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Rightsizing Right
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Over the past 60 years, hundreds of communities across the Rust Belt have lost population. Former manufacturing centers that once churned out automobiles, household goods, and war munitions to power the nation have seen up to 60 percent of their residents move away. Those who remain in these legacy cities and towns face a formidable swath of challenges: few jobs, struggling educational systems, high crime rates, and vacant buildings—to name a few.

The scale of vacancy can be difficult for outsiders to fathom. Places that used to pride themselves on the affordability of single-family houses now have thousands of empty buildings and vacant lots. This is true in Cleveland and Syracuse, and certainly true in Detroit. It is true even in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where rising populations and new economic activity suggest regeneration and renewal, but reinvestment in the built environment lags behind.

Not everything can be saved, as a drive through any one of these cities demonstrates. Vacancy and abandonment are common. Empty lots are interspersed with tidy houses on one block, while the next block is wholly ravaged by long disinvestment. Across the street, well-kept homes stand between boarded-up buildings and collapsing houses. Few neighborhoods are untouched.

Census numbers back this up. Young educated professionals are driving apartment conversions and hangouts in hip urban neighborhoods from Buffalo to St. Louis, but the overall population in these cities continues its decades-long slide. And population loss and its attendant challenges are not limited to the Rust Belt: 41 states across the country have at least one community with a population of more than 20,000 that has experienced a decline in the number of residents during the last decade.

If we want our cities to continue to be centers of people, ideas, and activity, clearly something must be done.


Click for larger view

View of downtown Youngstown from the Erie Terminal Place, a historic train station rehabilitated in 2012 as apartments.

PHOTO: CARA BERTRON

Rightsizing: The Planning Context

In rightsizing, a city's physical fabric is adjusted to accommodate the needs of the current and expected population. The idea is loaded. Rightsizing aims to address abandoned properties on a large scale, often through demolition. Many high-vacancy neighborhoods—still reeling from the aftereffects of heavy-handed, top-down urban renewal of the 1960s and '70s—are suspicious of such an approach. Yet there are few alternatives for cities facing budget cuts to public transportation, police, and fire departments; increasing numbers of vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties; and miles of underutilized infrastructure with mounting maintenance costs.

Youngstown, Ohio, was the first city to publicly embrace rightsizing as the backbone of a citywide plan. An inclusive community process made this shift from traditional growth discussions politically possible. More than 5,000 citizens participated in the planning process, and 150 volunteers signed up for working groups that tackled economic development, quality of life, neighborhood planning, and marketing. The resulting plan, Youngstown 2010, proposed an ambitious civic agenda: to stabilize the population, consolidate infrastructure and public services, redefine the local economy, focus revitalization efforts in viable residential areas and commercial nodes, improve public safety and education, and retool the city's public image.

Planners, urban policymakers, and media across the country took note. Youngstown was named one of the top ten places in the country to start a business by Entrepreneur Magazine in 2009. A steel-tube manufacturing company expanded its local facilities. The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, formed to target investment, has seen notable successes in the Idora neighborhood. While Youngstown's challenges did not disappear, it was—and is—still kicking.

Detroit is also facing the future with a mix of optimism, pragmatism, and pugilism. The city completed Detroit Future City in 2012. This long-range framework proposes sweeping strategies for revitalization as a permanently smaller city. These include finding creative, productive uses for vacant land; focusing resources and density in low-vacancy, job-rich areas; and coordinating with a variety of stakeholders. On the heels of the plan's public unveiling, the Kresge Foundation committed $150 million toward implementation.

Strategies for managing vacant land and abandoned properties dominate these municipal plans and related...



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