Three panelists discussed successful strategies for putting small, post-industrial American cities on the road to revitalization, the central theme of the 2012 Reinventing conference.
The panelists were:
Erika Poethig, acting assistant secretary for HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, moderated the session.
While the panelists would readily admit that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, their firsthand experiences and research have identified a number of themes associated with successful revitalization.
All cities have assets. Some have a riverfront ripe for development. Others have an active and engaged college or hospital with a civic consciousness. Still others have a durable housing stock and walkable streets or serve as a regional or national tourist destination. However, not all cities cultivate their assets in ways that lead to revitalization, and additional research is needed to determine what leads to successful revitalization in some cases but not in others.
Panelists identified leadership and long-range planning as two themes that appear to be particularly critical to the success of revitalization efforts. Leaders can come from any sector, but they must form broad-based coalitions that include the government, business, and nonprofit sectors. Leadership and collaboration are important in the development of a long-range plan that guides a city’s growth and provides a measure of continuity in the face of changing administrations, CEOs, and executive directors.
The importance of the region, rather than the city, as the appropriate scale for strategic planning and forging partnerships also emerged in the presentations. Developing a strategic plan that includes partners throughout the region is considered critical. Morrison’s organization is engaged in this very process in Northeast Ohio with the financial support of a federal Sustainable Community Regional Planning Grant.
The impact of a city’s economy — both its size and makeup — on the well-being of its residents was less clear. Kodrzycki’s research on 25 formerly industrial cities concluded that while all rely less on manufacturing than they once did, there is no discernible relationship between today’s reliance on manufacturing and the likelihood of being resurgent. Similarly, Mallach’s research suggests that there is little correlation between a city’s employment base and the quality of life enjoyed by its residents. Instead, the presenters emphasized the importance of connecting a city’s labor force to its broader regional job market. Where necessary, workforce development and job training efforts can help ensure that a city’s residents can take advantage of local and regional opportunities.
Morrison and Kodrzycki also discussed the importance of forming relationships with peer cities in order to learn how others facing similar obstacles to redevelopment have worked together to overcome their challenges. This cross-pollination of best practices is a goal of the City to City for Greater Springfield initiative,4 through which Springfield’s leaders visit their counterparts in resurgent cities.
The Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces are shown from the Lehigh River prior to the SteelStacks renovations.
Concertgoers gather for a show at the base of the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces in the heart of the new SteelStacks arts and cultural center in Bethlehem, PA.
Success must be defined before municipal revitalization efforts are, or are not, considered successful. Both Kodrzycki and Mallach measured success in relative terms by forming “peer groups” of cities with similar peak populations and histories of manufacturing employment. By standard metrics such as household income or educational attainment, few formerly industrial cities would appear to be successful today when measured against national averages or cities with qualitatively different pasts. However, by focusing on those that have experienced the traumatic disruption of deindustrialization and in many cases significant population loss, it is clear that some cities can be considered to be “rebounding,” to use Mallach’s term, or “resurgent,” according to Kodrzycki’s research.
Successful revitalization can be measured among peer cities in a variety of ways, but the panelists focused primarily on the quality of life and social well-being of city residents as measured by household income, poverty levels, and educational attainment. As Mallach said, “It doesn’t matter how many waterfront attractions you have if 40 percent of your population lives below the poverty line.” Kodrzycki also considered whether the city’s population had stabilized after decades of loss, while Mallach emphasized healthy neighborhoods and housing markets as well as economic activity.
In closing, Kodrzycki noted that the rising tide of even the most successful revitalization efforts may not lift all boats. Separate initiatives focusing specifically on low-income households and neighborhoods may be required to ensure that a city’s renewal is complete and inclusive.
Keith Wardrip can be contacted at 215-574-3810 or firstname.lastname@example.org.