Facing the Urban Challenge: Reimagining Land Use in America’s Distressed Older Cities—The Federal Policy Role

Alan Mallach
Alan Mallach Former Brookings Expert

May 18, 2010

The end of World War II heralded an era of urban disinvestment in the United States. Suburban flight, deindustrialization and automobile-oriented sprawl triggered massive population and job loss in the cities that had driven America’s economic growth for the preceding century. While some cities began to rebound in the 1990s, others, including great cities like Detroit and Cleveland, have continued to decline.

How these cities acknowledge the reality of being a smaller city, reconfigure their physical environment, reuse surplus land and buildings, and target their resources to capitalize on their assets will likely determine whether they will continue to decline, or will achieve vitality as smaller but stronger cities.

Reflecting that these cities will look very different in the future from what they were in the past, regeneration efforts need to focus on three complementary goals: strengthening core areas by building on key physical, economic and institutional assets; preserving viable residential neighborhoods and housing; and identifying long-term non-traditional and green uses for vacant lands and buildings. The federal government can play a major role in this process in five key areas:

Strategic planning.
If the different elements that figure in the revitalization of older cities are to achieve that goal, they must be grounded in plans that can help cities and metros make difficult choices about allocating resources, managing land inventories, building on assets for economic growth, and linking central cities to their metro areas. By rethinking existing federal planning requirements, including the Consolidated Plan requirements under the CDBG program, and providing support for new comprehensive planning efforts, the federal government can help cities better plan to address population loss.

Reutilizing urban land.
Large and growing areas of vacant and underutilized land and buildings with little development demand are a part of all distressed older cities. Any strategy for rebuilding these cities must incorporate a vacant land reconfiguration approach that both reflects market realities and the need to improve the community’s quality of life, integrating land banking and site remediation with strategies for using urban vacant land in creative new ways. The federal government should help cities plan and carry out land management and reconfiguration strategies, support brownfields remediation, help develop green stormwater management systems, and foster the growth of urban agriculture.

Investing in transformative change.
Distressed older cities and their regions need to stabilize their economic base, provide jobs for their residents and scope for businesses to grow. For that to take place, they must focus on transformative change – spotting the opportunities to integrate these cities into the post-industrial economy. Federal support for economic revival should help them build on core physical assets; reinforce or retool economic clusters and skill bases, and maximize institutional assets, their universities and medical centers. The federal government should pursue opportunities to make catalytic investment in transformative projects and maximize the potential of the cities’ anchor institutions to build the local and regional economy.

Revitalizing neighborhoods.
The long-term vitality of older cities equally hinges on building sustainable residential areas, yet many cities lack effective strategies to maintain and strengthen their neighborhoods. Local governments and CDCs need access to tools to stimulate market demand in at risk neighborhoods. The federal role in this area that began with the Neighborhood Stabilization Program should be expanded and given a new strategic focus, using NSP to leverage other federal programs, restructuring existing federal programs to focus on neighborhood stability, and initiating new targeted neighborhood revitalization programs for distressed older cities.

Addressing affordable housing.
Federal affordable housing programs should better balance the need to provide housing for these cities’ low income residents with the need to improve the cities’ economic vitality, and retain and attract middle income households. Federal policy should move away from producing more housing in distressed older cities and focus on upgrading the existing housing stock, by restructuring the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and providing new resources to support private rental housing and foster sustainable homeownership opportunities.

Beyond these areas, three cross-cutting tasks are of critical importance:

Better coordinate federal resources directed to the distressed older cities
. A strong federal policy commitment to the distressed older cities demands the ability to coordinate multiple federal programs. The Office of Management and Budget should lead a systemic effort to foster greater coordination of federal programs and enable states and localities to use federal resources in an integrated fashion.

Use federal resources to leverage state policy change
. State governments create the opportunity framework for their cities through their laws, policies and use of resources. States create—or thwart—regeneration by fostering fiscal fairness or perpetuating fiscal inequities; by enabling regional action or blocking it; and by targeting resources or distributing them “like peanut butter.” The federal government should push the states to take more constructive steps to support urban change, while recognizing them as essential partners in revitalizing their distressed older cities. Rules governing how states spend federal dollars should be revised to ensure that funds are used to further urban revitalization, and while new programs are framed or existing ones evaluated, federal officials should identify and incentivize state policies to maximize the outcomes of each program.

Build the capacity of local government and others to carry out effective strategies for change.
Local governments in distressed older cities are severely limited in their capacity to deliver effective strategies for change. The federal government should initiate efforts to build their ability to plan and carry out effective revitalization strategies. In the short term, cities need help building their skills to implement urgently-needed programs and use available resources wisely. In the long term, they need help to transform themselves into stronger, more resilient and responsive organizations.

The next few years may be some cities’ last opportunity to begin rebuilding before the cumulative weight of abandonment, poverty, and disinvestment engulfs even their strongest neighborhoods. This, then, is the moment for bold federal action, but this action should reflect a different approach to using federal resources, fostering transformation based on a new vision of the future of these cities. 

Full Paper on Shrinking Cities » (PDF)
Paper on Ohio’s Shrinking Cities »