They have been called shrinking cities, weak market cities and gateway cities. But by any label – our preferred term is legacy cities – small and medium-sized cities in many parts of the country are struggling with manufacturing decline and population loss. One of these cities is Buffalo, which – after a rich history as a rail and grain hub – is seeking the economic engines that will power its future revival.
The pressure is on. While Detroit’s circumstances are unusual and specific to that city, its filing for bankruptcy has drawn renewed attention to similar cities and metropolitan areas struggling with limited and often dwindling resources to provide services, balance their budgets and simultaneously set the stage for future growth.
But as leaders of the city consider ways to grow jobs, rebuild infrastructure, foster urban vitality and create a 24/7 downtown, a careful review of the experience of cities around the country offers several important lessons. Some mega-projects can become important assets, but the silver-bullet approach is not a strategy for change in itself, unless it is integrated into a larger, more holistic approach to build the city’s future. A more incremental approach built on collaboration and partnerships – combined with a fresh appreciation of the city’s existing assets, beginning with its physical form – holds far more promise.
The best way forward may look a bit more like silver buckshot, with a focus on these key areas:
Make the most of downtown. The physical fabric of the city’s central core, with its high-density, walkable, urban texture and proximity to major institutions and employers, is a powerful attraction for young single people and couples – a growing demographic – and a strong basis for residential redevelopment. Set a friendly regulatory environment for in-fill redevelopment, reinvent public spaces and encourage private market reuse of older buildings.
Sustain viable neighborhoods. In strategically targeted areas, build partnerships with neighborhood associations, such as PUSH on the city’s West Side, to implement multifaceted neighborhood strategies that address destabilizing elements such as crime, foreclosure and property abandonment, in order to rebuild housing markets and draw home buyer demand.
Don’t be afraid to demolish. Repurposing large inventories of vacant land strategically can be a major springboard for change in heavily disinvested areas. Cities should explore large-scale reconfiguration of land uses, including the use of vacant land for public open space, urban agriculture or storm water management. But demolition has to be tied to strategies, not just used haphazardly, or along the lines of the “squeaky wheel” approach to urban investment.
Reinvent the economic base. Not every city can become the next biotech capital, although with major facilities such as the Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Center for Bioinformatics, Buffalo has some real opportunities along those lines. An honest assessment of local assets and regional competitive advantages can help build new export-oriented economies, but it also needs to include partnerships with local educational institutions and major employers to build the educational and skill development system needed to make the city’s workforce competitive in the regional labor market.
Build new partnerships. In almost every city, universities and medical centers – “eds and meds” – are bedrock institutions, part of a foundational network of public, nonprofit and private collaboration. State universities and the city’s array of medical institutions are key partners in the city’s future. Similarly, state and federal governments must rethink their roles, becoming more nimble, more effective, less biased toward suburban areas and more focused on supporting urban transformation than on subsidizing the status quo. The Obama administration’s Sustainable Communities initiative is a good start, albeit hobbled by Congress’ unwillingness to appropriate funds to implement the Sustainable Communities plans.
Make sure all city residents benefit from change. Many cities are fragmented, with large and growing spatial, economic and racial disparities. Buffalo is no exception. Engaging residents more broadly in the city’s future, and providing the educational and workforce development systems the city’s residents need to become competitive in the labor market, can build a stronger city for everyone.
In our research for the report “Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities” published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, an analysis of 18 of these struggling cities, one additional theme came up time and again: that strong regions are a distinguishing feature of thriving cities around the world.
While legacy cities and their regions are already inextricably linked by social and economic realities, far more must be done to make these connections positive forces for regenerating both the city and the rest of the region. Public policy changes at both state and national levels are needed to foster greater regional integration. Regionalized infrastructure, particularly transit, sewer and water systems, should be encouraged to strengthen city and regional ties that foster economic growth.
All this may sound as if many different pieces need to fall in place. They do. Yet an approach we call “strategic incrementalism” can help focus local energies and keep the momentum going. The daunting obstacles to change can be overcome through a process of gradual, incremental actions driven by a shared vision. Rather than devote significant time and resources to large-scale comprehensive planning, legacy cities should focus on building partnerships, supporting multiple initiatives, all grounded in a coherent vision of the city’s future shared by the entire city.
Buffalo and other cities like it were once this country’s economic engines. The right mixture of new forms and strategies, rooted in their rich assets and historic can-do culture of achievement, can provide the springboard for a new era of prosperity.
Alan Mallach is senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. Lavea Brachman is executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center. They are co-authors of “Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities.”