As the previous post on this blog pointed out, there is no one-size-fits-all model for right-sizing shrunken cities (I’m increasingly drawn to this term rather than the more conventional shrinking cities, as several of the places that we focus on appear to have finally stemmed their population loss in recent years). However, just as Baltimore can learn from the like of Cleveland and Philadelphia, there is little doubt it can also teach other cities a thing or two. In particular, I was impressed with Baltimore’s demolition and relocation programs:

  • Demolitions – Before I visited Baltimore, I had only considered the social implications of demolishing vacant structures, not the public safety aspect. While it is relatively straightforward to bulldoze the single-family detached dwellings that are commonplace in much of America, Baltimore’s vacant homes are typically row houses, making the process far more complicated and dangerous. Rosa Hart Burenstine, a resident of East Baltimore who helped write the Demolition Protocols, claimed they have been an unqualified success when it comes to dealing with hazards such as lead dust, making them “the only steps to take when demolition is involved.” Apparently her view is endorsed by experts from institutions including the EPA and the University of Pennsylvania. I am disinclined to agree with Rosa’s assertion that the Protocols should be adopted across the country, as she has apparently failed to appreciate the empowering nature of involving residents such as herself in the process, but there is no reason why they could not be used as a starting point for other cities dealing with similar issues.
  • Relocations – Whenever cities try to move people out of their homes, there are understandable tensions. The reason for the relocation might be anything from rising sea levels to building infrastructure to host the Olympic Games, but the one constant is that there are always people who react angrily to the decision. Baltimore’s current relocation program is based on two main objectives: demolishing whole rows of houses that are deemed surplus to requirements, and redeveloping houses that are in a poor state of repair. The East Baltimore Revitalization Initiative, led by East Baltimore Development Inc. (a non-profit largely funded by a TIF), has attempted to soften the blow of its relocation program by offering people a selection of houses and neighborhoods to choose from. While this choice always includes refurbished houses in their own communities, sometimes just a block away, most residents have moved to areas that have higher employment rates and that perform better against a whole host of quality-of-life indicators. Those whose previous homes are being redeveloped will also be given the chance to move back into them under a ‘first-right-to-return’ policy. Furthermore, there is ongoing support provided to people after their move to help them make a successful transition. Chris Shea, President of East Baltimore Development Inc. seemed rather disappointed that so few people (approximately 1.4%) had chosen to stay in their neighborhoods considering the high quality of the new housing stock. He shouldn’t be. Two independent surveys have shown that an overwhelming majority of those residents affected by the relocation program have a positive view of the experience. The amount of choice available, the quality of the houses on offer, and the post-relocation support are undoubtedly the main reasons for this unusually high level of satisfaction, and other cities would do well to learn from Baltimore in this regard. My main reservation is that there seems to be far more funding available for this relocation program than for other relocation programs I have heard about previously. If this is the case, it could prove difficult for Baltimore to maintain such high standards and for other cities to replicate them.
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Those who have studied the history of the shrinking cities movement will know that many policy ideas emanated from the crisis that faced the former East Germany following reunification, as hundreds of thousands of people soon migrated to the prosperous cities of the West in search of a better life. The passage of time and the  increasingly innovative ideas that are on display in American cities such as Youngstown, Ohio have naturally meant that the German cities no longer command quite the attention that they once did, even though many of them continue to experience large-scale population loss and all of its attendant problems.

Fortunately, the city planners, academics and other interested stakeholders in these cities have apparently picked up the baton from the trailblazers that preceded them. They are once again demonstrating the kind of radical thinking that may yet succeed in changing the fortunes of such places, devising cutting-edge policies that are designed to turn adversity into opportunity. Among a host of initiatives in the city of Dessau-Rosslau, reported upon in Rainer Müller’s article for Der Spiegel (http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,688152,00.html), perhaps the most eye-catching is that of ‘city islands’. According to Heike Brückner, one of the city planners behind the concept, “buildings will be cut out and in the empty spaces we will insert countryside.”

At first glance, this may not seem like such a novel idea; post-industrial American cities such as Cleveland certainly have their fair share of de facto city islands. But therein lies the difference. In American cities, as well as those facing similar problems in my home country of Britain, we still tend to allow our cities to arrive in such a state by accident rather than by design. The economic growth imperative means that it is nearly always politically unfeasible to admit the population that had been lost cannot one day be recovered, so we uncover every stone in search of a financing mechanism that will enable us to attempt another risky infill regeneration project.

