25 October 2012

The implosion of cities

In some of the past blog entries, I have discussed the decline of cities in the Rust Belts of both North America and Europe.  Some of the entries were directly related to Detroit, the ‘poster child’ of the Rust Belt and its implications for other Industrial Era cities.  The decline of these cities can be directly attributed to the globalizing economy and the restructuring of most developed nations.  This has left behind vacant buildings and derelict vacant land.  At the same time, there are examples of redevelopment of some of these areas into mixed used areas.
The global economic crash of 2008, is a watershed.  The economies of developed nations will not bounce back to the level that they were before.  There are underlying socioeconomic changes that are also occurring that affect this situation.  There is increasing number of people retiring, smaller families, more people living alone, struggling young adults, increase of the number of the underemployed and a shrinking middle class.  This is compounded by the increasing number of foreclosures, stagnant wages, and sputtering economy.  All these factors are having far reaching urban consequences.

The suburbs are in slow decline, although looking at them superficially you would not know it.  In my suburban/exurban surrounding one can see the elements of this: large houses standing vacant; properties that were once single owners subdivided and mobile homes put on the parcels; subdivision that were begun and now have large number of vacant lots; smaller pockets of more dense development composed of smaller lots and condominiums; for sale signs on larger older properties, vacant or partially occupied shopping malls and 1960s-1980s era suburban neighborhoods composed largely of ‘empty nesters.’  The unraveling of the traditional suburbs is happening right in my backdoor and probably of many readers that live in the suburbs.

At the same time, there is a slow redevelopment of the central city area of many urbanized areas. Many former industrial and dilapidated areas are being transformed into mixed used development.  Older neighborhoods are being gentrified.  Former downtowns are now being filled with small shops, restaurants, cafés, and individual offices.  Although, this is not new, it appears to be an rapidly increasing trend that was once encouraged by government, but now is one driven by a developing market.

What should be construed by these trends?
1. The traditional suburbs have changed and the pre-2008 level of growth is gone and will not rebound. 2. Central cities will continue to become the focus of growth.
3. Surburban areas will start to have financial problems with subsequent reduction in services with some suburban cities and other regional intituions (i.e., schools, water/sewer districts)having to declare bankruptcy.
4. Increase in poverty
5. Transformation of suburban/exurban areas with greater density, more mixed used development,

What should be the actions that local/regional goverments take?
1. Begin a dialog among all stakeholders on the present and future condition of suburbs.
2. Consider consolation of smaller cities and regional services.
3. Develop alternative suburban public transportation modes for low density areas (i.e. subsidized shared-ride taxi, fixed route flexible services etc.)
4. Development transit-oriented nodes in suburban areas.
5. Comprehensive change in subdivision and zoning codes
6. Conversion of former urbanized areas to agricultural areas or allowance of small farms
7. Redevelopment of suburbs to mixed used and walkable neighborhoods.

Further References:
Kaid Benfield. “How history killed the suburb.” The Atlantic, 25 April 2011.

14 October 2012

The Ambiguous Urban Policies of Obama and Romney: A focus on the Biden/Ryan debates and urban issues

  (Image of Curtiba, Brazil, considered a model of sustainbility found at :" What are Cities Doing to Go "Green? " found in Scientific America )

During the recent Vice-Presidential debate (11 October 2012), the references to cities were sketchy and mixed with national/international issues.  Biden mentioned Detroit, and the assistance given General Motors as a measure to save jobs and Detroit.  Then, he touched on mortgage relief, a de facto urban topic, in reference also to Detroit.  Biden stated: “Romney said, no, let Detroit go bankrupt. We moved in and helped people refinance their homes. Governor Romney said, no, let foreclosures hit the bottom.” Ryan, avoided the issue of governmental intervention in Detroit by a deflecting dialog with Biden about the increase of unemployment rate in Scranton, Pennsylvania (Biden’s hometown) during Obama’s first four years. “He continued to state that: “He talks about Detroit. Mitt Romney's a car guy.” Then, Ryan switched to Romney’s character with an antidotal story about Romney giving money to a family that had a tragic car accident.  Ryan’s argument completely avoided the issues of the creating  or retaining industries in American’s urban areas.  It should be noted that the candidates’ home cities of Janesville, Wisconsin (Ryan) and Scranton, Pennsylvania (Biden) are on the fringes of the Rust Belt and have seen dramatic changes in their economic base due to the structural changes that have been in process, for at least 30 years. Yet, these issues were not discussed, even in passing.

