Abandoned row houses in Baltimore, one of America’s disposable cities.
By Len Maniace
Americans consume a lot of disposable products that are bad for the environment: plastic shopping bags, cleaning chemicals, flimsy furniture and digital devices that are tossed after a few years.
But perhaps the disposable that has caused the greatest environmental and human loss is America’s disposable cities. Once proud, thriving places of industry and culture, these cities are now hollowed out, largely abandoned by industry, government and retailers – all who could move away.
A few other low-lights on this list:
* Detroit’s population dropped 61 percent to 713,00 in 2010 from 1.8 million in 1950 – the equivalent of San Francisco and Minneapolis disappearing.
* St. Louis lost an even greater share of its population, 63 percent, falling to 319,000 in 2010 from 857,000 in 1950.
* Cleveland was another big loser, declining 57 percent to 397,000 from 915,000 over the same period.
We usually don’t think of less crowded cities as bad for the environment – after all, don’t people make pollution? The fact is, the decline of American cities is environmentally destructive. How so?
First, traditional cities are environmentally sustainable and probably essential if the planet is going to cope with climate change. By their compact nature and proximity of mixed land uses, people use transit or even walk to work, school or to shop.
Detroit’s once-glamorous 4,000-seat Michigan Theater was abandoned and turned into a garage. Photo credit: Sean Doerr/WNET
Secondly, the replacement communities are generally far more damaging to the environment. They are sprawling suburbs, or suburb-like cities that are land and energy hogs.
To create them, these new settlements consumed vast amounts of farms, forests and other open spaces that otherwise would help ameliorate the damaging environmental effects of humans. In their daily operation, these places are too-sparsely populated for energy-efficient transportation or for walking to be a feasible means of transportation. Hence they are dependent on carbon-emitting autos. As a result these sprawling settlements lock us on a course to produce more carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change.
The recent troubles in Baltimore got me thinking about the disposable nature of American cities. It’s a connection between the environment and justice that’s too often overlooked. You don’t need a degree in criminology, to realize that neighborhoods where unemployment reaches 50 percent are going to be troubled communities. Baltimore, too, has hollowed out; its population dropping to 621,000 in 2010, nearly 35 percent fewer than the 950,000 in 1950.
It’s no coincidence that these and many other cities started losing population in the 1950s, despite the postwar baby boom. That’s when the nation began large-scale construction of highways into the countryside and to abandon transit and rail travel. In effect, government policies put a thumb on the economic scale, outweighing cities’ historic advantages as places where creative ideas and industrious people came together to create wealth.
Decaying grain silos in Buffalo, N.Y., a city that’s lost more than half its people. Photo credit: Alicia Whitman
In our economic system, when that competitive advantage is gone and there is no longer a reason to remain in a city, business moves on. The effect is like locusts leaving a stripped-bare field for a new one, or science-fiction space aliens plundering one planet and then moving on to the next. Only in this case, it’s humans who leave behind exhausted cities.
Not all American cities are being abandoned, but they are exceptions. New York City has rebounded and is growing rapidly. One wonders, however, if that growth is sustainable and whether the city will remain a livable place given the slow pace of infrastructure improvements, such as transit, needed to keep pace with that growth.
I shouldn’t give the impression that disposable cities are a phenomena of the Midwest. Many cities in New York and neighboring states are hollowing out:
* Buffalo, home to 270,000 people in 2010, declined 53 percent from 580,000 in 1950.
* Nearby Niagara Falls’ population declined 51 percent to 50,000 from 102,000.
* Rochester, N.Y. numbered 211,000, down 37 percent from 332,00.
* Camden, N.J., had 77,000, down 38 percent from 125,000.
* Newark, N.J., was home to 227,000, a 37 percent decline from 442,000.
Aside from these numbers, too little hope and too much violence, what are these places like? Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders provided one picture in My City Was Gone, a song about her hometown of Akron, Ohio. Its population dropped 35 percent to 199,000 from 290,000.
“I went back to Ohio,
and my city was gone.
There was no train station,
There was no downtown…”
“All my favorite places,
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces…”
“But my pretty countryside,
Had been paved down the middle,
By a government that had no pride…”
“Hey, ho, oh way to go Ohio.”