Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Predicting 2020 in Upstate New York

Counting coffins, connecting to Toronto, awaiting Washington’s sanity

It’s time we became a suburb of Toronto. That’s the best advice I can give after reading a sobering study of population trends in all of America’s counties and Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). We have the option to follow the advice of Richard Florida, who became famous with his book on the “creative class,” and who recently moved from shrinking Pittsburgh to growing Toronto. Richard Florida sees the binational region encompassing Toronto, Buffalo, and Rochester as a potential world powerhouse.

The trends suggest we’d better start imagining ourselves differently because the future of economic and population growth in America will be in the Sunbelt. Our frosty homeland is going to keep shedding people. As we think about how to govern our metro areas up here on the North Coast and throughout the homeland of Rudolph, Frosty, and the Windigo, top national real estate experts have put forth evidence that the most important determinants of economic growth are sunshine, nice weather, and the absence of cold temperatures.

A sobering 2006 study, which never got much air time, comes from two University of Pennsylvania professors. Peter Linneman and Albert Saiz wrote a piece called “Forecasting 2020 U.S. County and MSA Populations” for the Wharton School of Business newsletter (, in which their conclusion was pretty straightforward: “Our results reveal that prospective real estate developers had better buy a good pair of sunglasses and some sunblock.”

Their report is a slap upside the head for Upstate New Yorkers.

Using a forecasting model that includes variables like weather, density, public amenities, local and state taxes, and the current supplies of educated, uneducated, old, young, and baby-making folks, they predicted that by 2020, most of Upstate New York will be a whole lot emptier than today.

The immediate environs of Syracuse University will shrink just a little, buoyed by the presence of Orange grads and a still-functional downtown, but the Syracuse metro area is going to shrink by 50 percent. The model predicts that counties between Albany and Syracuse—places like Schoharie, Herkimer, and Cayuga—will shrink by as much as 70 percent.

Population in the rural counties around here—Orleans, Genesee, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Allegheny, Wyoming—are also going to fall off a cliff in the next dozen years.

Of all the Upstate metro areas, only Rochester will greet 2020 with a very, very slightly larger population and a generally healthier economy—except that a brand-new study by Alan Berube at Brookings Institution ( shows that since the election of George Bush in 2000, Rochester’s rate of concentrated poverty has grown even faster than Buffalo’s.

The City of Light mentality

So why don’t federal and state politicians heed the economists at the Wharton School—and everybody else with two eyes to see and a brain to think—when they warn that investment in urban density, housing rehab, arts, parks, public transport, and quality education are basic requirements for maintaining any measure of economic success?

Who are the dopes who keep pumping our tax dollars into rural and exurban roads for more and more subdivisions at the expense of both cities and farms?

The real estate experts at the Wharton School are only the latest to predict that the Buffalo-Niagara region will shrink by over 60,000 people in the next 10 or 12 years. So why is the region still sprawling? Why are there new subdivisions in Wheatfield, Newstead, Eden, North Collins, and other former farm towns?

Stacks and stacks of evidence have proliferated in recent years, with study after study showing that sprawl kills metro economies—so why do New York State and federal politicians ignore all these studies and keep doing the same damned thing?

The answer, according to some, is that Buffalo (like other once important cities) is still stuck in the City of Light mentality.

Back in 1901, before President McKinley came to Buffalo to meet his fate, places like Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and St. Louis mattered. They were big, burgeoning, regional metropolises that vied with one another for prestige and political clout in Washington. All the great institutions that we associate with our Euro-centric cultural roots—museums and galleries, libraries and symphonies, parkways and mansions—were founded in the days before World War I.

And now, every one of those cities—each one of them still governed separately from their suburban towns—is on the skids. The only Frost Belt cities that are governed regionally (Omaha, Indianapolis) are growing regionally. A couple of compact cities where downtown contains the universities and all the other City of Light-era stuff (Rochester, Pittsburgh) will weather the next decade better, even while their metro areas lose hundreds of thousands of bodies to the Sunbelt.

Buffalo is still trying to go it alone—as are St. Louis and Cleveland and so many other failing urban hubs—in the new metropolitan age. Its leadership is still gripped by angry nostalgia for the City of Light.

A path to hope: setting density as a criterion for aid

In my recent conversations with many members of the policy-analysis elite of Washington, DC, there is an overwhelming consensus that metropolitan-wide thinking has to drive decisions about dollars for transportation, housing, sewer and water infrastructure, and public welfare. Education thinking is still in the “little boxes” stage—probably because everybody is still trapped in the paradigm set by the great (and greatly destructive) Supreme Court decisions of the 1970s, in which the “little boxes” of city school districts and suburban school districts were reinforced. When the Supreme Court said that there was no legal way to force desegregation across old municipal boundaries, white flight from City of Light cities took off all across America.

But the smartest folks in Washington are still groping for a path to hope. How, they ask, can the Obama administration—or the McCain administration—change the way Metropolitan communities act and think?

We could have a Supreme Court deal with desegregation again, I suppose, were we to be so fortunate as to have justices who understood that City of Light boundaries drawn up in 1850 have long since been superseded by metropolitan or regional economic realities. But awaiting jurisprudence is a dumb idea when presidential leadership could do the trick within two budget years of today.

Somehow, I believe, the answer lies in what I’ll call a density mandate. Or a watershed mandate.

If our state governors are too reluctant to challenge the tyranny of home rule, which lets little towns and old cities each do their planning all alone, then the next president should change the rules on handing out federal money for all those road, housing, sewer, and water projects that the federal government funds.

All the water and sewer projects can be made regional in nature if the federal government mandates that everything has to be done on a watershed-wide basis.

And all the transportation projects that the federal government funds can be ranked according to population density: the densely settled areas get federal funds, and the sparsely settled areas (unless they are true agricultural districts) don’t.

Both Obama and McCain say there isn’t enough money, because Bush spent it all on the damned Iraq war. So I say, okay—make the criteria for getting a nickel tougher than ever before. Bypass the pork process. Bypass the old appropriations process. Change the rules so that nobody back home gets a taste unless the money goes to increased efficiency.

Strangely enough, the regional planning that we see coming out of the Province of Ontario for that area between the Niagara River and the Space Needle mandates density and region-wide analysis.

Becoming a suburb of Toronto means shedding our City of Light mentality, and asking our American leaders to understand the practicality, and the simplicity, of using population density as the criterion for handing out money.

In our case, given the grim picture of 2020, we’d better use what density we have, before we lose it.

Bruce Fisher is founder and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College.

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