Do cities really control their economic destiny? Or are they pawns to broader forces? Was the decline of the Rust Belt, say, the result of bad policies or fundamental economic trends?
Some cities certainly can claim to be self-made, their fortunes built on hard work and visionary polices. A case could be made that Los Angeles, blessed by beautiful weather but distant from natural water sources, should never have grown into the metropolis it is now. Similarly, one could argue that Las Vegas should never have existed at all. Both cities capitalized on their initial advantages — sunshine for Los Angeles, gaming for Las Vegas — to establish themselves. Then they actively transformed themselves into leading destinations.
What I like to call windswept cities, on the other hand, find themselves buffeted by external forces. Perhaps Detroit and Cleveland, or Orlando and Tampa, could have attained their peak sizes had broader economic shifts not favored them, but it’s not likely.
This can cut both ways. Some windswept cities are uplifted 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 momentous effect.
Other windswept cities are pummeled by change. As the broader economy evolves, they find themselves stuck with an infrastructure and workforce better suited to an earlier era. Most Rust Belt cities suffered this fate, saddled with an inventory of obsolete manufacturing plants and workers without the education and training to seek out new economy jobs.
The most successful US cities, I’d argue, have been those that benefited from shifting economic trends but also enhanced their advantages with smart policy moves. Compare Seattle with 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 a national leader in shipbuilding and a major center of cast-iron stove manufacturing, earning the title “stove capital of America.”
That put Detroit in an enviable position when the automobile was invented. The city was filled with skilled, mechanically inclined workers. Moving from shipyards and stove plants to auto factories was not a great leap for them.
Detroit, whose factories had been a key part of the “Arsenal of Democracy” that won World War II, could have gone on to develop a burgeoning defense industry. In fact, the federal government looked for big automakers to spin off armament manufacturers. However, those companies declined and went back to focusing on cars. By contrast, Seattle smartly pivoted from shipbuilding to commercial aircraft production after World War II, led by local planemaker Boeing, and then built on its engineering workforce to develop a thriving tech industry.
Success stories such as Seattle’s are rare, however. More often, cities have enjoyed something akin to dumb luck. Boston’s concentration of elite educational institutions facilitated its transition from port city to knowledge center. Other cities took advantage of their status as a state capital, home of a major university, or host to educational and medical institutions to do the same. Atlanta, Austin, Nashville and Phoenix seem to fit that bill.
No one wants to believe that the aphorism, “standing on third base and thinking they hit a triple” applies to them. We all want to be recognized for efforts that lead to success. But the saying correctly applies to many cities as well as people. While some metropolises have benefited from excellent policy decisions, many more — perhaps most — simply fell into a favorable economic situation as the winds of economic change shifted directions.
The next “big thing” could easily disrupt those economic success stories. They probably won’t be too happy when the cities that supplant them start dispensing advice on how they, too, can revive their fortunes. The one skill all city leaders would be wise to learn is a bit of humility.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Boston’s Michelle Wu Is a Mayor of Many Firsts: Matthew Winkler
• How to Reverse the West’s Creativity Crisis: Adrian Wooldridge
• Floating Cities May Be One Answer to Rising Seas: Adam Minter
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pete Saunders is the community and economic development director for the village of Richton Park, Illinois, and an urban planning consultant. He is also the editor and publisher of the Corner Side Yard, a blog focused on public policy in America’s Rust Belt cities.
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