Building a Better Springfield

Thirty years ago, all of Massachusetts was caught in the economic maelstrom that followed the exodus of manufacturers from New England. Since then, Greater Boston’s economy of ideas has turned Massachusetts into America’s fifth-richest state, while some of our cities, like Springfield, remain mired in poverty.

What should we do about the vast gulf that separates thriving Boston from faltering Springfield? Good urban policies put people ahead of place. The Springfield region has a chance for rebirth by focusing on the quality-of-life policies that attract smart, entrepreneurial people.

But revitalization is far less important than a brighter future for Springfield’s children. If we can deliver that brighter future, even if those children eventually move far from Springfield, then we shouldn’t worry if the city itself keeps shrinking.

Manufacturers once located in Springfield because of transportation advantages, including the Connecticut River and a junction of two major rail lines. Springfield’s edge in moving goods made it a center for rifles and Rolls-Royces, gas pumps and motorcycles. Urban clusters of smart people produce innovation; Springfield gave us basketball and America’s first gasoline-powered car.

As the cost of moving goods plummeted, manufacturing left New England for cheaper climes, and Springfield fell into decline. While older, colder cities with a strong skill base switched from making goods to making ideas, only 16% of Springfield’s adults have a college degree. The city hasn’t reinvented itself. Today, one-fifth of Springfield’s families are poor.

The most important response to such poverty is to invest in schools and safety. Unfortunately, most declining cities have neither the funds nor the leadership to revamp their schools.

In a move that brings great credit to both men, Gov. Deval Patrick put former rival Chris Gabrieli in charge of Springfield’s external Finance Control Board. Gabrieli combines a passion for schools with a reputation for independent competence. Perhaps he can persuade others that more spending on such troubled school districts as Springfield can be a wise investment.

Increased spending on Springfield’s schools should be tied to performance and innovation. Troubled school districts, like Springfield, must try new approaches, including embracing competition from charter schools and incentives for students and teachers.

While good regional policies for Springfield can go beyond schools, they should still focus on the human capital that is the real engine of local economies. Some people see salvation in a light rail line between Hartford and Springfield. But the era in which rail can make a city is long past. Today, the Springfield region’s modest densities make new rail lines inappropriate. Can it possibly make sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars — money that could go toward Springfield’s children — on a rail line?

Good regional economic policy also shouldn’t try to micromanage industrial decisions. Neither I nor state officials can tell whether Springfield should invest in biotech or bikes. A better approach is to turn Springfield into a consumer city that will attract entrepreneurs who want to live there. It should follow the Providence model: attract well-educated people who are tired of high Boston prices.

Springfield has a beautiful housing stock and a region crammed with great educational institutions. If Greater Boston persists in making its housing unaffordable, then Springfield can provide an alternative. Indeed, Springfield’s future looks almost bright when we consider how unlikely it is that Greater Boston will build enough housing to meet demand.

I am rooting for Springfield, but there is no shame in decline. The region should try to revitalize itself by improving its quality of life. But it should also remember that taking good care of a smaller and smaller population is far better than chasing an unattainable return to former glory.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of Economics at Harvard, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

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