By Len Maniace
Americans consume a lot of disposable products that are bad for the environment: plastic shopping bags, cheap clothing, flimsy furniture and digital devices that are tossed after a few years.
But perhaps the disposable that causes greatest environmental and human loss is America’s disposable cities. These cities were once proud, thriving places of industry and culture. Now they are hollowed out, largely abandoned by industry, government, jobs – and anyone who could move away.
A few of the 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 an additional quarter million people 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 for American cities is environmentally destructive. Well-designed, livable cities are environmentally sustainable and probably essential if the planet is going to cope with climate change. How so?
First, these cities’ near abandonment was a waste of the energy, materials and tax dollars that went into building them. That effort was then duplicated by the construction of new homes, offices, school systems and sewage treatment systems elsewhere.
Secondly, these replacement communities are, in important ways, far more damaging to the environment than the original cities. They were mostly suburbs, or suburb-like cities that are land and energy hogs.
They consumed vast amounts of farms, forests and other open spaces to create settlements too-sparsely populated for energy-efficient transit or even walking to be a feasible way to get to work, school or shopping. All that extra energy consumption, for routine travel and for heating and cooling these sprawling settlements, means we’re on locked 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. One can blame a few protestors, the police, or city officials for what’s happened there. You don’t need a degree in criminology, however, to know that neighborhoods where unemployment reaches 50 percent are places where some people will do desperate things. Baltimore, too, has hollowed out; its population dropped 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 historic baby boom. That’s when the nation began to rapidly build highways into the countryside and to abandon transit and rail travel. In effect, government policies put a thumb on the economic scale, outweighing the historic advantage of cities as places where creative ideas and industrious people came together to create wealth.
In our economic system, when that competitive advantage is gone and there is no longer a reason to be in a city, business moves on. The effect is like locusts leaving a stripped-bare field for a new one, or space aliens in a science-fiction tale plundering the resources of one planet and moving on to another. Only in this case, it’s humans who leave behind these 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 subways, 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 numbered 211,000, down 37 percent from 332,00.
* Camden, N.J., had 44,000, 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…”
“But my pretty countryside,
Had been paved down the middle,
By a government that had no pride”
Way to go Ohio. At least we have the song’s killer bass line.