In a new book, Penn-affiliated experts provide a crash course on what went wrong with America’s cities—and offer some ideas on how to fix them.
By Virginia Fairweather | Illustration by David McLimans
“There is a pendulum swing in society, efficient but cruel. You can’t let things get too bad—or social instability will result,” says Jonathan Barnett, Practice Professor of City and Regional Planning and editor of Planning for a New Century, a provocative new handbook on urban sprawl and its consequences, published by Island Press earlier this year. Social inequity is one by-product of sprawl, as inner cities are depleted of people and resources, and needless duplication of services elsewhere is another. “It’s wasteful to start over,” says Barnett, who also contributed a chapter to the book.
As an architecture student at Yale, Barnett wanted to design better cities, but in real life, he says, he found that many architects “help rich people buy shower curtains.” After architectural school, he plunged into the hard-knocks school of city government, working in the campaign and then the administration of New York mayor John Lindsay. He helped create an urban-designer category within New York City’s civil-service ranks, then went on to set up a graduate department of city planning at the City College of New York. Today he heads his own Washington-based urban-planning and design firm, working with city governments nationwide.
Barnett is no ivory-tower thinker. His pragmatism is evident in Planning for a New Century, his third book, which he says is intended for legislators and their aides—people who can effect change—but can be read by anyone interested in broad social issues at the most personal level: where and how we live, pay taxes, and educate our children.
Barnett credits Dr. Eugenie Birch, department chair and professor of city and regional planning, for the idea that led to the book—that he teach a graduate course, in which a series of talks by different scholar/experts could form the basis for book chapters. Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66, Penn’s president, provided an afterword stressing Penn’s special role in Philadelphia and how universities and other institutions are “emerging as the venues around which strong, functioning modern communities form.”
The experts, mostly Penn faculty, cover subjects such as housing, core cities, regionalization, taxation, crime, and education. The book is a crash course on the laws and regulations that have shaped our society for over a century—often in unintended ways—and the contributors make real-world recommendations for action. But Barnett, a realist, sees “overwhelming problems in the social inequities engendered by urban sprawl.” Change will take at least a generation, he says.
Many aspects of the book fall into the future-shock category. To mention the most familiar example, federal laws and policies have long encouraged home ownership, but federal funds were more available for white, middle-class citizens. The result was a public policy that exacerbated racial and economic inequities. Federal programs for highway construction and pollution control had similarly unforeseen consequences. In both cases, well-meant legislation encouraged sprawl, by making it possible to develop previously inaccessible areas, abetting the depletion of core cities.
Globalization and Taxation
In his chapter, Dr. Theodore Hershberg, professor of public policy and history and founder and director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia at Penn, takes a look at the very big picture, exploring the link between globalization and local taxation.
To compete globally, we need to regionalize to reduce the costs of goods and services. The United States has “widespread inefficiencies” embedded in overlapping city, county, state, and federal governments that duplicate personnel, services, and costs—not to mention the resources wasted through corruption in some cities. At best, elected officials are beholden to the unions for public services, including police and schools. “They are held hostage to those votes, which compromise efforts at reform,” Hershberg says. He suggests that a “blue-ribbon” commission of business people could benchmark municipal salaries equivalent to those in the private sector.
“We need problem-solvers, critical thinkers, quick learners” to compete globally, Hershberg says. Getting away from conventional pedagogy means spending more on education, and local real-estate taxes will not suffice as a source. He predicts that when baby boomers retire on fixed incomes, “they will not stand” for the current over-reliance on real-estate taxes to fund education.
Hershberg adds an ominous fiscal note: “When inner cities fail, the losers are suburbanites—the dominant shareholders in the banks, insurance companies, and pension funds that own the lion’s share of big downtown complexes.” Yet he sees “oblivious” suburbanites watching the decay of core cities as though the situation is an inevitable “Greek tragedy.”
