rest of the country how economic growth can occur without a population growth foundation.  But there are social implications for this as well, which I’ll explore in future posts.

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