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The Myth of the Urban Core

Question: What do Keybank Tower in Cleveland, the Kettering Tower in Dayton, and One Seagate in Toledo have in common?

Answer: They are their respective city’s tallest buildings, and they were built after their city’s population peaked.

Samuel Staley | December 18, 2007, 8am PST
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Question: What do Keybank Tower in Cleveland, the Kettering Tower in Dayton, and One Seagate in Toledo have in common?

Answer: They are their respective city's tallest buildings, and they were built after their city's population peaked.

There is probably no mantra more ubiquitous in the Smart Growth movement than the one claiming we should revitalize our central cities and direct new growth into areas where the infrastructure already exists. But what if that infrastructure was never economically sustainable to begin with?

That's a question planners and economic development professionals need to begin pondering much more thoroughly. Consider the following facts as they relate to Ohio cities, perhaps the nation's most important cluster of industrial centers during the early and mid-twentieth century:

·        20 of Cleveland's 26 tallest buildings were constructed after the city's population peaked at 914,000 in 1950;

·        12 of Cincinnati's 20 tallest buildings were built after the city's population peaked at 503,998 in 1950;

·        13 of Dayton's 20 tallest buildings were built after the city's population peaked at 262,619 in 1960;

·        6 of Toledo's 16 tallest buildings, including the 32 floor Seagate One, were built after the city's population peaked at 383,062 in 1970.

Most of these modern office towers were built in the era of urban renewal, with significant subsidies from artificially cheap land, streamlined property acquisition through Eminent Domain, lengthy tax abatements and subsidized interest rates on urban renewal loans. Thus, the skyline of the modern downtown likely doesn't rest on a solid economic foundation. Rather, these projects may have been founded on a myth of the central city, and downtowns, in particular, as being the economic core of an urban region.

Arguably, the modern downtown and its dense surrounding neighborhoods were the product of three converging, but historically unique, four forces: innovation that allowed dramatic increases in vertical mobility (the elevator), unprecedented increases in wealth (the industrial revolution), low horizontal mobility (requiring walking to access jobs, goods, and services), and limited transit (primarily trolleys) that served wealthy neighborhoods and high volume corridors. Combined, these forces led to a highly centralized urban form with a very dense downtown core surrounded by dense, mixed use neighborhoods. As wealth and individual mobility increased, the raison d'etre for the traditional downtown dissipated.

Thus, the traditional notion of an urban core, lionized in urban economics textbooks through the "monocentric city," may be a myth. Outside of a few exceptions, such as New York (and possibly Chicago), most cities that have high levels of mobility tend to have a relatively flat density gradient. The density gradient of London, for example, is much more common than New York. (For more on this, see the gradients estimated by Alain Bertaud but scroll down to the bottom.) But even New York's downtown (lower and mid-town Manhattan), may best be characterized as a cluster of niche neighborhoods with unique historical roots that traditionally had little to do with modern ideas of how a downtown functions; Little Italy, SoHo, the Garment District, the Financial District, China Town, etc. each served an important specialized function at one time, and it wasn't as the single focus of the New York economy.

All this suggests that planners and urban development policy analysts shouldn't put too much stock in existing infrastructure as an indicator of what is sustainable over the long run. Our eyes may perceive the architecture of space accurately, but not the underlying economics that ultimately determine the long-term economic sustainability of place.

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