February 9, 1998
HON 203--Cities and the Environmental Crisis
Prof. Dennis Judd, Ph.D.
The Myriad Problems and Potential Solutions of Landscape Dereliction
Urban development in the United States since World War Two has been shaped both by individual decisions and by public policies. The myth of rugged individualism, the decline of heavy industry, growth of agribusiness, and accelerated depreciation of commercial property under the federal tax code, have been four of the major factors leading to decay and dereliction both in central cities and in many small towns. However, it is becoming abundantly clear that, thanks to rapid suburbanization, supplies of natural and material resources are themselves no longer as abundant as in the past. In order to correct fifty years of dereliction and sprawl, it is necessary to reassess the underlying cultural beliefs which have produced it, and then to likewise reassess public policy. Joe Frank.
Underlying Cultural Mythology
Although cultural forces are never static, nevertheless the values of most citizens of the United States are bound by certain core concepts. According to John Jake and David Wilson, "Self-improvement has been a primary motivating force in American history. . . Although individuals formed communities to achieve their goals, the central idea was one of improving oneself as an individual" (1992, p. 34). This force is illustrated in two axioms of American culture, the view of the nation as ultimately "the land of opportunity," and the ideal of "the 'self-made man,' " whose individual decisions and initiative alone enabled success (p. 34). Joe Frank.
Also, "Freedom and the rights of private property are seen in the United States as closely intertwined . . . The relative absence of political restraint and the availability of economic alternatives of action traditionally have given Americans their sense of independence, especially in the buying and selling of property" (p. 34). Americans consider their right to self-determination, i.e. 'the pursuit of happiness' expressed in the Declaration of Independence, as sacrosanct. However, wealth concentration still occurs, thus limiting to some extent the possibility for unlimited movement up the social ladder. Most of today's 'self-made' billionaires, as contrasted with the 'old money' families who inherited their fortunes, came from middle-class and upper-class backgrounds. They quickly advanced several socio-economic rungs because they were already at relatively high levels. It is unusual for a child of poverty to achieve millionaire or billionaire status. The few individuals who do so typically do it in the entertainment industries, most notably professional sports, music, television and film. Joe Frank.
High physical mobility was characterized early by the frontier mentality and the cowboy icon, both which emphasize escape and independence. Thus, "community has received short shrift in America" (p. 36). "The pioneering American was seen to draw on inner resources toward the shaping of personal destinies in a competition set up with self, with others, and with the environment" (p. 39). This competitive individualism "breeds loneliness and alienation in self-absorption" (p. 40). Likewise, "relations between people are largely those of mutual exploitation" (p. 41). The relationship of people to other organisms and the abiotic components of the environment, meanwhile, has been largely that of pure one-way exploitation. Joe Frank.
Thus progress is a central precept of American mythology. "Self-improvement, freedom, liberty, equal opportunity are all pointed toward change as progress. . . Life is viewed as a path with a particular direction. It is a path along which the individual faces ever forward in search of fulfillment" (p. 52). This ultimate fulfillment will probably never be achieved by many individuals, simply because of mortality. In America, change is progress; it "does not have to be justified, or defended" (p. 54). Joe Frank.
The Decline of Industry
The modern postindustrial economy, with its focus on services rather than on production of goods, has meant "deindustrialization, . . . the systematic disinvestment of the nation's basic productive capacity" (p. 57). Short-term profits overrule long-term planning, and much production is shifted to lower cost regions of the world, particularly those with growing, destitute populations, no labor organizing, and few environmental regulations or taxes. Industrialists are in "a continuous search for optimal profit environments, . . . [and] ties to locality [are] far from certain in today's world" (p. 58). Joe Frank.
As a result of this constant striving for maximum feasible profits, "Corporate investments abroad expanded from 21 percent to 40 percent of total investments during the 1960s" (p. 62). "General Electric, for example, increased overseas capacity by 400 percent between 1949 and 1969 by building 60 of 80 plants abroad. During the 1970s, General Electric added 5,000 workers to its payroll worldwide, adding 30,000 foreign jobs and eliminating 25,000 in the United States" (p. 62). Joe Frank.
