Podium: The growth of the American ghetto

From a lecture given by the Harvard academic at a seminar on social exclusion held at the London School of Economics
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The Independent Culture
I AM very pleased to have the opportunity to address a topic that I am sure will receive increasing attention in the next century - the state of American cities and the relentless decentralization of economic and residential life in the US.

At the metropolitan fringe, shopping malls, housing subdivisions, industrial clusters and corporate offices grow at an incredible rate. Accordingly, in the new economy, rapidly developing suburbs have become the locus of population growth, employment growth and wealth creation. The older areas - city centres and inner-ring suburbs - are left behind with growing concentrations of poverty, particularly minority poverty, and without the fiscal capacity to grapple with the consequences: joblessness, family fragmentation and failing schools.

Since 1960, the proportion of whites inside city centres has decreased steadily, while the proportion of minorities has grown. In 1960, the US population was evenly divided among cities, suburbs and rural areas. By 1990, the proportion of residents living in both cities and rural areas had declined significantly; so much so that the suburbs contained nearly half of the nation's population. Urban residents dipped to only 31 percent of the US population by 1990. Urban areas experienced their greatest population losses in the1970s, when city centre populations nationwide barely grew and many large cities suffered substantial declines in population.

Beginning in the mid-1970s the employment balance between central cities and suburbs shifted markedly to the suburbs. Manufacturing is now over 70 per cent suburban; wholesale and retail trade is just under 70 per cent. Since 1980, over two-thirds of employment growth has occurred outside the city centre.

As jobs disappear, so does the city's tax base, which, in large part, consists of commercial property, factories, office buildings, shopping malls and other businesses. The movement of jobs to the suburbs goes hand in hand with the shift of the commercial tax. The loss of fiscal capacity and wealth takes its toll over time. The growth of concentrated poverty has been even more dramatic.

High-poverty neighbourhoods, in which at least 40 per cent of the residents live in poverty, have grown at an alarming rate.

Between 1970 and 1990, the population in the high poverty metropolitan neighbourhoods - be they black ghettos, Latino barrios, or even white slums - grew by 92 per cent. Eight million people now live in these high- poverty metropolitan areas. The increased concentrations of poverty have resulted in higher taxes for the people and businesses that remain in cities.

A growing number of observers now think about cities and suburbs as related, not antithetical, as comprising a single economic and social reality. This vision is called metropolitanism. The vision of metropolitanism recognizes that the dichotomy between cities and suburbs is frequently drawn too sharply, often leading one to overlook the new reality: namely, that suburbs today are not an undifferentiated band of safe, prosperous and white communities.

Indeed, there are two major kinds of suburb. On the one hand, there are the older inner-suburbs frequently adjacent to the city. They feature crumbling tax bases, concentrations of poor children, eroding job markets, crime, disinvestment and increasingly deserted commercial districts.

On the other hand, there are the newer or outer suburbs. They are gaining economically, but they are straining under sprawling growth that creates traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, loss of open spaces, and other sprawl-related problems and a lack of affordable housing.

The vision of metropolitanism foresees a policy agenda that changes the rules of the development game, pools metropolitan resources, gives people access to all areas in the metropolis and reforms governance.

Reforms put forward to achieve the objective of city-suburban cooperation range from proposals to create metropolitan governments to proposals for metropolitan tax base sharing, collaborative planning, and regional authorities. Among the problems shared by many metropolises is a weak public transit system.

Promoters of the vision of metropolitanism can advance a more positive image of cities as they work to bring about the integration of cities and suburbs. The future of metropolitan regions in the US, as well as the social inclusion of its disadvantaged urban residents, may very well depend on the success of their efforts.