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September 07, 2008

Reports of Cities' Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Top 10

In our national obsession with 'top 10 lists', we now have the Top 10 Fastest Dying Cities. Reports of our quickly approaching demise has lead to plenty of hand wringing in the maturing cities of the Great Lakes coping with aging. Civic cheer leaders find the need to write letters to our own City newspapers to remind ourselves that reports of our cities death are, to paraphrase Mark Twain, 'greatly exaggerated.'

I know of no precedent in the post-World War Two era (1950-present) where a large city has died. Natural disasters, epidemics, environmental disasters, wars, and armed conflicts have all led to the death of many people and major collateral damage on urban infrastructure. However, the suggestion or even intimation that cities die is an anthropomorphic fallacy.

By my count, there are nearly 500 cities around the world who are experiencing population loss. The number of shrinking cities (more than 10% population loss) in the United States is at least 59. Indeed, more than a quarter of all large cities worldwide have already experienced population loss.

We are not alone.

Yes, St. Louis and Detroit have lost nearly 60% of their population from their 'golden years'. Youngstown, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo have all lost 50 percent or so their population since their peak years. The rise and fall of population centers is intimately related to the relationship of our cities to the engines of the world economy. As such, cities in central and southwest England, the Ruhr region, the Saar, and in the Italian Po Valley have all experienced shrinkage. In the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Italy, France, and Japan, shrinking cities account for one out of every three metropolitan areas.

The History of Shrinking Cities

World Map of Shrinking Cities from 1kilo on Vimeo.

Connecting the Dots: The re-invention of cities and the broadband economy

As a group, shrinking cities of the early 21st century face multiple hurdles. It is a kind of 'perfect storm'. Economic dislocation, challenges of leadership, human will, deeply seeded aversions to change and risk, combined with the enormous challenges of re-imagining, re-inventing, and re-invigorating the 'idea' of the 'new city' of the 21st century make the effort ahead daunting, to say the least. The 'new city' is locked in our mental image that the 'old city' can be re-ignited and returned to its former glory with a bit of engineering, luck, and hope.

In some cities, especially those in Asia, Portugal, Spain, and parts of Latin America, public policy and emerging new leaders have harnessed their re-invention and 'new city' projects to the generative qualities of the broadband economy. In this country, cities and federal agencies are still debating the value of a national broadband strategy. Imagine if we had the same 20 years debate over the positive impact of public support for rural electrification or the massive investment to support the build out of the inter-state highway system. Electrification, inter-state highways, ports, airports, and national transportation logistics have been inextricably linked over the past 150 years to the health and well being of cities. The same is true as it relates to the art of city-making in the 21st century.

Not withstanding the rhetoric and propaganda of the incumbent interests, inside of a decade we have gone from one of the most connected countries to barely being among the top 20 ultra broadband countries. Our bandwidth to price point ratios are no longer competitive with our traditional economic peers. More important, the emerging cities of the 21st century in Asia are leveraging the dynamic use of the 'new' transportation systems to level the playing field and enabling competitive advantages that attract talent, capital, and innovation. Citizens in these cities have 100 times more bandwidth at price points that are comparable to DSL and cable modem pricing in the United States.

Contractions of cities and their populations is a natural and predictable part of the evolution of the human condition and the economies we create. For some cities the aspiration may be to uncover the youthful elixir. For others, the rallying cry may be to return to former glory by some magic formula. There is at least one other arc of possibility. The connected-city of the 21st century may be the DNA of the 'new city'. Population size remains relevant in the connected community but does fall victim to the demographers imperative that size equals destiny. The art of designing a connected-city, especially as part of a re-invention project, may well be one of the biggest opportunities of the 21st century. Connected-cities enables learning, participation, and opportunities to re-discover the value of human ingenuity. Connected cities and their citizens and neighborhoods can export virtues like art, education, culture, and sport over the 21st century transportation system known as the Internet. Creativity, diversity, smart and green are important inputs into the connected city allowing us to better balance economic opportunities with creating livable neighborhoods, accentuating quality of life, and a more sustainable approach to the broader eco-systems within which our cities evolve.

Technologies, like rural electrification, or the inter-state system were not the answer to every challenge in the 19th or 20th century. Likewise, the ultra broadband economy of the 21st century is not the answer to every challenge we face. Nevertheless, I have been among those that have attempted to articulate that a pre-requisite ingredient to the process of re-imaging and re-inventing the cluster of cities undergoing phases of contraction is taking a bold position on leveraging the thousands of strands of fiber optics that lie beneath our city streets and a long the railways tracks and other rights of way. The art of creating a connected community is not only about a broadband network that connects thousands of cities and enables trillions of transactions every day. Connected cities make possible connecting human networks, networks of cultural communities, and creating new networks of hope. The 21st century may well be viewed by historians of future generations as the century of creativity. The connected-community is a form of democratic renaissance that enables and inspires that kind of creativity. It may well be that cities facing the challenge of population loss are the very place where connected-cities of the future will be prototyped. Whether we succeed in creating a new city model for the future is one of the great challenges of the next decade here in the Great Lakes and for the new administration in Washington, DC. The stakes have never been greater.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH

September 7th, 2008

Posted by lsg8 at September 7, 2008 11:52 AM and tagged

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