Changing Rules of Regional Development?

Inside Game/Outside Game: Winning Strategies for Urban America, by David Rusk. Brookings Institution Press, 1999. 384 pp.


David Rusk’s book, Inside Game/Outside Game, is a welcome antidote to the often flat commentary and policy recommendations of urban revitalization literature. Content to work with what is, most analyses fix on the tools and fads of the day. The questions are interchangeable: can targeted tax incentives or privatization save blighted areas? Can community development block grants or urban development block grants save communities and neighborhoods? Can enterprise zones save cities? Can tourism, arts centers, or stadiums serve as an urban revitalization strategy?

Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, NM, argues that such strategies and analyses miss the point: the game is not within the confines and control of a city’s governance and economy. The problems of urban America, Rusk argues, stem from federal, state, and local entities’ fragmented political, economic, and land-use choices. Uneven tax burdens have starved city programs and services and led to lowered quality of life, while highways, sewers, and other amenities have subsidized low-density suburbs. These fiscal and infrastructural choices bleed the economic life of cities and retard their development.

Rusk’s analysis is certainly not new. Scholars have documented the federal role in creating suburbs and the consequences of local governments’ political fragmentation. But the public’s tastes are another dimension to be considered. Simply, we as a nation like low-density living. Suburbs exist because we desire them and we desire them at the expense of the next person, the next jurisdiction, and the next city. Despite many polls showing our dislike for long commutes or sitting in traffic for routine errands, new strip malls and planned developments on former farmland continue proliferating.

Rusk and others use this analysis to call for a change in how we subsidize low-density jurisdictions at cities’ expense and for dramatic shifts in long-time political and economic trends. In this context, “changing the rules of the game” means fighting ourselves and entrenched interests such as home and commercial developers.

Rusk and others argue that such a battle is winnable. The political strategy rests on a potential coalition of regional interests. These interests could be core city governments, civic groups, metropolitan governance organizations, and groups and governments in inner-ring suburbs now feeling the effects of continuing tax and infrastructural subsidies to outlying areas of the metropolis. Rusk is especially hopeful about the rise of faith-based community organizers who are now linking the issue of sprawl development to fiscal inequities between core cities and suburbs and also concentrated poverty in core cities.

This policy and political strategy is reasonable. Many groups and organizations have a potential stake in mitigating the effects of sprawl development. Cumulatively, these disparate interests are a potential force for increased metropolitan equity. But such coalitions often fail to work collectively. Strong and often idiosyncratic reasons for non-cooperation exist, reasons that may show themselves at any point of a coalition’s efforts.

The way to keep such coalitions together is to establish early and ongoing clear divisible returns on the investment of time and effort. It is hard to envision producing such returns in what is certain to be a prolonged battle. Any coalition between inner-ring suburbs and the central city is prone to political cherry picking based on any number of factors, including old standbys such as race, class, and ethnic chauvinism.

If widespread coalitions of inner cities and inner-ring suburbs are unsure propositions, changing the rules at the state level is surely less certain in the short run. Politicians do not, as a rule, run in front of their constituents. One of the highlights of Rusk’s book is a series of case studies of coalitions based on economic development, affordable housing, and other areas of importance to individuals, communities, and governments. These examples warrant books by themselves. This is the main limitation of Inside Game/Outside Game and other work by fellow travelers on the regional road. We need deeper analyses of political and economic factors that condition support (or non-support) of regional and state growth management policies.

Rusk and others may be right. There may well be disquiet in the populace at large, which coalitions, politicians, and public managers are beginning to pick up. If this is so, we need to analyze what is happening. It is only after several such analyses have been completed that we can give credence to Rusk’s main policy recommendation that regional growth management policies could increase core cities’ vitality.

Inside Game/Outside Game is an important book that should frame a continuing and deeper analysis of places where the rules of the game are changing. Those of us who care about urban places’ livability and sustainability must go the next step and examine the basis of true change in the rules of the game.

 

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