Cities Without Suburbs – A Book Review

14 01 2010

Cities Without Suburbs - By: David Rusk

I recently finished reading a book by David Rusk called “Cities without Suburbs.” I highly recommend this book to everyone. The book argues in support of regional cooperation and/or consolidation of suburbs with their historically central cities. Going beyond your typical benefits of regional cooperation, this book explains, with evidence, that there are many benefits for regional consolidation of services. He thoroughly identifies the problems facing inner cities today including, increasing poverty rates, decreasing tax revenues, and the inherent problems with solving complicated social, transportation, housing, economic, and budgetary problems when cooperating with a number of municipalities. Using census data, he explains why cities that have expanded their boundaries to encompass their own suburbs have historically done much better than cities that are unable to expand their boundaries.These locked-in cities lose revenue, resources, and opportunities in the long run to their independent suburbs. This same reason is also why suburbanites fight consolidation/annexation. They believe that their suburbs are doing well and that they don’t want to take on the inner city’s problems. There are a couple of problems with this philosophy, however. First, history and statistics have shown that suburbs that are independent from their central city do not grow as fast as suburbs that are connected to their city. In fact, the average income for the entire region is lower for regions that are segmented versus those that are not. Second, when connected to their suburbs, central cities have fewer problems and the region as a whole has a lower crime rate and a better quality of life.

While I have always felt that a regional Hampton Roads would be a good thing, this book got me thinking that it should go further than that. It is certainly a step in a positive direction to have regional organizations. Certainly don’t get me wrong. Our current institutions such as HRT, SPSA, HRPDC, HRTPO etc all have their problems but when it comes down to it, they make certain things simpler for our area. Imagine if each city had to run its own bus service. You would have to transfer to another bus every time you crossed a city boundary. What if each city had to compete individually for transportation money from the state and federal government? You think we get shorted our share now? Despite current and planned or possible future regional entities, we still need to go further.

Let’s look at one thing that our region does. It may seem minor but think about it. Tourism. Our region has many great tourist attractions. From the Virginia Beach Oceanfront and Ocean Breeze to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens/Water Country and everything in between such as Nauticus and the Wisconsin, Hampton Roads has a lot to offer. Each city spends millions a year in tourism advertising money to attempt to attract visitors to patronize their respective city. While places like Virginia Beach and Williamsburg spend money to directly advertise their attractions, other places such as Chesapeake advertise to attract visitors to stay in their hotels, hoping to capture tourists’ shopping dollars at Greenbrier, etc. The reason this has to be done is because otherwise, Chesapeake makes no money off of Virginia Beach’s tourists. If our cities were one jurisdiction, however, things would be much different. We could combine our money to advertise for our regional attractions and the whole area would benefit. The area of Chesapeake would benefit just as much from tourists that came to Greenbrier as from those that never shopped west of Lynnhaven.

The same goes for transportation. Think of our major projects. The HRBT is a good example. As it stands, Hampton and Newport News want an expanded HRBT. Norfolk, however, is against it because the outcome on our side of the water would be destroyed properties. If we were one city, though, we would be much more likely to support it. An expanded HRBT would almost certainly be a catalyst for a better business climate on the Peninsula. Norfolk doesn’t really care about that. Hampton voters can’t vote for Norfolk’s City Council. As one city, the Peninsula’s economic climate would be Norfolk’s economic climate meaning that the expanded HRBT would benefit the city. Same goes for the Dominion Blvd. project. Peninsula, Norfolk and VB leaders can see how it is important to Chesapeake and the region overall. Secretly, though, they also know that Chesapeake residents are not their constituency. They can support Chesapeake’s project but at the same time they are obligated to do what is best for their constituency.

We can look at social issues. Public housing for example. First, current housing projects were built in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, and Hampton simply because the cities were there. Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Suffolk and the counties of Hampton Roads did not have the capacity to support large scale housing projects at the time. Current housing policy no longer supports concentrated ‘projects.’ Studies have shown that everyone does better when the poor are dispersed throughout the middle class housing areas. This dispersion keeps the poor from feeling hopeless about their situation. Their income rates increase as does the pass rate for their school children. College attendance and graduation rates increase. Despite the objections by some middle class areas, the property values do not decrease and crime does not increase. In cities that are serious about this policy, overall crime rates tend to decrease and overall income averages go up. In our area, however, due to our segmented cities and therefore our segmented housing authorities, the residents of the current projects cannot be transferred to other cities using funds from their home city to pay the rent. This condition severely limits the ability of our housing authorities to successfully assist the poor residents of the housing projects. As one city, the authority could move residents freely around the region to make sure that they have the best opportunity to advance their situations.

