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Legacy Cities Initiative

Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Launches Legacy Cities Initiative
By Emma Zehner, Allison Ehrich Bernstein, and Will Jason, September 14, 2020


The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has launched the Legacy Cities Initiative to help policy makers, civic leaders, and other stakeholders build on their city’s strengths and create a more equitable, sustainable, and prosperous future. The initiative includes cutting-edge research and tools as well as opportunities for participants to connect with peers in other cities through a national network of governmental, civic, and philanthropic leaders.

A legacy city is any one of the many American cities that were once drivers of industry and prosperity—but that experienced economic and population declines in the 20th century due to changing industries, as well as government policies that steered investment away from communities of color. Together, these older industrial centers are home to nearly 17 million people and a collective economy of $430 billion.

In recent years, many legacy cities advanced on a path of revitalization. Now, they are being tested by unprecedented health and economic crises, which, together with demonstrations against police violence, have shed light on longstanding racial inequities.
However, as dozens of legacy cities have proven in recent decades, a revival is possible. Legacy cities already have many of the assets they need for regeneration, including vibrant local cultures, historic neighborhoods, robust transportation networks, and underutilized workforces. The challenge is to capitalize on those resources—and to mobilize collaboration among local leaders in politics, business, and other sectors.

“If legacy cities can use their strengths to rebuild equitably, they will not only help millions of residents live healthy, prosperous lives but also create hundreds of new thriving places of opportunity,” said George W. McCarthy, president and CEO of the Lincoln Institute. “One of the Lincoln Institute’s goals is to reduce poverty and spatial inequality, and that won’t be possible if opportunity in the United States is limited to a handful of superstar cities.”

“Legacy cities have proven time and again that they have the resilience to survive crises and adapt to change,” McCarthy said. “As a connector of knowledge and people, the Lincoln Institute is committed to supporting legacy cities by helping them to harness their collective power, to learn from each other, and to apply proven strategies for building shared prosperity.”

The Legacy Cities Initiative takes a multipronged approach to supporting leaders on the ground, offering webinars, peer exchanges, new research, and a community of practice of select leaders, who will meet regularly beginning in January 2021. As a part of the Initiative’s launch, the Lincoln Institute has called for cities to participate in the community of practice. Interested city leaders can learn more and apply here. The initiative includes a new digital home,, which features case studies of successful policies and programs that can serve as national models for inclusive and sustainable revitalization; a searchable map charting nearly 100 legacy cities and their pathways to growth; and a comprehensive list of resources exploring the unique challenges and opportunities that legacy cities face.

“Research and ideas are important, but the success of legacy cities depends on people,” said Jessie Grogan, the Lincoln Institute’s associate director for reduced poverty and spatial inequality. “Fortunately, legacy cities already possess leaders and civic advocates of the highest caliber, and a big part of our mission will be to bring them together so they can learn from one another and achieve even greater impact. No city will have to rebuild alone.”

The Legacy Cities Initiative builds on the Lincoln Institute’s extensive work with legacy city leaders and scholars including research, publications, and events. A series of Policy Focus Reports, Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities (2013), Revitalizing America’s Legacy Cities: Strategies for Postindustrial Success from Gary to Lowell (2017), and The Empty House Next Door: Understanding and Reducing Vacancy and Hypervacancy in the United States (2018), outline adaptable strategies that have helped legacy cities overcome population loss, neighborhood disinvestment, unemployment, and other common challenges. The Lincoln Institute, in partnership with Enterprise Community Partners, the former Rose Center for Public Leadership, and the American Planning Association also convened a community of practice in 2019 for representatives from Akron, Ohio; Rochester, New York; and Lansing, Michigan, a pilot version of the program that will begin in January 2021.

Visit to sign up for the Innovations in Legacy Cities webinar series, which begins this fall, and join our legacy cities mailing list to stay informed.



Photograph Credit: Travis Estell/Flickr




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