In September of 2011, The New York Times reported that Reading, Pennsylvania had edged out Flint, Michigan as having the largest poverty rate amongst cities with over 65,000 residents. The article presents a fairly straightforward picture of a city that had fallen upon hard times, as job loss and lack of education allowed it to slip from the 32nd poorest city in 2000 to the poorest city in 2010 according to the U.S. Census (Tavernise 2011). This article is not surprising. In fact, stories depicting the struggles of America’s Rust Belt have been common since the 1980s. Downsizing, outsourcing and factory closures were (and still are) concepts that have framed popular political and economic discourse, as well as research on deindustrialization (Bluestone and Harrison 1982; Negrey and Zickel 1994). The article, however, like much of the literature on Rust Belt cities neglect a more long-term environmental component of urban decline. By environment, I am referring the built/physical aspect, as well as the natural/ecological dimension. Specifically, explanations for deindustrialization that emphasize aggressive corporate policies to maximize profit, or the outcome of globalization are missing 1) the role of natural resources and 2) the role of infrastructure in the built environment. This environmental dimension not only explains the shape of local decline, but helps us to understand the obstacles that affect renewal.
A version was presented at the Urban Affairs Association on Apr 6, 2013 in San Francisco, CA and the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting on August 13,2013 in New York, NY.