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A future for the Rust Belt?

I've unearthed three blog posts from brainy people who talk the pros and cons about the economic rationale for using high speed-rail to connect Rust Belt cities, along with larger issues.

This is some of what economist Ryan Avent had to say last March on his blog:

The Rust Belt has plenty of capable cities, but they’re a lot farther apart than the ones in the northeast. They’re also separated from the northeast juggernaut by a big damn mountain range, which slows the movement of goods and people. If you need a low cost alternative to a big northeastern city, it’s just not feasible to look west of the mountains. And if you need a low cost alternative to Chicago, well, most of the big cities are a long way away. New York to Washington is only 200 miles, between which is a lot of stuff. Chicago to Detroit is closer to 300 miles, and there’s a lot less in between, because so much of the Rust Belt urban geography is clustered along the lake shore. In general, the Rust Belt is a much looser and poorer version of the northeast. If you need a high-powered, high-density location for your firm, then you’ll end up in the northeast. If that’s not that important, well, you may as well move somewhere in the Sun Belt.

So what would I do if I were the midwest? First, I’d work hard to concentrate economic activity in dense downtowns. And second, I’d work hard to develop a high-speed transportation network anchored on Chicago and Toronto. The Sun Belt can afford to plan poorly and develop willy-nilly. The southern economy has performed well, housing is dirt cheap, and local governments don’t have a century’s worth of decrepit infrastructure to support. The midwest doesn’t have those advantages. People aren’t going to flood back.

To rejuvenate the Rust Belt economy, then, governments have to find ways to allow their citizens to punch above their weight. That has to mean improved connections within and across Rust Belt cities. Deep, connected pools of human capital fuel the economy of the northeast, and the midwest has to try to marshal and mobilize its resources by moving them closer together.

Richard Florida, a Tor-Buff-chester advocate and professor at University of Toronto, followed up with this post in which he said:

I sure wish policy-makers were listening because Avent’s nailed it. Stop tearing out downtown neighborhoods to put up corporate towers, or faux malls or gigantic stadium-convention center complexes. Increase density, improve neighborhoods, focus on internal and external connections. Amen! And I’d add: attract immigrants, retain college students, and become more open-minded.

Interesting thing is the great Chi-Pitts mega (46 million people, $1.6 trillion is not a whole lot smaller than Bos-Wash  (54 million people, $2.2 trillion in economic activity).  They’re the second and third largest mega-regions in the world. Tor-Buff-Chester (22 million people, $350 billion in economic activity) is no slouch either.

Not everyone agreed, however, including this Souther Cal professor:

His basic argument is that all it would take is high-speed intercity transport and revitalized downtowns to do this job. I am skeptical...

I have always rather liked cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Duluth. I think Pittsburgh is absolutely lovely (you read that right) and is a terrific university town.

But these places (along with Detroit, Buffalo, Syracuse, etc.) have a history of concentrated manufacturing employment, which in turn created labor markets where workers had few incentives to become well educated ...

All these places are, moreover, cold. Two of the most important predictors of population growth since World War II have been education levels of the population, and climate.

Who is right? I'm not sure, although I think climate change gives cities on the Great Lakes an important  asset to work with. High-speed rail, if done right, could be part of the mix, as well. But certainly, a lot more would have to fall into place.


Economic Development
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