“Decanted” Populations, Disappearing Farmlands
Dr. John Keene, professor of city and regional planning, adds environmental justice and disappearing farmlands to the urban-sprawl balance sheet. “We need to examine our environmental legislation,” he says. This would involve reviewing criteria for federally funded projects with adverse impacts on a community, and asking questions about the number of similar projects in the past in a given area. We’ve been putting sewage-treatment plants and other “unwanted” facilities near low-income families, he says.
Citing a 25 percent decline in the population of large U.S. cities, he says, “We decant populations,” via subsidized highways, and weaken the tax base of bigger cities. “Sprawl is least fair to those who can’t afford to move,” he adds.
While cities are being abandoned, farms are being replaced. Keene recommends changing tax assessments of farmlands to protect them, and using tax incentives to revitalize inner cities. Municipalities should create enterprise zones, and offer grants for projects such as riverfront restoration, he says. He also is an advocate for the federal “brownfields” program and says we need to reduce liability hurdles and create financial support for those who would rejuvenate contaminated urban sites.
One encouraging sign is that more than a dozen states now have growth-management legislation, but it remains to be seen how effective such legislation will be in slowing the current sprawl juggernaut.
How Clean, How Costly—and Who Decides?
Dr. Roger Raufer, an independent consulting engineer and adjunct professor at Penn, says “serious environmental issues require a regional, national, or international regulatory approach. Cities will have to subordinate their efforts to larger authorities.” Any pollution-control efforts must consider the broader ecosystem, he says.
Raufer works with economic models to construct cost/benefit curves that serve as guides for regulatory action. For example, society has achieved major health advances with clean water, to the point where new regulations generally have only marginal benefits. As society has climbed the marginal cost curve, improvements in pollution control cost more, and achieve less, he says. In a case like this, money is better spent on immunizations for children and other medical interventions likely to have greater benefits for health.
“Cities should have more discretion in making local decisions about pollution-control improvements,” Raufer says—especially with regard to the unfunded federal mandates of recent years, in which Washington has imposed requirements without appropriating the money to pay for them. “If cities must finance pollution-control efforts, they should have a greater say.”
Zoning Out (of Date)
Barnett himself examines the environmental impacts of local zoning laws. Noting that most zoning ordinances date back to the Hoover administration in the 1920s, he says it’s time to update. The big problem is that “most zoning language addresses land as a commodity, rather than as an ecosystem.”
Barnett describes ordinances that pay no attention to trees, grading and the potential for erosion, low-lying water, or, for that matter, topography. He believes that zoning ordinances should mandate protection for natural drainage areas. Preventing excessive run-off, such as that from parking lots, is much cheaper than building new stormwater-treatment plants, he points out.
Finally, he suggests federal transportation legislation could include funds to encourage communities to plan commercial districts and mixed density housing that can be served by public transportation.
Stop Subsidizing Exurban Growth
Dr. Anne Whiston Spirn, a former Penn faculty member and now professor of landscape architecture and regional planning at MIT, agrees with Barnett on the ecosystem issue. “Bulldozing terrain and diverting streams can work for a time, but it’s easier and better to work with nature.” She points to Denver’s success in retaining storm water in man-made tributaries and streams along the Platte River. These dual-purpose, public greenways minimize flooding, preventing water-treatment system overload.
Noting the “new urban infrastructure” built on farmland and forests at the edge of metropolitan areas, Spirn mourns the fact that some of the richest agricultural soil in the country is “lost forever” under parking lots, houses, and streets. There are still sewer, gas, and electrical lines under abandoned neighborhoods, while this infrastructure is “recreated at the fringes, laboriously and expensively,” Spirn says.
“If there really is a demand for exurban growth, let the market bear the full cost,” she adds. “We need to stop federal subsidization of new infrastructure and homes.”
“I’m From PennJerDel, How About You?”
Dr. Gary Hack, Paley Professor and dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, says the terms cities and suburbs may become obsolete. Instead we will have metropolitan regions. (He invokes the unlovely conglomeration of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, PennJerDel, as an example.)