I think that this can be accomplished with the right amount of public support. This will not be easy, however, and will take careful consideration to make a thorough proposal to the General Assembly (required for consolidation in Virginia). This will require public education and public input to make sure that all issues are addressed. I know that not everyone will support this but that is typical of any major proposal. I also know that if we could consolidate our area so that the central cities encompasses 60-75 % of our regional population that we would be a force to be reckoned with at the state, federal, and economic levels.





Green Metropolis – A Book Review

9 11 2009

Green Metropolis - By: David Owen

Last Thursday, I purchased the book Green Metropolis, written by David Owen. This book was an incredibly well thought out, well researched book. Contrary to the popular held opinion that ‘being green’ involves CFLs and recycling, Owen argues that the greenest city in America is not in Maine or Oregon, but rather New York. In fact, he argues that New York City is the greenest city in America. I was confused too, at first, because the image that I (and most people) have of NYC is a dirty, concrete jungle full of traffic jams and smog. According to Owen’s research, despite the dirty nature of NYC, the city uses less energy per person than any other city in the USA. He uses gasoline as an example and compares NYC to Vermont. Most would agree that wehn you think ‘green,’ you are thinking about something that looks like Vermont: trees, clean air, clean water, etc. According to Owen’s statistics, Vermont residents, on average use 545 gallons of gasoline per person per year, whereas Manhattan residents use only 90 gallons of gasoline per person per year.

It is an interesting theory that the more compact a city is, the more energy efficient it is. There are many examples in this book that I think are important lessons for area, especially since the light rail will be opening next year and we want to expand it and we want it to succeed. Owen talks about light rail. He references it in multiple places. First, in order to be successful, he reinforces the fact that the area served by light rail (or any transit system) needs to be dense.  He references a specific density of seven people per acre. This gives us something to think about if we want to have a regional mass transit system. Hampton Road’s overall density is .625 people per acre. Of course that includes rural counties such as Surry and Isle of Wight. Norfolk’s density is 6.82; much closer to the 7/acre number referenced by Owen as essential for successful transit.  When you consider that there are many places in Norfolk that are not ever going to be ‘dense’ (such as the 1300 acre Norfolk International Airport), we really do have a good start. Virginia Beach has a little bit to go. Their density is only 2.67 people per acre. Granted, half of the city is rural, we will give them the benefit of the doubt and give them 5.4 people per acre. That takes into consideration that most of their people live above the self-imposed ‘green-line.’ In the past few years, they have made great strides increasing density. Town Center is a good example. The recently proposed redevelopment of the Newtown Road ‘Strategic Growth Area’ is another good start (also an attempt to capitalize off of light rail without officially supporting it). We must continue to make the corridors around the light rail lines and proposed light rail lines more dense. I specifically emphasize proposed because if we can make these corridors dense now, it will be easier to get funding and ridership once they are built.

Another thing that Owen’s emphasizes in his book is that, in order to make density and transit more effective, we have to stop catering to cars. If we keep building new roads and highways, we are only reinforcing the automobile’s ease of use. If it is cheaper and easier to drive to work than use transit, why would you bother? Instead, we should use a combination of tolls, gas taxes, congestion pricing, etc. to make driving more costly and less inviting. The proceeds from these revenue streams could be used to expand the transit system. We have to remember, though, that while we want to make driving more uninviting, we do not want to make transporting goods more costly, which would only raise prices of everything and hurt the economy. Truck traffic could face free tolls, lower diesel taxes, or designated lanes (these lanes would be removed from regular lanes, increasing congestion and making car travel even more uninviting). I am not saying to do this overnight, but it is certainly worth it. With a denser area that focused on efficient transit rather than wasteful suburbanism, Hampton Roads would be more likely to compete with other areas.

These are just some of the ideas that would be useful in creating a more efficient, more environmentally friendly metropolitan area. I strongly suggest that everyone reads this book. Especially those who identify themselves as environmentalists. Current ‘environmentalism’ is destroying the planet. Hybrid cars are terrible ideas and only firm up and strengthen our dependence on oil. Read this book. No matter who you are, you will gain something. No matter who you are, your opinions on environmentalism will change.

…in the long run, a car’s fuel gauge is far less significant, environmentally speaking, than its odometer. In the same way that life in Manhattan is inherently energy-efficient, whether or not residents consciously try to conserve, life in the suburbs and beyond is inherently wasteful, no matter what kind of cars the residents park in their garage, or how assidously they swap incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescents. It’s miles traveled, not miles per gallon, that make the difference. A sprawling suburb is a fuel-burning, carbon-belching, waste-producing, water-guzzling, pollution-spewing, toxic-leaking machine, and, unlike a Hummer, it can’t be easily abandoned for something smaller and less destructive. We’ve spent a century erecting our way of life. Now we must reconfigure it.

-Excerpt: Green Metropolis – By: David Owen