By G.M. Donley

Look out the window of an airplane as you take off from just about any American city and you see a vast carpet of loosely woven streets and parking lots extending far from the city center, gradually disintegrating into loose threads at the fringe. The approach to most European cities, by contrast, is characterized by an abrupt shift from open farmland to the tight-knit tangle that characterizes places laid out before the rise of developers and highway planners, neighborhoods that grew organically based on how far people could walk.

Centuries ago, traveling great distances was slow and difficult — and often dangerous. For people who came to the American continent from far away, getting here entailed significant hardship. Think of traversing a tumultuous ocean in a leaky wooden ship full of rats to get to a vast wild continent with extreme weather and exciting new hazards like poison ivy and rattlesnakes. The heroic narrative of mobility had its evil counterpart as well: if you were brought to this hemisphere as a slave, that meant someone else had the power to control your movement. So it’s no surprise that the freedom to move is an enduring aspect of American mythology.


Credit: G.M. Donley

But a funny thing has happened: the rise of increasingly fast, safe, and affordable transportation over the past 100 years has made it so easy to move around that there really isn’t any challenge or heroism to it anymore. Yet the psychological allure of going to a “Better Place” endures — whether one is migrating from one side of the country to another or between municipalities within a metro area. Mobility is romanticized throughout popular culture in everything from cowboy hats to road movies to every car ad you ever saw. For all its romantic appeal, though, there is also something less than noble about contant motion: for many Americans, the default response in a “fight or flight” situation has become the latter — run away. Welcome to the Land of the Free, Home of the [no longer at this address, skedaddled to the suburbs].

Easy mobility has made possible all kinds of things unimaginable 100 years ago…

Easy mobility has made possible all kinds of things unimaginable 100 years ago…

Easy mobility has made possible all kinds of things unimaginable 100 years ago: living 50 miles from work and getting there in less than an hour; shipping fresh fruit from distant continents so regular folks can buy it cheap down the street at the discount store; flying from Detroit to Tokyo for a long weekend. But it has also created problems few foresaw. For one thing, though we may behave like nomads, we don’t build like nomads. A highly mobile existence calls for tents and caravans, not bricks and mortar. But we still build for permanence. So whenever people decide it’s time to go to a Better Place, they not only throw resources into new houses, roads, and businesses, they also abandon all the houses, roads, and businesses where they started out. What happens to all that stuff, all that investment?

The Rust Belt has proven to be an ideal laboratory for exploring the practical problems associated with a society habituated to easy mobility, specifically what results when mobility outruns population growth. Booming growth tends to mask economic and social side-effects. But lucky us, we haven’t had any booming growth for a while, so the results are plain to see here.

  1. Too much retail space
Credit: Nicholas Eckhart (

Credit: Nicholas Eckhart (

In the early 1990s, a certain discount retailer erected a store in Cleveland Heights. Twenty years later, that same retailer put up a new, bigger store about half a mile away in the neighboring city of South Euclid, stomping out a former golf course in the process. The Cleveland Heights location was abandoned and remains a vacant hulk to this day.

Whenever this kind of thing happens, people talk about which city offered which tax credits, who was serious about being business friendly, which neighborhood is on the decline, blah blah blah. But more likely it’s just that these buildings aren’t made to last any longer than 20 years. Once the roof starts to leak and the parking lot is full of potholes, the owners more often than not just walk away from the thing rather than spending any money to fix it up, and write off the loss on the depreciated value to offset other profits. In other words, these may look kind of like buildings, but functionally they are tents — sheetrock and metal-stud and particle-board tents pitched on concrete-slab ground cloths, taking up space that no one else can use for anything else.

