Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Breaking Bad

There is a story up at the Urban Land Institute about an increasing number of cities filing for bankruptcy.  It's worth a read, though not particularly for the all-to-predictable conclusion (private sector partnerships to the rescue!) nor for the quoted commentary (some of it is far more useful and insightful than others), but rather to simply understand that this is a serious issue and the beginning of the end.  Not the end for cities, but for the end of the broken manner in which we've built cities for the last 50-80 years.  It takes a few generations for flaws to reveal themselves as fissures until ultimately the cracks hasten, accelerate, and splinter until everything falls into a dust heap.

I've been following Stockton, CA's issues for a while now as I have Valencia, Spain's, as well as Harrisburg, PA's.  I'm originally from Harrisburg and their demise is something that's been coming for a while now.  Just like all the rest, despite the blips of high times that papier-mache over the faulty foundations.

Dumb people, despite their qualifications and accreditations, cite things like the bust in the housing market as the problem with places like Stockton.  Sad day.  Except it wasn't the bust that was the problem.  It was the boom, that displaced and destabilized cities into something lacking the connective tissue of highly complex ecosystems, anti-city.  Sprawl.

"That ringing in your ears?  That [high-pitched] eeeeeee... That's the sound of the cells dying."

Harrisburg is a city of 50,000 people.  It's also a state seat.  It's boundaries are very small and its major industry is tax exempt, obv.  Most of the people that work in said state seat, live outside of city proper.  Because they can.  Because said state built an infrastructure availing housing opportunities at an ever increasing edge, chewing up evermore agricultural land.  There is no mass transit available, and like most increasingly sprawling and disconnected places, it wouldn't make a difference.  The infrastructure is built in a way that mass transit would never be as "convenient" as driving.  Striving for "convenience" makes for a whole lot of inconvenience.

The metropolitan area of Harrisburg, PA is about 650,000 people.  And that doesn't even include metropolitan York, PA nor metro Lancaster, PA.  A triangle, all about 30 minutes apart.  Or less than it is from Dallas to the majority of its suburbs.  Combine those three metropolitan areas and Harrisburg, a city (tax base) of 50,000, as its primary job center, has to support a super-metro area of about 1.3 million people.

It's all too easy to point to single elements as the root cause.  In Harrisburg, it's an absurdly expensive and mismanaged incinerator.  But these are generally only the straw that broke that camels back.  A mistake made when blinded when riding high.  Or similarly, these singular objects are the cherry on the top of a much broader foundation when they're considered the cause of all the good in a city's revitalization.  Like Bilbao, which I've shown over and over, their revitalization began fifteen years prior to the Guggenheim.  Serious economists and urbanists know that.  Few are actually serious.

We've built our cities to fail.  These privatization and partnership solutions are acts of desperation and short-term at best.  If they're not fiscally sustainable for the commonwealth, the private sector will surely see their way to the door once they clean up on the initial hand-out and handover of public commons.  There is little to no margin in the fiscally unstable and unsustainable.  But there is plenty when its given over to you at first before you can turn it around and divest.

Most cities simply don't have an organization in place to balance the cost burden of infrastructure for a region with the limited tax base of city propers.  And even those that do are often holding on by a thread if the core city isn't growing, metropolitan planning organizations too often support the metro region as a whole rather than a collection of centers.  Exasperating the problem with same old policies.  The MPO is simply now the brain of the formerly headless parasite sucking the life out of the city.  Sure, it's fat and happy.  Until it bursts with the blood and viscera of its unwitting victim.

Have I told you that the City of Dallas grew by the least amount of people since the 1880 census?  Not percentage. No.  Actual people.

Harrisburg, and cities like it, possibly need to be taken over by the state it resides in.  Unfortunately, that won't solve it, as state legislatures will simply cut services as an act of punishment and "budget balancing."  The underlying problem is that you can't balance the budget with an imbalanced physical environment.  Too much infrastructural burden and too little tax base.  The infrastructure we've built is simply the straws sticking out of the neck for the parasites to feed more easily.

The horrible and true irony is that ultimately, this hurts those suburbs too.  And they can't even really be called suburbs anymore, because they aren't lesser parts of a greater whole.  Instead, they've subjugated the host organism, like the machines did to humans in the matrix.  Kept alive as office parks or general entertainment/stadium venues, just enough to keep the heart beating.

That sound you hear is simply the emergency call to the triage staff at the hospital of cities, the host organism, flatlining.  It's time to keep them alive.  But not TOO alive if you're to listen to any of the so-called experts.  Just enough to keep sucking the life out of it.  Until it's some other generation's problem.