In German cities, or at least in Dessau-Rosslau, the acceptance of the permanence of the shrunken city has allowed the policy-makers to create a bold vision for the future. The means of achieving it may not to be everyone’s liking – the approach to demolitions sounds unusually aggressive, for starters – and there is no denying the report’s assertion that the German vision is ‘not exactly sexy’. However, there is also no denying that the German vision is a good deal more realistic than the rose-tinted versions that continue to prevail elsewhere. German cities may no longer command the attention that they once did among those who concern themselves with the fortunes of shrinking cities, but that does not mean that we should cease to look to them for inspiration. Dessau-Rosslau is admittedly an extreme case, having lost a third of its population in the last two decades, but other city-leaders might do well to consider if they could benefit their citizens by giving up the search for silver bullets and focusing on finding silver linings instead.

In his article for Citiwire (http://citiwire.net/post/1432/), Neal Peirce of the Washington Post Writers Group calls for American cities struggling with the decline of their traditional manufacturing bases to look to Barcelona for inspiration. Where American policy-makers would, according to Peirce, bulldoze the abandoned relics of a city’s industrial past to build a new business park, Barcelona’s politicians instead considered how to transition the former hub of its cotton industry into a knowledge-based economy fit for the 21st century. Recognizing that their ability to attract the kind of talent needed to effect such a transition depended upon the creation of a suitably attractive environment, leaders from both sides of the political divide came together to develop an imaginative array of policies designed to achieve this. They split the city into 100-square meter blocks where decisions required the agreement of 60 per cent of landowners, and offered these landowners the chance to build at a higher density than was normally permitted if they released 30 per cent of their holding for public investment. The publicly-held land could then be used to help create what Peirce describes as ‘a lively urban environment… shaped to include attractive green spaces, restaurants and entertainment, bike lanes, and plentiful public transit’. Such an environment was thought to be preferable to the staid, detached ‘corporate campuses’ and thus far, at least, the Barcelona model appears to be working. Josep Pique is the CEO of 22@Barcelona, the entity created to manage the district, and he is keen to point out that the economic success they aspired for has not come at the cost of social responsibility. According to Pique, social housing and internships for local students are just two of the initiatives that are helping to ensure that those residents who lived in the district before its overhaul will reap the benefits of the regeneration strategy. Peirce certainly seems impressed, as he notes that ‘the physical result is an amazingly eclectic neighborhood’, where the old and new sit ‘cheek by jowl’. So what can America learn from Barcelona? Well, there is no doubt that America is on board with the idea of the knowledge-based economy. Silicon Valley is but the most famous example of the myriad districts around the nation that epitomize the term, and the means to attract the requisite talent are at the very center of Richard Florida’s ‘Creative Class’ theory.  Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that there are not places in America where leaders share similar aspirations to create an attractive, mixed-use environment, often incentivizing developers to help achieve this. For those of us that have learned about planning in the Washington DC area, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington County might be the foremost manifestation of such practices. However, such places are the exceptions that prove the rule, and even the most progressive American politicians would surely balk at the prospect of asking developers to give up almost a third of their land holdings in the name of the common good. Peirce sees the American obsession with property rights as a major stumbling block, especially as property owners are also required to pay 50 per cent of street infrastructure improvements. He also questions whether American cities could ever reach the broad political consensus that is required to enact such a bold strategy. On the other hand, he asserts that ‘we Americans can’t keep saying “no” and “can’t” forever’. So, America, maybe it is time that a prominent politician – perhaps one who is au fait with the seminal work of Jane Jacobs, for example – finally had the courage to say “yes, we can” for a change. If such a politician were to be voted into a position of real power, we might really begin to see some progress.

