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Fifth and Final Round: Predictions for 2009

We saved some great predictions for last: Jess Zimbabwe, of the Mayor’s Institute on City Design; Sarah Szurpicki, of Great Lakes Urban Exchange; and Nate Berg, of Planetizen. It’s kind of like the grand finale of a fireworks show.

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Jess Zimbabwe lives in Washington, D.C. ; Sarah Szurpicki lives in Detroit; and Nate Berg lives in Los Angeles. Here we go:

What city do you predict will be hit the hardest by the economic crisis?
JZ: Las Vegas. It’s trite (and untrue) to say that Vegas is fake, but it does lack for the reality of a job base that doesn’t depend on showy affluence. As Americans cut back on vacation budgets, conferences and trade shows see leaner registration numbers, and the real estate industry swallows the reality that growth doesn’t continue inevitably, Vegas will find itself facing the tough problems of water shortage, an absence of real public transportation, sprawling land use, abundant vacant housing and a slew of half-finished construction projects with dwindled potential investment money with which to work.

SS:I’d argue against the idea that this economic crisis is new; it’s been battering Detroit and the other cities of the Rust Belt for years. Unfortunately, being the (oft-ignored) harbinger doesn’t mean that we’re going to get off easy. Depending on what happens with the auto industry in the next six months, the answer to this question might be Detroit, Flint, Toledo, and the other cities that depend on auto. But don’t despair! See my answer the next question!

NB: Of the cities I’ve visited in the U.S., I’d bet that New Orleans is going to take this recession the hardest. It’s a city trying to climb back up — and one that needs a lot of outside investment to do so. But now that money’s tight, I’d expect to see a lot less economic development. I think the population will continue to slowly rise there, but it will take a while for the local economy to rebound. It’s definitely going to be a poorer city overall.

Will there be a comeback in Detroit (beyond the auto industry, but in the city itself)? If yes, how? If no, what will happen to the city then?

JZ: Detroit is in a really bad spot. It has a few remaining glimmers of hope: a fantastic new riverfront walk, cultural amenities like great museums, four professional sports teams (though, do the Lions still count this year?) and several notable new employers and mixed-use development projects scattered around downtown. But the greatest resource that could be available to save Detroit lies just north of Eight Mile Road. Oakland County, home to Detroit’s northern suburbs, is one of the richest counties in the country. Detroit’s suburban political leaders need to recognize that they can’t just wall in the City and expect to keep a vibrant economy in their own hamlets. The recent scandals out of the Detroit mayor’s office haven’t helped build trust in the city’s ability to govern itself effectively, and even the suburbs are feeling the mortgage crises and job losses from the auto industry. But some form of regional revenue sharing or consolidated service delivery — at least for financing infrastructure projects like transit that connect the city with the suburbs — is necessary. Metro areas around the country are waking up to the realization that without a central city, the suburbs have nothing to distinguish themselves to an increasingly mobile American population. The center must hold.

SS:Heck yes! Maybe I’m biased as a metro-Detroiter, but one advantage of being the first to feel the pain is that we’ve been slowly, quietly working through the problems of vacancy, foreclosure, unemployment and unsustainable planning decisions, etc., for a long time, and attitudes in Detroit about what’s next for us are slowly undergoing a sea change. We’re talking more about reinvesting in our infrastructure, incentivizing smart growth, prioritizing education, and keeping our talented workers here. In short, we’re beginning to understand what makes a city successful in the 21st century. Detroiters are motivated by strong community ties and a desire to realize the strength of our infrastructural and intellectual legacy. I’m hopeful that, now that the rest of the country is also stressed, federal and state policies will change to be more supportive of our post-industrial cities.

NB: The comeback I’d like to see Detroit make should be more like a reincarnation. The city is going to have to come back in a dramatically different form, one that has a much smaller scale. A shrinking city can still be a successful city, and cities like Youngstown, Ohio; Leipzig, Germany; and Manchester, England, (and maybe soon New Orleans) have shown that decline can be elegantly controlled. Detroit will have to get even more creative in dealing with its abandoned and foreclosed properties. Its pocket parks and urban farming ideas are great, but Detroit will also need to be very forward-thinking in actually creating jobs for the people who are still in town, not just cleaning up after those who’ve already left.

If 2008 was the year of “green” and “sustainability,” 2009 will be the year of …..?

JZ: Immigration and cultural diversity. Many American cities haven’t yet grappled with the real impacts of their growing foreign-born populations. European cities, perhaps because they are more secure in their more historically-rooted identities, have done a lot more to incorporate minority identities into the public awareness of the place. Every city, from Las Vegas to Detroit, could benefit from the economic shot in the arm that a vibrant immigrant community can create. It’s just a question of how quickly each city realizes that and starts planning for immigration as a positive impact.

SS: Fixing it first.

NB: 2009 will be the year that people really start to draw the connection between our shortsighted urban development patterns and increasing environmental degradation. The green wave has taken over the American consciousness and, whether we’re actually doing anything about it or not, we all seem to know that our lifestyle isn’t so great for the world. In 2009, I hope that this green consciousness broadens out to consider not just the terrible effects, but the terrible causes. A lot of what we have built — from individual buildings to entire cities to national infrastructure projects — exacerbates many of the environmental issues we’ve just recently started to superficially care about. These physical elements really do play a huge role in determining our lifestyles. I hope that the general public will come to understand that role and demand more.

What is the story in your city that no one is covering that you think will make the news this year?

JZ: Neighborhood and local retail. After a pretty crap-tastic holiday shopping season, I’ve seen some pretty dire predictions about the viability of small retailers. In my neighborhood’s three-block commercial core, three restaurants and two stores closed while I was out of the country for five weeks. Besides the obvious losses of jobs and economic activity, this is going to deaden an awful lot of urban streets.

SS: A new generation of progressive political leaders is positioning itself to remake the political landscape of Detroit.

NB: Here in L.A. the immigrant population is huge, as is the population of illegal immigrants. These groups are typically underserved in many American cities and I think that will continue to be the case in the near future. Legal immigrants are making up a bigger portion of the American tableau, so I think they’re going to be able to push their weight around a little better than they have in the past. The major issue will be for illegal immigrants in American cities. So, yeah, MBAs are losing their cushy Wall Street jobs and it’s terrible, but even in good times it’s hard for illegal immigrants to find work. I think it’s going to get even harder.

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Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: washington dclos angelesdetroitlas vegas

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