Both candidates did not adequately discuss the issues of restructuring of the economy and education (both primarily urban topics) making statements that had a hollow ring to them from both sides. We have heard both side’s statements about energy development—no surprise here. Ryan attacked the Green program of Obama as a failure and stressed energy independence, presumably related to the exploitation of natural gas and petroleum in North America.  Infrastructure and the environment were not addressed.  Some of the lack of emphasis in urban affairs is due to the brief time of the debate, but there also seemed to be extraordinary focus on Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and defense. It is difficult to cover these diverse topics in the time allotted in the debate.  Overall, urban policy or problems is cities were inadequately addressed by both Vice Presidential candidates (The entire transcript of the Ryan/Biden debate can be found on the Public Broadcasting System webpage. )

The debate between Biden and Ryan reflected the loose urban policy of Romney and Obama. On Romney’s web site within the topic of issues there is no direct mention of cities  (http://www.mittromney.com/issues .)  or in Obama’s (http://www.barackobama.com/issues?source=primary-nav .)  There may be a bright spot in Romney’s urban policy, although not directly stated, in his hiring of Rick Baker as his urban policy advisor. Baker, the former Republican mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, is a supporter of livable cities, including investment in the city center and apparently is an adherent of The New Urbanism Movement, although to him this might translate to controlled urban sprawl ( see Mark Bergen’s article in Forbes, “Romney's Urban Adviser Loves Livable Downtowns, Infrastructure.” )  Obama is pro-urban, but his urban policies appear to be a continuation of those initiated during the Johnston years, expended during Catrter administration and revised during the Neo-Liberal Clinton Administration.  A positive move by Obama was the establishment of the Office of Urban Policy in the Executive Branch. When inspecting the website of the Office, it is minimal, lackluster and shows minimal activity in updating (i.e., the last blog entry was in June 2012.)  Although campaigning on the issues of income disparity, housing and unemployment, Obama’s policy have been largely ineffective to address these issues in urbanized areas (For another opinion on Obama’s urban policy, see “Obama's Destructive Urban Policy Alienates Low-Income Communities.” From Truthout—a Progressive blog.)
No one involved in urban policy or planning can be particularly enthusiastic about the urban policy stances by neither candidate nor their running mates.  Neither side has a concrete urban policy addressing education, infrastructure, energy, pollution, restructuring, sustainability, public transportation, economic disparities in cities?   Most people now live in metropolitan areas, yet the candidates do not speak directly to current urban issues   According to my assessment , Obama get a C plus and Romney gets a D minus for this urban policy. Many of the platforms of third parties particularly that of the Green Party ,Progressive Democrats of America (issues, not policy statement) and Justice Party better address the problems in cities than the two major parties.

10 October 2012

Opportunistic capitalism and local government: EuroVegas coming to Madrid

With stagnant local economies in the Europe and the United States and related declining local revenues, many local governments are vulnerable to ‘opportunistic capitalism.’  ‘Opportunistic capitalism’ defined here is where an industry/business , seeing an opportunity to exploit depressed local economies, offers employment and potential revenue to local/regional government in exchange for tax breaks and perhaps additional infrastructure; but the city realizes low-paying jobs, a fraction of the benefits going to local government and other negative impacts such as environmental damage, crime etc.  The investors come away with tremendous profits.  This can also come in the form of ‘blackmail’ by existing industries desiring additional tax breaks, union concessions etc.; or sport teams demanding a new stadium; with the entity threating they will leave if their demands are not made.  In this environment, cities, states and even nations compete to gain the benefits of these industries.

