‘Shrinking cities’ are redefining themselves - Metropolitan Planning Council

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‘Shrinking cities’ are redefining themselves

This week I attended “Spotlight on Shrinking Cities,” an evening panel discussion sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and others, which shined a light on the challenges facing many iconic American cities considered part of the Rust Belt. These cities lost their industrialized job base and workforce in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and today continue to struggle to turn around urban blight and abandoned neighborhoods. Panelists focused on how cities that are shrinking/transitioning/“right-sizing” — or some other more politically correct term meaning cities with smaller populations, smaller economies and perhaps smaller geographies than in the past —  must find a way to bring back economic vibrancy and redefine themselves for a brighter future.


Joining the impressive panel was Youngstown, Ohio, Mayor Jay Williams, whose city has gone from 180,000 residents in its hey day to its current state of less than 80,000; Daniel T. Kildee, co-founder and president of the Center for Community Progress, based in Flint, Mich., and Washington, D.C., whose organization provides assistance to support the productive re-use and revitalization of vacant, abandoned and underutilized property; and Andre Brumfield, a consultant with AECOM to the City of Detroit, perhaps the “poster child” for failing cities trying to make a comeback.


Historically, Detroit, Youngstown, Flint, and Gary, Ind., — which is what drew me to attend the event, as MPC launched the Gary and Region Investment Project (GRIP) in October — and many other cities’ golden days of growth and prosperity often hinged on the steel or car manufacturing industries. Unfortunately, there was little or no diversification in jobs across their respective regions, so when those industries declined, so too did the cities. Flint, home to General Motors, at one time had 79,000 people employed by GM, or almost one of every two people living in the city at the time. Today, only 5,500 GM jobs remain, a fraction of the original workforce. In just three decades, Flint’s population has shrunk by half. And Detroit, extraordinarily, has experienced the loss of one million people since it was the car capital of the world! Those former workers and residents left behind home after home, block by block, until today the city is ravaged by some 39 square miles of vacant land, nearly 30 per cent of its total square mileage.


Today, Detroit, Youngstown, Flint, Gary and other Rust Belt cities are at a turning point. Efforts to find something to replace the steel industry, in whole or part, have mostly failed. While it may seem, as Dan Kildee reports, “un-American” to consider letting go of the pretense that these cities can somehow regain their glorious past – after all, the U.S. is a country where growth, historically, has equaled prosperity – it is often only once that acceptance occurs that real progress is made.


While panelists admitted the challenges are daunting, they also provided hope by highlighting where, and how, some of these same troubled cities are finding ways to reposition themselves for success.   


Mayor Williams, who is leading Youngstown 2010, a citywide Vision/Planning “right sizing” initiative, describes the community-wide epiphany that helped move the city forward. It started 10 years ago with four basic principles:


1)      Accept they were going to be a smaller city (“Be a great city of 70-80,000”);

2)      Understand their manufacturing destiny had to change;

3)      Address the city’s image of poor quality of life; and

4)      Start the call to action in Youngstown, among themselves. They could no longer “wait for the future” which was what had been taking place for decades. (Incidentally, we heard a similar message from Kim Burnett, with The Brookings Institution, at our GRIP launch on Oct. 27. “You are the ones you’ve been waiting for,” she told the audience.)


Mayor Williams spoke of bringing 1300 people together for a frank discussion to establish long-term goals. “We needed everyone to understand you have to prioritize investments,” he said. “You cannot divide by seven council districts every $100 you can spend — it doesn’t work.”


Andre Brumfield, involved in the Detroit Works Initiative with Mayor Bing, agrees adding, “The city is only as good as its neighborhoods ….but investment decisions cannot be seen as picking winners and losers, but putting resources where they can be leveraged.”


All of the panelists concurred that it takes strong leadership, an engaged community and a long range vision that’s adhered to in order to transform the blighted urban core. They’ve also been inspired by and learned from European cities that have experienced growth, then decline, and were able to make a comeback (Liverpool, Sheffield, Belfast, Turin and others), taking heart that formerly “shrinking” cities can stabilize — and become the strong, healthy places of tomorrow.




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