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The Rust Belt Can Do Better Than ‘Managed Decline’

Theater in Akron. Ohio. (Mark Turnauckas/Flickr)

Editor’s Note: This is part one in a two-part series on Rust Belt urban revitalization. Next week, return for part two on the new policy ideas leaders in Akron are using to spur growth in housing and residents.

AKRON, Ohio—A decade ago, the concept of “smart decline” began to gain serious traction in the post-industrial cities of the Rust Belt, particularly in places like Detroit and Youngstown.

The concept makes some theoretical sense. Nearly every economic and social trend in the United States since the 1950s has produced significant headwinds for the cities of this region. Many people believe that those trends are going to continue indefinitely. If you’re not going to grow, why not be realistic about your prospects, and begin to work toward mothballing infrastructure and relocating residents from declining neighborhoods?

There is an argument to be made that this is a pragmatic approach to present-day economic realities. But one could also argue that managed decline is fatalistic, and that it can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Are Rust Belt cities simply hapless victims, subject to the whims of the fates? Or can wise leadership, creativity, and strategic planning create demand to live in a place, and bring about a reversal of fortunes? People who remember Brooklyn in 1977, or East Berlin in 1983, would probably agree that places can change in dramatic and unexpected ways, and that it is sometimes darkest before the dawn.

As Cleveland State University’s Richey Piiparinenputs it, “Perfecting managed decline. . .[assumes] that yesterday’s trend lines will carry on indefinitely. But we don’t know the future. Rust Belt cities need to stop planning that there isn’t one.”

Managing decline effectively requires a level of organizational efficiency and sophistication that eludes most declining places. It is much harder work than managing growth. Take Detroit, for example. Detroit talked about managed decline for years, but never really did it. To imagine that a place like circa-2008 Detroit, which did not even have the resources to adequately maintain core public services like fire protection, or to keep the streetlights on, could have somehow been able to implement a highly-complex, top-down program of resident relocation and infrastructure removal, defies credulity. It was never going to happen.

On this point, James Howard Kunstler is worth quoting at length:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….

Under Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership, Detroit has rejected “smart decline,” and it is beginning to reap dividends. Back in 2010, a few years before Duggan was elected, Dan Gilbert moved the headquarters of Quicken Loans to downtown Detroit, lighting the spark for a wave of private investment which would follow.  That wave is continuing to gain momentum. In June, Ford Motor Company announced that it was buying the long-abandoned Michigan Central Station, a symbol of Rust Belt decay if there ever was one, and restoring it as a job hub for 2,500 workers—an announcement that created a sense of hope across the entire city.

Rather than embracing decline, Duggan ran under a slogan of “Every neighborhood has a future.” He was elected by a 72 percent landslide in 2017.  People have begun to move back to Detroit’s urban core for the first time in several generations.

Mark Turnauckas/Flickr

Detroit still has a long way to go.  Even as the core revitalizes, most of the city’s outer neighborhoods continue to disintegrate and the population loss continues.  But there has been an undeniable sea change in terms of local leaders coming to believe that the city can once again be a place where people who have a choice would want to live.

The point is an important one. While many cities never explicitly bought into the fatalism of the “smart decline” philosophy, they still embraced a variant of it.  Over the past three decades, Rust Belt cities have spent billions of dollars on stadiums, convention centers, casinos, and economic development incentives, accepting the premise that becoming an entertainment hub for suburbanites and attracting jobs that would be filled by commuters was probably the best that they could ever hope for. The idea that the city could ever again be a place where people who had a choice would want to live was seen as naive and unrealistic.  What about crime? What about the schools? The vast majority of the leaders of the major institutions in these cities didn’t even live in the city themselves. If they didn’t believe in the place enough to live there, who else would?

It is refreshing to see city leaders fighting for the new housing that will help to revitalize and restore their neighborhoods. Akron’s Mayor Dan Horrigan, my boss, has established a bold goal of growing the city’s current population of 198,000 back to 250,000 by 2050. He unequivocallystates that “I refuse to manage this city’s decline.”

To combat decline in Akron, we are focusing on the key aspect of attracting new residents—housing. To do this, the city is creating tax incentives for renovations of older, low-value housing stock and attracting suburbanites back to urban neighborhoods, even if they work outside city limits. We also must change attitudes around new development and supposed “gentrification,” a term that may be relevant in booming coastal cities, but is misleading in the Rust Belt context.

In a city with a declining stock of marketable housing, building new housing is mission-critical.  Without it, the city is doomed to continue to lose population and wealth.

This isn’t about chasing a number. A chronically shrinking population and the concomitant loss of household wealth has incredibly important ramifications for a city’s tax base, employment base, and school performance; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and basic services; the delivery of public services; and the overall well-being and health of its residents.

Cities have the same amount of infrastructure to maintain and the same level of public services to provide, whether they grow or shrink. Permanent contraction of the population means the same amount of services to pay for, with less people to help share the cost of paying for them.

In fact, urban decline often means paying for even more city services than before, because the poverty and abandonment that comes along with decline is expensive—often necessitating more robust police and fire protection, demolition of vacant buildings, maintenance of vacant lots, and the provision of additional social services for the poor.

As neighborhoods decline and hollow-out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population—the jobs disappear, the retail disappears—relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible suburban locale.

Where a person lays their head each night matters.  People will always be far more invested in the place that they actually live, than the one in which they work, shop, or watch a ballgame. It is time for the cities of the Rust Belt to recognize this, to put housing first, and to vigorously compete with the suburbs as a place to live. Our residents, both existing and future, deserve no less.

Jason Segedy is Director of Planning and Urban Development for the City of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 23 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground. A lifelong resident of Akron’s west side, Jason is committed to the city, its people, and its neighborhoods. His passion is creating great places and spaces where Akronites can live, work, and play.

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