Following on from my post concerning the challenges facing Dave Bing, former NBA star and now the mayor of Detroit, today I turn my attention to the recently re-elected mayor of Pittsburgh, Luke Ravenstahl. Mayor Ravenstahl was the focus of a recent article in the New York Times, published just before his re-election: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/02/us/02pittsburgh.html. The article reflects on the challenges facing one of the nation’s youngest mayors (he was just 26 when he first took office, following the death of his predecessor Bob O’ Conner, in 2006). In common with other post-industrial ‘shrinking cities’, the main problems faced by Pittsburgh today are the high vacancy rates and the reduced tax base brought about by a population that has halved since the mid 20th century. The New York Times article focuses primarily on the fiscal challenge, as well as a crippling pension deficit that ranks among the worst in the country (for more detail on the pension crisis, see: http://www.postgazette.com/pg/09180/980640-100.stm). According to the article, Mayor Ravenstahl has earned his second term in office, having taken tough action to reduce the fiscal deficit, such as reducing the size of the city’s workforce and improving the efficiency of its snow-removal operations. He is also credited with securing more financial assistance from the state (no easy task, as anyone who followed the fortunes of Baltimore’s fictional Mayor Carcetti in The Wire will testify) and with helping Pittsburgh’s economy to transition from its traditional reliance on the steel industry to a modern, service-based economy built around health, education and ‘green’ businesses. Despite his promising start, the article envisions bigger challenges ahead for Mayor Ravenstahl than just ‘keeping up the good work’. First, he needs to set about reforming the pension system. Second, he needs to build a better relationship with the City Council and the Legislature than has hitherto been the case, else he will not be able to progress the next phase of his fiscal overhaul that involves the introduction of new taxes and fees on universities and hospitals. Mayor Ravenstahl remains one of a select few mayors of large American cities who is currently the ‘right’ side of 30, but by the sound of things, he might have more than just a few gray hairs to show for his efforts to fortify The Steel City by the time the next election comes around in 2013.

In May 2009, the former Detroit Pistons basketball player Dave Bing became Detroit’s Mayor, and his record over the six months that followed was at least enough to convince voters to return him to office in the regularly-scheduled election that took place in November of the same year. He was initially elected on a 15% turnout, a figure that speaks volumes for the disenchantment of those who reside in a city that is generally portrayed as an economic basket-case, challenged only by a post-Katrina New Orleans for the title of the most crisis-ridden, poverty-stricken city in America. Unlike New Orleans, which can attribute a significant part of its current woe to the damage wreaked by one of the most destructive hurricanes in the nation’s history, Detroit’s perilous state cannot be blamed on a natural disaster. Like most major American cities, Detroit lost much of its population and its tax base in the second half of the 20th century, as the suburbs became the favored location for residential, retail and commercial developments. In recent years, the decline of the auto industry has decimated Detroit on an unprecedented scale. Chrysler and General Motors have been bailed out by the federal government and currently seem set for survival, at least, but this era of globalization is likely to prevent them from ever returning to their former glory, and tens of thousands of jobs have already been lost. Detroit’s famous Motor City moniker is a testament to it having put all of its eggs in one basket. I am not sure if, and to what extent, the city’s authorities tried to diversify Detroit’s commercial base in more prosperous times, but the folly of building a city around a single industry is sadly there for all to see. Today, there is little doubt that Detroit requires a dramatic new strategy, and here is Mayor Bing’s Vision for Detroit: http://www.bingformayor.com/vision.asp

In light of such a depressing situation, what chance does a former NBA star with no political experience have of reviving the fortunes of this once great city? From the outset, the jury has been very much out. Guests on NPR – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103845759 – were certainly skeptical, claiming that Bing lacked ideas and that the federal government would not allow him to have any input into the one matter that would affect Detroit’s citizens the most: the auto industry. ESPN, while agreeing that Bing had not laid out a clear agenda for the change he promised, argued that his winners’ mentality was exactly what this city needed to give it a fighting chance of a bright future: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=090430/bing. It would be easy to accuse the ESPN writer, Jamele Hill, of drawing an overly simplistic analogy between the sporting and political arenas, but his analysis runs deeper than that, and around 900,000 Detroiters must pray that Mr. Hill will be proved right.

David Cameron is likely to become Britain’s Prime Minister next year if, as expected, the Conservatives return to power for the first time since Tony Blair’s Labour Party took office in 1997. Many are worried that this will spell bad news for northern, post-industrial cities, some of which (e.g Manchester and Liverpool) have undergone a significant renaissance in recent years, largely thanks to government-funded regeneration programs. Cameron immediately sought to distance himself from a controversial report by ‘his favorite think-tank’, which advocated mass migration from certain northern cities to more economically robust areas in the south of the country. But the question remains: In light of the ongoing economic crisis, might regeneration-funding be one of the first casualties of a new Conservative government? And, if so, what might be the implications?

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article4518991.ece