The biggest impacts of this massive disinvestment were felt "in the old 'manufacturing belt' of the Northeast and Middle West. Approximately 32-38 million jobs were lost nationally as a direct result of American business disinvestment during the 1970s" (p. 68). As a result of such economic restructuring, "communities are battered and beaten. Jobs, investment, and energy are systematically withdrawn--shattering lives, upending careers, and uprooting families. Municipalities, moreover, are cut off from their major tax providers, eroding the tax base" (p. 72). In particular, "Steel makers in the 1960s and 1970s appeared to be giving up the steel business altogether in favor of investments in other industries where profits were higher" (p.74). "U. S. Steel Corporation (now USX) accelerated its diversification in the 1970s. Between 1976 and 1979 the corporation's nonsteel assets grew 80 percent to $4.7 billion, while steel assets increased only 13 percent to $5.9 billion" (p. 74). The same year the company closed its major Youngstown, Ohio steel production facility, U.S. Steel "opened a new shopping center near Pittsburgh containing Pennsylvania's largest mall, and the company joined with other to build a vast chemical works near Houston in Texas" (p. 74). Joe Frank.
These plant closings are devastating to local and regional economies, to individuals, to families, and to society. "With each unemployment percentage point increase in 1980, gross national product declined $68 billion and tax revenues fell $20 billion. Moreover, expenditures from unemployment insurance benefits, food stamps, and other forms of public aid rose $4 billion" (p. 75). Likewise, "each percentage point increase in unemployment brings 37,000 additional deaths, including 920 suicides and 650 homicides. Mental hospital and prison populations jump by some 4,000 and 3,300 people, respectively" (p. 75). Joe Frank.
Job loss and uncertainty produce constant mobility. "Between 1965 and 1970, 47 percent of all Americans changed their place of residence. . . In the 1970s some 7 million people moved to the South and some 5 million people moved to the West primarily from the Northeast and Middle West" (p. 75). "Thus, the geographical center of the U.S. population moved 58 feet to the west and 29 feet to the south each day" (p. 75). At the 1970 census, that population center was located just outside Mascoutah, Illinois. In 1980, its location was decreed to be near DeSoto, Missouri. By 1990, the U.S. population center had progressed to the vicinity of Steelville, Missouri. Although sometimes local civic booster have tried to use the population center status as a way of attracting businesses and residents, it generally has not worked. Why move to the population center, when it will be somewhere else in a few days? More than that, many towns with the honor of population center just did not have the infrastructure or accessibility to enable widespread new development. Mascoutah and DeSoto have certainly attracted investment, but really only because of their outer-suburb status in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Joe Frank.
Deindustrialization has also meant individual economic regression. "New jobs generated in a locality following plant closing usually translate into lower wages, especially for older workers. In the 1970s, real wages of Americans declined more than 20 percent" (p. 76). New jobs in service-sector industries generally "paid less, offered less security, and provided fewer benefits. In Philadelphia, for example, the average manufacturing wage in 1980 was $265, but retail clerks and bankers earned an average of $124 and $174, respectively" (p. 76). Joe Frank.
The decline of communities has been encouraged and fostered by policies. "The [federal government] Commission for a National Agenda for the 1980s, . . . surveyed a wide range of economic and social problems to advise a redirection of federal urban policies away from 'place-oriented' aid to 'people-oriented' projects. Aiding communities, especially through local governments, was seen as nonproductive" (p. 78). Thus deindustrialization has been a driving force behind urban dereliction. Joe Frank.
Rural Dereliction Through Farm Consolidation
In rural areas, a different yet related dynamic has resulted in the virtual abandonment of many small towns. The countryside may seem static, comforting, and tranquil. However, mega-corporations have taken hold of agriculture, creating agribusiness. Mining and other resource extraction activities have been abandoned when they became unprofitable, leaving toxic effluents in their wake, and vast rural brownfields where nothing will grow, development is usually impossible, and cleanup projects miserably underfunded and slow. Rural America has certainly been changing--"Those who would seek refuge there, beware!" (p. 197). Joe Frank.
Farmers' numbers have been rapidly declining. "The number of [farms] declined from 6.2 million in 1940 to 2.4 million in 1981 while the average size of farms increased from 175 to 428 acres . . . By 1982, people living on farms had declined to 5.6 million, or only 2.4 percent of the nation's total population" (p. 198). Likewise, farm production has been concentrated under the power of a few. "The 17,000 farms with gross annual sales of more than $500,000, comprising the top 1 percent nationally in 1980, produced about 27 percent of the nation's farm commodities, with the smallest 50 percent accounting for less than 3 percent" (p. 198). Ownership of the land has also become highly concentrated. "In 1974, farms with 2,000 or more acres represented 3 percent of total farms, but 46 percent of farmland" (p. 198). Such "Large-scale 'factory' farms differ from traditional family operations in that they are dependent on hired labor that is typically socially disadvantaged--sharp divisions evolving in areas with big farms between a small landowning and reasonably prosperous elite, and a large mass of laborers who live only slightly above the subsistence level" (p. 198). Thus inequality and low mobility become entrenched among the residents of such plantations. Joe Frank.
