Baby steps might be the only way to turn around America’s legacy cities like Cleveland, a new Lincoln Institute of Land Policy report suggests.
Rather than Detroit Mayor David Bing’s well-intentioned but pilloried “rightsizing” statement about what to do with areas of the city that don’t appear to be viable, the authors of Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities look to Youngstown’s equally controversial “Shrinking Cities” plan which eventually produced action, albeit in one neighborhood.
“While the Youngstown 2010 Plan, which called for rethinking the city as a smaller city, received national attention, its adoption in 2005 led to little action. Things only changed in 2009 when a local foundation created the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) to pursue incremental strategies consistent with the plan’s vision.
“After careful assessment, YNDC decided to focus on the Idora neighborhood in the city’s southwest, where a central part of their effort was the Lots of Green strategy...it seeks to repurpose all land in a target area, transforming the physical fabric of strategic neighborhoods.”
“All of the 120 vacant lots in the Idora neighborhood have been reused for purposes that include expansion of an adjacent regional park, community gardens, a 1.5 acre urban farm and training center and side yard expansions.”
Cleveland’s closest analogue to the Lots of Green project is the ReImagining a More Sustainable Cleveland plan to repurpose vacant land for growing food, parks and green space. ReImagining is mentioned in the Lincoln report for being “grounded in a coherent vision”—a vision that produced 58 pilot projects where individuals spread across the city to build pocket parks, urban agriculture sites and side yard expansions.
A critique: The city of Cleveland was an integral partner in the 2009 ReImagine plan. The Lincoln report notes, the city did use it as a means to update zoning to allow the raising of chickens and bees, and for farmstands and urban agriculture businesses to sprout in residential zones. But, as of yet, neither the city nor the plan’s primary sponsor, Neighborhood Progress, Inc., a non-profit funder of redevelopment in targeted neighborhoods, have taken ReImagine a step further and adopted it as a program or community development strategy. Cleveland could learn from what Youngstown, a much smaller and in some ways more fiscally stressed city is doing, by itself adopting a Lots of Green project for a Cleveland neighborhood.
Youngstown’s Idora story is a nice example of not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. It shows that cities don’t have to be paralyzed by the scale of their vacant land problem. Selecting one neighborhood for a massive ReImagining of vacant lots may present political problems for the city, but learning from Youngstown’s example, it might bear more fruit than a spread it evenly across the whole city approach. The city might also press NPI and Cleveland Neighborhood Development Coalition to ask its member community development corporations to come together and figure out how they would adopt incremental strategies consistent with the ReImagining Cleveland plan.
It is hard to argue with the Lincoln report’s conclusion that “cities take incremental actions all the time. Streets are resurfaced, parks improved, and houses rehabilitated. These actions, however, are rarely animated by any larger strategy or overall vision...There are strong arguments to prioritize such areas over attempts to pursue the large-scale reconfiguration of mostly abandoned areas.
“Such incremental approaches offer promising models to grapple with options that, however much they may fall short of radical transformation, are realistic and feasible and may be stepping stones to greater change.”
The report, authored by Greater Ohio Policy Center director Lavea Brachman and Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Solutions, has a big picture focus—including 8 strategies for legacy cities and their surrounding regions to turn things around. Their conclusion:
“It is a cliche, but nonetheless true, that there are no silver bullets to solve the challenges of turning around America’s legacy cities. The problems are highly complex and the challenges deeply entrenched...change is fostered through the Herculean efforts of local heroes who have forged strategic visions for change, articulated the incremental steps needed to move toward that vision and brought people together around that goal.”