ABC News: 3 Most Desperate Cities
Brookings: What America’s Cities Need
Columbia University, The American Assembly: Rebuilding America’s Legacy Cities-New Directions for the Industrial Heartland
The Economist: Smaller is More Beautiful
The Economist: The Parable of Detroit, So Cheap, There’s Hope
Across the United States, cities large and small are confronting unprecedented social and economic challenges. Although the problems many cities face are similar, including loss of industry and population to rapidly increasing crime and unemployment rates, the approaches cities have taken to address these problems and the resulting outcomes have been varied.
In America’s rustbelt, cities like Detroit, Flint, Rochester, Cleveland, Pittsburg, Harrisburg, and Buffalo watched as companies such as Kodak and General Motors slashed jobs, closed facilities, and exited the urban centers often formed around their very existence. The result is that cities across the country such as Vellejo, California, Boise County, Idaho, Jefferson, Alabama, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania are on the verge of, or have filed for, bankruptcy protection. The causes of the economic woes are different for each city, but abandoned properties, lack of municipal services, increased drug and crime rates, high unemployment and social unrest seem to be universal outcomes. Despite the daunting obstacles, some cities have weathered the storm and found ways to reinvent themselves.
General Motors was founded in Flint, Michigan and was home to 80,000 employees in 1968. It now has 6,000 employees in Flint and, as a result, the population of Flint has fallen by nearly 50% since 1960. Abandoned properties littered with trash dotted every area of town and redevelopment appeared impossible until 2002 when Flint created a “Land Bank” with the purpose of taking control of and redeveloping vacant, abandoned, or tax-delinquent properties. Rather than selling abandoned or foreclosed property at auction to the highest bidder who may have no interest in redevelopment, the Land Bank purchases such properties. Some buildings are renovated and then sold while the worst are demolished and the land sold to nearby homeowners or developers. Lured by exceedingly cheap prices, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and local residents have purchased property from the Land Bank. Shops, bars, restaurants, farmers markets, and gardens are redefining the image of Flint where the vacant properties once were. Flint’s Land Bank is now used as a model for other cities and states facing similar circumstances. Although Flint is no longer an industrial stronghold, it has evolved into a smaller, more sustainable urban model.
Other cities that have turned the corner toward redevelopment by transitioning from manufacturing and industrial hubs to service-based economies include Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Rochester. Detroit has utilized its massive infrastructure and office space to create “Techtown;” luring young, forward thinking technological enterprises to the city through highly competitive pricing, tax abatements, and creating attractive urban lifestyle environments. Similarly, Philadelphia and Baltimore have used their existing educational and medical institutions as an anchor for promoting business development and creating attractive urban environments. Johns Hopkins Health Care System partnered with city officials and developers to revive East Baltimore by deeding hundreds of hospital owned properties to town developers and providing financial support for the resulting projects. Similarly, Philadelphia used the resources of its colleges, universities, and hospitals to revitalize and rebuild. The University of Pennsylvania, its associated medical center, and other academic institutions purchased surrounding properties, rehabilitated them, and leased or sold them to residents, businesses, students, faculty, and staff with cost incentives such as below-market mortgage financing and favorable lease terms. The common theme among these success stories appears to be a willingness to shed outdated ideas of economic opportunities in favor of innovative community partnerships able to recognize and revitalize existing urban assets.