In Europe, many regional economies are sputtering, stagnant, desperate for job creation and needing additional tax revenue.  This is particularly true in Spain with almost twenty percent unemployment.  This makes Spain ripe for opportunistic capitalism as in the case with EuroVegas being offered Madrid.  Sheldon Adelson, a multi-billion casino owner, saw another chance to make some more profits and is taking advantage of the struggling economy in Spain.  The cost of the facility to be located in the suburbs of Madrid, he named ‘EuroVegas’, will cost an estimated $35 billion and will consist of twelve resorts, nine theaters, six casinos, three golf courses, and a stadium. This is a large undertaking by anyone’s measure.  The Mayor of Madrid has pushed this project as well as other officials.  The locals ‘wined and dined’ Adelelson, competing against Barcelona who also wanted Adelson’s EuroVegas.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see a cartoon where Madrid and Barcelona are portrayed as prostitutes with Adelson as their potential client. In the end Madrid was selected to be the site of EuroVegas.

The immediate effect will be construction jobs for Madrid.  The total employment for EuroVegas is estimated to be about 250,000 . While the local officials may be pleased with the deal many Madrileños are not. They see it as a raw deal where there will be an opportunity for low-paying jobs, inviting possible mobsters into the area and more prostitution. 

Unfortunately, this is not the type of development that Madrid needs or any city/region in the stagnant economies in U.S. and Europe.  In better economic times, Spain would have rejected this deal.  Yes, jobs are being created, and there may be some benefit directly to the immediate area surrounding the casino complex, but this will not alter Madrid's overall economic base and rate of unemployment..  What is just important is what is not being said. There is no mention of the projected tax revenues or the type of concessions that were made by government officials to gain this project. How much will this cost the tax payers?   In addition, the inherent nature of casinos and gambling has related negative impacts. While other industries spin off other ventures and enhance the economic base. The only related business here which will be spun off are other services, additional low-income housing and prostitution, illegal drugs, corruption and crime. The whole deal is tawdry for those public officials who have to ‘prostitute themselves’ for a deal which may also flop, given the present political climate in Spain.

This is not the direction that local areas should be developing in the developed or developing countries. In desperation, local officials are making deals with industries and other entities which are detrimental to a regions long-term economic development.  There is a danger that all these efforts could collapse upon itself in the form of an economic situation similar to a pyramid scheme, where there is speculation on construction projects, financial loans being made on risky investments and distinct possibility that the projects will be caught up in labor unrest, corruption and additional controversy.   Instead of catering to ‘semi-shady’ characters such as Adleson, local decision-makes should be putting efforts to facilitate the development of  sustainable industries such as development of Green Energy (solar, wind, geothermal etc.) and gearing up for a high technology economy.  There is an under-current of increasing energy prices driven by the expanding industries in China and India, increasing global warming and environmental damage , populations in developing countries desiring to see direct benefits from their countries’ economic development, and the emerging use of Spatially Aware Autonomous Robots (SAARs) (see my blog entry, “Personal Robots: a new development in Spatially-Aware Autonomous Mobile Robots (SAAMRs)” in Geographic Information Science blog  The latter will completely change the global economy and place those countries which have highly skilled labor at the forefront. 

For more information:
Jonathan Blitzer, “Can EuroVegas Save Spain?--Sheldon Adelson goes scavenging in the euro zone,”The Atlantic, September 2012: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/can-eurovegas-save-spain/309053/ 

Christopher Caldwell, “EuroVegas is a gamble not worth taking”, The Financial Times, 14 September 2012, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5f7891e0-fd93-11e1-8fc3-00144feabdc0.html#axzz28rQnTesr

Lauren Frayer, “Not Everyone In Spain Eager To Wager On EuroVegas”, National Public Radio (U.S.A.),5 October 2012,  http://www.npr.org/2012/10/05/162297447/not-everyone-in-spain-ready-to-roll-dice-on-eurovegas  (also broadcast on the Morning Edition 5 October 2012.)

