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Wanted: A New Planning Lexicon for America's Legacy Cities
Back in the 1970s, when America’s older cities were riven by discord, disinvestment, and white flight, the Rockefeller Task Force on Land Use and Urban Growth delivered a bold if contrarian message: though rundown and unloved, older cities contained troves of natural, economic, neighborhood, and historic assets worthy of conservation and revitalization. Foreseeing the demands of a growing, prosperous, mobile generation, the Task Force, headed by William K. Reilly, popularized planning and growth management as the pathway to more open, balanced, environmentally sensitive development in cities, suburbs, and hinterlands. It did happen this way in many places.
But in some places, it did not. Now, another prestigious group, Columbia University’s American Assembly, drawing on the work of leading policy and planning scholars and practitioners, has come forward with a new paradigm for what it calls legacy cities — places struggling with persistent population decline and erosion of once vibrant manufacturing or other economic activity. In 2000, 45 million people — 15 percent of the nation’s population — lived in legacy cities and their metro environs, says housing advocate and urban policy scholar Alan Mallach, including major cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland and smaller ones like Flint, Gary, and Youngstown. Most but not all are concentrated in the old industrial heartland of the Midwest and Northeast.
While legacy cities have had their share of policy attention and public resources, typically these were proffered with the implicit or explicit expectation that growth and economic development will return.
In recent years, the conversation about shrinking cities, says Jennifer Vey of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, has shifted. A growing cadre of experts acknowledges that, having struggled with population losses and disinvestment over four and five decades, these cities will never see their peak numbers again.
The Assembly picked up and expanded this conversation, commissioning papers as grist for a four day forum and a publication, Rebuilding America’s Legacy Cities: New Directions for the Industrial Heartland that avoids language like “turnaround,” “revitalization,” or “revival” and instead offers hope that the cities will be “transformed,” “reinvented,” “repurposed,” and “re-imagined” as healthier, smaller places. Assembly-sponsored research identified 33 large central cities with unabated population losses between 1960 and 2010, and 10 that experienced an increase in population for only one of the decades during these years. Many are in declining metropolitan areas, so their situation is not explained by suburban migration, or sprawl, or by the vigor of public and private actions within their control.
To be sure, several legacy cities have bucked the statistics and are seeing renewed attraction to markets and even population growth, like Boston and Pittsburgh. Pockets of strong communities, historic and cultural assets, committed institutions, and in-place infrastructure in others demonstrate the futility of clean-sweep solutions.
Planners are ill equipped to deal with sustained disinvestment and depopulation, says Hunter Morrison, of Northern Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. They are trained to shape growth, and take jobs in places with development (which also offer planning jobs). What are the implications of a permanently smaller footprint? How should officials deal with vacant land, fragmented ownership, unclear titles and agency oversight? What about neighborhoods where foreclosures and collapsed demand predominate? How can officials engage citizens in planning discussions where the ultimate goal is framed as a healthier smaller city? Can limited resources be targeted to promising places rather than spread equally but inefficiently?
The memories of discredited wholesale urban renewal and “planned shrinkage” proposals in the 1970s linger. But so do repeated planning exercises that promised but didn’t deliver.
Ironically, just as the Assembly urges realism and practical directions, the Administration has proposed initiatives to create and “repatriate” manufacturing jobs. “The wind is with us,” explains Gene Sperling, head of the White House National Economic Council, as foreign costs rise and American competition gets smarter. It isn’t clear, however, that such job creation strategies, even if successful, would fundamentally alter legacy cities’ population prospects.
The nation now produces more goods and services than before the downturn, according to government data — but with six million fewer workers. “The best we could get is continued modest growth In manufacturing jobs,” warns C. Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
In a recent op ed in The New York Times, Duncan T. Moore, vice provost for entrepreneurship at the University of Rochester, writes enthusiastically about Rochester’s successes despite the bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak, once its largest employer. He credits Rochester’s educated and skilled work force, cultural and medical institutions, state and federal grants, fertile entrepreneurial climate, diversified regional economy, and “a little luck.”
Rochester’s path to progress is an exception that doesn’t defy the rule. Moore does not mention that the poverty rate in Rochester is 30 percent, more than twice that of New York State, and that its population continues to decline.