Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part IV: “What Helps or Hinders Nonprofit Developers in Reusing Vacant, Abandoned, and Contaminated Land?” In The City After Abandonment

June 7th, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

Margaret Dewar discusses the differences in capacity in the community development field in Detroit and Cleveland in her article “What Helps or Hinders Nonprofit Developers in Reusing Vacant, Abandoned, and Contaminated Land?” The article, published in 2013, is focused around a central question – why are developers in Cleveland, where challenges related to demand for land that are nearly identical to Detroit, so much more successful in reusing vacant property? Although Cleveland is a smaller city, nonprofit developers there bought three times as many vacant properties as their peers in Detroit and completed twice as many projects on purchased land.

Dewar concludes that organizational capacity within community development corporations (CDC) is what separates the experiences of Cleveland from Detroit. Cleveland CDCs benefit from an established community development system that supports their actions and makes them more likely to succeed. A critical actor in this system is the city of Cleveland itself, which works closely with CDCs to enact its own neighborhood goals and provides the organizations with substantial funding through the Community Development Block Grant program. In Detroit, on the other hand, the relationship between the city and community development organizations was less collaborative and could be openly hostile. Detroit also provided a much smaller share of their CDBG dollars to local community development groups, something that Dewar concludes may be due to the city council’s at-large method of representation instead of a ward-based system that encourages spreading money across different neighborhoods. Additionally, the city of Cleveland was more effective in transferring property to nonprofit developers through its land bank while Detroit struggled to efficiently hand over land, particularly with a clear title.

DetroitSkyline wikicommons Cropped   Akron-Cle 012

Detroit, Michigan (source: Wikicommons) and Cleveland, Ohio (source: GOPC). 

Beyond city government, Dewar argues that CDCs in Cleveland have other significant advantages. Perhaps most importantly, a network of support organizations arose to help neighborhood-level CDCs take on more complex projects. Neighborhood Progress, Inc. (now known as Cleveland Neighborhood Progress) is particularly important, as they work directly on building local CDCs’ capacity and take on projects that would be hard for small CDCs to do alone. The Cleveland Housing Network can also help CDCs approach more complex or risky projects by serving as a developer and arranging financing. Detroit has neither of these kinds of organizations, although there is a trade association for local CDCs that has been moderately helpful in illuminating the challenges local CDCs are facing.

According to Dewar, personal relationships are also a challenge in Detroit more so than in Cleveland. In Cleveland, representatives of the community development industry report that most actors work collaboratively and focus on solving systemic problems together. Although a history of strained race relations exists in both cities, representatives of nonprofit developers in Detroit mentioned race as an ongoing issue in the local community development industry. According to these stakeholders, leadership in the industry is disproportionately white for a majority black city.  

Dewar concludes that the differences in the evolution of Detroit and Cleveland’s community development sectors have played out visibly in their abilities’ to reuse vacant and abandoned land. She suggests that stakeholders in Detroit can work to create a more robust community development system by reforming the city’s CDBG program, developing a local intermediary like Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, or create a regional, large scale non-profit housing developer like Cleveland Housing Network.

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.

 

Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part III: Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown

May 31st, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown by Sean Safford is a commonly cited work on struggling cities, particularly smaller ones. Unlike the other work profiled so far, Safford deals less directly with issues of vacant land but examines how civic capacity and social networks can influence a city’s path. Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown compares the trajectory of two very similar Rust Belt cities – Allentown, Pennsylvania and Youngstown, Ohio – and examines why Allentown has been more successful in rebounding from economic decline and adapting to the 21st Century economy. Both cities experienced significant crises as their primary economic engine – the steel industry – retooled in the 1970s, resulting in fewer local jobs and the eventual dissolution of each city’s key local company. Despite these challenges, Allentown has recently experienced economic and population regrowth while Youngstown has still largely not rebounded from the crisis of 40 years ago.

Safford narrows in on the social networks between economic and business elites as a key point of divergence between the cities. He traces the structure of social networks back to the founding of each city to determine its effect on the community’s response to later crises. In Allentown, business scions settled among the various cities and towns in the Lehigh Valley and built a spirit of friendly competition amongst themselves. This resulted in investment in civic, educational, and cultural institutions that were ultimately to the benefit of the community as a whole. In Youngstown, on the other hand, Safford finds that business leaders were more closely knit together and identified more with their class identity than another identity tied to place or ethnic group.

In Allentown, community leaders, including the president of Bethlehem Steel, sought to increase their own power by building stronger ties among members of disparate communities. In a particularly notable example, Allentown leaders worked to build a literal bridge between two communities and raised money and support for the project through a grassroots level campaign. The stronger ties among members of different economic classes that resulted from this effort helped build networks that were resilient in the face of eventual crisis. In Youngstown, on the other hand, Safford concludes that business leaders saw little personal value in engaging with the broader community and instead actively worked to pit ethnic groups against one another.

