Trees with green

New Report

Seven Strategies for Equitable Development in Smaller Legacy Cities
By Emma Zehner, May 26, 2021


Former industrial and manufacturing hubs like Dayton, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana—known as legacy cities—need not choose between economic growth and equity, as growth is most durable when it benefits everyone, according to a new Policy Focus Report and accompanying Policy Brief published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in partnership with the Greater Ohio Policy Center. Legacy cities can promote long-term growth while addressing racial and economic inequities laid bare by COVID-19 using strategies mapped out in Equitably Developing Smaller Legacy Cities: Investing in Residents from South Bend to Worcester. Using case studies of successful initiatives, the report guides practitioners through equitable investment in both physical projects and people.

Legacy cities experienced declining manufacturing economies and population loss in the 20th century, and they are now at various points on a path to revitalization. The report focuses on small to mid-size legacy cities with populations of 30,000 to 200,000 residents. Though they share many characteristics with their larger counterparts, these cities face unique challenges and require tailored approaches to revitalization.

Promising policies and strategies have emerged—as outlined in the 2017 Policy Focus Report Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities and in the digital library of the Lincoln Institute’s Legacy Cities Initiative—and some legacy cities have seen populations grow or stabilize. As the new report shows, durable revitalization requires explicit efforts to address stark social and economic inequities.

“Leaders in America’s smaller legacy cities are uniquely positioned to test, refine, and innovate equitable development practices,” authors Erica Spaid Patras, Alison Goebel, and Lindsey Elam of the Greater Ohio Policy Center write in the report. “A robust commitment to equity is a powerful tool that can lead to a brighter future for these communities.”

Drawing on years of experience conducting research, advocacy, and outreach on behalf of Ohio’s 20 legacy cities, the authors begin the report with an explanation of how greater equity can both improve everyone’s access to opportunity and support the economic prospects of cities. For example, by providing better job training for longtime residents, a city can increase disposable income and encourage businesses to hire locally and ultimately stay in the city. Reducing entrenched poverty and increasing citizen engagement can improve a community’s long-term financial health.

The authors outline seven strategies, illustrated with a diverse set of case studies, that can lay the groundwork for a city’s equitable development agenda. Strategies are tailored to the unique challenges of these small to mid-size legacy cities and also draw on their unique opportunities—such as a lack of market pressures that allows leaders more time to get plans right.

“The strategies outlined in Equitably Developing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities will be vital in rebuilding more racially and economically equitable legacy cities,” Akilah Watkins, president and CEO of the Center for Community Progress, said. “Every municipal leader in the country should engage with this guide and be bold in their efforts to revitalize their communities in a post-COVID era.”

The recommendations can be implemented at any time, regardless of a city’s market strength, and include strategies suitable for implementation at the local level by government officials; leaders of nonprofits, foundations, or community development organizations; community outreach staff at hospital systems, universities, or financial institutions; and other practitioners. Some strategies build on existing programs—e.g., integrating racial equity analyses into routine local government decision-making—while others stand alone—e.g., programs that build the leadership pipeline and civic capacity of underrepresented groups. 

“This report demonstrates a keen understanding of legacy cities, and the policy recommendations are robust and easily understandable,” said Jason Segedy, Director of Planning and Urban Development for the city of Akron, Ohio. 

“The strategies address today’s pandemic climate as well as long-standing economic decline,” the authors write. “Most of these strategies are cost-effective and prioritize investing time and human capital to build collaborations rather than just spending on new construction projects.” 

Strategies fall into two categories: 1) those that seek to strengthen relationships and build trust and 2) those that reduce disparities in life outcomes for residents and improve economic prospects citywide. 

Strategies to Build an Equitable Development Ecosystem 

  • Build Trust and Repair Strained Relationships: In 2016, planners in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, delivered an apology for past racist policies, including redlining and urban renewal, and their present impacts, which helped lay the groundwork for more equitable programming and community partnerships.
  • Build a Layered and Diverse Coalition: A diverse group of transit advocates in Indianapolis undertook a major outreach campaign, which included inclusive coalition-building and effective use of data, to demonstrate the benefits of public transit investment to businesses and community groups, ultimately winning voter approval for a tax to improve the city’s transit system. 
  • Conduct Strategic Planning and Visioning: Erie, Pennsylvania’s Downtown Development Corporation is a non-profit intermediary responsible for coordinating the funding and implementation of downtown revitalization plans and helping to build Erie’s revitalization capacity. 

Strategies That Reduce Disparities and Increase Civic Capacity

  • Utilize Place-Based Investments:The historic renovation of Dayton, Ohio’s downtown Arcade improved the physical quality of downtown and in the process became the shared home for several small business and innovation entities, allowing for better coordination among the groups to eliminate service redundancies and diagnose community needs.
  • Cultivate Homegrown Talent: A coalition of business, government, and nonprofits in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, fosters community-based leadership that reflects the diversity of the city through programs that increase the number of residents serving on local boards and engage youth in leadership development. A parent-led coalition focused on ending the school-to-prison pipeline in Gwinnett, Georgia, provides advocacy training and leadership development for parents while also promoting local, state, and national policy changes. 
  • Anticipate Neighborhood Change and Plan for Stability: In Atlanta, Georgia, a nonprofit organized a philanthropy-funded anti-displacement program to pay for homeowners’ property tax increases in designated areas. During Ohio’s declared COVID-19 state of emergency, the village of Yellow Springs pioneered a novel eviction protection policy, requiring landlords to accept late rent payments so residents could remain in their homes. 
  • Recalibrate Existing Operations to Better Yield Equity: The city of Springfield, Ohio, adopted compassionate code enforcement strategies to help low- and moderate-income homeowners fix code violations and avoid penalties and the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County, Ohio, made concrete changes to their internal operations in order to improve measures of equity in the community they serve.

The report is available for download on the Lincoln Institute’s website.