Challenges in an Increasingly Suburban America

David Lampe

A New Urban Era
        The problems cities face are legion, but they are symptomatic of a fundamental trend: middle class and professional people -- particularly married couples with young children -- choose not to reside in the urban core. Discouraged by dangerous streets, dangerous schools and the slim likelihood of accumulating equity through home ownership in the central city, the prosperous and prosperity's aspirants choose not to live in or near downtown.
        Middle class flight from cities is a rational response to the effects of irrational policies: the gradual worsening of urban crime, deterioration of inner-city schools, and neglect of urban infrastructure. As former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk has said, "To be elected mayor of a major central city today is to be invited to preside over disaster." In his recent book, Cities Without Suburbs, Rusk argues that the successful central cities of the 21st century will be those with the legal and physical capacity to annex large areas of undeveloped or sparsely developed territory, thus permitting them to accommodate "suburban-style" growth.
        Rusk's solution, of course, is politically impossible in most major metro areas. If we have learned nothing else from the urban experience of the last 30 years, we surely know that central cities must look inward -- not outward to the wealthy and growing suburbs -- for the keys to their future, and the promise of prosperity. If central cities -- still the economic engines and major focus of identification for metropolitan regions -- are to become "life-style enclaves," it is up to their residents to define the nature of that life-style, through the political channels available to them.
        Despite population loss to surrounding suburbs, major American cities have summoned up the political will (and attracted the capital) to erect proud office towers, invest in downtown pedestrian malls and renovate or redevelop former industrial districts into mixed-use, commercial-retail residential clusters. Nonetheless, in too many central city downtowns, the patina of prosperity that prevails during business hours is replaced after 6:00 pm with a marginal and desperate street life. Moreover, the on-coming and inevitable demographic profile of the United States is already reflected in most of our larger cities. But our diverse and polyglot cities, where the vision of the melting pot daily plays itself out, are but junior partners in our federal system.

Limits to the Power of City Government
        The most progressive urban regime, however eager it is to push the "city limits" in fostering an environment hospitable to both business and socio-economic, racial/ethnic, and life-style diversity, is still subject to state and national policies that favor suburbanization.
        After all, while nearly 80 percent of the U.S. population is technically "metropolitan," more than half of this population resides in the suburbs. And it is precisely because more than half of the population lives in the suburbs that national and state policies favor them. The political culture of the United States, in which we are instructed at an early age, holds that the only opinions that matter are those held by the majority (i.e., one-half plus one). Never mind if that implies oppression (at worst) or disempowerment (at best) of ten, twenty, thirty, or even forty nine percent of the electorate. The majority have spoken, and that's the end of it.
        So more than half of the American electorate live in the suburbs -- a fact that fascinated political pundits during the 1992 general election campaign season. How would they vote, these suburbanized and, presumably, conservatized, voters? Very conservatively indeed, sending the first minority president to the White House in over twenty years. However moderate (some would say liberal) the new president, he could hardly claim a strong electoral mandate, having garnered less than half of the popular vote.
        However stirring the campaign rhetoric, no massive urban agenda is likely to emerge from Washington, given the anti-urban bias of a Congress that reflects half of America and the dubious heft of a sympathetic minority president. Will the needs of the nearly one-third of Americans who live in central cities be satisfied by a system that responds to the will of the majority? Not likely, given the success in recent years of well-meaning appeals to liberal guilt. Absent electoral reform contrived to secure a Congress and state legislatures that truly "reflect America," America's cities must continue to look inward.

A Civic Infrastructure: Looking for Solutions Within
        Looking inward means solving the conflicts that cleave urban America along racial, ethnic and socio-economic lines. It means mobilizing the latent civic capacity all cities possess to improve public education, support families, care for the needy and administer an increasingly stingy slice of the federal pie more efficiently and effectively. It means embracing and teaching values of mutual respect and fellowship. And it means reforming our politics, beginning with the fundamentals.
        Comprehensive, meaningful electoral reform is needed today, especially (but not exclusively) in our central cities, where populations and political leanings are the most diverse and complex. Real representation, emerging from a politics that emphasizes issues and skills over polarization and confrontation, is the first substantive step our cities must take toward renewal if they are to govern themselves responsively and
successfully in this age of do-it-yourself federalism.        
        We know the consequences of our failure to act. Virtually every condition identified by the various studies of urban violence during the 1960s was not only still present but substantially worse by the spring of 1992, when Los Angeles and several other cities exploded in civil unrest. By any objective standard, disparities in educational attainment, employment, family wealth, access to decent housing and services, political empowerment and life prospects are most apparent in our cities, where rich and poor live side by side.
        Our democracy and our politics require reform -- at all levels, but most critically in our cities, where the consequences of inaction will most assuredly be ongoing decay. Beyond the introduction of electoral systems that assure fair and balanced representation, we must look toward reform in campaign financing, conflict of interest, lobbying, access to media and the use of initiative, referendum and recall.

        David Lampe is editor of The National Civic Review, the quarterly publication of the Denver, Colorado-based National Civic League. He serves as Treasurer of the Board of Directors of The Center for Voting and Democracy.


Table of Contents