As the crisis in steel manufacturing loomed, leaders in Allentown responded by laying the groundwork for greater economic diversification. In Youngstown, business leaders doubled down on steel manufacturing. Once the crisis finally hit in the 1970s, Allentown was insulated from the worst effects of the downturn due to increased diversification. Local leaders turned to building local economic engines outside of the steel industry. In Youngstown, Safford says that business leaders essentially left the community on its own to figure out an answer – and the fragmented communities within the city all proposed competing responses to the crisis.

Ytown downtown

Youngstown, Ohio

Safford is able to follow the connections between economic elites in both cities to trace what kinds of networks produced the different kinds of results. He found that in 1950, economic connections in both cities are relatively dense among different powerful people. In Youngstown, those connections extended into the social realm as well, as many members of the economic elite attended the same churches and participated in the same clubs. In Allentown, social networks among economic players were much more diffuse, although a few key organizations appeared to connect many of the most prestigious leaders. Safford argues that Allentown’s more diffuse network allowed economic elites to respond to the crisis more effectively. Allentown’s social networks create multiple layers of interaction among participants that are connected but not identical to one another. When one of the layers went into crisis – as occurred in the economic realm – actors had other, insulated layers of interaction to pull from to creatively respond to the crisis at hand. Safford argues that actors were able to receive more and different kinds of opinions about potential responses to the crisis by hearing from a more diverse set of actors. Additionally, a broader set of leaders could emerge than the closed off set of “usual suspects” present in Youngstown.

Safford examined the network ties of the most powerful people in both cities again in 2000. His research showed a striking difference in the makeup of each city’s powerbrokers. Quite a few economic elites and political figures remained in prominent positions in Allentown, while in Youngstown power was much more concentrated among leaders of nonprofit organizations and educational institutions. Safford claims that Allentown was stronger because there were still economic leaders involved in its civic structure – and Youngstown suffered because that was not the case. There is little economic incentive for corporate leaders to actively participate in their communities, but in Allentown, the multiple layers of network ties led actors to find other value in participating in civic activities.

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.

 

Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part II: Terra Incognita

May 10th, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

Terra Incognita, published by Ann Bowman and Michael Pagano in 2004, was one of the first academic works focused on the factors that influence how local governments interact with vacant land. The authors take a broad view of what constitutes vacant land – ranging from abandoned housing or industrial sites to greenspace, and seek to move beyond the perception that vacancy is always negative for a city. The authors use survey data and interviews to understand how cities with different tax structures, social systems, and economic development needs perceive and utilize vacant land.

First, the authors set out to gain a better sense of the extent and condition of vacant land in cities around the United States. They sent surveys to the planning directors of all U.S. cities with populations above 50,000 and then followed up with interviews in certain areas to understand how governments make decisions about vacant properties in their cities. The survey results revealed varying perceptions of vacant land: some cities felt they had too much, while others felt that they had too little to promote new development. Unsurprisingly, increases or decreases in vacant land were found to be tied to market conditions, specifically whether the population was growing or declining. The authors focus in on three metropolitan areas for case studies – Phoenix, the quintessential sprawling city where vacant land is frequently open desert; Seattle, where state annexation laws limit the ability of the city to grow even as its population increases; and Philadelphia/Camden, shrinking cities with substantial amounts of abandoned and contaminated property.

sidewalk      flint2

After attempting to quantify the amount of vacant land in different parts of the country and looking more deeply into the case study cities, the authors propose a model for how local governments engage with vacant land based on three key considerations. These are:

  • The need to raise funds through taxation, i.e. the “land-tax dynamic.” The land-tax dynamic is related to the relationship between tax structure and land use. The authors argue that there are specific spatial outcomes based on what kind of taxation structure is available to a city. Cities that are primarily dependent on property taxes are incentivized to push for higher market-value developments while attempting to push negative impacts like traffic to a neighboring jurisdiction. Cities that rely on a sales tax seek to create “shopping sheds” that can draw residents as well as people from neighboring jurisdictions. Cities that rely on the income tax – including most cities in Ohio – are encouraged to draw high wage earners to work in the city and are not as concerned about them living there.
  • The social value of land. The social value of land is related to a city’s need to create a positive social environment and protect property values. As such, it considers how vacant land can serve to divide or unite parts of the city. Vacant land is sometimes used to separate higher income areas from lower income ones, but it can also provide opportunities for positive social interactions like park space or community gardens.
  • The need to promote economic development. Finally, the need to promote economic development encourages land that has higher value to be put to its highest and best use.

These three imperatives work together to shape local government actors’ choices about vacant land, including which areas are most likely to be redeveloped and which are likely to be left alone. The authors illustrate this through a three-dimensional cube, where each imperative represents one facet. Any vacant parcel in a city fits somewhere in the cube based on the interplay of its revenue, social, and development potential. City leaders can use a parcel’s position within the cube to guide long-term decisions about reuse, even as political or market conditions remain uncertain.

