The Midwest City: Sprawl is killing it

Utter the term “Rust Belt” and visions of a struggling Midwest and Great Lakes region comes to mind. The region’s many midsize cities are in an especially precarious place. Once part of the vast network of industrial cities, they lost out during the period of deindustrialization and were left on their own to find new means of economy. Some places are thriving like Grand Rapids while others like Madison or Ann Arbor survive because of ideal socio-economic and geographic circumstances in their favors. In many places though, like Lansing-East Lansing or South Bend the struggle is more pronounced. Ideas and solutions to these cities’ woes have been thrown around and although many aren’t without merit, none have traction, because a serious discussion to tackling the sprawl is consistently left out of the bigger discussions.

Visit South Bend or Lansing-East Lansing and one of the most apparent things about these places is the lack of people. While both towns host major universities and have other helpful socio-economic or geographic characteristics one that is noticeably missing from these cities is dense vibrant communities. Sprawl isn’t the culprit behind the decline of these cities. Lack of investment, serious industrial loses, and competition with the booming South and West all played into their decline. However, sprawl is a planning technique that has perpetuated the decline of these cities and prevented their long-term sustainability. For many places their heydays are long gone and won’t be coming back, but that isn’t to say they shouldn’t maintain certain levels of economic and social vivacity.

I think it goes without saying that sprawl is certainly affecting midsize Midwestern cities. Sprawl became so widespread in the second half of the 20th century few places in the United States escaped it. As people fled cities of all sizes so did businesses and with the rise of malls and office parks we created a whole new kind of sprawl. Just take a look at these graphics of sprawl and population growth in Buffalo and Cleveland:

Growth of metropolitan Buffalo. The population has remained relatively the same since 1950.

Growth of metropolitan Buffalo. The population has remained relatively the same since 1950.

Urban growth in metropolitan Cleveland. Although there has been population growth since the late 1940s, it has been small and as seen in the graph below stagnated after a high in the 1970s and is beginning to fall. Despite this the region is easily three times the size it was 60 plus years ago.

Urban growth in metropolitan Cleveland. Although there has been population growth since the late 1940s, it has been small and as seen in the graph below stagnated after a high in the 1970s and is beginning to fall. Despite this the region is easily three times the size it was 60 plus years ago.

Cleveland Metro Population Change

In an article by Chuck Banas on Urbanophile it is clarified how sprawl is a costly development model. It not only creates environmentally unsustainable environments, but also socially and economically unsustainable cities. It decreases overall metropolitan density and makes it ever more difficult to develop other programs to encourage economic growth or help sustain economy already existent.

Streetcars and rail systems, and BRT; tapping the resources and benefits of universities; developing strong commercial centers and people oriented communities all require a relatively high population density and interconnected communities or non-car centric planning. Sprawl works against all this. It also makes financing such projects more difficult. It costs municipalities a lot of money. When you have to pay for huge amounts of infrastructure for relatively few people there is simply less money in municipal coffers to built new parks, provide grants to local businesses, or improve transit.

Sprawl exists all across the country and although places like Houston or Atlanta may be more well known for their sprawl (and the issue needs to be tackled there too and this is certainly an argument against sprawl in general) the tenuous state of the midsized cities in the Midwest demands sprawl move to the top of the list of issues needing resolution here. If a system of urban development that encourages sprawl and car-centric models of living persists in the Midwest it may become increasingly difficult to provide the incentives that drive economic growth and attract new residents—or perhaps even former residents who moved to ‘greener pastures’.

Like cities all across the country, Midwestern cities are beginning to tackle sprawl in different ways. Minneapolis-St. Paul is rapidly expanding urban transit system, Chicago recently adopted a Transit Oriented Development ordinance (TOD), and Madison, WI is consistently ranked one of the more bike-friendly cities in the US. These are exceptions though. Chicago has a competitive edge because of its global status, Minneapolis-St. Paul are incredibly livable and progressive, and Madison is also a progressive city with a strong economic base in the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the state government.

Take South Bend for example. As of now, the city’s population density is about 2,440 people per square mile. The city’s population is just over 100,000 residents. Close to the downtown and south of the city center there is tons of room for growth and infill development. Even in the neighborhoods, the low-density housing spreads people across the landscape increasing distances to commercial areas and transit. A population increase of 25,000 people would put the population density at 3,000 per square mile, which is similar to Madison. At its peak, the city had a population over 130,000 people and a population density of only about 3,500 people per square mile.

Increased densities in cities like South Bend could be the small impetus that makes investing in activities or projects meant to increase economic vitality reasonable. In a recent article I wrote about reclaiming our passenger rail stations as an important part of reinventing the American passenger rail system I used South Bend as an example. The station could potentially serve a dozen (or many more) trains a day to Chicago and the East Coast. Now though the station is in relatively barren landscape. Although its only a ten minute walk from the center of Downtown South Bend to empty and dead neighborhood that surrounds it would make for an unbearable walk. Density around the station would help it thrive and hopefully give more reason to reinvest in it and by extension South Bend.

Additionally, it would add to the city’s tax base, helping support the costs of new development projects. In older cities in the Midwest, another plus is the fact that increasing density in the cities requires little new infrastructure, because it already exists. On so many levels, density in cities and tackling sprawl in the suburbs is a tool that could help Midwest cities, especially midsized ones, tackle their economic problems. Not only does it help sustain alternative transportation, but local businesses, municipal finances, and prevents the loss of green fields around smaller cities (a quality that can be very attractive to many people looking for an urban life closer to the country).

I don’t foresee places like South Bend increasing density based on people moving in. Population distribution will have to be controlled in the Midwest to achieve urban densities that are more sustainable in midsized cities. This will require a huge effort on the part of state and municipal governments to recognize the importance of controlling sprawl and increasing even slightly the density. This will not only save communities money that is now swindled on expanding and maintaining excessively large infrastructure, it will help to sustain other projects that increase economy, support environmentally sustainable living, and support socially mixed communities.

In the same manner that states in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada banded together to work on improving the ecology and health of the lakes, the states of the American Midwest should band together to create programs and incentives that decrease sprawl. Expecting this to just happen because of the goodwill of governments would be insane. For this to successfully happen there needs to be increased cooperation in the Midwest and less competition. The culture wars between suburb and city need to be resolved. This could include matching programs to reward communities saving money by not developing new sprawl infrastructure. Perhaps even a sister cities program could be established connected smaller cities with each other as well as smaller cities with larger cities. Communication and understanding that we have a common interest in regional health is significant.

The health of the American city, but especially the tenuous existence of midsized cities in the Midwest, is continent tackling sprawl. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the easy solution is a streetcar or famer’s market. But that relationship between such projects and density isn’t a fable. It wouldn’t be prudent to risk developing programs and projects for urban development if the density doesn’t’ exist to support them yet. We’ll just be chasing our tails trying to force projects for economic development in areas that aren’t fit for them if sprawl just keeps going unabated. The other tools will follow. Tackling sprawl and creating a system of smart and sustainable population distribution is the most valuable tool we have in reinvigorating midsized cities in the Midwest, make them viable, and hopefully someday be able to built killer streetcar systems in them.