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The Age of Regions
Urban Expert David Rusk Outlines The Merits - And Limitations - Of Regional Cooperation in this interview with Tom Condon of The Hartford Courant.

August 08, 2004

TC: In 1993, you put Hartford and Bridgeport on a list with Detroit and Newark as cities on life support. Do you still think that's true?

DR: The specific phrase was "cities past the point of no return." I would have to amend that to say cities past the point of almost no return, because up to 1990 no city which had gone past three milestones; significant population loss, significant racial disparity between the city and suburbs and above all had dropped below 70 percent of per capita income (compared to its suburbs). No city had ever come back on the income scale.

Chicago did in this past decade. There was such an enormous gentrification that went on around The Loop. Chicago did get off the list, but 17 other cities joined it and Hartford sunk down farther on that list. Cleveland and Detroit stabilized, but I would have to say that the overall picture, even at the end of the decade of the most sustained prosperity our country has seen, is that these cities where there is economic and racial isolation have not changed.

TC: Your book "Cities Without Suburbs" introduced the idea of elastic vs. inelastic cities, in other words, a city that could physically expand, usually through annexation, has a better chance to solve its problems than cities frozen into historic boundaries, such as Hartford. Are you still thinking that way?

DR: Yes, but most of my work has been in the Northeast or the Middle West. Annexation is impossible in New England, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and it's improbable in many Midwestern communities. You really have to think of other strategies: regional land use and transportation planning, regional mixed-income housing policies, inclusionary zoning or regional tax-base sharing.

You're not going to be able to change the nature of your governments, but you can at least change what they're called upon to do on a multi-municipal basis.

TC: You recommended that small and medium metro areas could solve some of their problems by forming metro governments. Is that idea gaining any traction? How important is the Louisville experience?

DR: Louisville was the fourth of the formal consolidations that occurred in the 1990's. Athens and Clarke County, Ga.; Augusta and Richmond County, Ga.; Kansas City and Wyandotte County, Kan., and then Louisville and Richmond County [Ky.]. There are another half dozen that are under very active consideration. It's been voted on and rejected last November in Albuquerque, and it's going to be voted on again this November.

There are some places that are considering it where it makes no sense whatsoever. Buffalo is considering it; Pittsburgh is considering it. They've got nothing to consolidate to. The essence of city-county consolidation is when the central city merges with the county, the county is bringing a large amount of unincorporated, often undeveloped, land, or additional higher-income residents, or additional commercial tax base as a dowry, if you will, to the merger. It's expanding the resource base of the central city.

That's not going to happen in a Buffalo or Pittsburgh, because in all the consolidations that have occurred, any smaller, established free-standing independent municipality has refused to join. There's not been a smaller municipality that's joined the central city-county consolidation. Anywhere. Ever.

TC: Connecticut has no county government. Would we be better off with counties or some other form of regional polity?

DR: There's no sense in bringing back counties with the geography they had, because the geography doesn't fit the [current] development pattern. If you did anything, it might be to have the state empower your councils of government with more decision-making responsibility, number one, and then to make sure that decision-making responsibility is exercised through proportional voting, so that Hartford doesn't have equal votes with some 5,000-person town, for example, in the Capitol Region Council of Governments.

The councils of government do have significant responsibility for the allocation of federal transportation funds as a result of functions of federal law. There's no such parallel in the whole land-use-planning effort, there's no such parallel on housing policy on a regional basis. So, if there is going to be any intermediary between the state government and 169 towns it probably ought to be something like a vitalized system of regional councils, not counties as you knew them.

TC: Fifteen years ago the mayor of Indianapolis, William Hudnut, famously said, "You can't be a suburb of no place." Is that still true, or can a so-called edge city, or self-contained suburb, ignore its center city.

DR: Well, interestingly, there have been studies done that show that even when you have edge cities there's a tremendous amount of interaction between what's going on in the edge city and what's going on in the central city, above all in the area of business services. The accountants, the lawyers, other kinds of specialized occupations, are highly concentrated in central cities and they are a support mechanism for some of the companies that are out there in the edge cities. And with smaller childless households, whether on the front end of the careers or the back end, some cities are coming back in style as exciting places to live. I would think in the long run that traditional central cities may have a better future than some of the edge cities, particularly the older edge cities

TC: Are any cities getting it right?

DR: Getting it right? Getting it all right? My short list of places that only have to reach a little bit beyond where they are to really be all that they can be, in the Army's term, would include metro-Portland, Ore.; metro-Seattle, metro-Charlotte. I think very highly of Madison-Dane County, Wis. A very significant community that gets almost all right, although it's only a portion of a region, but it's almost as big as the Greater Hartford region is Montgomery County, Md. Eight hundred, seventy-five thousand people, 500 square miles. They have the best urban government in America, and they've been so for 30 years.

TC: They have land-use planning, they have the nation's best housing policies. They have a unified countywide school system, as are all the school systems in Maryland, quite high quality and they're a real model. A decade ago you praised Connecticut's affordable-housing law. Do you still feel positively toward it?

DR: You've been addressing the issue which many other states have not. But, there's a much better mousetrap out there than the affordable-housing land-use appeals process, and that is inclusionary zoning.

There are now over 135 cities and counties in the country that have local laws that mandate that a certain percentage of new development above a threshold scale must be affordable to people below a designated income level.

I did some calculations (that indicate) the affordable housing land-use appeals process has yielded directly and indirectly about 3,000 units affordable housing statewide since 1989. If in that same 15 years you'd had a typical inclusionary zoning policy in place statewide, which would have taken a state law, you would have had 18,000 units, produced by private developers.

TC: Michael Porter at Harvard has talked about building jobs in the inner city. Do you see that being done at any scale around the country?

DR: I did an analysis of 33 of what were held forth to me as exemplary community development corporations in the country. Of the 33, when you look at the census data regarding the communities they served, in 27 of the 33 the poverty rates are higher at the end of the time of the study period than at the beginning. Whatever wonders they'd done on mini-project basis, it hadn't at that point reversed the tide, if you will, in those neighborhoods.

I haven't redone that analysis for the 1990s based on the 2000 census, and my sense is that the numbers will look a little better than they did between 1970 and 1990. Some of that may be temporary. A lot of folks that had jobs in 1999 when the census was collecting income data don't have jobs in 2004.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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