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Despite Political Divides, Suburbs Need Cities

Outlying communities and central cities should do more to work together.

Surely, no division seems more insurmountable these days than the urban-rural divide -- or perhaps more accurately, the divide between politically blue cities and older suburbs and red exurbs and rural areas. These two Americas don’t appear to have anything in common. But it’s important to remember that they are interconnected.

Residents of red exurbs, for instance, often wish to separate themselves from blue cities. But, as the saying goes, “You can’t be a suburb of nothing.” What this means is that cities still serve as the drivers of economic growth, as well as a region’s center for culture, entertainment, education and other amenities. Without the economic and cultural strength of a region’s core, the periphery cannot thrive. 

Historically, the opposite was also true. But the big question today is whether this relationship is becoming more of a one-way street, where exurbs, smaller cities and rural areas are being left behind. That perception is certainly one reason why Donald Trump won the presidency. 

The connection between cities and their hinterlands used to be stronger. As historian William Cronon documented in his book Nature’s Metropolis, Chicago became a great city because it was a place where raw materials of all kinds -- from lumber to livestock -- were transferred and transformed. Chicago needed the hinterland, but the hinterland from Wisconsin to Nebraska needed Chicago, too.

This connection between a city and its hinterland is harder to discern these days as economic prosperity becomes more concentrated in urban areas. Cities have proven to be remarkably efficient engines of commerce, bringing people, ideas, goods and services, and amenities together with awe-inspiring ease. 

Ironically, the era of the internet has only reinforced the idea of cities as economic engines. Back in the ’90s, at the dawn of the Internet Age, many futurists predicted that it would spell the end of cities and the rise of rural areas. Why would anyone bother with the hassle of urban life when they could sit on a mountaintop and do their work on a computer?

Twenty years later, the very people who can work anywhere -- the ones creating economic value from the internet -- aren’t found on mountaintops, but in coffee shops in the middle of big cities. The mashup of people, culture and ideas is just too powerful for them to leave. Still, people everywhere benefit from the resulting economic breakthroughs -- urban and rural, blue and red. But it doesn’t produce the reciprocal relationship like the one Cronon laid out in his book.

To be sure, the connection between urban and rural areas needs to be strengthened, so the sense of common benefit becomes more obvious. But it’s important to understand that in the end, cities remain major economic engines that benefit everybody. Everywhere is a suburb of something. 

Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.
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