The Rebuilding the Cities that Built America Conference last Friday in Youngstown was one of a series of workshops aimed at getting the parochial nature of the Rust Belt out of the way of true regional development.
In the past, the neighboring Cleveland-Youngstown-Pittsburgh relationship was more like that of "keeping up with Joneses", in which envy and back-biting served to create a silo effect inhibiting complimentary strategy. Now, we at least appear to be rooting for each other, knowing that what's good for the neighbor will most certainly reflect back on the value of one's own "home".
The conference, sponsored by the Regional Network, discussed national, regional, and local agendas, with each providing a layer from which top-down and bottom-up approaches can be melded in the middle to create for a resource-rich region. For instance, a series of morning workshops addressed the following: a new national policy-the Community Regeneration, Sustainability, and Innovation Act-aiming to provide a federal back bone to green, shrinking city initiatives; a number of local land acquisition strategies meant to capitalize on the space vacancy affords; and a regional rail plan designed to leverage the competitive advantage of proximity between Rust Belt cities, with the premise that people-linking will enable the cluster from which good policy and economic development flows.
Keynoting the event was land bank guru Dan Kildee, former implementer of Flint's Land Bank and current Director for the Center of Community Progress. No doubt a veteran of conceptualizing just what a shrinking city entails, Kildee told the audience that the city policy system for the Rust Belt is broken, as it was based on the assumptions that cities will grow forever, and that their land values will always appreciate. "In America, we have a belief in the assumptions of the manifest destiny," Kildee said, providing the backdrop, then, for the emergence of current thinking equating 'smaller' with 'worst'.
Kildee went on to state that because of these perceptions, Rust Belt cities face an uphill battle. But all is not lost. Because one need only to look to our neighbors across the Atlantic to understand that shrinking-like exhaling-is natural. Said Kildee: "America has such a short history that we see these cities in decline and assume that they will go away and die, but in Europe it is understood that there is a cyclical nature to all this…" In other words, while Americans are prone to see the mark of the beast on all that is unlike Atlanta, perceptions are just that-whereas the truth of regeneration can be seen in countless examples across the globe.
In many respects, then, it is up to us, older industrial cities to get out the truth, and that-perhaps-was what the conference was all about. In fact the conference not only broke silos between metro-initiatives, attempts were also made to bring the connection still one more level up-to federal wonks. To that end-during a lunchtime plenary-several officials representing HUD, FHWA, and EPA were invited to address the congregation, with the purpose of getting the right people in the room so as to begin the right talks. "Begin", however, is the operative word here, and Douglas Shelby, the HUD Cleveland Field Director, failed to disguise as much. Said Douglas: "Look, I was on your side of the table once, and so I don't want you to be angry at me; that is why it is time to put the 'urban development' back in 'the HUD'". With the comment drawing laughter, one could sense an extremely vulnerable hope in the audience that maybe this administration gets it. It sure beats the ironical "ha ha" that was HUD's record of enabling those housing policies that directly undermined the cities it was created to build up.
In all, though, the conference was a good first step, if only because it brought three disparate regions together to share possible solutions to the problems we all face. Still, next steps are needed, and they involve piling best local practices into regional plans, while coalescing politically into one industrial voice that must be heard-if not feared-in Washington. Because while D.C. and other growth regions could care less about the problems they don't yet have, what we are as a region is nothing short of the canary in the coal mine, and our realities give us that necessity to build the vision that the rest will have to follow when growth becomes less manifest than restraint becomes destiny.