Sunday, November 13, 2011

Is This What Happened to Cities?

Back in August in did a post on the historical populations of cities in Massachusetts. The data showed that after World War II, cities in the Commonwealth faced heavy declines in population as people moved to the new automobile suburbs. Last December I had done a few posts on the future - and past - of the "Gateway Cities" in the state. That is, Massachusetts' traditional manufacturing cities that still take in a large proportion of our immigrant population. The articles linked, in addition to discussing the effects of the automobile, also talked about public policy that has hurt our cities.

Tonight, I was reading up on Alaska as I have a friend who might be moving there soon. Anchorage contains 40% of the population of the state, which is the second most-concentrated population in America. What is number one? New York City. 42% of the people in New York State live in New York City. At one point, this number was over 50%! For comparison, Boston has never contained over 20% of Bay Staters, and today, contains under 10%.

In a democracy, and one where governments allocate funds and other resources based on what will get them the most votes, there must be political consequences to figures like these. It would stand that only in a state with a large urban population, are urban issues foremost in people's minds, and governments. While even New York City, (population eight million), had a few bad decades, losing the equivalent of the populations of eight Lowells just between 1970 and 1980 for example, its continued success stands in stark contrast to basically every other city in the Empire State and certainly against many cities in our state. There have been discussions for many, many years of splitting New York into two states for this reason. When 40% of your citizens care largely about what happens in one tiny area, how would you allocate resources? Add in the NYC commuter suburbs, and if I lived in very much struggling Buffalo, I'd feel I wasn't being heard, too.

How bad is the situation in Massachusetts? I made this graph off of the populations of all the cities in my August post, and took them as a percentage of the population of the entire state at the time. While this is clearly not *every* urban area in the state, and contains a few suburban areas that happen to be in incorporated cities as well, I would guess a more carefully constructed graph would look similar:

Click for a larger version
As you can see, from the first U.S. Government census up until 1890, urban population grew rapidly, especially as the Industrial Revolution got underway. I would guess streetcars were responsible for the modest drop from 1890 to 1930. The sharp decline really begins in 1950, and the automobile and related policies can be blamed there. Note the drop accelerated again in the past 10 years. Is this a sign of the current (horribly burst) housing bubble?

It gets worse: there is certainly a chicken-and-the-egg question about if people fled cities because suburbs were intrinsically much more attractive, or if broad policies and subsequent financial and communal disinvestment made cities bad enough to make suburbs more attractive. Either way, it's certainly a feedback loop at this point and has been for a long time.

Combine the snob-zoning regulations in many home-rule Massachusetts suburbs (that still like to think they're quaint, rural, New England towns) with the low education levels and financial resources our policies have concentrated in our urban municipalities, and the 25% of potential urban votes we still carry are worth even less than their gross numbers would imply. Don't forget: poorer, less educated people tend to vote less and contribute less to campaigns as well.

The end result is policies that continue to reinforce the patterns we've been seeing for the past 50+ years. In a period of energy uncertainty, an aging population, shrinking family sizes, growing financial disparities, etc, etc, etc, are we wise to continue to turn our backs on sustainable, denser, more integrated, lower-energy communities? Are our politicians failing to support cities because that's what is best for everyone in the long term and what people truly want, or ... is it all about a vicious cycle of votes and money?

This is clearly a very non-scientific post, but something to think about...

1 comment:

  1. While its certainly a complicated issue, one counter-argument is the political power in the Commonwealth is still very much Boston-centric. Most Massachusetts House Speakers and Senate Presidents (with Murray being an obvious exeption) in recent history have been from the immediate Boston metro area. You could also argue that the way congressional districts are drawn tend to maximize the congressmen within a small radius around Boston, although the redistricting has certainly impacted that.

    Also the way Massachusetts defines municipal entities is very different from the rest of the country as the entire state is subdivided into local cities or towns. Boston as a municipality only has 600,000 people but the surrounding cities have similar urban interests, and a large percentage of the state population still lives in cities although I'm sure the trend is going in the direction you indicated.

    On the flip side, As I understand it, the New York State Constitution is very undemocratic and political power for the five buroughs is disporportionately small and the power for the low population upstate areas is disporportionately big.

    However, while numbers are always flawed, and state to state comparisons tricky, I think you nailed it on the head from a national trend, the suburbanization of America has had a huge impact on the policy priorities. You also have issues on the national level with the Senate being obviously undemocratic in terms of populations served and the House being a lot less democratic than you think when you realize its a lot easier to gerrymander in favor of suburban districts than it is for cities.