By Jas Singh
From Sao Paulo to Lagos, the increasing globalization of the market economy in the 21st century has catalyzed existing rural-to-urban population migration trends. With an estimated forecast of three-quarters of the world’s population living in cities by 2050, this demographic pattern will become more and more prevalent. By contrast, legacy cities of the American Rust Belt are suffering the effects of urban decay as a result of a shrinking industrial sector and declining populations.
In both cases, there are potentially crucial lessons to be gleaned about the social, economic, and political consequences of such dramatic population shifts. To this end, in partnership with the Van Alen Institute, the World Policy Institute hosted “Influx and Exodus: Two Conversations on Urban Density.” In back-to-back panel discussions, the central concern was how city infrastructure and policy can be designed to keep pace with the demographic shifts that accompany rapid economic growth and decline.
Greg Lindsay, a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and a director of its Emergent Cities Project, moderated both discussions. The first part “Exodus,” featured Alan Mallach, senior fellow at Center for Community Progress; Nadine Maleh, a director at Inspiring Places; and Nick Hamilton, a project manager at the American Assembly and head of the Legacy Cities Partnership. The panelists discussed the best methods for repurposing aging infrastructure and adapting the delivery of fundamental services to the residents living in legacy cities.
Mallach began by focusing on urban planning strategies to tackle the inherent problem of the physical environment that all ailing cities face: a surplus of buildings and ground relative to demand. The simplest and most cost-effective of these was instituted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society through the Land Care Program, which resolved the problem of empty lots becoming dumping grounds by planting grass and trees and installing a simple split rail fence. On the other end of the spectrum, in a far more sophisticated approach, Baltimore used a triage strategy to identify the areas of the city that would generate the greatest social and economic benefits from demolition, housing rehabilitation, and real estate development.
Maleh then discussed the importance of a decentralized approach to real estate design in case studies of Brownsville, NY and Northeast Hartford, Connecticut. Both of these communities can be described as “urban-rural,” as they are urban in fabric but rural in their disconnection from city centers and city resources. Maleh stressed that it is critical to activate resident engagement in the cities’ revitalization efforts as the residents’ needs have evolved considerably over the lifetime of the cities.
Despite their fiscal downturns, Hamilton stressed legacy cities should be viewed as assets given that the aggregate of fifty legacy cities in the United States have a metropolitan economy of $2.6 trillion—larger than that of France. However, given the cities’ limited resources in unlocking their own economic potential, it is important that investments be carefully targeted and clustered to generate the greatest return. Further, multiple actors need to be involved in this effort, from metropolitan areas to the federal government.
In the second part of the discussion, “Influx,” a new panel featured Janice Perlman, founder and president of the Megacities Project and Rachel Peric, deputy director of Welcoming America. The panelists addressed the policies that cities should adopt to adapt to the needs of burgeoning populations.
Perlman emphasized that the consumption and production power of the people living in the world’s informal settlements, whether in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, should not be written off. While currently one billion people live in such settlements without access to urban and social services, this number is projected to increase three-fold by 2050, when one in three people on the planet will be living in settlements unregulated by governments. The magnitude of the social impact of this fact cannot be understated, since 1.4 million people across the world, but especially in the global south, immigrate from rural to urban settings every week.
She further argues that existing programs to address the needs of the informal sector are fraught with problems, because they are not sufficiently localized. Place-based solutions, including 18 national programs, sponsored by the World Bank and UN Habitat, aim to upgrade urban infrastructure without any input from residents and with no mention of social or human services. Frequently, these programs fall behind schedule, exceed budget capacity, and are eventually replaced entirely by bulldozing people’s homes and moving them to public housing, where conditions are usually far worse. Poverty-based solutions, such as conditional cash transfers sponsored by the governments of Mexico and Brazil, are not balanced with purchasing power parity and therefore provide only marginal benefit to urban populations.
In 1988, Perlman founded the Mega-cities Project to advocate an alternative approach to urban reform, one that is youth-led and makes cities youth-participatory. This approach favors scalable, replicable grassroots programming that is supportive of community-based knowledge and expertise. Communities are allowed to decide for themselves what urban reform should mean.
Peric capped the discussion on the domestic front with a focus on how U.S. cities can make themselves more open, inclusive, and welcoming to immigrants in order to revitalize their economies. Citing the example of Nashville, Tennessee, Peric argued that in order to foster a climate of inclusion, cities should implement programming that not only helps new immigrants adapt to new communities but also helps communities adapt to new immigrants. To this end, engagement with local leaders is critical for communities to understand that accepting an influx of immigrants is not only morally imperative but also economically pragmatic.
Jas Singh is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.