Chicago economy

The “Tottering Chicago?” Series – Part 3

Here is part 3 of “Tottering Chicago?” series. Today I discuss the third question I raised after reading That Tottering Town by William Voegeli, a review of the book What Next, Chicago? Notes of a pissed off native son. Read part 1 here. and part 2 here.

Can a non-Sun Belt city use a Sun Belt growth model?

At the end of March, I was invited to attend a trade show in Houston called “Restoring the Middle Class”. Led by the Urban Reform Institute, it was a gathering of about 50 urban planners, experts, economists and others to talk about policy in support of America’s middle class.

I left Houston deeply pissed off:

“(A)t this conference, almost all of the discussions were shaped by the coastal perspectives of American cities, with a healthy dose of how Sun Belt cities, especially those in Texas, offer an affordable alternative. If there was ever any question as to whether there is a strong coastal bias in urban planning discussions, with coastal thinkers and coastal issues controlling the narrative, that notion has been quashed…

(When I brought up the issues vexing the Rust Belt, the feedback I received from other attendees was, well, not particularly supportive. It was polite but clear – your issues aren’t necessarily our issues. Coastal and Sun Belt towns have abandoned any manufacturing heritage they may have had. If and when Rust Belt towns pull themselves together, please join us at the adult table to talk urban planning topics. that’s what Sun Belt cities do.

One word can easily describe how I felt in Houston – irrelevant. Urban issues in Chicago and the Midwest/Rust Belt apparently had no place at the table when discussing coastal or Sun Belt issues.

I think there is a feeling among coastal and Sun Belt planners that American city planning has been “solved.” Coastal cities have been transformed by the explosion of the knowledge economy – technology, finance, media and entertainment – ​​and have grown beyond their previous economic or social constraints. Towns in the Sun Belt took advantage of the good climate, affordability, and low taxes to attract new residents. Of course, there are deep-seated issues of housing affordability, homelessness, and inequality in coastal cities, and concerns about how to manage demand in Sun Belt cities to avoid have coastal town problems, but representatives of both groups agree they have what Americans want; they just need the right setting.

In William Voegeli’s article That Tottering Town, Voegeli touts the Sun Belt growth model by referring to Columbus, OH, a city firmly in the Midwest but which has adopted a Sun Belt economic and political orientation. He suggests that Chicago and other Rust Belt cities should emulate the model. But first, what is a “model” of Sun Belt urban planning?

In my view, these are the same economic forces that produced the American suburb, but carried out on a national scale. Suburbs in our metropolitan areas developed as an affordable alternative to city living that offered more space, more and newer amenities, and a more comfortable lifestyle. The suburbs offered a chance to ‘escape’ the three ‘C’s that plague cities: cost, crime and congestion. In my opinion, the Sun Belt is a suburb at large; metros like Charlotte, Tampa, Phoenix, and Las Vegas are like national-level suburbs, in that they draw people to them based on the same factors that draw people to metro-level suburbs.

Let’s go back to Voegeli’s Columbus example and see how its growth has increased over the past 30 to 40 years. Columbus is the state capital of Ohio and home to the state’s flagship university, The Ohio State University. Being the seat of Ohio state government and a major public university gave Columbus access to educated talent to serve as a foundation for further growth. In that sense, Columbus is not unlike cities in the Sun Belt that I would say used the model – Atlanta, Nashville, and Austin come to mind. It worked for them.

Read the rest of this article on the Corner Side Yard blog.


Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urban planning and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of Corner Side Yard, an urban planners blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes magazine’s online platform. Pete’s writing has been widely published in mainstream media and on the internet, including the feature article for the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has over twenty years of experience in planning, economic development and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

Photo: Houston’s growth in physical size is perhaps more impressive than its population growth. In 1950, Houston covered 160 square miles with 596,000 residents. In 2022, Houston covered 672 square miles for its 2.3 million residents. Only two US cities have a larger physical footprint than Houston. Source: texasmonthly.com