  1. Too much housing

Houses have generally been built for the longer haul. New people can move in and use them after the previous occupants leave. Urban planners describe a regional pattern of housing re-use as “filtering.” The people who initially build homes and live in the city’s earliest neighborhoods eventually move out for newer or bigger quarters and other people move in behind them. As those buildings get older, their relative value decreases, and the people moving into them correspondingly tend to be of somewhat lower income than the previous residents. The wealthiest people are generally building and moving into the newest buildings, while the poorest people are moving into the most affordable properties in the older areas — and in between, people are steadily “filtering” from lower value to higher value homes as they are able. It never happens quite that neatly, but that’s the concept.

Credit: Robert Couse-Baker (

Credit: Robert Couse-Baker (

There’s a functional elegance to this filtering scenario in that it provides housing for people at a wide range of incomes and allows for attainable step-ups to more expensive places as people are able to improve their lot economically and socially. And, in a cold Darwinian sort of way, it selects out the least viable structures, while buildings that have more inherent quality tend to get more attention and retain more value even as they age.

The functional elegance has run into some inelegant dysfunction in the Rust Belt, however, because for the filtering mechanism to work well there must be steady population growth. When population growth stops but building continues, two things start happening right away: the number of abandoned properties goes up as people “filter” out of the worst housing, and overall property values go down due to the market oversupply that outpaces regional demand.  The depressed values further discourage investment in the upkeep of the lower-end properties, which accelerates the decline in real estate value.

  1. Stressed tax bases

Because schools and city services are typically funded through property and income taxes, a decline in relative property value and average income means either that municipalities need to increase tax rates to generate the per-household dollar amount needed to sustain services at historic levels, or those services need to be cut, or some of each.

Credit: David Hilowitz (

Credit: David Hilowitz (

Some communities can deal with that — they understand that their higher tax rate still translates to a reasonable tax bill for a house of a given size when compared to the newer places (which charge a lower tax rate on a house that costs more per square foot to get a similar dollar amount). This is why people happily still choose to live in places like Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, and Lakewood in the Cleveland area even though the tax rates have crept up over the decades: the total cost of a mortgage plus taxes is still favorable compared to outlying areas, and the inner-ring lifestyle simply does not exist out there. This isn’t specifically a Rust Belt phenomenon, but an age-of-housing phenomenon: nationwide, older homes tend to have lower per-square foot property costs and higher property tax rates than newer ones. But in a high-mobility/low-growth scenario such has characterized the Rust Belt since the 1970s, some areas of a city lose so much value so quickly and so pervasively that there seems to be no way out of it except to let things crumble and start over.

The inequities and waste are further exacerbated when the region is a patchwork of small, competing municipalities rather than one geographically big city.

The inequities and waste are further exacerbated when the region is a patchwork of small, competing municipalities rather than one geographically big city. It’s hard to sell independent municipalities on the concept of some kind of regional cost sharing when many of them were created specifically NOT to share with their neighbors, but rather to keep their own costs low while enjoying the spillover value of being near an urban economic center.

Overbuilding is all the more of a drag in places — like Cleveland or Detroit or Buffalo or Toledo — where there is still ample and relatively inexpensive green space to expand into on the outskirts, because every new project saddles the region not only with excess housing and retail capacity but also with the long-term burden of sustaining exponentially more infrastructure. In geographically constrained places, people end up redeveloping underused spaces within the city because there is less blank space outside it to sprawl into.

Thomas Bier, senior fellow at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, has written numerous articles about these patterns in the Cleveland area.

  1. Persistent segregation

When these mobility patterns are layered on top of a legacy of discrimination, we get typical Rust Belt racial and economic segregation. Recently a couple of items have made the rounds of the internet showing the geographic distribution of people by race and income in the US. By some of these measures, Cleveland is the most segregated city in the country. Notably, a number of the other most segregated cities on that list have similar histories of regional population stagnation or shrinkage since the late 1960s.


