Silver bullets for cities have come and gone over the years -- civic centers, festival markets, turning downtown streets into pedestrian malls, river walks, luring the "creative class." Today, however, when it comes to Legacy Cities -- typically Rust Belt metropolitan areas from Detroit to Flint to Youngstown to Camden, that have suffered population loss, a retreat of manufacturing, and rampant vacant urban land -- the dire circumstances calls for fresh, even radical thinking.
Finding a new form for these cities was the theme of a convening last week at the Lincoln Institute, led by Lavea Brachman, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, and Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. Some two dozen mayors, policy makers, researchers, planners, and foundation executives participated in a framing workshop that sought to build on Columbia University's American Assembly forum last year in Detroit.
The moniker Legacy Cities is an attempt to describe these cities in a more positive way than "shrinking cities," though that reference in terms of population loss -- commonly 20 percent or more -- is apt. These are places that possess the assets of infrastructure, housing, density, and transit, but have not seen the revitalization and vitality of Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, or San Francisco. Decline has left perilious fiscal conditions, with drastic cutbacks in basic services, plummeting tax revenue, anemic economic development, and vacant lots that worsen the psychology of deterioration.
There will be no silver bullets, but participants agreed "eds and meds" -- colleges, universities, medical centers, and the health care industry -- are foundational. There must be a triage system in place for dealing with vacant and tax-delinquent properties. Legacy Cities must be realistic and opportunistic, building on neighborhoods that show signs of strength attracting young people and entrepreneurs; not every medium-sized metropolis can be an arts capital, but might welcome the zeitgeist of "Rust Belt chic," including spelunking in abandoned factories.
The most far-reaching ideas? Some places, like Highland Park or East St. Louis, are approaching the equivalent of failed states, and might consider a devolution involving the redrawing or "de-annexing" of municipal boundaries. At the end of the workshop, there was a call for the equivalent of the International Monetary Fund for stressed cities.
The follow-up to the meeting will include the development of a toolkit and strategies, and principles and methods to help in the ongoing reinvention. The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Center has also been engaged in Legacy Cities, and Neal Peirce and Phyllis Meyers at Citiwire have been covering the effort.