Living in the 'Lake Belt'

The recovery of the Great Lakes region may start with thinking about communities differently — and dropping the Rust Belt moniker.

  • Downtown skyline

    Downtown skyline

    The historic buildings and diversity of architecture, as viewed from the Greektown District in Detroit, are tremendous assets that the region can build upon. Courtesy of Mark Nickita.

  • Magnificent lobby

    Magnificent lobby

    This Guardian Building lobby, in downtown Detroit, is an example of a Lake Belt treasure that would be hard to recreate. Courtesy of Mark Nickita.

  • Main Street

    Main Street

    A commercial street in Detroit. Courtesy of Mark Nickita

  • US megaregions

    US megaregions

    Source: America 2050

  • Dequindre Cut Greenway

    Dequindre Cut Greenway

    Great urban infrastructure, like this abandoned Detroit rail right of way, can be used for new purposes. Courtesy of Archive Design Studio

Mark Nickita, Better! Cities & Towns

The two biggest cities in the Midwest, Chicago and Detroit, lost around a million people each during the last century. Others like Cleveland and Buffalo lost half their population. States have lost people and political strength as Congressional seats move south as well. For those who call the Great Lakes region home, it's a sobering reality and cause for concern.

Despite of the numbers, towns, cities, counties and states in the region hold assets that few would disregard and most would dream of owning. For those who choose to see a half-full glass, how do we move toward a new day that enhances those assets that make the Great Lakes region special, while working diligently to address its challenges.

One important step is the simple issue of the Midwest region's perception. There are many ways in which to segment the continental United States. Based on the major centers of population and economic activities, there are only four major mega-regions within the continent. The most significant is the East Coast, often referred to as the Northeast or the Atlantic Coast. The second most populated mega-region is the Midwest, typically identified as the Great Lakes, or more negatively the Rust Belt. The third is the West or Pacific Coast.  Lastly, what has been the fastest growing mega-region in recent decades, the South/Southwest, is affectionately called the Sun Belt. For many years the American Midwest has been compared to the Southwest in a number of ways. The so-called Rust Belt has consistently been the loser of population as the Sun Belt gains.  Initially, as a place for retired northerners to go and escape the winter weather, the Sun Belt has now become a permanent home to many Americans. 

What's in a name?

One thing that is interesting about the monikers of the Rust Belt and Sun Belt is how they have been defined and how they have stuck over the years. So, what's in a name? It seems a bit biased to have one region be identified with a positive element, the "sun" (synonymous with growth, health, warmth, etc), and the other linked to a negative term, "rust" (synonymous with decay, deconstruction, things beyond their peak, etc). Some may see this issue as trivial, overly sensitive, even irrelevant. However, any psychologist will report that if you tell someone that they aren't worth much, that they're old, or falling apart, that it will have an effect on their performance.

For years, we have, in reality, been telling the people of the Great Lakes region that they live in a place of decay as we refer to the area as full of "rust." So why not change the associated name to a positive connotation so that it is on par with the Sun Belt, an upbeat term. I suggest that we take advantage of, arguably the Midwest's greatest asset, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Why not kill the term Rust Belt, and start telling everyone that we are living in the "Lake Belt."

As the Sun Belt region has grown significantly in population, many questions have arisen about whether or not the quality of the built environment has truly been enhanced with its expansion. Many would argue that, with the impressive growth of places from Florida to Arizona and Nevada, that sprawl, inefficient development, lack of historical built form and concerns of diminishing sustainable resources (water) will dramatically alter this mega region in the coming years. As the future comes into view, the Sun Belt will find it challenging to continue to grow.  

Additionally, there are increasing questions about the potential of a continuing draw from the rest of the United States. In fact, the growth and in-migration from the American Northeast and Midwest has already begun to slow while the migration from Mexico has continued. Some stresses are already surfacing, for example, high foreclosure rates and plummeting property values have been disastrous in many Sun Belt cities, worse than their Lake Belt counterparts. Another issue is one of demographics. As the Sun Belt has drawn many of the 75 million Baby Boomers from the Northeast and the Lake Belt, the question is, will the 83 million Millenials (the children of the Boomers) go there as well? 

Studies show that this giant wave of young people seek to live in culturally rich environments, that are sustainable, walkable and full of character. The Lake Belt has plenty of places like these, cities with classic tree filled neighborhoods, authentic traditional downtowns, dense pedestrian-oriented places and plenty of fresh water. As the Sun Belt is witness to increasing challenges, the Lake Belt is also retooling. After years of a declining manufacturing base, it now is concentrating on developing many of the assets that are deeply rooted in most of the cities of the Great Lakes Region.

What Assets?

In fact, the Lake Belt is full of assets that most of the country does not have. Some key components are oriented around education and medical facilities. With high-level universities such as Michigan, Cranbrook, Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Purdue, and Carnegie Mellon, just to name a few, the quality of the educational community is without question.  As far as medical facilities, a US News & World Report 2010-11 study listed the top 14 hospitals in the US, and five were located in the Lakes Belt (the Sun Belt had no hospitals listed in the top 14). In other areas of change, the region has an extensive and developing high tech industrial and a refocused engineering and manufacturing base that is rapidly evolving. Other assets include the Great Lakes region's numerous, world class, cultural institutions, like the art museums of Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, and numerous symphonies, operas and other museums. Additionally, Lake Belt natural assets include the largest fresh water coastline in the world, hundreds of miles of sandy beaches (over 200 miles in Michigan alone), mountains, waterfalls and great sand dunes. Lastly, the region is full of walkable, sustainable cities, with traditional neighborhoods and downtowns with historic architecture, established infrastructure and close proximity to fertile farms and fresh water for those who are interested in healthier and slow food networks. 

With a focus on many of these areas as economic drivers, including education and medical institutions, high tech development, new manufacturing and engineering advancements, entertainment and tourism, jobs will become increasingly available within the region. Add into the discussion that the cost of living in much of the Lake Belt is below many parts of the US, and it is easy to see how the region's collective assets could be attractive, especially to the Millenial demographic. The Lake Belt of North America has been an important part of the continent for centuries. Now, as the country and the world is starting to recognize the need to live a lifestyle that embraces sustainable practices, recognizes walkable, pedestrian-oriented communities, long-standing cultural institutions, and a critical mass of people, the Lake Belt is well positioned for its next phase.

Mark Nickita is principal of Archive DS, a Detroit urban design and architecture firm, and mayor of the City of Birmingham, Michigan.

For more in-depth coverage on this topic: 

Subscribe to Better! Cities & Towns to read all of the articles (print+online) on implementation of greener, stronger, cities and towns.

• Get the October-November 2012 issue. Topics: Guiding investment to urban centers, Florida next gen project with streetcar, Town centers, Upstate NY downtowns, Transformation of a small town, New Moscow district, Community engagement, Walkable City, Human Transit, Freeways Without Futures, Beruit

• Get New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide, packed with more than 800 informative photos, plans, tables, and other illustrations, this book is the best single guide to implementing better cities and towns.