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Will American metro regions pull back from the apocalypse

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/16/13 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

Americans harbor a secret wish to be liked in the world. We want a fair but honest assessment when foreign nationals hold up a mirror and judge us. It explains why obscure 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville lives on; for zingy one-liners like: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Blight fight<br />Foreclosures are spreading from city to suburbs in Cleveland. Photos: GCBLPlan B<br />Thousands of abandoned homes are slated for demolition across Northeast OhioGreen at last<br />Some vacant properties take decades to clear for reuseNo empty promise<br />The bootstrap Rid All Green Partnership is turning out tons of food in a distressed Cleveland neighborhood

Italian urban planner Alessandro Coppola’s book Apocalypse Town is fascinated with the rise and fall of American cities such as Cleveland, and offers a clear-eyed look at how we quickly turned from industrial powerhouse to Rust Belt.

A post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Planning and Architecture at Politecnico di Milano, Coppola offered a brief history lesson, and options for repair of the Rust Belt, at Levin College last night.

"Across America, space and mobility of capital leads to accidental growth. It’s hard to detect the reasons for this, but it is not driven by the market. Government has been involved."

We call it sprawl. Coppola marvels at how cities here are able to compete on taxes, and those in the Sunbelt offer more liberal policies. In Italy, a central government keeps the reins on “accidental growth”. That country’s northern industrial region never rusted, said Coppola who admits Italy’s racial homogeneity is a mitigating factor.

“Here, you had the dismantling of urban policy, starting with President Reagan.” It was masked by race and class “succession” in America.

Cleveland, Youngstown and Detroit are shrinking so fast, that negative outcomes are spilling over to Cuyahoga and the whole Northeast Ohio metro region. If Cleveland’s suburbs pay attention and work with the city on strategies to address foreclosures, loss of wealth, jobs and population decline—it might lead to a positive outcome, Coppola said.

"To have smart shrinkage, Cleveland needs a different relationship between planning and growth. Will it make sense to save a few city neighborhoods like Ohio City and Tremont and lose a couple inner-ring suburbs?"

That comment raised a few eyebrows. He went on to explain that the cycle of growth and decline in American metropolitan regions happens so fast, that Cuyahoga County needs policies that “knit the urban communities together.”

For example, he’s amazed at the very existence of the Cuyahoga County Land Bank as a counterweight to market failures. “It’s the concentration of land not just as commodity—not just as exchange—but to use as an asset for placing a social product.”

The ReImagine a More Sustainable Greater Cleveland vacant land reuse study is another example that hooked his attention to Cleveland from across the ocean.

"It is one of the first strategies in America stating the unthinkable: The fact that not all land use will be in traditional urban form. You have (available) land, and that can be your advantage. It can be reused in imaginative and participatory ways to create an environment that leads to restoration."

After Coppola was done, a local sustainability advocate cornered me and noted, “How interesting that ReImagine is an international model of sustainability. And yet, the city of Cleveland has budgeted zero dollars for it.”

He raises a good point. It led me to consider these questions:

  • How much should Cleveland fund plans aimed at reimagining land with less housing and more “closing the loop on production and consumption cycles” (food, energy, recreation)?
  • How does a city struggling to keep the budget balanced without cutting services too close to the bone mobilize the massive resources for transforming abandonment into something productive?
  • Has the city even finished reforming the underlying policies, for example, to help urban farmers such as long-term land ownership and water access issues?

Coppola also cited the Evergreen Cooperatives for embodying an idea of “creating deeply rooted localized experiences. We’re so interdependent on global unity, but (Evergreen) is a Rust Belt city saying we need balance.”

"Top down approaches like Youngstown’s 2010 plan and AIA’s for Detroit aimed at relocating people to dense urban nodes failed."

A more appropriate response to shrinkage, says Coppola, is to meet people where they are. Meaning, reconfigure the vacant land for nondevelopment and build the skills and labor force in the existing residents.

"Re think growth with an emphasis on stability. Invest in social capital, re-localize the economy and create closed loops. Can we take 50 more years of resource destruction dynamics in America?"

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