Neil Kleiman: Resurgent Cities and What They Can Teach Us

Neil Kleiman, Network Deputy Executive Director of Policy, Research, and Evaluation

Revitalizing Cover

 

Big cities are the ones that typically garner all the attention. But this time it’s small and mid-sized locales that are the focus of a new book called Revitalizing American Cities. This volume, edited by Susan Wachter of the University of Pennsylvania and Kimberly Zeuli of ICIC, contains contributions from many of the leading scholars in the field of urban policy.  Each author is focused less on stats and oriented more toward providing pragmatic recommendations for how communities—particularly older industrial ones—can re-imagine their city and local economy.

Ed Glaeser, a Harvard economist, discusses the vital importance of education and entrepreneurship. Alan Mallach builds on his decades of experience researching shrinking cities and urges local leaders to leverage their assets from natural resources and historical significance. And Eugenie Birch, also of UPenn, discusses the oft-overlooked spark that local universities that can provide.

One chapter by Yolanda Kodrzycki and Ana Patricia Munoz of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston stood out as a blueprint for the National Resource Network. The authors spell out how to achieve economic turnaround with clear detail and a number of vivid examples. Looking at historical and comparative data dating back to the 1960s they assessed 26 mid-sized manufacturing cities that were once the economic driver of their region. Of these, they zoomed in on ten deemed “Resurgent Cities” that possessed significantly better economic and social indicators than their peers. These places—Evansville, Fort Wayne, Grand Rapids, Greensboro, Jersey City, New Haven, Peoria, Providence, Winston-Salem and Worcester—have each reinvented themselves, and in some cases are now thriving. 

So, what’s the secret? How did these cities succeed where so many others continue to struggle?

Probably the most critical element is Leadership; the kind that boldly leads a city in very new directions. This is not leadership that is embodied in one official. This is an approach that takes shape over many years—often decades—and is led by a confluence of public and private actors working in concert. As the authors note, “collaboration (is) necessary because economic transformation is complex and because outsiders—such as state and national governments, foundations and businesses are potential sources of funding and jobs—often require proof of joint efforts to contribute to a city’s development.”

Specifically, these Resurgent City leaders consistently did the following:

  • Long-term Planning: Invariably every city mapped out an ambitious and realistic long-range vision for the region that galvanized local actors and gave them focus.

  • Economic Diversification: Here, diversification means both broadening the traditional manufacturing base and expanding into new areas. Grand Rapids for example, once the ‘furniture capital of the world’ shifted from residential to more commercial manufacturing and added scores of jobs in the health research industry.

  • Constant Reinvention: Cities did not rest, and were constantly looking for new opportunities even after one successful reinvention. Take Greensboro, a city that succeeded in adding service jobs towards the end of the 20th century, but in the 2000s began aggressively pursuing high-paying aerospace technology firms.

  • Development Corps: Virtually all of the cities built a private, nonprofit development corporation to oversee growth plans and execution. These entities are charged with traditional economic recruitment, but have also taken on more diverse functions such as attracting young professionals and improving local educational systems.

Taken together Resurgent Cities are striking in their consistency of approach; an approach that more places would do well to pursue. These are not complicated measures, but they demand patience and the right local leaders—working together.