It’s the Mountains, Stupid

A lot of people have given Hillary the advantage in Pennsylvania, reasoning that Pennsylvania is a lot like Ohio. And indeed, Pennsylvania is a lot like Ohio, except where it isn’t, and where it isn’t is Philadelphia, as the New York Times notes today. There is no city as big, as dense, and as economically successful as Philly in Ohio, and given Obama’s record in economically successful, dense cities with lots of white collar professionals, that’s a pretty important point.

An interesting question to ask, then, is why eastern PA is different from the west. The most obvious answer is that it’s right smack dab in the middle of the northeastern megalopolis, which is the largest, richest, most dynamic region in the nation. Ok, but so what? What is it about that region that has pulled eastern seaboard cities back from the brink and returned them to their status as concentrations of wealth production?

That’s a more difficult question to answer. For Philly, part of the reason is its presence in an area with great market potential. The city has excellent connections to other booming cities, which makes it a natural place for firms and people to locate. It also benefits from being one of the low cost options in its neighborhood. Need a full service city close to the northeast action and can’t afford New York? Head to Philadelphia.

But market potential is just one of the factors at work. Another is the ready-made density. A lot of high-wage professional jobs require close proximity to other firms in similar fields. If you need to pack a lot of professionals together, a big, dense downtown is a great place to do it.

Or, it could be the case that the downtown is attracting the workers and the firms are following. Urban neighborhoods are hot items, providing a dense and diverse collection of cultural and consumption activities, all without the hassle of long commutes and lawns to mow.

In fact, all the above explanations play some role, and once the growth engine is underway, it becomes self-sustaining, the more so because unlike in suburbs, density improves a downtown. It reduces costs through scale economies, increases the consumption options which can be supported, and so on. There’s only so much of this that cities themselves can control, but it should be clear that connectivity is one of the controllable factors. That’s a lesson the Rust Belt should learn.

The Rust Belt has plenty of capable cities, but they’re a lot farther apart than the ones in the northeast. They’re also separated from the northeast juggernaut by a big damn mountain range, which slows the movement of goods and people. If you need a low cost alternative to a big northeastern city, it’s just not feasible to look west of the mountains. And if you need a low cost alternative to Chicago, well, most of the big cities are a long way away. New York to Washington is only 200 miles, between which is a lot of stuff. Chicago to Detroit is closer to 300 miles, and there’s a lot less in between, because so much of the Rust Belt urban geography is clustered along the lake shore. In general, the Rust Belt is a much looser and poorer version of the northeast. If you need a high-powered, high-density location for your firm, then you’ll end up in the northeast. If that’s not that important, well, you may as well move somewhere in the Sun Belt.

So what would I do if I were the midwest? First, I’d work hard to concentrate economic activity in dense downtowns. And second, I’d work hard to develop a high-speed transportation network anchored on Chicago and Toronto. The Sun Belt can afford to plan poorly and develop willy-nilly. The southern economy has performed well, housing is dirt cheap, and local governments don’t have a century’s worth of decrepit infrastructure to support. The midwest doesn’t have those advantages. People aren’t going to flood back.

To rejuvenate the Rust Belt economy, then, governments have to find ways to allow their citizens to punch above their weight. That has to mean improved connections within and across Rust Belt cities. Deep, connected pools of human capital fuel the economy of the northeast, and the midwest has to try to marshal and mobilize its resources by moving them closer together.


  1. dave.s. says:

    What James Carville famously said about Pennsylvania was – it’s Philadelphia on one end, and Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in between. I like him better than Mark Penn, I think, and I see him as having been more successful, at least so far.

  2. Abby Wilson says:

    Ryan – Although we are by no means an “answer” to this question of unifying the “Rustbelt,” the Great Lakes Urban Exchange is attempting to do just that, at least for post-boomers devoted to urban revitalization. Our website, is in development in Detroit so there’s just a placeholder blog up there now, but I urge you to stay in touch and I’ll do the same. I am based in Pittsburgh, by the way.

  3. ryan says:

    Thanks for the heads up. Do keep me updated as things proceed.