04 October 2012

‘Islands of sustainability’ created from former industrial areas

(The above image was selected from “Masterplans and Sustainable Cities” from the webpage of Sustainable Cities.  This is an interesting website worthy of exploration. )

It is a tragedy when cities have been left behind by the structural global economic changes and not able to transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age resulting in  large areas of derelict urban landscapes, such as found in Detroit and other cities in the Rust Belts of North American and Europe. The only solution away from further decline is the transformation of these areas in congruence with the emerging sustainability paradigm, which is scaleless.

Stakeholders (including the general public)  in these stressed cities have to think large.  This is not the first time, that tragedy has struck an American city.  Like organisms, cities sometimes  have loss of sustenance/raison d’être.(industries leaving, dwindling hinterland, technological changes such as ship to railroads ), have an illness (crime, fiscal mismanagement, corruption, racism), grow old (lack of adaptability)  or an accident (eathquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, etc.)  which cause immediate deaths or slow deaths (i.e., ghost towns in the Western U.S. when collapsing when the gold ore was depleted  or many cities in the Classical period that did not rebuild after a series of earthquakes. Hurricane Katharina's effect on New Orleans , decline of American automobile industry etc.) Sometimes cities have natural attributes, leadership  etd. giving them the ability to adapt and sometimes become greater than before the tragedy (i.e., Chicago after its Great Fire), San Francisco after the major earthquake in the 1900s ,  Istanbul, Turkey who has experienced numerous earthquakes, rebuilt and resumed its progress, or London which ceased to be the center of the British Empire.

Often the ability for a city to think large, perhaps in the past inspired by such individuals such as Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, and Jaime Lerner.  They all were modern-day shamans who saw visions and inspired others to envision different futures.  Now we have not one person leading the future of cities, but a self-organized, chaotic and complex ‘collective intelligence’ focused on bringing into reality a sustainable world at all scales, including urban areas.  One cans see a glimmer of this in the global Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring.   The global malaise is that a significantand influential portion of the elites cannot go beyond a mindset that is built on 19th Century concepts of economics and politics.
In redevelopment of derelict areas, the local government acting as the engine and land assembler can not think in terms of normal redevelopment as initiated in the 1980s, but go beyond this to creating ‘islands of sustainability.’  These would be derelict areas that would be regenerated to contain urban farming, mixed used (commercial including offices, residential, industrial, schools, and government institutions) , transit-bicycle-and pedestrian- oriented, environmentally sensitive, parks/green spaces and clean energy adaptions (i.e. solar, wind and geo-thermal-if available.)  The area should not be thought of as an a architectural design effort, but one also creating  a community whose purpose is to promote sustainability.   These 'islands of sustainability would also be ones where there is housing for lower income along side middle and high income residences, technology equipped (i.e. free high-speed Internet, special cables etc), direct democracy opportunities, community centers (for meetings, adult education etc.)

These ideas which might seem utopian,  but within our grasp sustainable islands can be created with available technology.  Examples of places in the U.S. that have reclaimed delinquent industrial areas and incorporated some of these sustainability concepts are the Monomonee Valley in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and The High Line in New York City. (I would like to express thanks to a colleague for alerting me of the latter redevelopment/regeneration project.)   In Europe, there has also efforts to transform old industrial areas such as in Bilbao, Liverpool, Manchester and the Ruhr Valley. As with any planning projects, there are problems.  This bog entry can not go the details of these projects.   If possible, other blog entries will evaluate efforts of large scale regeneration of delinquent industrial areas.

