News
08.20.2012
Editorial> Smart (Re)Growth
Christopher Bentley considers the many issues of rebuilding Midwestern cities.
Investment in Cincinnati's urban core has been increasing.
Charles Barilleaux/Flickr

Are suburbanization and urbanism always at odds?

Much has been made lately of a supposedly historic shift in American demographics, in which community survey data from the Census Bureau showed many large American cities (mainly in the Sun Belt) grew at a faster rate than their suburbs since last year. But as any drive through the collar counties will make clear, the suburbs still loom large. In absolute numbers, the growth seen downtown is still a fraction of the growth enjoyed by communities more far-flung.

We recently looked closely at redevelopment in Ohio’s three largest cities. Movements to revitalize withering urban cores there have progressed to a point where some see a brighter future for Rust Belt cities. A genuine interest in downtown living has coalesced with efforts by private developers and all levels of government to help produce a new template for urban redevelopment.

In Columbus, Ohio’s Franklin County the trend is emerging: Urban growth last year outpaced ancillary growth. Columbus proper and its inner suburbs tacked on growth last year relative to that shown by admittedly more comprehensive census data released in 2000 and 2010. At the same time the suburban boom appears to have topped off, as outlying suburbs like Pickerington and Dublin saw their growth rates slow.

Suburban population numbers still belie premature assertions of a mass return to cities. But even towns and villages are starting to act more urban. A recent DePaul University study scored Chicago’s suburbs in search of the area’s most transit-friendly communities. The standout towns, like list-topper LaGrange, grew up around their rail lines before the rising popularity of cars sidelined higher-density, transit-oriented development. Now designers are resurrecting that model in response to growing demand from new generations of commuters.

Not all suburbs are created equal. In Cincinnati’s suburban real estate market, the most requested lots are near walkable hubs and access to transit. Nationwide many younger people have chosen not to own a car, favoring instead mixed-use, communities and public transit Even in the Motor City proactive Detroiters are advocating light rail along Woodward Avenue—a thoroughfare that cuts through a string of suburbs some say could support walkable commercial areas if transit-oriented development took root.

To not overstate the latest rumblings, it’s important to remember the region’s legacy of urban depopulation and disinvestment is staggering. For decades suburbs grew at a rate many times greater than their cities, propelled by longstanding policies that favored sprawl. But the clouds are beginning to clear over the Midwest. As residential and commercial tenants relocate downtown, continued urban investments are necessary to make this resurgence stick.

There is momentum, but redevelopment is not a perpetual motion machine. Just as tax breaks, development fees and infrastructure investments encouraged the explosion of suburbs, we need policies today that nourish the kind of development demanded by our rebounding communities throughout the Rust Belt. Land banks, economic development funds and new market tax credits are among the myriad tools available even in bleak economic times.

Proponents of smart growth may note that as urban cores and suburbs move toward walkable, denser communities, solutions need not pit city against suburb or even sustainability against sprawl. But that analysis downplays the importance of employment and cost of living. Rental rates are slow to rise in Cleveland, even with apartment occupancy at its highest level in years—that could be an opportunity to orchestrate redevelopment with ample room for both market demand and public good. If the scant population data available so far continues to conform with anecdotes of urban renewal, the Midwest may be on the precipice of a unique opportunity to reinvent both its job market and its land-use.

Christopher Bentley