METROPOLITICS: A regional agenda for community and stability

“METROPOLITICS: A regional agenda for community and stability” by Myron Orfield
October 2000

“METROPOLITICS: A regional agenda for community and stability” (1997) by Myron Orfield presents a convincing solution to a surprising array of problems. Americans hate sprawl, but they hate even more anything that they can find a way to label socialism. Orfield describes a system of regional government — tried and tested by himself and others in Minnesota — that promoters of corporate profit will have a difficult time pinning the pinko label on. Much of what Orfield thinks promotes sprawl are government regulations and projects of an undesirable sort.

Regional planning reduces competition among towns, counties, and neighborhoods that hurts them all. Without regionalism, taxpayers end up subsidizing sprawl and ghettoization. Companies play one locality off against another to find the biggest giveaways. Developers lobby successfully for publicly funded infrastructure in the hinterlands, and affluent (largely white) residents move out of downtown. Schools in the city become dominated by poor students, taxes are raised to subsidize the wealthy suburbs, and white flight escalates.

Orfield’s book concentrates on the example of Minneapolis/St. Paul, but is applicable around the United States, and presents useful strategies for improving schools, creating affordable housing, and numerous other projects in addition to protecting the environment and quality of life. Orfield maintains that higher spending on schools in areas of concentrated poverty is pointless. What’s needed, he says, is (aside from the elimination of poverty, and as a step in that direction) a redistribution moving some of the poor to the suburbs and some of the wealthy downtown. He wants to fight sprawl, in fact, by building affordable housing in the suburbs. This is because he sees a primary promoter of sprawl as ghettoization and white flight.

Of course, Orfield also wants to see denser construction, and argues that competition among localities drives the desire for less dense construction in hopes that it will produce more tax revenue than it produces demand for services. Regional planning can avoid this vicious rivalry, and — by mixing housing of various prices — can allow people to live nearer their jobs, thus cutting the costs of transportation throughout the region.

I think Orfield’s point about schools is worth quoting a few passages. I, for one, am immediately suspicious of any assertion that what struggling schools need is not money. But this one I find persuasive:

“Schools are the first victim and most powerful perpetuator of metropolitan polarization.”

“Few people realize that the central-city schools spend $7,060 per pupil. 15 percent more than any other group of districts in the Twin Cities. Spending on central-city schools is also high in Chicago, Atlanta, and many other cities throughout the United States. No matter where it occurs, higher spending does little to attract or retain middle-class students. The existing level of poverty and student diversity are overriding deflectors.”

“‘If you just fix the schools so the middle class will be comfortable, the city will stabilize,’ reform advocates often say. This claim would be true if anyone knew how to fix monolithically poor schools. School reformers, like reform advocates for cities, rarely take into account the effects of concentrated poverty on schools — effects that are fundamental to how attractive these schools appear to the middle class.”

A Letter to the Editor
Printed in The Nation in January 2001.
14 Nov. 2000

The Nation

To the editor:

Thanks to Jay Walljasper for a terrific article on Myron Orfield and his plans (and achievements) for metropolitics! One of the many important details he could not fit into the article was the explanation Orfield’s analysis gives for why – in the words of many a Republican – “Schools need more than just money.” Schools – all schools – need more money and lots of it. But the concentration of severely poor students in certain schools, not relative underfunding, is key to their relative failure. This problem will only be aggravated by vouchers, but proponents of vouchers have got one thing right: students do better when placed in schools with other students who bring some learning from home. Orfield’s ideas for regional planning offer an actual solution to this national disaster, namely the reduction of concentrated poverty.

Walljasper concluded by suggesting we promote metropolitics as something “pragmatic” rather than “just.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it sounds to me like an underestimation of the potential here. Increasingly, labor unions and environmental groups are forming blue-green alliances against sprawl, big-box employers, the defunding of mass-transit and affordable housing, the lengthening of commuting time, and the transfer of jobs to suburban un-unionized companies. “Unions are basically an urban institution,” Don Turner, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor told me in arguing for such efforts, which are being led by a group called Good Jobs First (http://www.goodjobsfirst.com).

At a national conference on living-wage campaigns in Baltimore Nov. 10-12, ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) discussed building coalitions with environmentalists. Wade Rathke of ACORN and SEIU in New Orleans (where a living wage of $1 above the federal minimum wage will be on a ballot in February or March) said, “You cannot separate economic development from income policy.” Other participants at the conference recommended working for local laws requiring economic development commissions to bring any decision above a certain dollar figure before elected officials for a public vote. In Minnesota a state law now requires these commissions to establish criteria for giving out their (that is, the public’s) money. With advocates for the working poor pushing such issues, not to mention the expectation that the North Pole will be melted before today’s young workers have grandchildren, it’s hard not to see regional planning as a matter of justice.

Sincerely,
David Swanson