The Rust Belt Adapts

2.19.13 | Buffalo and Cleveland are two of America’s favorite cities when it comes to kicking the “Rust Belt” in the shin. But recent studies are indicating that they are also, perhaps, bellwethers, indicating that smaller urban areas are just as capable of attracting the generational migration that is reversing the one their grandparents and parents made over the last 60 years, and that regional resilience lies not just in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, or Seattle.

Mapping Human Capital: Where Northeast Ohio’s Young and Middle-Age Adults Are Locating determines that although Cleveland’s total population fell 17 percent from 2000 to 2010, young adults (ages 25-34) abandoned the suburbs for Cleveland’s downtown core, some adjacent neighborhoods, and a select few suburbs featuring walkable neighborhoods, whereas middle-agers (those 35-44) are following traditional out-migration patterns to the suburbs and exurbs.

Authored by Richey Piiparinen, a former researcher at the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, the report notes that in the areas determined to have the highest gains among young adults are also ones “that are known for their authentic, walkable neighborhood feel.” As a result, “Policy makers,” they argue, “should employ strategies that emphasize the quality of the built form.”

“Sure,” sprawlapologists retort. “But just wait until they start having kids of their own. THEN they’ll move to the suburbs just like everyone does.”

Mapping Human Capital attends to that assumption, warning that it ain’t necessarily so:

Also, while past is often precedent, predicting a generational cohort’s lifestyle patterns from the behaviors of a different generational cohort can prove problematic. In particular, perhaps the Millennial generation is different from past generations in that their “aspirational geographies” have shifted from the suburban landscape to the urban environment. If this proves to be the case, one can envision a quickening pace of re-densification as future inmigration of the young will be supplemented by the retention of the family-rearing age cohort.

In Bounce Back or move On: Regional Resilience and Economic Development Planning, Building Resilient Regions (BRR) member Margaret M. Cowell tracked Buffalo’s and Cleveland’s responses to sustained deindustrialization via economic development planning. Comparing each region’s economic development plans of the late 1970s and early 1980s to those of more recent vintage (2009 for Cleveland, 2010 for Buffalo), Cowell tracks the regions with a chart of cyclical adaptation through periods of high and low resilience.

Both regions indicate the ability for adaptive resilience, specifically “the ability to learn from both failures and successes” (Cowell’s emphasis). Moreover, Cowell concludes that regional resilience must include discussion of “whether the region’s leaders have responded in a way that improves the overall chances for a healthy region in the long run. Or, in other words, we must ask whether regional leaders have taken effective steps to increase the region’s adaptive resilience.

For both Buffalo and Cleveland, the answer is a qualified yes; despite ongoing challenges in both regions, leaders have utilized economic development planning to adapt to the evolving challenges of deindustrialization over the last three decades. A thorough analysis of economic development plans as well as conversations with current and past economic development officials suggest that both regions have likely moved from the ‘release’ phase, where resilience is low and uncertainty is high, to the reorganization’ phase, where resilience is high and innovation and restructuring are emphasized.

Finally, a personal observation based on no academic research, but a (you should pardon the expression) gut feeling: Buffalo and Cleveland owe part of their current “cool” to their food, which I suggest is another expression of regional resilience. Buffalo draws thousands of pilgrims annually who pay homage to the place where the Buffalo wing was handed down from On High: Anchor Bar. (Calvin Trillin accepts Anchor as the wing’s birthplace and in matters culinary, I’m inclined to accept his analysis.) As for Cleveland, native son Michael Symon (a 2009 James Beard Award winner) put it the culinary map with his Lola, Lolita, and B-Spot restaurants, as has the Great Lakes Brewing Co. and West Side Market.

If such studies already exist in relation to regional resilience, forgive my ignorance. I wonder, however, if “culinary tourism” may be an overlooked/underappreciated aspect of regional distinction and economic resilience.


Photo: West Side Market/ PBS NewsHour

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