The Common Good
September-October 2002

A Roadmap to Livable Cities

by Bob Hulteen | September-October 2002

What's the sound of a policy wonk clapping? I don't know.

What's the sound of a policy wonk clapping? I don't know. But with the publication of Myron Orfield's American Metropolitics, I suspect we're about to find out what a herd of them sound like.

For the last few postmodern decades, anecdotes, not facts, have driven public policy development. Personal profiles and individual reflections of abuse or neglect by government or business make for provocative stories on the 11 o'clock news. For years massive amounts of statistical evidence have detailed corporate corruption, but only when Ken Lay became a poster child did Congress launch investigations.

American Metropolitics is a flashback to a time when solid research dominated policy debate. Orfield, a state senator from Minnesota and director of the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation, has written an intelligent and insightful book detailing the changing nature of the suburbs of major metropolitan areas and what that means socially and politically. This exhaustive work undergirds stories like those offered in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed; together they make a compelling case for coordinated policy changes to develop sustainable metropolitan regions.

Orfield's American Metropolitics offers cutting-edge research and does for the nation what his earlier book Metropolitics did for the Twin Cities. The book is chock full of graphs and maps; demographic information becomes highly comprehensible in demonstrating that neither the cities nor the suburbs are as monolithic as often assumed. Orfield provides visual evidence of the destabilization of neighborhoods, whether by disinvestment tied to racism or by an insufficient tax base created by inefficient land use.

How have metropolitan areas responded to these social stresses? Many municipalities have devolved to a brutal competition with neighboring districts that leads to the denigration of the entire metropolitan area. Orfield's answer to seeming inevitable metropolitan decline includes a commitment to regional coordination and planning.

Working together with a coordinated strategy, all parties can come out ahead, he says.

Economic growth and social justice are not mutually exclusive or inevitable enemies. Central cities, inner-ring suburbs, expanding suburbs, and even the ex-urbs benefit from viewing the metropolitan region as a whole.

AMERICAN METROPOLITICS IS divided into three sections. The first, "Metropatterns," provides much of the needed background information for the rest of the book. Here, detailed maps show the trends that are affecting livability in the 25 largest metropolitan areas of the United States. Orfield details the effects of concentrated poverty on school systems, housing, and taxing capacity. He has developed new systems of interpretation of this material that will support the intuitions of community organizers as they "feel" communities decline before most data corroborates it.

"Metropolicy," the second section, begins to take the social science research and develop tax and service strategies that reverse the economic and ethnic trends toward segregation, while meeting the needs of urban neighborhoods and suburban communities. For many inner-city activists, this process will require openness to think outside the traditional box. For those brave enough to withdraw from the us-vs.-them dialectic, Orfield offers strategies that could provide for win-win opportunities. Part three, "Metropolitics," focuses on strategies that can enable organizers to build winning coalitions to begin enacting progressive policies.

Sometimes there are common solutions that help city centers and inner-ring suburbs deal with social stresses of disinvestment as well as the land use problems of suburbs on the edge of the metropolitan area. Using the detailed maps from the first section, we begin to see how the political landscape is changing. And, since suburban districts account for 80 percent of the swing between parties, these are the districts in play at determining federal policy.

Motivated by the burning passion of people's real-world stories and the cool reckoning of hard sociological statistics, we can join Orfield in the movement to end the decline in our metropolitan communities and to build a progressive governing coalition that can make livability and sustainability long-term values.

By offering pragmatic tactics and strategies to combat the seemingly inevitable decline of metropolitan areas, Orfield's work offers hope for the hopeless, and new directions for those too tired to dream dreams. Yes, he invites us to the hard work of rebuilding our communities. But he also invites us to imagine the possibilities by sharing roadmaps of the way.

Bob Hulteen is the director of the Twin Cities Religion and Labor Network and a contributing writer for Sojourners.

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