Can there be Sustainable Cities in the U.S. without a consideration of Rural America?

By Anonymous

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.


6 thoughts on “Can there be Sustainable Cities in the U.S. without a consideration of Rural America?

  1. Pingback: Most Commented through Friday, March 8th | Sustainable Cities: Urbanization, Infrastructure, and Finance

  2. This post really hit on a central aspect of sustainability that was not fully explored in the course: density. Density is perhaps the main contribution to sustainable living in cities; far more than greening buildings, how people get to those buildings (cars vs. walking/transit/cycling) and share resources due to agglomeration is the key determinant of sustainability. (I’ve got sources if desired). This is an issue not only in the United States, where suburbanization has run rampant, but also in places like India and China, which are emulating that suburban, low-density, single-use model.

    The third assumption of this course—that government is not stepping up, so the private sector must step in—can be challenged in the suburban and rural context. When 1930s FHA rules defined the tenor of sparse/sprawled development, the private sector (including development projects like Levittown and the car, highway development, and even lawn industries) ran with those rules—and it is those developers who are still main lobbying groups against the repeal of tools like the Mortgage Interest Deduction that continue to favor suburban growth over density.

    So I’d pose another question to the build on the three assumptions of this course: if governments aren’t stepping up, HOW CAN THE PRIVATE SECTOR GET GOVERNMENT TO STEP UP? This is not just being Quixotic; the reformist/progressive movement of the early 1900s US that revolutionized machine politics-driven urban government and made it more efficient, effective, and nimble was driven by the private sector (and college-educated Protestants). After all, much as libertarians might argue otherwise, a more effective public sector would be better for the private sector as well. (See Macomber’s “Aligned Gov’t” framework).

    I wonder how, at least on the issue of sustainable urbanism, we can see a 21st century progressive reformist movement driven by business interests.

    • By John Macomber

      Much ground is covered in this response including density and its counterpart, sprawl; federal policies (supported by some private interests) that promote sprawl via car ownership, road building, and home ownership in stand alone structures (as compared to density, mass transit, and vertical construction); business alignment toward changes in federal policy that work [in the author’s view] toward better long term results (as compared to federal policies for a prior time and which maintain legacy beneficiaries) and finally even the mix of students and faculty at a place like HBS!

      This is a very robust arena for “point of view” questions…one’s position varies a lot depending on “who are you and what are you trying to accomplish.” Putting aside climate and oil issues (which could be put aside for centuries) it can be argued that making cars, building roads, and building homes is excellent industrial policy to build GDP and build a nation. In the early part of the 20th century, the US had middling influence in the world…by the end, and particularly post WWII, it was by far the largest economy on earth thanks in large part to the jobs and opportunities created by the auto and housing industries. When land, oil, and the ability of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 and of the rivers and oceans to absorb waste was all limitless, this was great policy.

      Since Malthus, intellectuals have been concerned about limits to growth and since Malthus, events and technology have expanded and expanded those limits. Obviously to the premise of this course, limits or at least constraints are pretty easy to observe in our time, notably including “not enough clean air, not enough clean water, not enough land, not enough food, not enough place to put the garbage, too much traffic, and too much carbon.” This is new and it’s arguably a tipping point.

      Should there be policies to encourage urbanization and density and mass transit? Clearly this is my opinion…but the impacts come out quickly in a discussion like the PlaNYC class. The policies will look a lot like giveways to different business interests. They need not be giveways; the value created should be followed by thoughtful value capture for common good. But they will look a lot like favoring businesses engaged in services (not only financial services but non-consumptive services like restaurants, theaters, art, health and fitness, sports as compared to manufacturing) and urban activities. That’s one part of the tug of war – urban real estate interests vs single family homebuilders.

      What’s also changed is the economic value creation in cities compared to in agriculture or mining or timber. As New York, London, Mumbai, Shanghai, Seoul, Johannesburg, Rio, and the other mega-cities pull away from the others in attracting talent and capital it becomes harder to support the older line sprawl-y policies…they just cost too much (in cash, never mind environmental concerns). So the tide changes. And people come to cities for opportunity.

      US policy is impacted not just by the lobbyists you mention but by the composition of the US Senate. Since this is done by state, the largest four states in population (California, New York, Texas, Florida) get eight of 100 senators. The smallest ten (including Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, Alabama) get twenty. It’s easy to see in the red state-blue state electoral map. When the game gets played as “carving up and protecting my piece of a shrinking pie” then policy stagnates and people hang on. The easy-to-say-hard-to-do answer is, “let’s grow the pie.” Hard to do when the jobs aren’t there. (In spite of current turmoil in the US House of Representatives, the Senate mix is the longstanding issue). Maybe business can be pushing for some nationally understood action beyond TARP and the life support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

      With respect to businesses pulling together, my travels have shown me three good examples of this at the federal level: Colombia, Peru, and Chile. In these three western countries in South America, business leaders and politicians regardless of party are generally aligned on where the nation needs to go and how to create a competitive environment for business that creates jobs and opportunities for citizens. Does the US risk losing competitiveness to these and other countries? Certainly in growth rate.

