In a recent commentary in Newsweek, Lawrence C. Levy wrote that as a part of the push for healthcare reform, President Obama has “rediscovered” the suburbs, i.e., remembered that many of America’s swing voters live in suburban communities.  Also, that these communities are represent a more complicated and diverse demographic than in previous years.

Levy points out that today’s suburbs have many of the same problems that have been endemic to urban areas for decades.  He also makes the case that suburbs are challenged in solving these problems precisely because of their disconnected nature.

The article  seems to suggest that the administration will refocus their efforts on rebuilding the suburbs, beyond the needs of this particular legislative effort.  How true do you think this is?

Has Obama rediscovered the suburbs?


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 (,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.

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: 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: 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.

For most Americans, April 15 is dreaded as the IRS tax deadline. But next year, many community officials will be more concerned about a day a few weeks earlier; April 1, 2010 is National Census Day.

The purpose of the decennial census is to count how many people reside in the United States and where they live. The count is then used to determine how federal funds (for infrastructure, schools, vital services, etc.) are distributed, and how many members each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives.

So there’s lot at stake — and given these tough economic times, communities are even more dependent on federal funds to supplement their dwindling tax bases. (According, the U.S. Census Bureau, a community receives about $1,400 per resident in annual federal funding.)

Officials in ‘Shrinking Cities’ are strategizing to make the most of this next census, and to minimize their population loss since the last count. There was a recent article in the Detroit Free Press about efforts in Detroit to encourage residents to be counted. While some suburban communities in the area are expecting significant increases over the 2000 census, the City of Detroit is anticipating a 13% decrease in population.

The 2010 Census presents big challenges for metro Detroit. Officials worry about finding displaced residents because of home foreclosures and skittish immigrants who have shied away from federal paper work since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks….Only 62% of Detroiters mailed back census forms in 2000, compared with 71% in the state, according to the U.S. Census. With the state’s highest foreclosure rate, Detroit will be undercounted without an aggressive campaign, city officials said.

Detroit Mayor David Bing has begun an aggressive campaign to encourage residents to participate in the census. He’s enlisted volunteers to reach out to traditionally undercounted populations: immigrants, faith-based groups, community leaders, seniors and college campuses.

A few states over, in West Virginia, local officials hope to alleviate population loss in Charleston. The city’s mayor and commissioners of Kanawha County are backing a proposal to create a unified administration – which would save millions through the consolidation of services and increase the state capital’s population to 200,000. Though faced with widespread opposition from local residents, the officials hope that voters would approve the consolidation before the 2010 Census, to preclude Charleston from sinking below its Class I status (granted to cities with a population of at least 50,000) in the next census.

Will these efforts in Michigan and West Virginia be successful? Only time (and the Census) will tell.

How can we fix the failure?

Shrinking cities have been plagued by disinvestments for decades, despite the countless interventions by local stakeholders and other entities to stem the decline. The question is not so much why are the strategies not effective, but it is where in the decision making chain is the link the weakest. Those who failed to accept that their cities have a shrinkage problem are the weakest links. If decision makers do not acknowledge that the problem has existed, planning for the challenge is difficult at best. So how can we fix the failure?

A number of articles have been written about right-sizing strategies, how to spend NSP funds, public involvement, and so forth. However, shrinking cities-related articles and research are far and few, if any, on how to convince elected officials that there is an emergency. So where can practitioners find ideas on how to fix the failure?

Solutions to society’s problems are either new and innovative, or familiar ones that have been adapted from other purposes. For instance, sea shells are just that, but at one time people used them for currency. Clay has been used for pottery for centuries, and now it has been adapted as heat shield for space shuttles. The attributes of traditional towns have inspired people to borrow from those ideas to design today’s New Urbanist communities. Parks used to be at ground level, but within the last several decades people in urban environment have adapted them to rooftops. And now, one of the shrinking cities strategies is to demolish blighted properties and turn them into park space.

So from where and whom could practitioners draw ideas to fix the failure? Could it be from Capitol Hill lobbyists who have done so well at convincing politicians to support their self-serving agendas? From psychological warfare strategies? From books on how to sell your ideas? Unlikely sources should not be discounted as inspirations and ideas could come from anywhere. So how can we fix the failure?