Although big corporations do not directly run many farms, "they do dominate the financing and marketing of agricultural products as well as the manufacture of equipment and the provisioning of farm supplies and services. . . Implement manufacturers, hybrid seed suppliers, fertilizer and pesticide producers of irrigation technologies--all have pushed farmers toward larger-scale production" (p. 198). This troubling trend extends into distribution and processing of farm products. "By the 1970s four firms had come to control production of 87 percent of the nation's breakfast cereal, and 85 percent of the bread and prepared flour" (p. 198). Joe Frank.
The federal policy of commodity price stablization has also encouraged concentrated ownership of agricultural facilities. "Federal programs have aided middle- and upper-income farmers primarily. Agricultural price supports . . . provide farmers with guaranteed incomes by covering differences between actual market prices and specified target prices" (p. 199). Further, specialization has accompanied the establishment of larger and larger farms. "Farmers buy most of what they need to operate. . . production costs are approximately three-quarters of gross output" (p. 199). Joe Frank.
Likewise the number of farm product distribution points has decreased. Produce market terminals have been consolidated in major cities, and most of the stockyards outside Chicago have closed, including the once gigantic facility in National City, Illinois near St. Louis. As large corporations have taken control of finished product development, packaging, and distribution, so too have large groceries taken over the role of final distribution to the consumer. While small food shops do exist, the majority of those are part of large chains and attached to gasoline stations, thus they charge a substantial premium for the 'convenience' of their sales locations. Joe Frank.
With the decline of the small farmer, fewer viable small towns can be supported. A study of two California towns by Walter Goldschmidt in the 1940s found that "the towns supported by small farms had twice as many business establishments. This town type did 61 percent more retail trade. . . independent entrepreneurs comprised more than half of the population, as against less than one-fifth for the large farm place where nearly two-thirds were lowly paid farm workers" (p. 211). "On average, one small business forcibly closes every time a town's hinterland loses six farm families to farm consolidation" (p. 211). Joe Frank.
Given this widespread decline of agriculture, it seems that most small towns will need to associate themselves with a major institution like the county government or a college in order to survive as independent entities. For most, death is inevitable given current consolidation trends. Some, however, are melding themselves onto areas of suburbanization. However, this can be a mixed blessing. Washington, Missouri has experienced rapid growth as an outer suburb of St. Louis, thanks to the incessant westward movement of the metropolitan population. The traditional downtown area, on the Missouri River bank, has nevertheless lost commercial functions to the shopping centers a few miles south along Route 100. Indeed, the type of development on that strip of Rt. 100 resembles closely shopping areas in west St. Louis County about twenty miles east on Manchester Road, which is literally the very same road. Although areas in between Ellisville and Washington still appear rural, most properties there are large-lot, high-price residential parcels. Agriculture has largely disappeared from far west St. Louis County and eastern Franklin County, except in isolated places. Such a pattern mirrors what is occurring even more quickly in central St. Charles County, and happened in the suburban areas east of I-270 decades ago. Although a few small farming operations persist in those areas, most are only a few acres in scale, and located on rugged terrain or floodplains generally not suited to residential or commercial development. Still, high property taxes make it hard to dedicate even a few suburban acres to agriculture. Actually, in terms of topography and land price, some areas of North St. Louis city might be attractive for farming. However, the entrenched urban infrastructure and relatively high tax rate, coupled with environmental pollution and fragmentation of available parcels make such a possibility unlikely except on a very small scale such as that demonstrated in the 'Gateway to Gardening' organization projects. Joe Frank.
In addition to the policies already mentioned, federal taxation policies have helped accelerate the decline of many areas. Joe Frank.
"Through the 1960s and 1970s, American corporations were allowed to credit--rather than deduct--foreign tax payments against domestic tax obligations. Moreover, they were allowed to postpone tax payment until actual repatriation of profits earned overseas" (p. 63-64). Many corporations thus juggled their books to minimize the amount paid to any governmental entity, with their effective tax paid being "just 5 percent" (p. 64). Joe Frank.
