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The Rust Belt Can Do Better Than ‘Managed Decline’

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 Piiparinen puts it [1], “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 [2] is worth quoting at length [3]:

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.

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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.

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 unequivocally states [5] 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 [6]. 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.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "The Rust Belt Can Do Better Than ‘Managed Decline’"

#1 Comment By FL Transplant On July 19, 2018 @ 11:27 pm

Is much of the older, low-value housing stock worth renovating? I have some knowledge of the Scranton, PA area, and the older, low-value homes there were modest to begin with–asphalt siding, architecturally undistinguished (to put it mildly), small lots, full of asbestos and lead paint from a century ago when they were built, antiquated electrical/water/HVAC–the costs and efforts to renovate them are so far out of proportion to the value afterwards that it’s impossibly for me to think how anyone could rationalize a reno as opposed to a teardown–and it’s difficult to see the advantage of building new on a small lot in a declining neighborhood of aging homes, with no special reason (access to recreational amenities, walking to shops/taverns/schools) to live there.

It’s one thing for someone who inherits such a house to live there, essentially for free. It’s another for someone to spend upwards of $100K to do the same, even in the house is substantially improved.

#2 Comment By Jon On July 20, 2018 @ 10:48 am

Wearily comes this response filled with the weight of recent history, a weltschmerz sensibility. Neighborhoods are at times rejuvenated. But for what purpose? Well built but abandoned factories provide the shell for expensive condos. And where housing is developed to attract suburbanites that succeeds in restocking parts of a city devastated by the decline of industry, land values ascend driving out the poor and lower middle class.

I grew up across from two magnificent factories built towards the end of the Nineteenth Century. One was a factory manufacturing briar pipes. Walking by the facility I could hear machinery as workmen drilled the pipe bulbs. The other factory made pharmaceuticals but moved its operation further out on Long Island. Eventually the pipe factory closed and both buildings remained shuddered for decades.

Today, the pipe factory is a condominium whose housing units are way above what I could ever afford. And the pharmaceutical factory was torn down to make way for an elementary school.

Also, there were some knitting mills which flourish to this very day, but they are all automated. I once peered into one of these small mills to see the bobbins turning by themselves without a single human attendant.

Such is the nature of growth. Presently I work in a rust belt town, Bridgeport, Connecticut and its leaders dream of revitalizing the city. It had experienced generations of such dreamers but remains as before a rust belt town with few prospects.

There is a dream here and a wonderful one at that since I am a visual artist: it is the belief that the arts can revitalize this town. The myth prescribes catering to arts and culture to attract visitors and when whole neighborhoods become the home for creative people, developers can swoop down to revitalize whole blocks with new apartments and storefronts for small restaurants, bistros, delis, antiquarian booksellers, clothing stores and handcrafted tchotchkes. In short they continuously dream of a Jane Jacobs multi-use paradise.

They look to New York City for inspiration: to Soho and Tribeca the mecca for this type of revitalization but also the artists’ nightmare as they were forced out of these places to hunker down in alternative spaces found in other rust belt areas such as Dumbo. Sure enough the same phenomenon is occurring in this area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

Surely the future is unforeseeable. And city planners occasionally manage to draw blood from stones. But all of this is serendipity planning being only that adaptation to change which takes advantage of opportunities as they occur. And when developers committed to erecting new building stock as well as renovating the old succeed in attracting new residents, they do so at a premium cost pricing out the impoverished remnant who had stayed the course. We see this with the revivification of old neighborhoods such as Tribeca and the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

It is not only that there are winners and losers in this fight to turn whole communities around. It is that inertia resulting from the loss of manufacturer persists temporarily concealed in the guise of New Urbanism. But it is that what transpires is nothing else but the erection of Potemkin villages while the underlying problems of urban decay persist. And hence the blog on which I comment, as recent history indicates, holds no real solution.

#3 Comment By The Dean On July 20, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

Back in 2003-2005 I worked in downtown Akron for a major bank. I lived in a southern suburb of Cleveland in a very nice upscale community. I would commute almost one hour each twice a day.

My first day in Akron was an eye opener. On Main St around 2:00 PM I was looking out of my window and saw a commotion going on front of our building. I went downstairs and went outside to see the following. Two police paddy wagons, one on each side of the street. Four squad cars positioned at the four corners of the intersection.

I asked the security guard in our building what happened? Why all the police? He told me it is like this every day. School is letting out. These 12 police officers were there to stop the endless fighting from high school kids who wore their pants halfway down their rear and looked like fools. I never saw anything like it.

Main St. was so threatening that I had elderly clients who refused to meet me in our building because they were afraid.

I could not wait to leave that city. Kudos to the Mayor of Akron for trying to reverse the decline. He knows, and we all know what he means by bringing in more suburbanites back into the city. White flight accelerated the decline of Cleveland. This was a direct result of forced busing in 1978. Good luck Akron.

#4 Comment By SteveM On July 20, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

I fully support revitalization of legacy cities and towns. However, revitalized housing without a revitalized jobs base just isn’t going to work.

Cities and towns cannot exist as closed systems. If people move back to Akron, what will they do for a living now that most of the businesses in tradeable goods and services with external markets are gone?

#5 Comment By Mark Thomason On July 21, 2018 @ 10:42 am

Detroit already had architecture worth affection and preservation.

Detroit was rich before WW2. It built grand public buildings, and the housing stock was large of brick, much of it very fancy brickwork on rather larger homes than common in the period.

There was much to preserve. It wasn’t. It fell apart despite being worth saving, not because it was not worth saving. It was political, and by reason of that financial.

I say this as a long time resident of the area, who has watched it happen since the early 60’s.

#6 Comment By Eileen Klees On July 22, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

The key to revitalizing rust belt cities is water. Water is becoming a scarcer resource in the south and west, as well as world-wide.

If we, rustbelters, refuse to sell our Great Lakes water some of the people who run factories, grow food and design technology will eventually come back.

It may not be in my lifetime, but that is the future.