I am from an economically stagnant, rural area of the United States. Back home, we can barely afford to fund public services like criminal justice and public health, even at a threadbare level. Yet every time I return to visit, the “fathers” of our community seem to be redoubling their attempts at economic rejuvenation, hoping to lift the region out of poverty. These efforts usually strike me as misguided boosterism. If they were really concerned with improving peoples’ lives, it would be more efficacious to simply make it easier for people to leave the area, and move to a more vibrant city. But to say so would, of course, not be appropriate in polite conversation.
The world’s cities are, for the most part, better places for its inhabitants to live; people who live in them earn higher incomes with less environmental impact, and are better educated, healthier, and happier. In class we’ve discussed many ways to design, build, and finance the infrastructure and urban environments the world will need in the near future. But I am left wondering, can we really adopt a framework for developing sustainable cities, particularly in the United States, without addressing some of the pathologies endemic to rural areas?
Consider a portion of the Masdar and Tianjin case we did not discuss in class: the proposed “Infrastructure Bank” in the United States. The case quotes from an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by Felix Rohatyn, “A national infrastructure bank could begin to reverse federal policies that treat infrastructure as a way to give states and localities resources for projects that meet local political objectives rather than national economic ones.”
This is an important argument. It is well-known that the rural areas of the United States wield political power disproportionate to their population in the nation’s politics. Right now, it seems this power is putting a limit on the vibrancy of our metropolises. Yet, if we are serious about improving our economy and our environment, increasing the urbanization of our society is a no-brainer.
There’s a difference between sickness and growing pains. In the developing world, economic, environmental, and urban struggles seem to me as falling into the latter category, and the same struggles in the United States into the former. In “Sustainable Cities” we’ve spent most our time considering the developing world (maybe because the IRRs are so attractive there). But the U.S. is important too, responsible for approximately 22% of global GDP and 16% of global CO2 emissions, so it seems just as wise to consider sustainable cities here as well.
As entrepreneurs, managers, and financiers a lot of our talk about what role we play in the world comes in terms of technologies, business models, and capital structures. But it is just as important to us that we are disseminating best practices amongst ourselves. Indeed, this seems to be the very raison d’etre of Professor Macomber’s course. When it comes to sustainable urbanization in the United States, I think we need to consider what implications our urban best practices should have on the smaller communities we usually only experience from the freeway or through the airplane window as we move from metropolis to metropolis.