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Fearing Urbanization

We must save the Heartland. Our identity is at stake. That's a common rationale given for rural economic development. Perhaps in a future post, I will discuss the genealogy of this peculiar cultural geography. Today, I want to highlight how this perspective undermines urbanization and promotes sprawl:

Over the next 20 years or so, the global urban population is expected to rise to approximately 5 billion. This explosion of urban life could be greeted enthusiastically, as a sign of progress and development – moving people off the land and out of back-breaking labour. But far too often, urbanisation is instead seen through the contemporary prism of social, political and ecological concerns: overpopulation, fears about the breakdown of traditional communities, and the dangers cities create for the broader environment, to name but a few.

Emphasis added. Cities pull people from the hinterlands, from established communities. Talent moves from places rich in social capital to an anonymous existence defined by weak ties with fellow urbanites.  Urbanization means more bowling alone. Cities make Alexis de Tocqueville cry. Democracy is dying.

Migration is defined as a detriment to community development. Group interests should trump individual interests. The migrant is self-interested and disruptive, a threat to a way of life. That's true whether one is leaving or a recent arrival. Migration is bad.

For cities, migration means vitality and growth. Too much social capital is bad. Individual interests trump group interests. Concerning nationalism, cities have long posed an existential threat, from anxiety about epidemics to the erosion of state sovereignty. Quite simply, cities threaten the status quo.

Regarding suburbanization, the greenfields of the outer-ring are a bucolic sanctuary from the evils of the city. It's supposed to be the best of both worlds, balancing the urban and rural. Density means filth, disease, and depravity. The rural is, ironically, the cradle of culture. The countryside is a touchstone for our true, good selves. Spend time in the city at your own peril.

The xenophobe is anti-city and anti-migrant. In my view, policies designed to stop brain drain are fundamentally anti-urban and anti-immigrant. These policies are, as Brookings might claim, anti-economic development. Investing in urban amenities in hopes of retaining talent is an incoherent strategy. Successful cities are net exporters of talent:

The notion of American class mobility is deeply rooted in the ability to make more money. But class mobility can also be measured in the ability to actually move. Using IRS migration data from the 2009-2010 period — which measures the inflow and outflow of citizens who file taxes from county to county — Eric Rodenbeck and his team at San Francisco-based design firm Stamen created a map of America that is as extreme as ever. By using the IRS figures and mapping them out on U.S. highways with open-source technology provided by OpenStreetMap, they've created a roadmap of the parts of America that are losing and gaining, and the results are surprising. "We realized that if you look at the biggest 'losers,' essentially what you're looking at are the biggest cities in the U.S.," Migurski says. One of those losers: New York county, which lost $1,306,548,000 and 15,100 people. "But does that actually mean New York is a big loser?" Migurski asks. "One of our ideas was that, you're not a loser if you're losing money. You're an exporter." The sort of exporter, he says, that boosts the rest of the U.S. economy. Traditional Sun Belt retirement areas comprise the gainers; areas like South Florida and Southern California in particular, create what Migurski calls "money sinks." But between the two is a middle that doesn't move, that actually exists in the middle: King and Loving counties in Texas remained unchanged. The rural areas between coasts show movement not from coast to coast, but off the beaten path, within state lines. Stamen presents an America that is in both a state of unrest, and unable — or unwilling — to move at all.

Emphasis added. US global cities develop talent like a university. The entire country (and the world) benefits from these urban graduates. Geographic mobility is economic development. People develop, not places.