 

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.

 

Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part I: Design After Decline

April 21st, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

Read the Introduction to GOPC’s Reading Series on Shrinking Cities

In his book Design After Decline, author Brent Ryan explores the historic role of urban and architectural design in combating (or accelerating) decline in cities and explores how good design can help shrinking cities boost quality of life for residents. Design After Decline argues that shrinking cities may not be able to reverse decline, but they can make cities more equitable for residents living in them.

Ryan begins by looking back at the legacy of urban renewal in the United States, and argues that the end of urban renewal was a double-edged sword for declining cities. It was positive in the sense that it ended the often brutal treatment of existing neighborhoods and residents, but negative because it meant the end of a comprehensive and optimistic government-backed vision for the future of urban communities. Although urban renewal tore apart neighborhoods in favor of massive concrete high rises, government planners (wrongfully, unfortunately) believed that these Modernist buildings could help transform neighborhoods for the better by virtue of the way they were designed.

In a reaction to the overreaches of Modernist urban renewal, the next generation of planners and designers abandoned innovative architectural design in favor of traditional, suburban-style development in what Ryan calls the “era of nonexperimentation”. In Detroit, the city became less dense as existing homes were torn down, leaving either vacant lots or new, low-density suburban style development in their place. Additionally, new development only occurred in a few relatively stable neighborhoods in the city, leaving other neighborhoods to decline. According to Ryan, little of this new development was driven by the interests of residents, which led to relatively limited success. In Philadelphia, however, redevelopment in declining neighborhoods also took a suburban form, but was driven largely by the interests of local residents instead of developers. In part due to its location, North Philadelphia is now contending with the challenge of gentrification instead of decline.

flint2    sidewalk

Ryan finds that neither the approach of urban renewal nor suburban-style development has had much positive impact on the trajectory of shrinking cities, especially as it relates to outcomes for low-income residents. Instead, Ryan sets forth a series of proposals for promoting “social urbanism” in shrinking cities. The idea of social urbanism comes from Medellin, Colombia, where dealing with social issues has been linked squarely to urban design and architecture. The city hopes to create “the most beautiful buildings in the poorest parts of the city,” a lofty goal that Ryan admits will be challenging to achieve in the U.S. Still, he suggests pushing for change even while accepting the constraints of the current system.

Ryan proposes five principles for social urbanist, shrinking-city design. The first is palliative planning, or the recognition that intervention cannot reverse decline, but can only improve quality of life for remaining residents. The second is interventionist policy, or the idea that cities should not hold back from taking risks through bold action. The third is democratic decision making, or an explicit focus on improving the lives of poor residents directly or indirectly. The fourth is projective design which “provides residents with a sense of achieved aspiration and conformance with social ideals” – in other words, housing is attractive and thoughtfully designed, but is still comfortable for the average family. The final principle is patchwork urbanism, or the understanding that development across the city will not be uniform and may create new urban forms over time. Through these urban design interventions, Ryan believes that shrinking cities can be more effective in creating equitable communities for residents.

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.

 

Introduction to GOPC’s Reading Series on Shrinking Cities

April 20th, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

Many of GOPC’s followers are likely familiar with the concept of “shrinking cities” – communities that have experienced significant population decline and property abandonment over a period of decades. But what exactly this term means – and the feelings it can provoke – varies from person to person and community to community.

A few cities, including some in Ohio, have decided to embrace the concept of shrinking and are refocusing their planning efforts on how to “right-size” the city’s infrastructure for a smaller population. Others, also in Ohio, have rejected the idea and are implementing strategies to regrow their populations. Neither choice is necessarily right or wrong, but the question of how to deal with substantial population decline is one that most of Ohio’s legacy cities will have to answer. 

While “shrinking cities” as a concept is still relatively new in the United States, academics and urban planners have started to explore the question of how U.S. cities can manage population decline. As part of a literature study led by Dr. Mattijs Van Maasakkers at The Ohio State University, Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC’s Manager of Research & Policy, read a series of academic books and articles exploring the complex questions surrounding shrinking cities. Because the issues arising in shrinking cities align closely with GOPC’s mission of urban revitalization and sustainable growth, we will be launching a new blog series that summarizes some of the books and articles that were the most interesting or relevant in Ohio.

Portsmouth Historic Buildings 2

A key theme that runs throughout much of the literature on shrinking cities is a re-examination of the concept of growth. Can a city “grow” even if it is shrinking? Are there opportunities to create greater prosperity and opportunity for residents even in the face of population decline? These are important questions for people who work in or care about cities with declining populations. We hope that these summaries provoke even more questions and raise some ideas for paths forward.

We will be posting these summaries over a series of weeks. If there’s a book, article, or other work about shrinking cities that you’ve found useful or interesting and want to see covered – please let us know. 

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.