For nearly a decade, I’ve researched and traveled to find out what makes America’s cities tick. Now I’ve hit the road one last time—and am writing a book on my findings.
My name is Scott Beyer, and I’m a journalist who specializes in U.S. urban issues. In the fall of 2015, I started a 3-year cross-country journey that will include month-long stays in 30 major cities, to write the book The Sparks From Within—How Market Urbanism Can Revive U.S. Cities. My premise will be that if cities adopted market-based approaches to their economies and governments, they would have faster growth and improved quality of life.
My inspiration dates to my late teens, when I lived for several years in New York City. I had spent one semester at Bridgewater College, but decided that I’d learn more by attending the 8-million-person campus that is Gotham. During my stay—both in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant—I experienced the city through various odd jobs, strange encounters, epic bike rides, and even a short homeless stint. The city was a dynamic playground for the intellectually curious, and living there made me wonder what other cities were like. So at 21, I strapped on a backpack and a fedora, bought a Greyhound pass, and began traveling nationwide. Over four years, I visited the 100 largest U.S. cities and many smaller ones.
Like with New York City, there was much about them that interested me, not all of it good. In many, the oft-reported economic and cultural decline was evident at street level. In others, community life was non-existent altogether, as downtown areas began collecting dust by evening. I found that, unlike in New York City, such conditions were common in what were supposedly the nation’s most intensive urban centers.
After returning to my hometown of Charlottesville, VA, in 2011, I was confounded enough by this decline that I spent several years researching the causes. What I learned was that over the last half-century, urban decline occurred less from happenstance, than from counter-productive government policies. Cities had hollowed out not solely because of “white flight,” but post-World War II slum clearance that also eventually drove away blacks. They had suffered industrial loss not from organic market forces, but uncompetitive business climates. And many of the challenges they faced today—from high housing costs to inefficient services to excessive debt—were the result of corrupt political machines. In a nutshell, U.S. cities maxed out on “progressive” economic policy, under the premise that governments know best how to spark growth and innovation. But instead this led to high taxes and regulations, cronyism, rampant eminent domain, and public sector waste. The greatest symbol of this failed ideology was Detroit, which long embodied top-down policies—only to go bankrupt last year.
My book will argue that cities should instead embrace “Market Urbanism.” This phrase was invented in 2007 by Adam Hengels, a development consultant who founded the Market Urbanism blog. He defines it as the intersection between capitalists and urbanists, and his contributors describe how municipal governments repeatedly harm economic productivity. My book will package his ideology into a series of proposals: in each city, I’ll write a new chapter about a different Market Urbanism reform, addressing ones that deal with housing, transportation, finance, business, and public administration. During this trip I also plan to write hundreds of articles for this site, many of which will veer from public policy into the numerous cultural and lifestyle aspects of U.S. cities.
If there is a common denominator to my writing, it is the idea that governmental systems—and by extension cultural mores—can make or break a city. Thus, it is important that cities in the U.S. take the right approach.