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Lessons from Youngstown: Is right-sizing right for you?

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams stresses the importance of regional planning at the third and final MPC-CMAP roundtable series on implementing metropolitan Chicago's regional plan, GO TO 2040.

On my very first day at MPC, I was in a meeting in which someone mentioned Mayor Williams in a passing laudatory reference, as if no further identifier were necessary. Eyebrows raised, I turned to a colleague, who whispered, “Youngstown, Ohio.” Right. Clearly I had some work to do. After doing some digging, I learned that Youngstown, a former steel mecca, had lost 50 percent of its population since its manufacturing heyday and is now a town of 82,000. Typical Midwestern Rust Belt shrinking city story, right?

Not so simple, as it turns out. At the last roundtable in MPC and CMAP’s series on implementing the GO TO 2040 plan, I and about 100 other people learned how atypical Youngstown, Ohio, really is. As Mayor Jay Williams, our keynote speaker, presented at the April 27 event (listen to the entire event here), the need for a new plan for his city became evident in the early 2000s, as the last plan dated from 1974 when the city was a very different place. The new plan, Youngstown 2010, was launched in 2002 with a visioning process that shaped both the community’s approach to reinventing itself as well as the role of city and regional planning in that effort. This process led to four key points:

Accepting That We Are a Smaller City: Youngstown should strive to be the best mid-sized city in Ohio and America.

  • While the city’s younger residents were able to quickly embrace a new vision of Youngstown, Mayor Williams found that developing a vision for a new Youngstown was a very cathartic process for many of the city’s older residents, who had lived through a very painful period in the late 1970s and 80s as anchor employees closed their doors and jobs were lost on a massive scale. The point here is that developing a new vision can be as much about the process for some residents as the end result.
  • As part of this process, city officials asked the question: Rather than defining ourselves by what we no longer are, how can we be the best city of 82,000 that we can be? One response to this question was to open large swaths of former manufacturing land to alternate uses and actively court new industry. As a result Youngstown has become a small-scale tech hotbed and was named by Entrepreneur magazine as one of the top 10 places in the U.S. to start a business in 2009.

Defining Youngstown’s Role in the New Regional/Global Economy: Youngstown must align itself with the realities of the new regional economy.

  • Scholars increasingly point to the regional level rather than the city level as the relevant paradigm for gauging an area’s strength. Mayor Williams also referenced “the fall of cities and the rise of regions” in his remarks on Youngstown’s regional economy, noting that in fact the most apt name for the area might be “Cleveburgh, Ohiovania.” Youngstown is equidistant to Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and projects like the Tech Belt Initiative have grown out of both states’ governments creating new incentives to support the rise of a new technology sector.

Improving Youngstown’s Image & Enhancing Quality of Life: Making Youngstown a better place to live and work.

  • As part of the plan’s development, Youngstown State University did extensive mapping and created data that showed where the people and businesses were, and where they were not. This helped city officials prioritize and limit development accordingly. Questions of “downsizing” or “right-sizing” can spark legitimate fears of relocation and raise the specter of urban renewal in the minds of many. In the case of Youngstown, Mayor Williams and city officials stress that they are not moving anyone, but rather that development is simply being targeted in a manner that encourages density and re-use rather than sprawl.
  • In addition, to address concerns about crime that many residents voiced during the planning process, Mayor Williams increased the budget for abandoned building demolition and then aggressively targeted those lots for green space.

A Call to Action: An achievable and practical action-oriented plan to make things happen.

  • In addition to the Youngstown 2010 plan, Northeast Ohio’s Metropolitan Planning Organization was recently awarded a $4.25 million planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development involving 21 public and private sector entities to identify achievable goals around economic competitiveness, equitable and affordable housing, transportation, and natural resources.

Fascinating, you say, but what does Youngstown have to do with GO TO 2040 or the Chicago region? Well, this truly is the fascinating part, because although northeast Ohio is just beginning its regional planning process, the Youngstown plan is a compelling case for Chicago on what will constitute success for our own regional plan. At our roundtable, for instance, Mayor Williams stressed that just as important as crafting the big goals is creating a plan to implement the plan, including a checklist of big and small projects within a given timeframe and a process to monitor implementation progress. After all, as Bernard Loyd, President of Urban Juncture, Inc. – also a panelist at the roundtable, member of the Bronzeville Alliance, and an MPC Board member – pointed out, the planning document alone is “necessary but not sufficient.” Given that Bronzeville, like Youngstown, has lost more than 50 percent of its population since the 1950s, “sufficient” includes right-sizing, as the Alliance is currently doing with its effort to focus retail on its three strongest commercial corridors served by public transit stops.

Just as in Youngstown, leaders in Bronzeville are asking the question, how can we be the best community of 80,000 people we can be? If every municipality, county, COG, town, village and community in the Chicago metropolitan region asks itself this question, CMAP’s GO TO 2040 will be well on its way to implementation.

Panelist Bernard Loyd’s presentation

Panelist Suzanne Malec-McKenna, Commissioner, Chicago Dept. of Environment's, presentation

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