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.

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.

Drew Carey has jumped on efforts to help save Cleveland in a big way with a six-episode (10 min each) documentary series called “Reason Saves Cleveland” that aired on Reason.tv in mid-March. First detailing Cleveland’s history of decline, the series then goes into a selection of issues, including: schools, public-private partnerships, redevelopment and how to bring people back. It is a well thought out series and nice to see some celebrity intervention.

Check it out at:


Intro to the series:

“Like all too many American cities, Cleveland seems locked into a death spiral, shedding people, jobs, and dreams like nobody’s business. When it comes to education, business climate, redevelopment, and more, Clevelanders have come to expect the worse. Is a renaissance possible? Of course it is, but only if the city’s leaders and residents are willing to learn from other cities such as Houston, Chicago, Oakland, and Indianapolis. And only if they’re willing to try new approaches to old problems.

Reason.tv’s Nick Gillespie narrates and talks with educators, elected officials, businesspeople, policy experts, and residents from all walks of life. Stay tuned for a documentary series that maps a route back to prosperity and growth not just for Cleveland but for other once-great American cities.”

Great work Drew…and as you would say: Cleveland Rocks! Cleveland Rocks! Cleveland Rocks!…Ohio!…(echo)

Even though Cleveland is a shrinking city, it doesn’t lack social, developmental, and political capital at a neighborhood level. Out of Cleveland’s 36 defined neighborhoods, 34 have an established Community Development Corporation (CDC). However, it is important to note that some of Cleveland’s CDCs are in hiatus or lack capacity. CDCs act as an organization that encourages non-residential economic development, residential development and rehabilitation, neighborhood improvements, citizen outreach, grassroots organizing, and assistance with planning projects. Often times CDCs build human and social capital of neighborhoods by providing residents with dedicated staff members to educate them on pressing issues, coordinate planning and development, and provide for on-going dialogue of neighborhood concerns.

CDCs can play a crucial role in the development of neighborhood plans. The Center for Neighborhood Development prepared the “Principles of Neighborhood Planning for Community Development” (http://urban.csuohio.edu/cnd/principlesnpcd.pdf), which outlines reasons for neighborhood planning, case studies, and strategies for implementation. The article states that

“Neighborhood planning programs generally are more responsive to local characteristics, desires, and problems. They help strengthen communities through the increased interaction of those people involved in the plan and help leaders become more involved in citywide affairs. Implementation is generally more successful, with neighborhood planning resulting in more physical improvements actually being made.”

Cleveland’s CDCs have become involved in neighborhood planning over the years. Examples include the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, Ohio Near West, St. Clair-Superior Neighborhood Development Association, and many others. Cleveland’s extensive network of CDCs affords the City a unique opportunity to craft a city-wide comprehensive plan based off of individual neighborhood plans.

I would suggest that when Cleveland’s comprehensive plan is amended or rewritten that a neighborhood planning approach should be taken. First, most of Cleveland’s CDCs have the capacity to organize and carry-out planning activities, additionally the City can provide architecture and planning services (city staff), meeting space, and other support. If the City works with CDCs to create a comprehensive plan that is based off of smaller neighborhood plans the following may happen: increased public participation in planning; increased social and human capital of residents and CDCs; pressure for implementation of the plan from CDCs and residents; and a clear vision guiding the city forward. Overall, neighborhood planning allows the residents to give input on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, challenges, and assets of their community. This may be a better approach than strictly analyzing data, building characteristics, and transportation.

Community and business leaders, youth, seniors, and numerous other categories of citizens in a city, which make up the city’s residential composition are typically not involved in the master planning process of their city. Cities are shaped by the people who live there, but importantly there is the business community that employs residents and provides opportunities for residents to prosper in cities. The story of all shrinking cities is an economic and social story that started with industries dying or residents leaving the city.

For many years most cities refused to believe that they were shrinking. More importantly, citizens were not actively involved in “fixing” what local governments were failing to provide. These citizens probably made the same mistake that elected officials did. First, they were not aware of the problem. Second, they were not educated on the issues. Third, they were not properly engaged on how to save and allow their city to recover.

