New Haven is a vastly different place now than it was when I attended Yale in the early 1970s.

When my parents dropped me off in the fall of 1972, my father, who was at Yale just after World War II, warned me never ever to walk from campus to the train station.

Now, 30 years later, the downtown is a vibrant place. When you walk from campus to the train station, you will traverse the Ninth Square, a mix of apartments and retail, home to artists and business people, with unusual restaurants and storefronts. You might see the new Shoreline East train station, serving people who travel to and from the suburban shoreline towns each day. And behind the station, bordering the lively Wooster Square neighborhood, is the old Smoothie corset factory, now converted to luxury apartments.

It would be a mistake, however, to focus only on the built environment, or just on downtown. That was one of the major failings of the urban renewal programs of the ’50s and ’60s. New Haven was a poster child for urban renewal under the dynamic leadership of Mayor Dick Lee. But clearing slums, creating new buildings downtown, and building new roads did not keep people with resources from moving out of New Haven or attract new shoppers and businesses to the city.

For the next four years, New Haven will be an exciting setting in which to observe the progress of an important national movement that takes account of the forces now shaping cities and their regions. The current mayor, John DeStefano, is well aware of these forces. He is pursuing economic as well as physical development, and is seeking (often in partnership with Yale) to strengthen those aspects of the city’s economic potential that are distinctively urban: knowledge-intensive business, such as biotechnology, and arts and culture.

Mayor DeStefano also acknowledges that the city will continue to play a distinctive role in housing, educating and serving those without resources.

Although these roles may be peculiarly urban, they are shaped by a larger context. Economic factors no longer match political boundaries — residence and business and recreation are often in separate places; workers commute; transportation and utility infrastructure spans and shapes whole regions; and businesses make location decisions based on regional attributes, not the character of a specific city or town. Some argue that the relevant economic context is the Tri-State region centered in New York City. Within that larger arena, the region of New Haven and its suburbs constitutes an interdependent unit for many economic and social purposes.

The mobility of workers, shoppers, businesses and capital across the region undermines the myth of independence, but it has also entrenched the fragmentation of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities. A report commissioned by the New Haven Civic Improvement Commission in 1910 predicted that New Haven would grow from 133,500 in that year to 400,000 by 1940. In fact, the region as a whole now contains 545,000, while the city itself has shrunk to 124,000.

Although the practice of local autonomy is desirable in some ways — it permits local responses to local problems and, at least in principle, enables each town to preserve its own distinctive character — in fact modern mobility has made the current system unworkable.

In many parts of the country, the system of funding local services (including education, police, and waste disposal) through local property taxes fuels a cycle of abandonment and sprawl, as individuals seek newer housing, more open space, better schools, lower taxes. The more privileged towns create enclaves through exclusionary zoning, so that taxpayers get just what they pay for because they do not have to subsidize services for those less fortunate than themselves. Cities find themselves with fewer tax-paying citizens, so they have to raise tax rates, thereby driving out more taxpayers. And inner-ring suburbs find themselves caught in between.

What can be done? Mayor DeStefano has expressed support for comprehensive property tax reform. The state would assume responsibility for funding education while local authorities continue to make decisions about how the money is spent. Politically, this is very difficult to achieve. Yet on myriad issues — land use, the environment, transportation, economic development, housing — a regional approach is essential, and a state framework and incentives for this kind of collaboration will be required. State residents will need to be convinced that they share a common fate and therefore should develop collaborative strategies.

This, I believe, is the most important challenge now facing New Haven and cities like it


Cynthia Farrar is the director of urban academic initiatives and a lecturer in political science..