Strategies for Transforming the “Rust Belt”

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Many cities, especially the old manufacturing centers hardest hit by economic transformation and demographic shifts, are developing and implementing strategies to attract new residents and new investment. Options that have been or are being deployed to once again grow these cities include targeting immigrants and knowledge workers (“creative class”) as well as place-based initiatives focusing on downtowns and neighborhoods or on amenities like the arts, open space and transit. Leveraging the capacity of so-called anchor institutions – partners including foundations, universities and health centers – continues to be an important part of these efforts.

Economist Jeremy Nowak, who also is the Chair at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, argues that there are several trends that should help older “legacy cities” grow. Factors he and others view as significant include:

• Suburban and exurban empty nesters seeking urbanized spaces with amenities;
• Adults in their 20’s starting to form new households, albeit often households of one;
• Cities as critical gateways for new immigrants;
• The value of academic and health centers and other “growth nodes” found mostly in cities;
• Knowledge workers and those connected to the arts and to cultural institutions arts and culture congregate in cities;
• Societal trends in support of sustainability, walkability, dense social networks and place making are aligned with the values of the urban environment.

Even a casual observer of cities will agree that challenges remain. Research by NLC and other institutions acknowledge that cities must work through issues of poverty, crumbling infrastructure, low quality schools and general conditions of blight as well as perceptions about the ineffectiveness of government institutions in general. Most importantly, says Jeremy Nowak, “a city must come to terms with the cost of public benefits and the actual worth of those goods or services.”

In order to attract middle class families, a city must provide amenities that have broad public value – great public spaces, transportation systems that connect to jobs, residences and recreation opportunities, places that are safe and clean, and services that are fairly priced. City leaders also must embrace the shared governance and management models (partnerships with CDC’s, neighborhood associations, nonprofits and private sector firms) that offer innovations in delivering public goods and services toward the goal of achieving prosperity for all.

Practical Examples

Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seeks to grow the city’s population by 10,000 in 10 years. Efforts include the Vacants to Value program, which is rehabilitating vacant housing and offering home buyer incentives, demolishing 4,000 blighted structures, and leaving some land vacant as green space, urban agriculture plots or adjunct yards for existing homes. The mayor wants to cut city property taxes by 20% (reducing the cost of government in the process) and invest in core infrastructure including mobility strategies. A partnership with the state will invest $1.1 billion in new school construction (10-15 buildings) and rehabilitation of others.

There is useful data to help the city target resources. Research from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance discovered that 35% of neighborhoods in the city (19 of 55) experienced some recent growth. Historic preservation tax credits were an especially critical incentive bringing older houses into prime condition for habitation. Neighborhoods that grew were accessible to roads and transit networks allowing residents to get to jobs, shopping and recreation easier and faster. By contrast, little growth occurred where there is blight and vacant properties. Even where there is good access to mobility networks, neighborhoods with vacant properties are not growing.

In the Idora neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio, keys to future growth were upgrading the image of neighborhoods, strengthening the real estate market, and engaging large numbers of residents in the renewal process. The goal was to rebuild confidence so that property owners again would be willing to invest both dollars and time in owning and managing a quality home and community. The city’s Lots of Green program acknowledged the need to manage empty space in neighborhoods and encouraged the active role for residents.

Geneva, New York undertook image building initiatives to first create and then strategically market a dozen unique neighborhoods. Working through the city’s Office of Neighborhood Initiatives and in partnership with volunteers from the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center, residents are engaged in a process of setting standards they expect from their blocks and houses.

Some revitalization tasks are symbolic like creating a neighborhood mural or new place-centric signage. Other tasks strengthen the real estate market through rehabilitation and sale of formerly vacant houses, aggressive promotions of neighborhoods with the help of real estate agents, and targeted first-time homebuyer incentives.

Other, more tangible efforts, such as strengthening grass roots community associations that engage in problem identification, assessment and solution, often depend on support from city government. That support may take various forms such as advocate, facilitator and champion. I believe that an essential role for city government is to help make recoveries possible by using grants, special lien programs, and clean-up assistance to support confidence-building efforts implemented by residents in concerts with local nonprofits or other community-based institutions. Through such actions, cities create an enabling environment for actions by community stakeholders.

Future Thinking

The analysis presented here was gathered during a forum that brought together thought leaders from the cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia. These leaders were convened by the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities and four of the Federal Reserve Banks, with NLC as a supporting partner. Three more such gatherings will be organized during the balance of 2013 and into 2014. In our role of knowledge partner, NLC will contribute to these cross-city discussions but also facilitate the dissemination of knowledge beyond the four target cities.