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Minnesota’s Myron Orfield Builds Downtown to Cure Sprawl

State lawmaker answers a pressing American problem

April 11, 2001 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Except for the squat fifties and sixties architecture, the blue-collar communities north of Minneapolis look like the inner city: Check-cashing outlets, day labor agencies, wig shops, pool halls, a social service agency housed in an old Seven-Eleven convenience store. In the suburb of Hilltop the city hall sits in the middle of a trailer park.

Minnesota state Senator Myron Orfield, who has studied these communities closely, also keeps tabs on the toney southwestern suburbs of Minneapolis, such as Eden Prairie. Here you can see rolling farmland being dug up for a new Blockbuster video store, a new Outback Steakhouse, new glitzy office parks for firms with quintessentially contemporary names like Veratech or Pagenet, and new subdivisions of half-million-dollar homes. The air is full of the smell of fresh asphalt and the sound of pile drivers. “I get sad out here,” Sen. Orfield says. “The landscape is being destroyed and money is being sucked out of the city.”

Mr. Orfield, 39, a native of Minneapolis, which he now represents in the state Legislature, has launched an ambitious political initiative to slow suburban sprawl and the accompanying flow of wealth from older neighborhoods into booming new communities on the fringes of the Twin Cities metropolitan area in Minnesota. He sees central cities and blue-collar suburbs as allies in an emerging political coalition to revitalize low and middle-income communities — not just in Minneapolis-St. Paul but across the country. His incisive thinking on the economic and social links between cities and suburbs, and his tireless roaming of the country to talk about them, have helped Mr. Orfield emerge as one of the nation’s most influential Smart Growth leaders.

Working with a growing national movement of social justice activists, environmentalists, and municipal officials — both urban and suburban — Mr. Orfield promotes the idea that problems like poverty, affordable housing, and inner city decline are best solved on a regional basis. Mr. Orfield’s views are energizing community leaders in Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, and Seattle, where urban and older suburban communities are joining in increasingly influential coalitions to address housing, transportation, land use, and environmental issues.

All metropolitan regions function as unified economic units. Still, many of the advantages enjoyed by new, upscale suburbs come at the expense of inner city neighborhoods and older suburbs. Communities on the outer rings of a metropolitan area that are flourishing can offer lower taxes, better public services, and shelter from crime and other social problems. This draws businesses and middle-class families away from cities and inner-ring suburbs, setting off a spiral of economic disinvestment and decline. This is the familiar story of urban decline that has ravaged cities across America since World War II.

But with Mr. Orfield’s help, cities are identifying two new dimensions of the problem. First, many older suburbs are now joining cities as the big losers in this game. From New Rochelle (once famous as Rob and Laura Petrie’s suburban New York home on The Dick Van Dyke Show but now heavily poor and Latino) to Compton (the Los Angeles suburb immortalized by gangsta rap pioneers NWA in their album Straight Outta Compton), it’s clear that urban decline can no longer be confined within the boundaries of central cities.

And upscale suburbs on the edge of metropolitan areas thrive in large part because they receive the lion’s share of public investment in new roads and sewers, which are paid for by everyone in the region.

Mr. Orfield found similar trends in studies he’s conducted in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Essentially,” Mr. Orfield says, “people in central cities and inner suburbs are subsidizing their own decline.”

His solution is based on four ideas that have already been shown to work around the country:

  • Setting an urban growth boundary beyond which new development cannot sprawl.
  • Creating a regional government elected by voters.
  • Establishing “fair share” housing policies that ensure all municipalities provide some affordable housing.
  • Sharing local tax revenues between wealthier and poorer municipalities.

Mr. Orfield incorporated the four elements of this regionalist revitalization agenda into a series of bills introduced in the Minnesota Legislature. While not successful in enacting the program as a whole, he’s seen significant success with new policies on affordable housing, sewer construction, transit, and redevelopment money for contaminated “brownfields” in cities.

Our present patterns of regional development benefit a fortunate few while at the same time degrading the natural environment, aggravating conditions for poor people, and setting the stage for decline in many middle-class communities. The regional revitalization movement directly challenges these trends with a simple set of ideas — and the promise of a formidable new political coalition — that offers help and hope for a majority of people.

Jay Walljasper is editor of Utne Reader, and writes regularly on urban issues for numerous national publications. He is reachable at walljasper@utne.com

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