While Hack points out that urban sprawl has been occurring since the railroads were built, today the problems are worse: “We now have a mismatch of job location and people who need jobs, of forms of taxation and demands for services and social assistance,” he says.
Highways radiate out from urban areas, and development follows. People need cars to get from one new metropolitan “cluster” to another. To change these clusters into functioning urban centers, he says, we need mass transit—but can’t get government approval for such systems.
Hack argues that every metro region needs a regional plan developed by the private sector or planning commissions, citing private advisory groups in Chicago, New York, and New Jersey. Historically, it’s been common to set up regional authorities to finance and operate airports, transit, and ports—but these have rarely been coupled with regional planning efforts.
Eventually, such regions will need a regional government, or a group of regional agencies, to manage themselves. On the other hand, Hack says “every city and county has to give more decision-making to local districts. Government power for regions has to be balanced by more neighborhood control over matters where locals have the best insights.”
Dr. Stephen Putman, professor and chairman of the graduate group in city and regional planning, highlights the disconnect between transportation planning and land-use planning. Those who plan new roads do not consider the land use consequences, he says. Both the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and the1991 amendments to the Clean Air Act call for land-use forecasting for federally funded transportation projects in areas with a population of over 250,000, but the requirement has been largely ignored.
The Clean Air Act could be a tool for planning land use, says Putman, but too often, the “solution” to maintaining air-quality standards is to add a highway lane or widen the road in order to relieve congestion. This just spreads air pollution, instead of lowering levels of emissions or changing patterns of development, he says.
One of Putman’s recommendations is simply to enforce the law. The obstacle is that “there is too much money tied up in real estate and business development” to stop urban sprawl. “You need a group with authority to say ‘You will not build a highway or put a sewer there,’” he says.
Police for the Poor, Security for the Rich
Thomas M. Seamon, Penn’s former vice president for public safety, envisions a future in which the police force could become the “police of the poor,” while private security would be for those who can afford it. Even now, he says, people live in gated communities, or buildings with private security forces, and work for companies with private security protection. He thinks that publicly provided police should cooperate with private sector counterparts now to avoid his own “police for the poor” scenario.
Seamon also offers a capsule history of the police in America. At first, the police were untrained forces set up to enforce the wishes of elected officials; “buying a job” was part of the process. “Keeping the peace” often meant oppressing immigrants and other people in lower economic groups, preserving order at any price. While the advent of the civil service system changed the standards for the police, Seamon recommends national standards for more rigorous training, giving the example of Germany’s two-year program. He also recommends a national safety code, similar to fire and building codes.
Seamon also thinks police departments often have the wrong idea of what the public wants. When questioned, he says, people rank “feeling comfortable and safe in the city environment” higher than the desire for control of serious crimes such as murder.
Regulations and Redlining
Federal legislation has shaped U.S. housing for over 60 years, encouraging home ownership and impacting racial equity in our cities, says Eugenie Birch. Tracking relevant federal laws about public housing, Birch says that the federal government has supplied public housing in “times of crisis,” such as that for defense workers in World Wars I and II. In 1937, the Wagner-Steagall Act, with its “landmark non-emergency public- housing program,” allowed municipalities to create local housing authorities that could receive federal funds.
Birch races through the advent of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, tax laws that allowed deductions for mortgage interest, the Federal Housing Authority, and a plethora of other government agencies, mortgage guarantee entities, and other government housing efforts.
Her underlying message is that “redlining” to discriminate against racial minorities and low-income individuals in mortgage loans and insurance was implicit in federal regulations. In the case of the FHA, white, middle-income, nuclear families buying new housing in greenfields were “OK,” while minority, low-income, and non-traditional households in cities were not. The result is that today whites have a higher ownership percentage (71 percent) than do African Americans (50 percent) or Hispanics (44 percent).
