Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities
This Policy Focus Report explores the challenges of regenerating America’s legacy cities—older industrial cities that have experienced sustained job and population loss over the past few decades. It identifies the powerful obstacles that stand in the way of fundamental change in the dynamics of these cities, and suggests directions by which cities can overcome those obstacles and embark on the path of regeneration.
While almost all of the nation’s older industrial cities declined through the 1980s, the picture has changed in more recent decades. The report examines 18 representative cities to explore how their trajectories have changed, with some showing signs of revival while others continued to decline. These 18 cities were selected from a universe of approximately 50 legacy cities, which met two primary criteria: population of at least 50,000 in 2010; and loss of at least 20 percent from the city’s peak population. The cities represent geographic diversity, including New England, Mid-Atlantic, Southern, and Midwestern cities, as well as variation in their level of recovery or regeneration.
Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman lay the groundwork by exploring the challenges these cities face and reviewing the economic, social, market, physical, and operational factors that have led to their present condition. The relative health or vitality of each of these cities was tracked with 15 separate indicators to measure population change, socioeconomic condition, housing markets, and economic activity. Some appear highly successful, at least in relative terms; others are clearly unsuccessful; and others fall in between.
Legacy cities have many assets that can be starting points for revitalization and change, including downtown employment bases, stable neighborhoods, multimodal transportation networks, colleges and universities, local businesses, historic buildings and areas, and arts, cultural, and entertainment facilities. A renewed competitive advantage, which will enable them to build new economic engines and draw new populations, is likely to come from leveraging the value of their assets.
The authors argue that regeneration is grounded in the cities’ abilities to find new forms, including new physical forms that address the loss of population and changing economy. New models of governance and leadership, new forms of export-oriented economic activity, and new ways of building stronger regional and metropolitan relationships are other vehicles to successful regeneration.
In further addressing “what does it take to change?” the authors discuss what is meant by successful regeneration, followed by an exploration of obstacles to change, leading to the presentation of a model, which they call strategic incrementalism, as a framework with which cities can overcome these obstacles and pursue successful change.
The final section offers a series of recommendations to foster change in the nation’s legacy cities. These include:
- rebuilding the central core;
- sustaining viable neighborhoods;
- repurposing vacant land for new activities;
- using assets to build cities’ competitive advantages;
- re-establishing the central economic role of the city;
- using economic growth to increase community and resident well-being;
- building stronger local governance and partnerships;
- building stronger ties between legacy cities and their regions;
- making change happen through strategic incrementalism; and
- rethinking state and federal policy toward legacy cities.
See also our short video in which Alan Mallach explains the challenges and opportunities for legacy cities, as well as our 2017 report, Revitalizing America's Smaller Legacy Cities, which focuses on cities with populations of less than 200,000, located primarily in the Midwest and Northeast.
About the Authors
Alan Mallach is senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a visiting professor in the Program for Sustainable Planning and Development at Pratt Institute.
Lavea Brachman is the executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has been a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and a visiting professor in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.