I explore towns and cities all across the country and describe what physically exists as well as some of the reasons why things are the way they are. The same basic conditions are in evidence in most places and it’s not always pretty. This raises the hackles of locals who proclaim, “Hey! You don’t know our town. But since you think you know it all why don’t you offer some solutions instead of just putting us down?”
I’ll use Rockford, Illinois as an example of how I think things will play out over time. But it’s important to understand the town’s historical trajectory first. The downtown of Rockford exists because of the Rock River. It was possible to cross or ford the river at this location without a bridge back in the early days so this was a natural gathering spot for commerce and trade. The surrounding forests and farmland provided raw material, fuel, and food for the town. Swedish and Irish immigrants settled the area and manufactured furniture and agricultural machinery in factories along the waterfront. Rockford grew to become the largest city in Illinois outside of Chicagoland.
Suburbs were built very close to downtown as early as the late 1800’s, but after World War II new auto-oriented suburbs grew on a larger scale and at a much faster pace. Construction of single family homes and strip commercial centers followed the new Interstate Highway system and improved county roads on the edge of town. The population as well as economic activity migrated outward horizontally from the downtown core in a dispersed manner. The old downtown began to decline.
In time 1950’s suburban development was leapfrogged by 1970’s suburban development a little bit farther out.
The 1970’s suburban development was surpassed by 1990’s suburban development farther still.
And the 1990’s development was overtaken by newer development even farther away, often in unincorporated parts of the county. It’s important to note that the population of Rockford has not increased in decades. In fact, the region’s population is shrinking slightly.
The result is a heavy burden of attenuated public infrastructure. Each of the signaled street lights at these six lane intersections costs $350,000. The road surface and associated sewer and water infrastructure cost many millions more and these commercial corridors go on for miles in every direction. As these necessary support structures age they need to be repaired and replaced. But the scant low value private development on either side of these roads simply doesn’t generate enough tax revenue to cover those costs. As the older parts of town visibly decay people with money move farther out and the cycle repeats.
Towns like Rockford make ends meet by deferring non essential maintenance for as long as possible, by relying on state and federal transfer payments, and by taking on debt. Unfortunately nearly every town in the country is on the same basic trajectory and there are fewer and fewer solvent locations subsidizing more and more aging functionally bankrupt places. That’s why the state of Illinois and many others are broke. There are too many obligations and not enough productive activity. As a nation we’re now at the end of this suburban experiment. One way or another it will stop of its own dead weight.
So what are the solutions? I like to use the term happenstance. It has a benign neutral tone. Happenstance suggests that things just kind of unfold casually. Shit happens. I could also use the term triage, but that has a decidedly ominous connotation. Triage implies a deliberate sacrifice of one place in favor of another. In the end, the results will be the same either way.
This is where the important people of Rockford now live. The needs of these residents in comfortable homes on quiet leafy side streets dominate the political process. Funds are pulled from everywhere to support this arrangement. Perhaps this will continue forever. Or maybe this subdivision will age poorly and decline like countless others from previous decades. They can’t all be maintained as money dries up and populations migrate.
For all sorts of complex economic, cultural, and political reasons we can’t predict at the moment some chunks of the existing built environment will gain strength. They’ll become more productive and self supporting somehow. They’ll reinvent themselves, cultivate economic activity, and attract new residents. And they’ll do these things based on the circumstances of the day which will be very different from the ones we now know. These newly dynamic parts of town will also find creative ways to both siphon off resources from weaker failing places and insulate themselves from outside obligations. If any of this sounds familiar it’s because that’s how we’ve always organized everything. The only difference is that there will be new winners and losers moving forward.
I have no idea who the new winners will be, but looking at the old bones of Rockford I’d like to think the best historic neighborhoods are well built and beautiful enough that they might endure. The economics of older compact fine grained towns also have a ratio of public infrastructure that’s in balance with the productive tax base. Not everyone will live in such places, but for those who do life could be pretty good.
Outside of town there will be a different kind of productivity based on an arrangement that doesn’t require much in the way of public infrastructure or municipal services. For the folks who can afford to own good land that generates real wealth the lifestyle could be sweet. Or perhaps life will be harsh and precarious in the countryside. It all depends on particulars we can’t imagine just yet.
The stuff in between? It wasn’t built to last in the first place. It will never be able to pay for itself in any meaningful way and there won’t be enough political will to continue to subsidize these areas. It’s possible to retrofit them and make them more productive, but people need a reason to invest that kind of serious money in a place. It’s so much easier to walk away. They’re disposable. People will continue to live in such places out of necessity for a very long time, but they will not be maintained beyond a certain point. Property values will decline. The water pipes will crack and leak. The sewerage lift stations will fail and money won’t be available to replace them. The potholes will multiply. Society will turn away. “Not my problem.” Happenstance.