Credit: G.M. Donley

Beginning in the 1930s or earlier in Cleveland and many other cities, properties were designated as the lowest investment quality, based, presumably, on age and location. This designation seems to have established a decades-long trajectory. A 2014 Belt feature showed that much of East Cleveland was designated as the lowest “grade D” property many decades before the notorious years of white flight in the 1960s. Those old redlines set in motion a sequence of events that helped define the current segregation of Cleveland: in part because investment in upkeep was discouraged by the low rating, many grade D properties steadily lost value leading up to the 1960s. Wealthier residents moved out and were replaced by people of lesser means. Many of the new residents were renters because banks would not issue mortgages due to the low investment grade. Discriminatory renting, lending, and selling practices prevented black families from moving into any places except for these lowest-grade neighborhoods, which meant that even if a family managed to buy a home, often the property did not increase in value, so little if any wealth was accumulated, resulting in some geographic areas that were disproportionately populated by people with low wealth and dark skin.

When these mobility patterns are layered on top of a legacy of discrimination, we get typical Rust Belt racial and economic segregation.

By the time black families were able to move relatively freely after the civil rights advances of the 1960s, the region had already entered its post-industrial population decline, which meant there was very little demand pressure for anyone of any race to move into the older deteriorated neighborhoods. So most of the acres of land that were segregated and low-income 50 years ago have remained segregated and low-income. Meanwhile, the number of people living in those neighborhoods has declined precipitously. The Cleveland neighborhood of Hough claimed 72,000 people and was predominantly black in 1960; by the year 2000 it was still predominantly black but had less than 20,000 residents. (Granted, there is some upbeat news in that downward trend: many of the African Americans who moved out are now a generation or two into a more prosperous life in racially integrated places.)

A fascinating visual data project by the Cooper Center plots the residence location of every single person in the United States, broken down in broad categories by race, and it shows this phenomenon dramatically. Looking at the entire United States, it’s clear that the relatively few people who live in vast, sparsely populated rural areas are overwhelmingly white (with the exception of some rural areas of the southeast that have more black residents), while all other races are concentrated in urban areas. If you were to just draw borders around those large areas where the very few humans are white, and then filled each entire area with a solid color indicating the predominant skin color of the residents, it would appear that the United States is 90% white. Many of the geographic segregation maps are drawn this way — this area is white, this area is Asian, this area is black, this area is Hispanic — but it doesn’t show if there are 50 people per acre or one person per square mile. Acres aren’t people. The dot map shows that some areas of greater Cleveland (especially the inner suburbs on both sides of town) are pretty well mixed in race and income, but the amount of land occupied by those places is modest compared to the amount of land occupied by population-depleted inner city areas and especially the sparsely populated, mostly-white outer suburbs and countryside. Because the actual number of people is so few, any influx of diverse population into these geographic areas would quickly change the picture of segregation — however, there has been no influx of anyone into those inner city neighborhoods for a good 60 years.

  1. School ratings as real estate marketing tools

Another realm in which the dynamics of mobility operate is in our schools and the tools we use to rate them. In Ohio, the primary effect of the state’s student-testing regime has not been to improve educational outcomes, but to encourage migration within regions. The test methodology is designed so that the reports don’t show which districts are making the most difference but rather which ones start off with the highest-achieving students.

Credit: Greg Westfall (

Credit: Greg Westfall (

The design of a research instrument usually says a lot about the motivations of its designers, and it would appear from this example that the primary purpose of the state report cards is to spur economic development in some places at the expense of other places. Why else would you take the valuable precise individual student test data you have about how James in doing in reading and Jasmine is doing in math and then throw away the value by unscientifically lumping scores together to make contests between communities, unless the primary goal was to get people to desire one community over another? If your motivation were really to help those individual students, you’d use the individual test data to identify which students need what help, and help them.

But the “school vs. school” mentality promoted by the state report cards is pervasive. Currently in Ohio, some politicians continue to discuss plans whereby funding could “follow the student.” A kid who is doing poorly could go to a different school and state funds attached to that kid would go to the new school. This proposal plays right into the “flight or flight” mentality, too, as it presumes that the solution to every problem is for the individual to move.

