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Resiliency and Revitalization in America’s Cities

Written by Kim Zeuli, ICIC
New Orleans continues to rebuild after Katrina. New York City has endured 9/11, the financial crisis and Sandy. Smaller cities and towns across the Midwest face the daunting task of restoring their towns after being hit by devastating tornadoes.  These are all classic stories of resilience: cities that recover from negative, largely unforeseen, shocks, such as a natural disaster, to rebuild their communities and economies.
Detroit, Cleveland and smaller older industrial cities such as Allentown, Bethlehem and Southbridge have faced equal devastation due to the loss of their manufacturing base over a longer time period. These cities have been forced to reinvent themselves. These are stories of revitalization: cities that have implemented plans and strategies to forge new postindustrial paths towards economic growth. Revitalizing American Cities, a newly released co-edited volume by me and Susan Wachter, addresses the historical, regional and political factors that have enabled some of our cities to grow in spite of transformational economic forces. As Wachter notes in the introduction, “Our nation’s cities continue to evolve. Change is inevitable and therefore reinvention is necessary.” This compilation provides a comprehensive look at urban resiliency and revitalization, providing a framework for understanding the nature and diversity of both.
In his chapter, Alan Mallach describes the shared histories but divergent futures of thirteen small industrial cities in the Northeast. Bethlehem represents a success story that is due in large part to locational advantages (Bethlehem is about a 90 minute drive from New York, Newark, Trenton, and Philadelphia), a strong university anchor (Lehigh University) and effective leadership. Like all of its
counterparts, Bethlehem had to deal with the physical carnage left in the wake of the departure of manufacturing. The massive Bethlehem Steel Plant closed in 1995 leaving the city with over 1,500 acres of vacant factories and contaminated land. Mallach points to the city’s ability to transform this site as one example of its revitalization. Today the site has been redeveloped into a multi-use site that includes a casino, cultural center, and warehousing and distribution center. But Bethlehem’s success as a city is evaluated by more than its redevelopment. Mallach’s study employs a robust measure of urban vitality that includes socio-economic indicators. As he notes, “A successful, vital city provides opportunity to its poor, while containing a healthy mix of lower-, middle- and upper-income households. If a city’s residents are mired in chronic poverty and unemployment, revitalization of a downtown or waterfront represents at most a partial success and arguably a hollow one.”
For some businesses in Bethlehem, like Bethlehem Brew Works, the city’s gritty legacy is now embraced and used to their advantage. The rust-belt chic of cities like Bethlehem, Detroit, and Cleveland is attracting a new wave of young adults and professionals looking for an alternative to higher-priced, sleeker cities. They are part of a creative set of urban pioneers.
In my chapter, I examine the divergent paths of two historic mill towns in North Carolina, Concord and Eden. Today, Concord is probably best known as the home of NASCAR’s Speedway and Concord Mills mall, one of North Carolina’s largest tourist attractions. As is the case with Bethlehem, the success of Concord is due in large part to locational advantages (Concord is within commuting distance to Charlotte)
and effective leadership. Concord’s leaders realized the risk of a textile-based economy decades before the leaders of other mill towns and aggressively pursued alternative development strategies. At the time, their decisions were considered very controversial, but their foresight is a large factor in Concord’s current success. In their chapter, Yolanda Kodrzycki and Ana Patricia Munoz summarize the factors that seem to be essential for mid-sized manufacturing cities to reinvent themselves and become what they call “resurgent cities.” They recognize that each of the ten resurgent cities they studied has its own story and benefits from its own unique advantages. Yet, they also share a set of common strategies that echo the findings in my chapter and Mallach’s: diversifying their economic base, effective leadership and
collaboration, effective long-term planning, infrastructure development and strong anchors.
The authors make an important point at the close of their chapter about the relative success of these cities.
“Even when these positive conditions were met, the economies of the resurgent cities failed to keep pace with the growth in the U.S. economy from 1960 to 2010.” Although these cities have made admirable strides in reinventing their cities, their new economic base may never achieve the type of growth associated with manufacturing in the first half of the twentieth century. This book offers successful strategies for increasing economic opportunities for people who live in cities. It recognizes that there is not a single antidote to the loss of manufacturing and other economic forces, but provides insights into new drivers
of urban growth as well as potential barriers. The resiliency and revitalization of cities is important because, as Jeremy Nowak writes in the book’s conclusion, cities represent the backbone of our nation’s resiliency.

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