America’s middle is falling behind and too often falling apart, as economic data and presidential politics so starkly reveal. With the loss of manufacturing jobs and a transition to high-tech service economies, rural America has seen declining incomes and a loss of opportunity, while at the same time witnessing increasing wealth in our big cities.
It’s a recipe for frustration and anger, and it leaves a vacuum for demagogues to fill. While I’d love to see a Marshall Plan for America’s middle, with infrastructure investment and other incentives for entrepreneurs to start businesses there, there may be some steps that cities in the heartland can take to help themselves in the meantime.
James Fallows of the Atlantic took a whirlwind tour of the country and reports back on the 11 signs that a city will succeed. While the recommendations aren’t solely aimed at heartland cities, I think they offer some powerful lessons. And one of those suggestions has to do with urban infill and a focus on the downtown:
Most of the cities we visited were pouring attention, resources, and creativity into their downtown. The Main Street America project, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has coordinated downtown-revival projects in some 2,000 communities. Of the downtowns we saw, Greenville’s and Burlington’s were the most advanced, studied by planners around the world. But downtown ambitions of any sort are a positive sign, and second- and third-floor apartments and condos over restaurants and stores with lights on at night suggest that the downtown has crossed a decisive threshold and will survive.
It’s easy to think of infill as a big issue in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, but we can’t forget what a powerful economic driver it can be in places struggling to compete in the new economy. It’s not a perfect solution, but it could go a long way to addressing some of the economic and social challenges facing these regions.