Wealthier kids have a starting gate that is much closer to the finish line. Everybody loves a horse race, but there’s no drama to this one. Just give them the roses at the beginning and don’t waste our time and money staging a rigged contest.

Given the system we have had, it is utterly unsurprising that we don’t see overall statewide improvement in student performance, but we do see families abandoning some communities to move to other communities in response to the school report cards. If getting people to move is our goal, we could save everyone a lot of trouble simply by telling those folks to look at income levels. Just go to Wikipedia and look up the wealthiest cities in Ohio. Pick out the top 20 wealthiest places in the greater Cleveland area. Now go look up the top 10 highest-scoring Cleveland-area school districts. Those ten school districts cover all but two of the 20 wealthiest places.

Clearly, using student test data to set up a contest among school districts does little more than magnify the advantage of communities that are already advantaged. Worse than that, it’s not telling us anything we didn’t already know decades ago. Wealthier kids have a starting gate that is much closer to the finish line. Everybody loves a horse race, but there’s no drama to this one. Just give them the roses at the beginning and don’t waste our time and money staging a rigged contest.

Five Steps

Certainly there are other unintended negative consequences of easy mobility that merit attention, but these five — abandoned crappy retail space, too much housing, stressed tax bases, persistent racial segregation, and the use of schools as real-estate marketing — give us plenty to chew on. It’s not surprising that our cities have run into unforeseen side effects of increased mobility: society has never encountered these conditions and possibilities before. But now that we’ve seen what’s going on, maybe we could make some adjustments so that the mobility-driven evolution of our cities isn’t quite so brutal to individuals and so disruptive to regional economies. The problems are complex, of course, but still, each of the five ailments above might respond to a fairly simple treatment.

  1. Retail: Leave No Trace

There is a principle taught to every Boy Scout: Leave No Trace. No responsible camper would just leave a worn-out tent in the woods for someone else to clean up. But that is exactly the behavior of big-box retailers. This is frustrating because it comes so close to a sensible approach: why not just acknowledge that big-box retail is nomadic and build things in such a manner that they can be easily dismantled and either transported to a new site or recycled? Maybe the town where it’s built charges a deposit that would cover the cost of putting the land back the way it was and the occupant doesn’t get their deposit back if they don’t restore the place to the way they found it. If an old “box” is vacant for more than a year, it has to come down. Packing up camp is part of the process, just like setting it up.

  1. New Housing: Pay the Full Real Cost
Credit: La Citta Vita (

Credit: La Citta Vita (

New construction on blank land enjoys a lot of subsidies, from the roads that literally pave the way, to the utility lines paid for by past customers, to tax structures that reward new construction over the maintenance or rehabilitation of existing houses. The people building new on the outskirts are among the most advantaged already, so they really don’t need the less wealthy people of the region to subsidize them. We can probably eliminate those discounts. If the lack of a new-construction discount leads someone to decide to stay put and upgrade an existing structure rather than building new, that’s a pretty good sign that building new was not really an economically sound idea in the first place. Over the years, the accumulation of such decisions would gradually mitigate the housing oversupply.

  1. Tax Base: Reduce Oversupply and Don’t Penalize Reinvestment

Broad-based regional tax and revenue sharing is probably unrealistic in an intentionally balkanized place like greater Cleveland, but it might be possible to assess a modest fee on new construction whose sole purpose is to fund the demolition of abandoned housing at the same rate that new units are added relative to population (that is, if housing occupancy is growing at the same rate as new construction, then there’s no fee). That would help keep a lid on the oversupply of housing, thus keeping real estate values up across the region, and it would rid older areas of dangerous blighted structures, and prime those areas for quicker redevelopment.

