Legacy Cities Offer Creative Examples of Resilience

8. 22. 2012 |  A recent report by the National League of Cities, “Resilient Cities in a Transforming State” [pdf] showcases resilience in action in Michigan. Hit hard by job, property, and population losses during the past decade, local and regional leaders and community members are coming together to forge solutions on a regional scale.

In partnership with the Michigan Municipal League (MML) and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), NLC convened 30 federal, state, and local actors in Lansing, Michigan, for a one-day forum to jumpstart a process of rebuilding communities through economic growth and enhanced livability standards. BRR member James Brooks of the NLC details the lessons learned for The Edge, a publication of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A key finding, the article notes, is that for legacy cities struggling in the face of economic change, resilience turns on three factors:

  • Establishing an inclusive and creative process of community engagement to assess problems, identify solutions, and implement a unified response;
  • Identifying credible, dynamic, and aggressive leadership on the part of local and regional elected or appointed officials and matching the capacity of the government departments or agencies to that leadership; and
  • Creating partnerships across city departments, across political boundaries, and among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

The report offers several case studies of innovative approaches for spurring growth and community-building. Grand Rapids, for example, must be one of the few cities in the nation to combine Don McClean and YouTube to spark community involvement. Thumbing their nose at a Newsweek article ranking of Grand Rapids among the top 10 dying communities, more than 5,000 citizens created the video “The Grand Rapids LipDub.”

Panning through the city streets, the camera catches citizens, guitars in hand, lip-syncing Don McClean’s “American Pie” (“this’ll be the day that I die…”) while in the background bands march, acrobats flip, groups have a pillow fight, a couple marries–all the while showcasing the beautiful river and downtown, and the youthful city.  The video went viral with nearly 5 million views to date. Take that Newsweek.

Other cities were equally creative.  Jackson, MI, for example, faced a growing problem with vacant properties and no way to identify areas of growing concern. The city came up with the novel idea of tracking water use, and those homes with very low water use were tagged as likely abandoned. City officials would then visit them to double-check that they were indeed vacant. The city identified 462 vacant properties for demolition or rehab in the process.

The report offers several other cases of innovative partnerships, rebuilding projects, and creative planning. As the report concludes,

“The centuries of accumulated infrastructure and wealth of intellectual capital (universities, hospitals, cultural and historical landmarks) are poised to contribute strongly to overall national economic strength and well-being. The lessons from the experiences in Michigan will serve as models for other communities struggling with similar challenges.”

BRR and our partner the National League of Cities have examined resilience in metro areas in two prior NLC reports:

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