Computer Map Sparks Citistate Debate


St. Paul, Minn. -- Myron Orfield, a state representative from Minneapolis, got upset by what he saw as a flood of affluent taxpayers, businesses and investment -- out of the Twin Cities' central cities and inner-ring suburbs, into a "fertile crescent" of fast-growing suburbs on the region's southwest flank.

But what could a youthful second-termer do about it?

The answer was one few legislators -- especially any past the age of 30 -- would ever think of. Mr. Orfield turned to his desktop computer to create a set of computer-driven, brightly colored maps to drive home his point in the Technicolor imagery of the '90s.

He gathered his data from census, state and local reports covering the 136 cities and towns of the seven-county region. He persuaded the Land Management Information Center in the state's Office of Strategic Planning to let him use the agency's desktop mapping package, "Datanet Mapping."

Then, armed with his colorful maps, Mr. Orfield made presentations to dozens of groups of officeholders, business and civic leaders, and to his fellow legislators.

Map after map showed the same picture: Whether it was job gain or loss, the spread of social problems, transit spending or the impact of state subsidies to localities, all the positive trends and benefits seemed to be flowing to the fertile crescent suburbs -- while the core cities and suburbs suffered.

Mr. Orfield could show that in the '80s Minneapolis and St. Paul had lost over 20 percent of their manufacturing jobs and that various inner-ring suburbs had hemorrhaged up to 38 percent of their total job rolls in the decade. The southwestern suburbs, home to only 25 percent of the region's people, were shown to have gained over half the region's 240,000 new jobs during the '80s, and to have registered a stunning 200 percent increase in commercial-industrial valuations.

Just two southwestern suburbs, Eden Prairie and Minnetonka, achieved the same commercial-industrial base as St. Paul ($1.5 billion). But they have only one-third as many people and, unlike St. Paul, no poor people.

bTC And while thousands of entry-level jobs were being created on the region's periphery, the suburbs which got them used exclusionary zoning practices to bar affordable housing. Levels of poverty -- indicated by such measures as children on free or reduced-cost lunch programs -- soared in Minneapolis and St. Paul and went up sharply in the inner-ring suburbs. But poverty percentages actually dropped in the outer suburbs.

In the meantime, Mr. Orfield argued, state and metropolitan agencies spent 80 percent of their highway money ($830 million) to reinforce the economic growth of the fertile crescent suburbs.

Why subsidize the fortunate, Mr. Orfield asked, while permitting dangerous concentrations of poverty to build up in the region's core communities? Among the grisly consequences of so many poor in one place, he argued, was a doubling of Minneapolis' murder rate and sharp increases in aggravated assaults in almost all the core neighborhoods.

Mr. Orfield's maps, as it turned out, were both an economic and political success. Some 5,000 copies of the $35 colored map set were sold to the public.

Two major bills Mr. Orfield introduced, aimed at tipping the scales more toward the cities and inner-ring suburbs, cleared the Democrat-Farmer-Labor-controlled legislature.

One Orfield bill aimed directly at exclusionary zoning by barring state aid to suburbs that bar multifamily units and low-income housing. Another put stiff conditions on state highway aid, requiring that new and improved roads be planned to relieve congestion over the long term and that they no longer have the effect of isolating the poor from growing opportunity.

Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, nurturing his ties to the affluent suburbs, vetoed both bills, arguing that Mr. Orfield's solutions seemed punitive and hadn't been well thought out.

Mr. Orfield's fellow legislators -- some leery about creating competing political power to their own -- quashed an Orfield bill to transform the increasingly weak Twin Cities Metropolitan Council into an elected and accountable regional government.

But Myron Orfield, his maps and statistics, clearly opened a spirited new debate about the region's future. With bipartisan agreement, a State Advisory Council on Metropolitan Governance has been formed to look at the Twin City region's loss of coherence and suggest new forms of citistate-wide governance.

Mr. Orfield is co-chairing the group, which includes a number of respected politicos, including State Sen. Ted Mondale (son of former Vice President Walter Mondale) and Tim Pawlenty, a savvy Republican legislator from suburban Eagan.

The bottom-line question is why comfortable outer-ring suburbs should support any change. Debra O'Connor, a neighborhood columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and resident of a "have" suburb, recently answered the question:

"If we create a city where the poor are separated by geography and opportunity, the decay inevitably will move toward us. It will be necessary to move out farther and farther. Our taxes will rise to pay for more highways, as well as more prisons and more welfare."

In more and more U.S. citistates today, one hears that argument being made. In the complacent '80s, few people would have listened. But with a few more Orfields to break open the public debate, the '90s could be quite different.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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