      Finally to Harvard…when my grandfather was here in the class of 1922, Harvard was very protestant and very male (and the students were very much from the Northeast United States). In the class of 2015 at Harvard College the population is about 40% international and of the US cohort, about 20% black or Hispanic Americans. Many more are Asian, South Asian, or US Jews or Catholics. Half are women. Doing the math maybe 5% are male white Anglo Saxon Protestants. And my perception is that those are mostly football and hockey players! The “college-educated Protestants” (like me) aren’t going be the drivers now. You are.

      My hope for a course like “Sustainable Cities” is that the concepts we have discussed can propagate. All seventy of you will be leaders who will make a positive difference in the world. Your makeup is similar to the composition of the College described above. I’m hoping you have a new set of tools and a new set of sensitivities that arms you to go out and be business leaders who can align interests in a forward looking way.

      From the point of the HBS Business and Environment Initiative, this is also a goal; to use our bully pulpit, our research, and our convening power to steer business in this direction. As Eccles and Serafeim point out in their course “Innovating for Sustainability,” more than 70% of the world’s economic output is controlled by the Global 1000 biggest companies. They reach across borders and they survive politicians. If those businesses can be aligned around the long view – and many are, like Unilever, Siemens, Schneider GE, Google, ABB, Fujitec, Haier – then that impact gets felt from legislative chambers to the streets to the farms.

      Thank you for the spark for this comment!

      • By John Macomber

        In the US Senate…

        Evidently the New York Times read this chain from last week and elected to write about infrastructure and the Senate this week 🙂 -although this piece proposes that the small states are privileged and not disadvantaged.

        “…In the four years after the financial crisis struck, a great wave of federal stimulus money washed over Rutland County. It helped pay for bridges, roads, preschool programs, a community health center, buses and fire trucks, water mains and tanks, even a project to make sure fish could still swim down the river while a bridge was being rebuilt. Just down Route 4, at the New York border, the landscape abruptly turns from spiffy to scruffy. Washington County, N.Y., which is home to about 60,000 people — just as Rutland is — saw only a quarter as much money.

        “We didn’t receive a lot,” said Peter Aust, the president of the local chamber of commerce on the New York side. “We never saw any of the positive impact of the stimulus funds.” Vermont’s 625,000 residents have two United States senators, and so do New York’s 19 million. That means that a Vermonter has 30 times the voting power in the Senate of a New Yorker just over the state line — the biggest inequality between two adjacent states. The nation’s largest gap, between Wyoming and California, is more than double that.

        “…Fresno, Calif., is a city of a half-million people with a long list of problems, including 14 percent unemployment, the aftermath of a foreclosure crisis, homeless encampments that dot the sun-blasted landscape and worries about the safety of the surrounding county’s drinking water.

        A thousand miles away, a roughly comparable number of people inhabit the entire state of Wyoming. Like Fresno and its environs, Wyoming is rural, with an economy largely based on agriculture. It is also in much better shape than Fresno, with an unemployment rate around 5 percent.

        Even so, Wyoming receives far more assistance from the federal government than Fresno does. The half-million residents of Wyoming also have much more sway over federal policy than the half-million residents of Fresno…”

  3. By John Macomber

    A student wrote something like the following (paraphrased here):

    This post hit the nail right on the head. It’s not possible to think about “sustainable cities” without considering the suburban and rural areas that surround and often sustain cities. Cities rely on non-urban areas for many of their essential needs, food—and often water, as is the case in Mexico City and New York City—foremost among them.

    It may be in the interplay between the regions were sustainability can truly be found—using land-use policies to encourage greater density, building around existing transit hubs, improving the connections between farm and city, supporting food and water policies that make economic and environmental sense for everyone. We must consider not only interconnectedness within urban areas—perhaps the defining feature of cities—but the interconnectedness among cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

    Additionally, one of the major themes of the course is the wave of urbanization worldwide, but in the U.S., and increasingly in other nations, “suburbanization” may be more accurate. More U.S. citizens live in suburbs than urban or rural areas. This has huge implications for land-use, transportation, jobs, climate change, education, racial and socioeconomic segregation—virtually every facet of life.

    • By John Macomber

      Without a doubt the elements surrounding cities need to be considered [somewhere], whether for goods like water and food or in land use and consumer preferences (suburbia and rural America, for example). This is a region our metaphorical open top tourist bus did not cover on our fast drive through city issues. I’m considering expanding the course to include sustainability and the broader built environment – eg not only cities, but dams and roads (which would touch water, agriculture, sprawl, and preferences). Curious to know if that would feel to students to be additive or dilutive to the core if this course. It also could be another offering.

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