From lintheads to high tech: the Sun Belt, and why America continues to head south

Who would live in a town like this? Phoenix, Arizona. Image: Getty.

The United States of America is often divided into different belts. The heavily religious South East holds the title of the “Bible Belt,” while the de-industrialising North East and Midwest, once known as the “Steel Belt,” is now designated as the “Rust Belt”. Whether it’s reflective of social trends, common economic features or similarities in climate, nearly every state in the union is part of some sort of belt.

But of all the belts that criss-cross the United Sates, one in particular seems to be in the midst of a resurgence: the Sun Belt.

Referring to the collection of states that compose the lower third of the US, stretching from North Carolina to southern California, the Sun Belt has seen some of the strongest population growth in the union. Between 2014 and 2015, the Sun Belt as a whole saw over 500,000 new residents arrive – most of its attributable to domestic migration. Of the ten fastest growing metro areas over the same period, all but two were located in the Sun Belt.

And so, many commentators have heralded the return of the Sun Belt. “With the economy healing,” notes Slate magazine, “Americans have started settling back into their old habits, moving off to warm suburbs in states like Florida and Texas.” CityLab has dubbed the Sun Belt 2015’s “population winner,” while the Brookings Institute has noted a “noticeable expansion of Sun Belt migration”.

AirCon and the Cold War

The idea that the Sun Belt composed a distinct region emerged initially in the late 1960s, courtesy of Republican Party strategist Kevin Phillips who, in The Emerging Republican Majority, noted the region’s growing electoral importance to his party. (Ironically, Republican strength in many Sun Belt states - North Carolina, New Mexico, Texas and Georgia -- is now weakening due to the population growth and demographic change, set-off by the Sun Belt’s boom.)

Between 1940 and 1980, the Sun Belt saw its population grow by just over 112 percent; by way of comparison the combined North East and Mid West saw their population grow by just 41 percent. The US’ economic and demographic centre of gravity has gradually shifted south.

A number of factors drew Americans to the Sun Belt region. First, the creation of the interstate highway system under President Eisenhower opened up once isolated southern regions, particularly in the South West. At the same time, the invention of air conditioning made both the arid desert climate of the South West and humid heat of the South East more tolerable.

Related to this was the defence boom, as the Cold War resulted in a flurry of federal spending on the defence and technology industries. Writing in the 1980s, the political consultant and writer Richard S. Morris noted that states in the North East, with 45 percent of the US population, received 28 percent of national defence spending; the Sun Belt, at the time holding 38 percent of the nation’s population received almost half. The Pentagon, he quipped, was “a five-sided building that faces south”. The clustering of highly skilled and educated personal in the defence sector – as well as the large grants given to research universities – also boosted the civilian sector, leading to growth in areas like the Dallas-Fort Worth “Silicon Prairie”.

While the South West has been viewed as an ideal destinations for Americans to migrate to, the South East, at least since the end of Civil War, has been a place from which people escaped. From African-Americans moving to Chicago and Detroit, to white inhabitants of Appalachia crossing north of the Ohio River, the South East has been a place of outward migration.

Yet the Sun Belt’s post-war rise has seen this trend starting to reverse: for the first time in roughly a century, a combination of federal defence spending and business friendly policies meant that many south eastern states have shared in the inward migration.

What’s in a name

The name itself may have helped: rebranding the southern third of the US as the Sun Belt, Bruce J. Schulman notes in From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt, “offered the land of Dixie a fresh identity”.

Bradley R. Rice expanded on this theme in the 1990s. ”The South was known to be hot and muggy,” he wrote in his contribution to Raymond A. Mohl’s Searching for the Sunbelt: Historical Perspectives on a Region. “The Sun Belt was portrayed as sunny, mild and mechanically cool. The South was unsophisticated and backward; the Sun Belt was seen as cosmopolitan and forward looking.”

This image revamp boosted the region’s appeal as a place for both people and business to relocate. Whereas the old South East was seen as a place of “sharecroppers and lintheads”, the new name made it sound dynamic and high tech. “Yankee executives might balk at moving to the South, but they might seek to locate in the Sun Belt”.

This renewed image is still drawing people in today. While jokes may persist about the backwardness of the Southern US, and images of the racial horrors of its past still linger in the popular imagination, in the past 60 years the demographic and economic weight of the US has steadily continued to shift south. From North Carolina’s “Research Triangle” to the sprawling cities of Texas’ or the population magnet that is Atlanta, Americans are flocking to the Sun Belt in search of more affordable living and better job prospects.

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Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.