During the “Youngstown 2010” planning process thousands of residents and leaders of Youngstown, OH were involved in the visioning and execution of a new master plan. “Youngstown 2010 began as a community engagement and civic education process meant to gain public participation but also to educate people about the importance of planning.” However, the process changed during its initial community meetings. In 2002, the process started with several community visioning exercises. During these meetings over 200 community leaders represented the interests of various community stakeholders. The 2002 process identified the following platform for a community-based agenda:

  • Accepting the Youngstown is a smaller city
  • Defining Youngstown’s role in the new regional economy (no more reliance on the steel industry)
  • Improving Youngstown’s image and enhancing quality of life
  • A call to action

With limited resources the City began to create a volunteer group to implement parts of the initial visioning exercise. The following assignments were established for the volunteer group:

In 2004, a series of 11 neighborhood cluster planning meetings were convened, which sought to further involve residents in the master planning process. In all, over 1,300 people showed up to the Youngstown City Council meeting to show their support for the master plan that was crafted with the guiding principles set by the residents and leaders of Youngstown.

This process of extensive citizen engagement is costly, lengthly, and challenging for local planning departments to handle. In the case of Youngstown, a marketing consultant was hired to assist with the outreach and marketing plans. However, it is entirely possible for planning departments to create the same momentum as the Youngstown 2010 plan without such costly consultants.

In my opinion, the most important takeaways of citizen involvement in planning is the following:

  • It is the responsibility of the planning department to educate the citizens on the issues
  • Citizens should not be boggled down in very small parts of the master planning process. They should view the city from a 15,000 foot view point
  • A clear action agenda should come from initial meetings
  • The planning department should implement the action agenda using volunteers and residents
  • Details of the plan should be worked out by the planning department, with consultation from additional working groups. These details should be presented to the neighborhoods.

The planning department and elected officials should act on the “clear action agenda” that the residents have created. These residents are the ones who live, work, and play in their city. They should have a big voice in how their city develops.

What if a village population is aging, no new residents are arriving — and the villagers are completely okay with that?

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “The American Who Manages the Decline of a Japanese Hamlet” looks at the village of Tsuchikure, home to 24 residents who are an average of 77 years old. Tsuchikure was home to more than 100 residents in the 1950s, but some moved away in search of better employment, and new residents were scarce. Now, the remaining residents are aging, ailing, or dying. And they have decided that “rather than come up with ways to lure new residents and keep the town alive,” they are going to let it slowly extinguish.

An American, Jeffrey Irish, is the village chief; he tends to administrative issues. He also is there to help ensure that the villagers’ wish is carried out when the last villager dies. Irish has written a column about life in the fishing village, preserving bits of oral and cultural history from that corner of Japan. The column has been expanded into a book, “The Forgotten Japanese: Encounters With Rural Life and Folklore,” to be published next year.

While extreme, the experience in Tsuchikure presents one alternative to a city that is losing far more population than it gains. It takes courageous leadership to let something die with you. One of the reader comments on the article suggests that Detroit is likely to experience the same fate. While Detroit is trying to attract new residents, it is experiencing net population loss. What would the tipping point be to decide to throw in the towel? How can a city make such a choice? When the village consists of 24 residents, it is less difficult to reach a consensus. But in a city of several thousand people — or even tens of thousands of people — the question is exponentially harder.

During economic downturns, funding from private companies, foundations, and government grants usually wane.  So what ideas from other organizations can we borrow that can help community development corporations sustain neighborhood revitalization initiatives and diversify their funding source?

Why do people include certain organizations in their wills and trusts?  One reason is at one point their lives were profoundly transformed by those organizations’ work.  They have an emotional connection with those organizations that have been a part of their lives.  They value what those organizations do.  They believe that even after they pass on, a part of them will continue to do good.  They believe that their heirs are well-off enough.  They might not have anyone else to pass their assets to.

Cancer foundations, faith based organizations, and university foundations have long marketed—and benefited from—planned giving.  Some organizations even have specialists to actively market the effort and guide the legal process.

In addition to increased funding, those organizations also benefited from having a more diversified funding source.  An over reliance on a few sources can mean that when the funders are not doing so well, the survivability of the recipients and their initiatives might be jeopardized.

As related to neighborhood revitalization, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is one such organization that capitalizes on those benefits. PHS helps improve the quality of life, creates a sense of community through horticulture, and uses innovative greening strategies to improve neglected urban properties.  To support those efforts in the future, PHS offers bequests, trusts, and life insurance policies as planned giving options.

All those reasons point to why CDCs should actively market planned giving as part of their long-term funding strategies.


The PHS planned giving webpage is at http://www.pennsylvaniahorticulturalsociety.org/supportphs/planned.html.

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