Americans are conditioned from birth to complain about taxes, but it isn’t necessarily a problem that older areas have higher tax rates, because the older real estate is more affordable in the first place. However, what if you want to build a new house at $150 or $200 per square foot in an old neighborhood whose higher tax rates assume a $75/square-foot value because most buildings have already depreciated for 90 years? Yikes! Older towns need to encode utterly predictable graduated abatements that make the effective tax rate on new construction or extensive renovation in inner-ring Cleveland Heights the same as it would be for new construction in exurban Macedonia (and they need to widely publicize this standard abatement). The city will do fine because the per-square-foot value of the new construction is higher than the typical older Cleveland Heights home and thus roughly the same dollar amount will come in each year. Similar abatements should apply to any major investment in a home’s infrastructure that bring its systems up to “contemporary” standards. Measures such as these would encourage reinvestment in these older neighborhoods where much of the highest-quality (if older) housing stock already exists. Such reinvestment would be a net gain for the region.

Credit: Jauretsi (

Credit: Jauretsi (

Finally, some real estate appraisers and bankers use a set of methods incorporating an assumed “rot rate” that can define entire neighborhoods as bad investments if they are over 50 or even 30 years old. Such formulas exist because they make it easy for lenders to make decisions — just like those property ratings from the 1930s made it easy. But easy isn’t the same as fair or smart. Lenders and appraisers need to account for the fact that houses originally built for middle- and upper-middle-class owners between about 1890 and 1940 have some of the highest-quality construction and materials even though some formulas might suggest they are past their economic lifespan. Nothing built since then can compete with the level of hand-craftsmanship that went into a regular middle-class house. And those houses are tough — the structural wood in the pre-dimension lumber days was notably stronger than post WWII product (just try to saw through an old joist). The scale of the neighborhoods built in that era was defined by the streetcar and the early days of the automobile: notably more spacious than earlier in the 19th century and designed to allow for cars, but still compact enough to comfortably get around on foot or by bicycle. These are the authentic neighborhoods upon which “New Urbanism” is modeled, and these factors of craftsmanship and neighborhood form should enhance investment value — not only for those houses built 80 to 120 years ago, but for any new construction that embodies high craft, quality materials, and efficient site design.

  1. Segregation: Reimagine Identity

Round one in the growth of Cleveland’s population was usually a story of ethnically homogenous groups coming here and setting up ethnically homogenous enclaves (by choice or not). Yes, the city contained diverse cultures, but at closer magnification one could see that these groups did not mix a whole lot at the neighborhood level.

But that seems to be changing now — as downtown, Ohio City, and University Circle attract new investment and new population, property values are climbing in those areas and in nearby neighborhoods. The demographic makeup of those growing core areas tends to be fairly diverse, and one can expect that as population growth spreads outward from those centers, the people occupying the formerly segregated adjacent land will be increasingly mixed in race and culture as well. Places like these can provide a model for how empowering it is for a community to see itself not just through a monocle of common heritage, but through a multidimensional sense of community and shared values. If the coming years show significant population growth in the city, it will be the first time in Cleveland’s history that city neighborhoods have grown without an official framework of racial segregation, and we ought to make the most of that opportunity.

It’s worth noting as well that for every Shaker Heights that successfully integrated in the 1960s and 70s, there are also places that “flipped” from white to black well after the civil rights era, not because of any racist legal framework, but because of the prejudices and fears of individual home and business owners. As long as we continue to see each other and ourselves mainly through the lens of race, then we will continue to sort neighborhoods by race. The only way to get beyond that is to cultivate other senses of shared identity that we decide are more important.

  1. Schools: Local Control with State Supplement

For more than a century, schools have been strongly identified with the communities they serve — not only in the rah-rah sense of cheering for the hometown sports team, but also in the civic significance and permanence that is signaled by stately architecture and the usually prominent location of the high school in a spacious setting at some kind of focal point of the town. This is all great, but it poses a problem in the context of statewide standards: this local tradition can sometimes confound the state’s avowed interest in providing something that approaches fair opportunity in education for all students.