Even more substantially, "federal tax codes of the 1960s and 1970s provided investment incentives in new equipment, plants, and new locations. Investment tax credits helped defray new facility costs with start-up costs at new locations also made tax deductible. Accelerated depreciation [to a 20-year time frame] allowances on new facilities further provided incentive to transfer operations" and abandon old facilities (p. 70). The costs of relocation were counted as a business expense. Property tax assessments on abandoned properties dropped rapidly of course, precipitating accompanying drops in surrounding property values, paradoxically but not surprisingly coupled with increased demand for public expenditure to serve the newly unemployed. Joe Frank.
Progress Is Slow
As a result of these policies and processes, decay and dereliction continue. Slowly though, attempts at stopping dereliction and encouraging renewal have developed. However, most have not been successful on a significant scale. Joe Frank.
Urban neighborhood revitalization occurs in three major stages. First is the "influx of 'risk-oblivious' households. They are young, relatively affluent single persons or childless couples who purchase homes amid neighborhood decline" (p. 228). "Often, these 'pioneers' are members of the artistic and design professions and, accordingly, have an eye for and an appreciation for outdated but once architecturally fashionable housing" (p. 228). Joe Frank.
Second, are the 'risk-prone' buyers, for whom "Exchange value (what a property is worth on the real estate market) looms as important as use value (the satisfactions that a property generates), as an area is increasingly eyed through lenses of potential profitability" (p. 228). This group often does not assimilate well among existing neighborhood residents, sometimes forming its own separate community organizations as a result. Joe Frank.
In the third stage, 'risk-averse' buyers enter the fray. "Professionals, corporate managers, and empty-nester older couples increasingly enter the neighborhood. More are from the suburbs since housing can now be purchased with conventional mortgages" (p. 228). Property value maintenance is the focus of efforts in these 'gentrified' areas (p. 229). Joe Frank.
Local governments try to attract such investment--but it often comes at the expense of current residents. Tax abatements, a tool used extensively by the City of St. Louis, and Tax-Increment Financing of projects increase the property tax burden on other landowners. This increase in property taxation may ultimately be negligible, however, because as voters are more and more averse to approving property tax increases, other methods of taxation come to the fore. Thus the City of St. Louis receives the largest portion of its revenues from the one percent earnings' tax charged to all City residents and all workers in the City. Increased sales taxes, although admittedly regressive in their effects, can also ease the burden borne by the weakened property tax. Several of the gentrified areas of the City of St. Louis have recently voted to create their own small special taxing districts, whose extra property taxes provide funds for security and beautification projects in such places as the Downtown Parks taxing district near the Central Public Library, and the Cathedral Square district in the Central West End. Joe Frank.
Tax incentives often go hand-in-hand with establishment of federal and state 'enterprise zones' or 'enterprise communities.' Such designations enable land assemblage and low taxation for new industrial and commercial ventures. Earlier, the War on Poverty of the 1960s created the "Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966 (the Model Cities Program)" to stem central city decline (p. 233). Community Development Block Grants (CDBG's) and Urban Development Action Grants (UDAG's) for the most troubled areas were created in the 1970s to help the cause of individual localities' programs for urban revitalization. Joe Frank.
However, these federal programs have not been widely successful because "None have been fully funded to meet the needs assigned. . . federal programs have been suggestive of solutions left unfulfilled" (p. 236). Cities' individual efforts have largely been dependent on state or federal funding and authorization. The Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) and the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) of the City of St. Louis, created by the Missouri Legislature in 1969, have attempted to assemble properties and market them for development (p. 240). In conjunction with the Missouri Redevelopment Law, or Chapter 353, which gave eminent domain powers and tax abatement to private redevelopment corporations created by the City, these entities have been largely successful in creating new development projects in and around downtown St. Louis (p. 240). However, neighborhood redevelopment efforts in St. Louis have been slower to materialize. Thus, although in the 1980s and 1990s some new housing developments have been undertaken, like Westminster Place and Kingsbury Square in the Central West End, the Ville Townhouses in the Ville neighborhood, and the Lafayette Towne/Eads Park redevelopment projects just west of the Lafayette Square Historic District (itself a strong example of historic preservationist urban gentrification), much property remains vacant or derelict in the City of St. Louis. A trip down almost every major street in North St. Louis, and many in South St. Louis, reveals many buildings with boarded-up windows, the boards painted red and stamped "LRA No Trespassing No Loitering." Joe Frank.
