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Finding New Forms for America’s Legacy Cities

Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman

July 2013, English

The purpose of this working paper is to explore the opportunities for regeneration in America’s legacy cities, its older industrial cities that have experienced sustained job and population loss over the past few decades. It is based on the principle that in order to regenerate, these cities must find new forms: not only changing their physical form, but new forms of economic activity, new models of governance, and new ways of building stronger regional and metropolitan relationships.

Before sketching out these new forms, we lay the groundwork by exploring the challenges these cities face, reviewing the broad economic, social and other factors that have led to their present condition, and asking the question of what, in this context, do we mean by successful regeneration. This is not a simple question of whether a community reverses its population loss and begins to grow again, but a far more complex question, which requires one to examine what actually constitutes urban health, or success.

From this starting point, we look at some of the key assets that affect cities’ ability to foster regeneration, and look at how a cluster of legacy cities is faring on a series of indicators, in order to explore the substantial variation between cities with respect to their regeneration and adaptation to change. This section is followed by the description of the new forms that these cities must find. We use the term “form” broadly, not just to refer to physical or urban form in the traditional sense, but to encompass new forms of economic activity, governance, and regional relationships.

The final section, entitled “what does it take to change?” draws lessons from the experience of both successful and less successful cities first to identify the obstacles to change, and to explore the tools and strategies that can overcome those obstacles and that may be most conducive to the regeneration of older cities.