Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities

From the Weblog of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy:

“Many of America’s legacy cities — older industrial metropolitan areas facing manufacturing decline and population loss — have had a difficult time bouncing back. But the key to revitalization for Baltimore, St. Louis, Camden, N.J., Youngstown, Ohio or Flint, Michigan, is to take stock of the assets right at their doorstep, such as downtowns, parks, transit systems, and academic and cultural institutions. That’s the message of Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, an analysis of 18 cities by Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman, who advocate step-by-step “strategic incrementalism” as a path to economic development, rather than the silver-bullet approach of signature architecture, a sports stadium or other megaprojects.

In preparing the Lincoln Institute’s latest Policy Focus Report, Mallach and Brachman, who are both nonresident fellows at The Brookings Institution, examined cities in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the South, and the Midwest, that had a population of at least 50,000 in 2010, and a loss of at least 20 percent from peak population. They concluded that a renewed competitive advantage, which will enable legacy cities to build new economic engines and draw new populations, can come from leveraging longstanding assets such as downtown employment bases, stable neighborhoods, multimodal transportation networks, colleges and universities, local businesses, historic buildings and areas, and arts, cultural, and entertainment facilities.

“Intentional strategies are needed to unlock the potential of a city’s assets to bring about sustainable regeneration,” the authors write. Making progress “begins with leaders sharing a vision of the city’s future and then making incremental, tactical decisions that
 will transform the status quo, while avoiding grandiose and unrealistic plans.”

The roster of cities in Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, in various states of revival and decline, includes Baltimore, Camden, N.J., 
Newark, Philadelphia, Birmingham, Buffalo, Canton, Ohio, Cincinnati, Akron, Ohio, Cleveland, Dayton, Ohio, Detroit, 
Flint, Mich., Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse, and Youngstown, Ohio. Mallach and Brachman looked at the challenges these cities face by reviewing the economic, social, market, physical, and operational factors that have led to their present condition. The relative health or vitality of each of these cities was tracked with 15 separate indicators to measure population change, socioeconomic condition, housing markets, and economic activity. Some appear successful, at least in relative terms; others are clearly unsuccessful, and others fall in between.

The authors argue that regeneration is grounded in the cities’ abilities to find new forms, including new physical forms that address the loss of population and changing economy. New models of governance and leadership, new forms of export-oriented economic activity, and new ways of building stronger regional and metropolitan relationships are other vehicles to successful regeneration.
In addressing the question, “what does it take to change?” the authors discuss what is meant by successful regeneration, followed by an exploration of obstacles to change, leading to the presentation of a model, which they call strategic incrementalism, as a framework with which cities can overcome these obstacles and pursue successful change. They identify the key elements of revitalization as:

  • Rebuilding the central core
  • Sustaining viable neighborhoods
  • Repurposing vacant land for new activities
  • Re-establishing the central economic role of the city
  • Using economic growth to increase community and resident well-being
  • Building stronger local governance and partnerships
  • Building stronger ties between legacy cities and their regions

In addition to urging a rethinking of state and federal policy as it relates to legacy cities, the authors recommend that cities seeking to rebuild and reinvent themselves should not think in terms of one large, high-impact solution – such as a sport stadium or convention center – but rather foster change through smaller steps in a variety of areas.
Alan Mallach is senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a visiting professor in the Program for Sustainable Planning and Development at Pratt Institute. He is co-author of another Lincoln Institute publication, Inclusionary Housing in International Perspective: Affordable Housing, Social Inclusion, and Land Value Recapture. Lavea Brachman is the executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has been a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and a visiting professor in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.”


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