More on Rust Belt New Urbanism

Downtown Louisville, KY.  Source:

A pretty interesting discussion has been taking place on Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile website.  In the article, building off of earlier discussion focused on Cincinnati alone, Renn examines the lower Midwest’s four major river cities: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis.  His starting point for analysis:

“All of these are richly endowed with civic assets like Cincinnati is, having far more than their fair share of great things, yet they’ve all been stagnant to slow growing for decades.
This suggests a broader challenge: if urbanity and quality of life are so determinant of economic success, why aren’t these places juggernauts? It’s not that they are failures by any means, but they are long term under-performers.”

Renn goes on to discuss the various strengths (neighborhood character, cultural amenities, affordable quality of life) and weaknesses (provincialism, economic stagnation) of each city, and wonders what could be done to catalyze revitalization.  The comments section offers a variety of opinions.

To me, this tied back to my most recent piece on Rust Belt New Urbanism.  Speaking about cities like these, I said:

“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.”

 I still maintain that the Rust Belt will show the rest of the nation that “growth without growth” and an improved quality of life for residents can be attainable and sustainable.  But the discussion on the four river cities has led to a refinement of my point.

I see two types of Rust Belt New Urban (RBNU) metros — global-based and asset-based. The distinctions are pretty easy to figure out.  Global-based RBNUs follow the typical global city path toward economic growth: financial services, strong global networks, large numbers of workers in the technology and/or information sectors, world-renowned universities, research facilities and medical centers.  Asset-based RBNUs have amenities that may or may not be recognized as globally significant — yet — but serve as the foundation for growth and possible connection with the broader global city network.  I see Chicago as the Midwest’s best example of a global-based RBNU, and Pittsburgh as the preeminent asset-based RBNU.

I’m assuming Chicago’s world-class bonafides are well-known to most.  Chicago is world-renowned for its cultural amenities, has an educated workforce fed by elite educational institutions, and is an international hub for finance, commerce, industry, technology and transportation.  Chicago built on this foundation over the last 25 years to become what it is today.

Pittsburgh’s taken a different path and its ascension is much more recent.  After the collapse of the steel industry Pittsburgh reimagined itself as a educational and technology center, with significant assets in Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.  A couple of decades ago, Pittsburgh’s assets weren’t universally recognized as globally significant, but that has since changed.  Today Pittsburgh has an increasingly educated workforce supported by its educational anchors.  That, coupled with the energy boom spurred on by natural gas in the region, has created economic growth for the former Steel City. 

Each approach has its merits and drawbacks.  Chicago’s global approach definitely ties it closely with the network of similar cities around the world, but it increasingly appears that rising inequality is a hallmark of the approach.  Pittsburgh’s asset approach may be more sustainable and enduring, but difficult to perceive unless redevelopment, or gentrification displacement, is rampant.

It could be that I’m looking for a distinction where there’s really no difference.  But I decided to take a stab at guessing the revitalization approach of the 16 Midwest metro areas with a population over 1 million (using the broadest measure provided by the U.S. Census, the Combined Statistical Area, from 2010). 

Metro Area                  2010 Pop. (millions)                Revitalization Strategy
Chicago                                 9.9                                 Global
Detroit                                   5.3                                 Global
Minneapolis/St. Paul               3.8                                 Global
Cleveland                               3.5                                 Asset
St. Louis                                2.9                                 Asset
Pittsburgh                               2.7                                 Asset
Kansas City                           2.4                                  ?
Columbus                              2.4                                  Asset
Indianapolis                           2.3                                  Asset
Cincinnati                              2.0                                   ?
Milwaukee                            2.0                                   Asset
Louisville                               1.5                                   ?
Grand Rapids                        1.4                                  Global
Buffalo                                   1.2                                  Asset
Rochester                              1.2                                  Global
Dayton                                  1.1                                   ?

These are vague assessments of general revitalization strategies, but I realize they could be off target.  On the global side, I see Detroit’s burgeoning efforts to strengthen its downtown, the Twin Cities’ diversified economy and high quality of life, Grand Rapids’ focus on health sciences and Rochester’s position as the corporate home of Kodak, Bausch and Lomb and Xerox as evidence of a global-based approach.  Similarly, I see Cleveland’s effort to build around the Cleveland Clinic, St. Louis’ educational approach, and Indy and Columbus’ state capital addresses as evidence of an asset-based approach.  Some, like two of the four river cities that sparked this thinking, I can’t determine at all.

What say you?  Am I on target?  Am I way off the mark?  

One thought on “More on Rust Belt New Urbanism

  1. I would change Buffalo from Asset to Global. First because it has attracted the likes of HSBC and M&T to have their headquarters in the city. Second and most importantly, the long term development of Buffalo (like Detroit) will be its position as a gateway for trade between the US and Canada.


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