July 1, 2012
Can the “Rust Belt” be revitalized?
Between 1950 and 2008, Detroit, once a city of almost two million, lost about half of its residents. What used to be a symbol of American prosperity has become the most prominent example of postindustrial urban decay. Detroit is only one of many cities of the “Rust Belt” that are struggling with high unemployment, high crime rates, and population decline. A recent book by the American Assembly of Columbia University, the Center for Community Progress, and the Center for Sustainable Urban Development of Columbia University’s Earth Institute has analyzed the origins of the population decline and proposed strategies for revitalizing the former manufacturing cities in the Midwest and Northeast of the United States. The volume grew out of a three-day conference held in April 2011, where leading social scientists and experts in the field met to develop potential solutions to reverse the population decline in cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland.
From rust to legacy
In the introduction to “Reinventing America’s Legacy Cities,” city planner and editor Alan Mallach proposes the concept of “legacy cities” to refer to urban areas that once represented an iconic part of American industrialization but have seen rapid decline over the past decades. Mallach argued that while those cities, with their high unemployment rates, may be a drain on public finances, they are still an important part of the American national legacy; they also offer cultural resources such as universities and research centers, sports teams, museums, and theaters. Building on these remaining assets and their importance for American culture, is, according to Mallach, key for reconceptualizing a future for these cities. Moving away from the concept of “Rust Belt” to the idea of “Legacy Cities,” Mallach argued, is a first step to improving the negative image associated with these former industrial centers.
Dynamics of decline and growth
In another chapter of the book, social scientists Edward W. Hill, Harold L. Wolman, Katherine Kowalczyk, and Travis St. Clair analyzed four decades of population rise and decline in US cities. Included in the sample were metropolitan areas with a population greater than 50,000 people in 2000. Based on census data and data on unemployment and Gross Metropolitan (Domestic) Product from Moody’s Analytics, Hill and his colleagues found that high unemployment rates are indeed strongly associated with population decline in cities. Furthermore, cities in states that had implemented right-to-work laws preventing labor unions from enforcing union membership as a precondition for employment fared better in terms of retaining their population than states which did not have similar legal provisions. Finally, older cities with lower-quality infrastructure, as well as cities with higher crime rates were more likely to lose population than newer cities with lower crime rates.
Desirable housing and green cities
Later in the book, Mallach argued for acknowledging the need to shrink cities like Detroit to achieve a balance in the supply and demand of housing. Reduction of supply can be achieved by thoughtful demolition of abandoned housing stock. The empty land created through demolition could in turn be redeveloped effectively for example by building more desirable housing units. Simultaneously, Mallach argued, municipalities must increase the demand for housing by improving the quality of life in struggling neighborhoods. Investments in public transportation, recreational facilities, parks and schools are essential for attracting new residents to struggling neighborhoods. Yet, as another contributor to the volume, urban designer Terry Schwarz argued later in the book, housing construction may not be a solution for areas in which there is particularly low demand. Instead, vacant land can be used to develop “productive landscapes,” including urban farms that could be used for growing healthy food for city residents, or as sites for alternative energy development. Should demand for housing grow, those sites can be used again for residential purposes.
Looking towards Europe
The United States is not unique in facing the problem of shrinking cities. Economic restructuring has generated out-migration in European cities as well. The Rust Belt of Germany around the River Ruhr faced significant changes when mining became unsustainable in the area during the 1960s. After the German reunification, Eastern German cities such as Leipzig also faced a major transition from Fordist to post-Fordist industry and lost population in the process. Geographer Joerg Ploeger points to Leipzig’s successful recovery as an inspiration for struggling American cities. In Leipzig, a concerted effort of federally-funded housing programs, investment incentives for industrial development, and a progressive approach to urban development eventually revitalized the city. Leipzig also provided an example for productively re-using abandoned industrial ruins. The city turned abandoned coal mines into a recreational landscape of lakes surrounding the city that enhance the quality of life of city dwellers who use the opportunity to escape hot inner city summer days.
Homepage image by Flickr user TMView.