Do cities really control their economic destiny? Or are they pawns of broader forces? For example, was the demise of the Rust Belt the result of bad policies or fundamental economic trends?
Certain cities can certainly claim to be self-made, their fortunes built on hard work and visionary politics. One could argue that Los Angeles, blessed with fine weather but far from natural water sources, should never have grown into the metropolis it is now. Likewise, one could argue that Las Vegas should never have existed in the first place. Both cities used their initial advantages—sunshine for Los Angeles, gaming for Las Vegas—to establish themselves. Then they actively turned into leading destinations.
What I like to call windswept cities, on the other hand, is shaken by outside forces. Perhaps Detroit and Cleveland or Orlando and Tampa could have reached their peaks had broader economic shifts not favored them, but it is unlikely.
This can be cut either way. Some windswept cities are being lifted by global forces such as the rise of manufacturing or technology. Smaller but no less consequential changes – air conditioning, improved road systems, the rise of tourism – can have an equally significant impact.
Other windswept cities are afflicted with change. As the broader economy evolves, they find themselves with an infrastructure and workforce better suited to an earlier era. Most Rust Belt cities suffered this fate, burdened with a legacy of outdated manufacturing facilities and workers without the education and training to seek jobs in the new economy.
The most successful US cities, I would argue, have been those that have benefited from changing economic trends, but also amplified their benefits through shrewd policy actions. Compare Seattle to Detroit. In the late 19th century, the two cities were in similar positions. Detroit was the busiest port on the Great Lakes and one of the busiest in the nation, shipping millions of tons of goods. It was the nation’s leader in shipbuilding and a major center for the manufacture of cast iron stoves, earning it the title of “The Stove Capital of America.”
That put Detroit in an enviable position when the automobile was invented. The city was full of skilled, mechanical workers. The change from shipyards and furnace factories to car factories was not a big leap for them.
Detroit, whose factories were an important part of the “arsenal of democracy” that won World War II, could have developed a burgeoning defense industry. In fact, the federal government was looking for major automakers to spin off defense manufacturers. However, these companies declined and refocused on cars. In contrast, after World War II, Seattle adeptly switched from shipbuilding to commercial aircraft production under the direction of local aircraft manufacturer Boeing, and then relied on its engineers to build a thriving technology industry.
However, success stories like Seattle’s are rare. More often, cities have enjoyed something of a silly fortune. The concentration of elite educational institutions in Boston eased the transition from port city to center of knowledge. Other cities used their status as state capitals, home of a major university, or home to educational and medical institutions to do the same. Atlanta, Austin, Nashville and Phoenix seem to fit that bill.
Nobody wants to believe that the aphorism “standing on third base and thinking he’s hit a triple” applies to them. We all want to be recognized for efforts that lead to success. But the saying rightly applies to many cities and people. While some metropolitan cities have benefited from excellent policy decisions, many others – perhaps most – simply found themselves in a favorable economic position as the winds of economic change changed direction.
The next “big thing” could easily disrupt these economic success stories. They probably won’t be too happy when the cities that are ousting them start offering advice on how they too can revive their happiness. The one skill all city guides should learn is a little humility.
More from other authors at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Boston’s Michelle Wu is a mayor of many innovations: Matthew Winkler
• How to reverse the West’s creativity crisis: Adrian Wooldridge
• Floating cities could be an answer to rising seas: Adam Minter
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pete Saunders is the community and economic development director for the village of Richton Park, Illinois, and town planning consultant. He is also the editor and editor of Corner Side Yard, a blog focused on public policy in America’s Rust Belt cities.
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