If you have comments or want to mention places where there has been significant efforts to address sustainability of former industrial areas,, please post them on the comments section, with a link or other reference document these efforts. I also welcome guest bloggers.

Dr. Michael A McAdams, is an activist, consultant, academic, blogger and writer specializing in urban issues, transportation planning, sustainabilty, and Geographic Information Science/spatial technologies. He is the author of numerous articles, monographs and books.  His most recent project was an edited book with Ivani Vassoler-Froelich ,and Jesus Treviño-Cantú, The Geography, Politics, and Architecture of Cities: Studies in the Creation and Complexification of Culture.  He can be contacted by e-mail at michaelamcadams@yahoo.com

01 October 2012

Regeneration: a new life for abandoned buildings in economically depressed cities

(Image located on “Lessons from Germany's Rust Belt” article in the GreenCityBlueLake blog.)

If we view places like Detroit, Gary (Indiana), areas of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, we might see a a dystopia of crumbling abandoned factories, vacant houses, shopping areas etc.; cities left behind as the global economy restructures itself.  Although many of these buildings will have to be demolished and some cities downsized, there is an opportunity for the reuse of these buildings to provide opportunities in redevelopment, employment and orientation toward the ‘new economy’.  Overriding the reuse of buildings should be an ongoing regional planning process where there is a commitment by all segments to change that does not dwell on the past, but sees new opportunities; particularly in the Green Economy and the developing global technological sector.  

Beginning on the process of reuse does not have to be belabored, but can be as simple as selecting one building for rehabilitation, as a model, then building up the number for rehabilitation.  Many of these buildings are historically significant, structurally sound and can be adequately rebuilt and renovated for other uses.

In two articles “Lessons from Germany's Rust Belt” and “Europe finds industrial reuse drives tourism” in the GreenCityBlueLake blog, Marc Lefkowitz examines the rehabilitation of megalithic factories as found both in the Rust Belt of the U.S. and that of the Ruhr Valley in  Germany. In the first  article, the example of an abandonded factory area that was reused in the Essen in the Ruhr Valley as multi-use center (an ice skating area, museum, recreation center), as pictured above, is touted as a possible means for these iconic structures from the Industrial Era to be reused.  The key in the revitalization was public funding from the German government and the inclusion of the art and design community.  In the second article, the author mentions the aspect of linking the historic industrial sites together and also creating green areas where there was once stark industrial buildings.  There are several areas in the U.S. that are attempting to do the same. One such example is the greening of the Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,  a former industrial/port area. I personally am aware of this area and used this in my dissertation on urban morphology. Although at the study period, the area was full of derelict building and desolate vacant space.

The key in these projects is the redirection of public funds, inclusion of the art community, architects, urban planners, the private sector and citizens to create the right atmosphere for redevelopment. A vision has to be established and strong leadership from all sectors to accomplish this.  Simply, the success of these projects was inclusion, creativity, a vision (plan), and a positive ‘can do attitude.’ The redevelopment of these areas create more jobs, more recreational spaces, cultural opportunities and more vibrancy to an area that formerly was a decrepit area. There is a need to have grand ideas and visions and at the same time to think incrementally and pragmatically.

The blog which Mr. Lefkowitz writes is sponsored by GreenCityBlueLake Institute, part of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which promotes sustainability in the Cleveland area.  These articles are a sample of some very well written blog entries.  I would advise further examining the blog, as it only focuses on Cleveland, but larger issues.

Dr. Michael A McAdams, is an activist, consultant, academic, blogger and writer specializing in urban issues, transportation planning, sustainabilty, and Geographic Information Science/spatial technologies. He is , author of numberous articles, monographs and books.  His most recent project was an edited book with Ivani Vassoler-Froelich ,and Jesus Treviño-Cantú, The Geography, Politics, and Architecture of Cities: Studies in the Creation and Complexification of Culture.  He can be contacted by e-mail at michaelamcadams@yahoo.com