The future of failed communities

A conversation on a bloggers’ listserve and with a visiting colleague raises a generic policy question we should have much more debate about, and in public. It comes in two distinct sizes that may have different answers.

“What should be done about places that have lost their economic reason to be populated?”


“Is there a humane way government can help obsolete regions to grow small gracefully?”

I’m thinking about places like Atlantic Canada, the Northern Great Plains, New Orleans, some swathes of the rust belt at the large scale, and poverty-blighted urban neighborhoods at the small (most of inner Detroit).

One answer, of course, is “bus tickets”. This is how the collapse of Southern agriculture was handled in the 20s and 30s. Of course it shreds all the social capital of the places that get depopulated. Another is unemployment checks, which I believe is what the Canadians are doing. This too may ruin the culture that one wants to preserve. Still another is one or another kind of subsidized economic development, high-tech labs and factories and training for residents; this almost certainly will cost a fortune and fails the all/any test (you can ‘save’ any county in Nebraska from depopulation with an Intel or Toyota plant that gets a really nice tax break forever, but not all of them).

Politically, one can understand why those who [claim to] speak for communities like this would oppose dispersion: if your constituents get speckled out as a diffused minorities in a lot of different places, what happens to you?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.