New Visions for Metropolitan America, by Anthony Downs, Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 256 pages, $22.95
For five decades now Americans have been deserting cities for suburbs -- in some places, such as Detroit or St. Louis, in massive waves; in others, such as New York, in a steady trickle. Ever since the trend became so pronounced that it could no longer be ignored, the opinion elite has declared that our cities are in the throes of an "urban crisis," and demanded that the federal government do something about it.
Whether it really amounts to a crisis or not, the rapid pace at which homes, shops, factories, and offices have settled outside the established historic boundaries of cities in that limitless urban penumbra loosely categorized as "the suburbs" has created serious problems on both sides of the city-suburban frontier. The newly settled suburbs have had to confront the monetary costs of new schools, new roads, and new utilities, and the psychic costs of idyllic rural landscapes giving way to urbanization and congestion. And the cities have had to cope with the consequences of being left with an increasingly unappealing demographic and economic hand as their most prosperous citizens and most successful businesses decamp for the suburbs.
As the dust settles after 50 years of suburban exodus, not only has the cities' share of metropolitan populations fallen by more than 40 percent, but the profile of their remaining residents is disproportionately old, sick, poor, deviant, and criminal. Making things worse, the cities have had to bear a large share of the monetary and quality-of-life costs of caring for their difficult and dependent populations even as the flight of high-income residents and businesses has eroded their fiscal and human resources. As a result, all the major fault lines of American society -- rich and poor, white and black, conservative and liberal, native born and foreign -- now run along that invisible but critical boundary that separates U.S. cities from their suburbs.
This story of central-city decline and suburban growth is by now a tediously familiar staple of popular perception and scholarly research, amended only by perennial stories of central- city "rebirth" ascribed to various cities when they elect new reformist mayors, are awarded large federal grants for redevelopment, are selected as sites for corporate relocations, or open new airports.
The never-ending urban debate between the political and professional left and right revolves around two issues. First, should we care? Is the decentralization and diffusion of the American metropolis a bad thing, or merely a late 20th-century form of urbanization as natural as the more concentrated variety spawned in the 19th?
The second issue is: If we care, what should be done about it? Should we strive to put the suburban genie back into the metropolitan bottle? Or should we just compensate the cities for their demographic and economic misfortunes? Or should we do both?
Dozens of books, hundreds of magazine and journal articles, and thousands of government and academic reports have been devoted to this debate, yet no consensus has emerged. (I entered this fray with an article in The Public Interest last fall, "Cities, Suburbs and the Urban Crisis.") We now have a new overview, New Visions for Metropolitan America, by the highly regarded Brookings Institution scholar Anthony Downs.
Downs's book very compactly -- but also comprehensively and cogently -- encapsulates one side of the urban policy debate: the side that has maintained all along that the decentralization of U.S. metropolitan areas has been a bad thing and that it is high time for us to reverse the process and its consequences with vigorous government action. Downs mounts a concerted attack on five essential aspects of the modern American metropolitan paradigm: the endless suburban sprawl of low-density residential development; near- total dependence on the automobile for metropolitan travel; workplaces set in increasingly remote locations; delegation of suburban governments' fiscal and regulatory functions to small, parochial municipal jurisdictions; and the growing segregation of the well-to-do from the poor, and whites from minorities.
Why are those things bad? Downs offers two sets of reasons. The first, expressed in denatured economic terms, revolves around the inherent inefficiency of such arrangements. Low-density development is inefficient in its wasteful use of land. Dependence on the automobile and the long trips made necessary by urban sprawl are inefficient because of the large amount of energy and other resources consumed in travel. And the congestion resulting from the intersection of low-density development and auto dependence is inefficient in its colossal waste of time.
But Downs quickly directs us to the real reason he objects to the modern American urban situation: inequity. In this, he follows in the well-worn grooves of liberal complaints past by lamenting the isolation of poor minority residents in crumbling central-city ghettoes. Such people, argues Downs, are inadequately schooled, badly housed, shut out of jobs by geography and lack of skills and locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of economic and social dysfunction. Downs also laments the fiscal and functional degradation of central-city governments, their limited resources exhausted by futile efforts to serve the urban underclass and unavailable to meet their other residents' more quotidian needs.
Emphasizing the inequity of those arrangements, Downs asserts that they are driven by the preference of most well-to-do metropolitan residents for living in tranquil enclaves of social and racial homogeneity, and their refusal to bear their fair share of community social or infrastructure costs.
Downs goes beyond the traditional liberal lament in offering us what he refers to as "alternate visions" to remedy this metropolitan malaise. Some of his visions are indeed new; others are pulled off the well-stocked shelf of government programs dating back to the Great Society, if not earlier. His visions are arranged in five clusters, each cluster corresponding to one of his generic complaints. Displaying an inordinate fondness for typologies, in the latter part of his book Downs offers the reader a bewildering hierarchical array of policy options and proposals unfolding from his fundamental premises. What it all boils down to, however, is an assault on the basic American metropolitan paradigm.
To reverse suburban sprawl, he would invoke state regulatory powers to increase residential density and set an outer urban growth boundary. Workplace dispersal would be reversed by a mix of regulations and subsidies. While Downs disparages the efficacy of any schemes to get Americans out of their cars, he does suggest government-orchestrated carrots and sticks to make them use their cars more efficiently, through ride-sharing, for example. To counter beggar-thy-neighbor suburban municipal parochialism, Downs would vest development regulations and other relevant local powers in state and regional agencies. And to reverse the effects of race and class segregation he would scatter low-cost housing subsidies throughout his now more densely settled and regionally regulated suburban domain.
I share Downs's conviction that, in many respects, the spatial dynamics of American metropolitan areas are unwholesome, and that they are responsible for the decline of American cities. Furthermore, looking at the underlying structure of metropolitan America is preferable to demanding fiscal handouts to cities that would subsidize and entrench their disadvantaged status. Sending federal or state funds to cities has been the only operative urban policy from day one of the "urban crisis" and continues today in the form of the Clinton administration's empowerment zones. Given the futility and bankruptcy of the compensatory strategy, Downs's approach is refreshing.