Urban Sustainability

Smaller Legacy Cities and Greening in the Age of COVID-19
By Emma Zehner, November 18, 2020


A version of this article was published in the October 2021 issue of Land Lines as “A Sustainable Recovery: How Green Strategies Can Help Small Cities Confront Climate Change, COVID-19, and Systemic Racism.”

In early November, the City Council in Richmond, Virginia, adopted an ordinance to convert five city-owned lots into parks and green space. Under the leadership of Mayor Levar Stoney, the city had begun identifying potential park locations in January, consulting the city’s climate equity index to prioritize neighborhoods that lacked access to parks, had inadequate tree cover, and suffered the most from extreme heat. The effort took on new urgency with the arrival of COVID-19: the residents of these neighborhoods, who are predominantly Black, also are more likely to have underlying health conditions stemming from air pollution and other environmental factors, which has made them more vulnerable to and more impacted by the pandemic.

The map on the left shows COVID-19 risk throughout the city of Richmond. The map on the right shows vulnerability to extreme heat, based on residents’ existing health conditions and other factors. This map also shows where five new parks will be located. Credit: Maps Courtesty of the Richmond, Virginia, Office of Sustainability.

We have seen that there are so many interrelationships between the impacts of COVID-19 and the ongoing climate crises in our community,” said Alicia Zatcoff, Sustainability Manager for the City of Richmond. “This has made clear that the way to come out of COVID-19 and to be ready for the next version of COVID is to address both the climate crisis and these systemic inequities in our community.”

Urban heat islands, air pollution, lead poisoning, and other environmental injustices are common to post-industrial or “legacy” cities like Richmond, which was formerly a center for the tobacco industry. During the first half of the 20th century, many Black Americans moved from rural southern communities to urban manufacturing hubs, where they faced discriminatory housing policies that forced them into neighborhoods with high concentrations of industrial pollution and few green spaces. In many legacy cities, health disparities and economic inequality in communities of color were further exacerbated by decades of population loss, suburbanization, and urban disinvestment.

Richmond mayor Levar Stoney at a September press conference announcing plans to build five new city parks. Credit: Wesley Jones, City of Richmond Office of the Press Secretary.

Investing in green strategies can help reverse these patterns, say the authors of a new Lincoln Institute working paper: “A greening focused strategy in legacy cities has the potential to produce material benefits for communities of color, low-income communities, and other marginalized groups as these strategies can directly address the root cause of many environmental, social, and economic inequities.” 

Greenventory 2.0: Sustainability Lessons from Small and Midsize Legacy Cities documents how cities like Richmond are investing in green infrastructure, creating green jobs, and taking other steps to combat environmental injustice and attract new development and residents. The paper focuses on the unique assets and challenges of small to midsize legacy cities, defined as cities with 20,000 to 250,000 people. 

Authors Joseph Schilling and Gabriella Velasco of the Urban Institute see greening as a promising regeneration strategy. But they conclude that continued momentum won’t be possible without capacity and technical assistance from national, regional, and local players, especially given the fiscal impacts of COVID-19 on state and local government budgets.

Legacy Cities and Greening

Despite—or in some cases, because of—decades of disinvestment, small to midsize legacy cities have many of the building blocks they need to rebuild more sustainably and equitably. These assets include vacant lots, which can be used for green infrastructure or parks projectsproximity to fertile farmland and rivers

In addition, in recent years, several of these cities, such as Buffalo, New York, and Duluth, Minnesota, have been identified as possible “climate havens”—attractive to those seeking cooler temperatures and fresh water sources as climate change unfolds. As a result of COVID-19, these cities also have an opportunity to attract new residents who are no longer tied by their jobs to expensive, larger cities. Carefully planned green policies, accompanied by thoughtful strategies intended to avoid displacement of long-time residents, would help cities prepare for this possible influx while improving quality of life for all.

Many of these cities are already implementing green strategies. Greenventory 1.0, a research project by Schilling, sustainability author Catherine Tumber, and Brian Bieretz that preceded the working paper, found that about 75 percent of 43 small to midsize legacy cities scanned had green or sustainable projects or programs in place. The programs ranged widely in both focus area and scale.

Green infrastructure was the most common policy focus, followed by climate change and energy use. Examples include a green roof and permeable parking lot at Rochester’s City Hall and efforts to increase permeable surfaces in Buffalo. Similar projects include tree planting and climate adaptation initiatives in Providence, Rhode Island, and Worcester, Massachusetts, which were the focus of a recent Land Lines article. Other cities are converting vacant land to open space; an earlier Lincoln Institute report, Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities, highlights Dayton, Ohio’s “Green and Gold Strategy,” which converted vacant lots into parks and urban gardens. Flint, Michigan, similarly adjusted its zoning code to allow for more green space and, in Philadelphia, the city and a local nonprofit are working together to repurpose vacant lot as public open spaces.

Building on this initial inventory, Greenventory 2.0  included interviews with municipal and civic sustainability stakeholders to help refine the project’s analytical framework. The authors found that cities evolve across three phases in developing their sustainability initiatives: first generation initiatives, which are fairly discrete and relate to core environmental services including recycling, water treatment, or the redevelopment of brownfields; second generation initiatives, which often take the form of green land use plans or zoning/building codes, include stand alone sustainability offices, and focus on issues from climate mitigation to energy use; and third generation initiatives, which incorporate sustainability into broader economic and social policies and practices. Few cities studied had achieved the third level, though the paper cites Providence’s 2019 Climate Justice Plan and Richmond’s ongoing climate action planning process as examples.