Shifting the way tests are used could not only help improve educational outcomes but at the same time allow each local district to retain some local flavor. First, let each district fund itself as it chooses, and let each substantially control its methods to best match its local community. Second, the state should use its test data to improve education where the need is greatest, on a student-by-student basis. That could be as simple as having state-employed specialists trained in remediating particular kinds of learning deficits — in reading, writing, math, science, history, arts, and so on — come in to supplement the local school’s own teaching corps. Certainly that’s a more effective response than saying “we’re going to publish school district report cards that reflect where the rich and poor kids live and you can try to move to a wealthier place — and good luck with that.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Fear of retail competition, fear of a home investment losing value, fear of taxes rising, fear of other races, fear that your kids might fall behind other kids — our preoccupation with mobility seems driven as much by fear as by romance. These days it’s not so much fear of oppression or persecution but fear of being left behind in a policy environment that favors flight and abandonment, that privileges those with the wealth and inclination to move. It can even start to seem as if this policy environment might not be an accident — that it is an intentional effort to make sure the advantaged can always leave behind the disadvantaged. But that would only happen if these policies were crafted by people who already had most of the wealth and power and felt entitled to even more. And that would never happen, would it?


Credit: G.M. Donley

So let’s be nice and assume the policies weren’t created with our current result in mind, but that the set of assumptions that underpinned those policies haven’t held true in the Rust Belt and we’ve had unintended consequences. The primary faulty assumption has been that population would continue to grow. When you combine subsidized residential mobility with flat or shrinking population, you get rising taxes, property depreciation, and economic stagnation, and all the social ills associated with those stresses.

But of course regions do go through cycles of growth and shrinkage, so it makes sense to question the assumption that mobility is the solution to every problem. In our Rust Belt scenario of regional population stagnation, a romanticized devotion to mobility has often caused more problems than it has solved. Desegregation was made possible by greater mobility. And suburban flight to escape school busing was also made possible by mobility.

All of that said, sometimes flight IS the smart response. Sometimes moving to another place is the best way to “reset” a student’s approach to school. Sometimes a simple change of scenery opens up one’s mind to new possibilities and helps to shed old negative expectations. An August 24, 2015 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, described a study by the University of Oxford’s David Kirk that compared the recidivism rates for prisoners who were in a Louisiana penitentiary during Hurricane Katrina. Many of their home neighborhoods were destroyed by the storm, so when they were eventually released from prison, some had to relocate to other places while others went back to their old neighborhoods. The ones who went back to the old neighborhoods had a 60% recidivism rate, while for those who went to other places it was 45%. Human behavior is shaped not just by the inclinations of the individual, but by social settings that reinforce or discourage particular actions.

In our age of easy mobility, it’s always an option to set out for what we imagine is that Better Place. But we might be smarter to invest where we are to make our Place Better.

Of course that’s also the thinking behind the breakup of concentrated poverty that was embodied in high-rise housing projects by tearing down the housing and dispersing former residents throughout a region. Statistics show that such measures have decreased crime and increased opportunity for many of the people who had lived in the projects. But that doesn’t mean all neighbors are eager for Section 8 housing on their own street (all those old fears at play). The people who have most exploited mobility have not been those whom it would most benefit (people stuck in toxic poor neighborhoods) but the wealthier half of society using their money to distance themselves from poverty, and all too often that pattern of flight has had negative effects on the regional economy, not to mention the social fabric.

The view from the airplane makes it clear that in trying to spread too far too quickly, we weaken our very fabric — not only is it frayed at the edges, it’s also unraveling in the middle. Flying into a Rust Belt city you’ll often see the blue sparkles of swimming pools giving way to cast-off neighborhoods left to rot as if they were fast-food trash tossed out the car window. We may be able to drive around that on the ground, but from the air it is plain to see that we are not only allowing weak places to compromise the structural integrity of the whole, but we are also missing an enormous opportunity to revive the existing fabric with new designs and stronger material. In our age of easy mobility, it’s always an option to set out for what we imagine is that Better Place. But we might be smarter to invest where we are to make our Place Better.

G. M. Donley is a Cleveland Heights, Ohio-based writer, photographer, and designer.

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