On the Uncertain Future of “Legacy” Cities

12.10.2013 | As the recovery from the Great Recession limps along, regional resilience is both on display and being tested in “legacy” cities across the so-called Rust Belt of the United States.

Allan Mallach and Lavea Brachman, authors of “Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities,” define legacy cities as “older industrial cities that have experienced sustained job and population loss over the past few decades.” Several recent articles and reports chronicle these cities’ efforts to rebound. Their report, published in May 2013 by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, offers a broad overview of the situation in 18 cities chosen because their populations as of 2010 were at least 50,000 and they had lost at least 20 percent off their peak populations.

“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 further addressing “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.”

Among Mallach’s and Brachman’s recommendations:

  • rebuilding central cores, sustaining viable neighborhoods and repurposing vacant land for new activities
  • leveraging assets to build cities’ competitive advantages and reestablishing the central economic role of the city
  • building stronger local governance and partnerships, and stronger ties between cities and their regions
  • rethinking state and federal policy toward legacy cities

Those should be familiar to the BRR readers. This June 2012 post looked at the same problem and drew some similar conclusions. This one, from March 2012, covered Network member Hal Wolman’s speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s “Industrial City Initiative.”

Two recent articles in the New York Times and Crain’s Chicago Business look at two cities, Baltimore and Chicago, and how they’re tacking Mallach and Brachman’s first recommendation—rebuilding central cores and sustaining viable neighborhoods and dealing with vacant land.

The Times notes Baltimore’s experiment in urban planning as creative destruction. Planners must ask the hard question, what can be saved and what must be razed? Which neighborhoods have the potential to come back and which must be abandoned? Crain’s takes a sober look at the growing number of abandoned structures in Chicago and Cook County. The Cook County Land Bank Authority, in “land banking” properties, makes the same calculus: what’s worth saving? (A report by the Urban Land Institute on the origins of the Cook County Land Bank outlines the logistics of these decisions.)  In the end, cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo may have to shrink their footprint if they are to survive.

Aaron Renn, proprietor of the excellent Urbanophile blog, argued in the November 2013 issue of Governing magazine that “perception is reality.” Once people believe a city is in decline, they don’t want to invest, and the death spiral begins. The first step to stalling the decline, he thinks, is “to agree on what’s considered ‘rock bottom,’ so public leaders can realistically know when they’ve stopped the cycle, or at least can credibly predict where it will end. From there you can start rebuilding.”

Cities, Renn says, must also get ahead of the decline. Stop the perpetual budget crisis. Get a handle on revenue and expenses for more than a year into the future. Cities must  “take a realistic forward look at their civic trajectory—medium-term revenue forecasting, demographic and economic forecasting, capital asset replacement cycles, and so on” to offer a predictable forecast of what goods and services will be needed, and what taxes will be required to support them.

A new project underway at the Center for Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, Chicago, led by Mike Pagano and Chris Hoene, will help cities make those forecasts. A team is crunching reams of data to create profiles of over 100 cities’ “fiscal space” based on each city’s unique set of constraints, from its economic base to political climate and state revenue laws, among others. With personalized profiles, rather than the “average city” profile that is typical, mayors will be able to make more informed decisions about their cities’ fiscal futures.


Photo / Michael Musson

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