What Works: Partners, Leadership, and Peer Learning

Greenventory 2.0 looks at what is working well and why—and what additional capacity, technical assistance, and funding support these cities will need. The findings include:

Partnerships are Key

The critical role of partners like universities, nonprofits, and philanthropic organizations in executing sustainability work and overcoming capacity challenges is one of the key findings of Schilling and Vellasco’s research. “Many of these cities don’t have a large staff or a big budget, and these support networks are helping smaller cities adopt or implement sustainability policies,” Velasco said.

In Richmond, the mayor’s Green Team is composed of a range of stakeholders, including representatives from the city’s Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Public Utilities, Planning and Development Review departments, Office of Sustainability and local nonprofits. The team based its recommendations for park locations on cross-sector research conducted on urban heat islands by partners including the Science Museum of Virginia,Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond, the nonprofit GroundworkRVA, and Richmond’s Office of Sustainability.

Other cities also work closely with universities, which can provide research on local sustainability issues and expand capacity with student support. In Muncie, Indiana, for example, the city works with Ball State University and Habitat for Humanity to design more resource-efficient homes and advise residents on reducing their energy use.

Committed Leaders Make the Difference

Richmond’s Zatcoff explains that buy-in from city leadership is crucial to maintaining a sustainability agenda, especially during COVID-19: “Our mayor understands the links between climate action, health, and equity. Our elected leaders see those connections. People are understanding more and more that there is a real connection between, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, particulate matter and pollution . . . [and] how these can negatively affect our community’s health in terms of our residents that suffer from high rates of asthma.”

Lynn Armel, environmental sustainability coordinator for Erie County, Pennsylvania, a smaller county that does not have a dedicated sustainability department, expressed a similar sentiment: since Erie County declared racism a public health crisis earlier this year, she said, she has been able to “take an approach that centers environmental justice and allows me to point to this mandate as a justification.” She has worked to more comprehensively incorporate an environmental justice component into the county’s climate vulnerability assessment.

Armel, who dedicates about a quarter of her time to the county’s sustainability efforts and spends the rest managing recycling projects, noted that there are still challenges to changing the culture around sustainability. “The sustainability practices aren’t as wide-reaching as ideally they would be. It would be really good to have a sustainability department on a higher level to integrate different departments across local government on ways to further economic development during COVID that are forward thinking and sustainable.” 

Even with committed leadership, these capacity challenges can prevent smaller cities from working on projects that more fully integrate resilience and sustainability into all aspects of the city’s work, from housing to jobs programs.

Cities Can Learn from Each Other

Greenventory 2.0 recommends peer learning exchanges, such as the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, Sustainable States Network, and local government cohorts run by the National League of Cities, as valuable opportunities for cities to compare notes and support each other’s efforts. The Legacy Cities Initiative, a new project of the Lincoln Institute, offers a centralized resource specific to these cities, including case studies of successful programs, demographic data on more than 100 cities, and a compilation of online resources, and will convene communities of practice of legacy city leaders.

Several other factors can influence whether cities are successful and well positioned to achieve “third generation” sustainability, Schilling and Velasco write, including location (whether cities are geographically clustered near other legacy cities, such as groupings in Massachusetts and upstate New York, and can share technical assistance and learning opportunities); political relationships between cities, regions, and states; capacity to collect data to track progress; and, of course, access to funding.

Next Steps in the Age of COVID

Though there are clear economic, environmental, and social benefits to adopting green policies, many cities are now facing COVID-related cuts on top of already constrained budgets. Since March, cities have reported delays in projects such as greenhouse gas inventories and climate adaptation plans. In Erie, Armel confirmed, meetings about the adoption of Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) were delayed for some time following shutdowns due to COVID-19.

The authors say that funding pressures increase the need for state and federal support for green initiatives, especially for smaller cities.

Unlike large cities, even large legacy cities, [smaller legacy cities] have something of a scale problem. They are more dependent on state and federal support to fill capacity gaps,” said Catherine Tumber, author of Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, which was published in 2012 and offered some of the first research on the intersection of legacy cities and sustainability. 

With climate change poised to become a national policy priority in 2021, federal cross-agency collaboration could build new capacities for legacy city sustainabilityThe working paper points to the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) (2011–2015), a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Transportation, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that offered grants for regional governments to design or implement sustainability plans and for local governments working on sustainability challenges. Strong Cities, Strong Communities (2011–2017) provided two rounds of assistance, including grants and technical assistance, to a cohort of cities.

Philanthropy can also play a role: the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston organizes the Working Cities Challenge, which offers peer learning and technical assistance opportunities and coordinates foundation and state funding for grants to smaller, industrial cities to improve collaborative leadership on issues that will change the lives of their low-income residents.

This is the kind of model we need on a policy level to compensate for the lack of capacity in these cities,” Tumber said.

While the pandemic has introduced fiscal uncertainties, there appears to be a growing consensus in many smaller legacy cities that sustainability is an effective way to address the overlapping crises of COVID-19, systemic racism, and climate change. The next phase of the Greenventory project will further develop the policy recommendations Schilling and Velasco propose at the end of the working paper—which include using state community and economic development incentives to encourage green industries and business and expanding the power of local governments to conduct climate vulnerability assessments and greenhouse gas inventories.

As we look out on the policy horizon, perhaps the current COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the outcry for racial justice and the constant drum beat of climate change, could generate the necessary policy convergence that together could drive the green regeneration of small and midsize legacy cities,” the authors write.



Emma Zehner is communications and publications editor at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Photograph: Richmond, Virginia. Credit: Sean Pavone via iStock.




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