BID, Don’t Beg
“If cities continue to wring their collective hands, pleading for help, doing nothing,” things will never change, says Dr. Paul Levy, executive director of Philadelphia’s Center City District and the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, as well as an adjunct professor at Penn.
Levy is a cheerleader for urban areas, but he is familiar with the opposite reaction. He invokes the phrase “pride of avoidance” to describe people bragging about how long it’s been since they have visited an urban center. This attitude is changing in Philadelphia, he says, but the obstacles are formidable.
Downtown Philadelphia has 40 percent of jobs in the area, for example, but houses only 5 percent of the electorate. So a city official who wants to be reelected has to focus on the needs of the 95 percent of voters who live elsewhere in the city, says Levy. It’s not surprising that allocations go where the voters are. At the same time, federal funds to cities have dropped.
Philadelphia’s Center City District is a business-improvement district (BID) in which business owners pay a supplementary assessment, and those funds are dedicated to improvements within the district. Street cleaning and lighting are two examples that supplement or complement city services, and offer a lot of bang for the buck, he says.
BIDs are an effective tool for revitalizing decaying downtown areas, but Levy sees room for improvement. Cities need to be friendly to investors—but in Philadelphia, he says, up to seven local agencies need to approve housing permits, and six agencies must approve an awning on an historic building.
“What Are They Actually Learning?”
Dr. Susan Fuhrman, the George and Diane Weiss Professor of Education and dean of the Graduate School of Education, decries the lack of national curriculum standards. We have 15,000 school districts acting independently, she says. As a result, publishers produce “watered-down textbooks that attempt a one-size fits all” approach to education. She also points to deteriorating school buildings, particularly in high-crime, high-poverty areas. And she targets the lack of student evaluation: “What are they actually learning?”
Alternatives such as charter schools raise other problems: They siphon off money that would otherwise go to public schools as funds follow the child to the charter school. If the alternative school is parochial, there are constitutional issues relating to Church and State. Vouchers may provide windfalls to parents already paying for private schools, in the form of tax refunds. And if we limit vouchers to low-income people, it’s likely that only those parents interested in education will follow up.
Fuhrman says that federal funds for education are limited, about 5-7 percent currently, and mostly go to special programs, such as in science and math. State funds are likely to go to debt-service and transportation. She thinks the debate over funding will accelerate in the new administration, and thinks more federal funding will result in more federal goals and accountability, which is “a good thing.”
Welfare, Workfare, Now What?
Dr. Roberta Iverson, an assistant professor and clinician educator at the Graduate School of Social Work, traces the history of welfare in this country since mothers’ and widows’ pensions began in 1910. She addresses the attempt in those days of separating “worthy” single mothers from the “unworthy” ones, noting that this imposition of morality on assistance is an idea that has not disappeared.
Historically, most welfare recipients were white urban and immigrant women, Iverson says. “Welfare did not assume a black face” until this century.
Iverson whips through a dizzying list of acronyms for government programs, from ADC (Aid to Dependent Children), 1935-1962, through TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), in 1996, and offers brief descriptions and critiques of many programs and their putative goals. She also comments on issues of race, reproductive policy, and “workfare.” Among Iverson’s recommendations for the future is the creation of a federal department of workforce development or workfare reform.
In an eloquent foreword to the book, David Rusk, author of Inside Game, Outside Game: Winning Strategies for Saving Urban America, writes, “It’s hard to think of another sector of our economy more shaped by public policy and more dependent on public investment than land development.” Rusk highlights the race issue underlying all discussion of urban problems and urban sprawl, saying sprawl and race have shaped U.S. cities for more than five decades.
He concludes that “integrating poor households into middle-class communities through mandatory, mixed-income housing policies may be the best school, welfare-to-work, fiscal, and anticrime policies.” Rusk cuts to the core question for Americans and the underlying message of this new book: “Are we going to live together?”
Virginia Fairweather’s last piece for the Gazette was on architect Wendy Evans Joseph C’77.