Aaron Renn

Aaron M. Renn is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. He is also a Contributing Editor at its magazine City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine.

When we think about the Rust Belt, we usually picture the Midwest, but all major U.S. cities were once much more industrial, and all went through various steps of clean up and revitalization. What caused some cities to be defined as Rust Belt, while others seemed to transform earlier and more successfully, perhaps avoiding that label?

I would argue Chicago and New York didn’t avoid the Rust Belt moniker. They experienced the same industrial decline as any other city. As recently as 1967 there were over a half-million industrial jobs in Manhattan. The manufacturing base of New York City was eviscerated. There’s been a tremendous loss of the industrial base, and the same was true in Chicago. New York City developed a post-industrial economy based on high-end global services and entertainment. They never replaced the job base that employed the blue collar or middle class. Deindustrialization had profound consequences for New York and Chicago. The difference between these two cities and Cleveland is that they started with economies that were far larger than Cleveland’s.

To what extent did the cities of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Toledo draw on existing assets, such as hospitals, universities, and corporations, in their revitalizations? What lessons can Chinese city leaders draw from these experiences?

If you look at these three cities, as well as at New York City and Chicago: to the extent that they revived themselves, it’s with legacy assets built with the industrial wealth of the 1800s, that had value that carried forward. Pittsburgh has the University of Pittsburgh (U Pitt), with its huge medical center, and it has Carnegie-Mellon University with its computer sciences and robotics centers. Pittsburgh has lavishly endowed cultural centers. The city today has unique expertise around technology that makes it a magnet for talent and business. Similarly, Cleveland’s revitalization is largely around the story of the Cleveland Clinic. While every large city in the U.S. has a big hospital complex, most only serve a small regional market. The Cleveland Clinic is one of the rare medical centers that serves a global market. People from the Middle East fly in to receive services—the Cleveland area is effectively exporting medical service.

In contrast, Toledo is representative of what I call “sub-scale” cities. These are metro regions of less than 1 million populations that have fewer legacy institutions (such as universities or cultural centers), fewer corporate HQs, small airports, few environmental or architectural amenities, and a smaller educated workforce. Starting in the 1970s, larger cities over 1 million had enough scale to be globally relevant. That’s not the case in Toledo or Youngstown or Dayton: they are too small. A smaller city like Des Moines can thrive to some extent because it’s the state capital and largest city in a state. In Ohio, Toledo is the fifth largest city in the state, and therefore the other magnets like Cleveland and nearby Pittsburgh hoover up the good stuff out of Ohio and leave places like Toledo behind.

How important is the environment to a de-industrializing city’s economic recovery?

Over a century ago, Pittsburgh and Chicago preserved their lakefronts as open space. So much of what they did made the cities very pleasant places to live. Today, Pittsburgh has a magnificent built environment, analogous to New York City’s Soho or Greenwich Village. Its core is very dense, dominated by low-rise structures, in a great natural setting. The central city itself is quite small geographically. By contrast, Chicago is so geographically big. The Midwest had great legacy architectural stock, especially Pittsburgh and Chicago. These are such a pleasant cities—they aren’t concrete jungles, they have tree-lined streets. They are quite dense, but they are built at a human scale.

What mistakes did city leaders make over the years in city revitalization?

I think the number one issue that I see is that urban leaders don’t handle urban planning and urban issues in a strategic way. Leaders take basic solutions like bike lanes or clean energy that are promoted everywhere, without adequately considering the local context. Cities like Cleveland, Toledo, Pittsburgh and Chicago are all radically different places, but the solution set that academics or leaders propose is always or often the same. I would be skeptical of the types of solutions that you can get at any urbanist conference and dropping them into China. You have to think about the unique context of the country, region and city. China’s cities are definitely very different places. Everyone says be like Portland, but Toledo is not Portland. For example, Portland has an urban growth boundary that has been widely praised, but one aspect of this policy is that it has raised the cost of living in a place that is seeing population growth because of its relative cost advantage compared to California, which is nearby. In Toledo, if it adopts policies that raise the cost of housing, it would become the most expensive city in the area without the same amenities that draw people to Portland.