Ideas to Stop Dereliction
Clearly, substantial progress has been made in many areas to slow central city decline. However, a widespread revival remains elusive. Attitudes need to change in order for policy to change; but policy changes can enable changes in attitudes towards cities and towns. Joe Frank.
Agricultural property taxes might be levied on a sliding scale of sorts. Although any farmland would be taxed, contiguous parcels over perhaps 1,000 acres under the same ownership would be charged a significantly higher rate than if the same owner held scattered properties, each less than 1,000 acres. At the federal level, price supports for products need to be scaled down, especially on the most profitable crops. Thus individual farmers would have greater incentive to diversify their plantings, and ideally focus on supporting themselves off the land in addition to producing high yields. This would diminish the power of agribusiness over the farmer, and enable more small farmers to continue production while also supporting themselves on the land. Joe Frank.
Industrial relocations and closures should be required to provide advance notice, perhaps as much as two years notice, to enable communities to plan for potential losses. This is necessary not only for companies moving production overseas, but also those moving from a declining urban area to a growing suburban area. Many workers cannot make the trip from city to outer suburb on a daily basis. Advance notice would give workers time to plan to either move or to find new jobs, and enable local officials to devise incentives for keeping the company and/or try to attract new equally viable companies. Joe Frank.
There needs to be a greater effort toward stabilization of potentially working class and lower-middle class urban neighborhoods which have fallen into decline. Gentrification of one area does usually lead to some degree of improvement in adjacent neighborhoods, but most of the time such development does not represent a concerted effort to improve lifestyles and surroundings for all, but instead to spread gentrification. Areas like the state streets of Tower Grove East, Benton Park West, Gravois Park, Fox Park, and Dutchtown, east of Grand Avenue in South St. Louis were developed primarily for working-class families, but are decaying rapidly in some cases. Such areas need to coordinate fully with adjacent gentry areas like Compton Heights and Lafayette Square, to ensure stability of property prices accessible to the working class, rather than dropping year-by-year such that improvements made over time by property owners cannot be recouped, and sometimes the selling price is nowhere near the escaping owner's purchase cost. Joe Frank.
Bottom-up mobilization needs to characterize more development efforts. Most projects, such as the redevelopment corporations in the City of St. Louis, have been led by corporate and cultural elite organizations, such as the members of Civic Progress (most prominently Anheuser-Busch in the Busch Stadium district, and Ralston Purina in the LaSalle Park neighborhood), St. Louis University in Midtown, Grand Center, and the Tiffany area, and Washington University/BJC Health Systems in the Central West End and Forest Park Southeast neighborhoods. These entities have decided to focus their efforts on the central corridor of the City, and public officials and planners largely agreed. If areas north of Delmar Boulevard and south of I-44 expect to be stabilized and/or revitalized, they will need more involvement by local residents. Joe Frank.
The Shaw Neighborhood Lawyers Association is an interesting example of such possibilities. Shaw is a somewhat gentrified area, but it has retained a reasonably diverse mix of renters and homeowners, black, white and Asian, large and small households. Although lawyers are typically themselves members of the professional, gentrifying class, they have taken enough interest in their neighborhood to file suit against landlords who fail to properly maintain their properties, and likewise to press the City into swifter action. Of course, most urban neighborhoods do not have sizeable contingents of resident attorneys. However, those who are really interested in preserving their neighborhoods can form and lead groups which attempt to guide development activities in their areas in a positive manner. 'Maximum feasible participation,' the stated goal of many of the War on Poverty programs which instead were co-opted by political powers, must become a reality in low- and middle-income communities. Joe Frank.
Only by mobilizing the strength of the residents of communities can dereliction be slowed and rebirth of urban neighborhoods and small towns be enabled. Vocal majorities can and must be heard--their voices eventually would lead to major policy reversals, such as slowing the rate of commercial property depreciation, and enabling racial reconciliation through increased school integration. Suburban life is fostered by the belief that property exchange values are more important than use values. The ultimate result of changes in attitudes which yield changes in policy should be the shift toward a greater interest in use value. Then, the dereliction of the landscape will be supplanted by constant, concerted reinvestment. Joe Frank.
Jakle, John and David Wilson. Derelict Landscapes: The Wasting of America's Built Environment. Rowman & Littlefield: Savage, MD, 1992.
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