Small and midsized legacy communities: Trends, assets, and principles for action

Worcester, Massachusetts

For more than a decade, Brookings and other experts have recommended increased policy focus on older industrial cities. With their substantial populations (especially in the Midwest), significant clusters of jobs, sustainable infrastructure, and high degree of racial/ethnic diversity, these cities represent important focal points for efforts to close widening gaps in America’s economy and society.

Small and midsized older industrial cities, which this report terms legacy communities, face a unique set of circumstances. While lacking the size and global reach of larger counterparts such as Indianapolis or Pittsburgh, many small and midsized places arguably retain the requisite scale to offer a distinctive economy and quality of life to their businesses and residents.

Defining legacy communities

This report identifies 141 legacy communities, counties containing a city with between 20,000 and 200,000 residents, that have a significant history in manufacturing and experienced lower-than-expected job growth from 1970 to 2016. It compares their conditions, assets, and challenges to those in two other types of counties containing small and midsized cities: non-industrial (those without a significant history in manufacturing); and transitioned (those with a manufacturing history and higher-than-expected subsequent job growth). Altogether, these communities were home to 32 million, or about one in 10, Americans in 2016.

Map 1 Read more about where legacy communities are distributed on page 7 of the full report.

Legacy community performance

By definition, legacy communities have faced greater challenges than other counties in diversifying their economies and growing population and jobs over the past few decades. While legacy communities register higher average levels of productivity, their median household incomes and employment rates lag those in other counties with small and midsized cities. Some legacy communities, however, have fared better than others.

Examining their economic performance over the past 25 years, the report identifies:

  • 27 strong legacy counties, which have performed better because they contain midsized cities proximate to large markets like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia; or are smaller cities near natural amenities or anchor employers;
  • 36 recovering legacy counties, many of which were hit hard by manufacturing decline in the 1990s, but have since rebounded and diversified economically;
  • 48 faltering legacy counties, some in Midwestern states hit hard by the auto downturn of the mid-to-late 2000s; and others in Southeastern states buffeted by the offshoring of textile manufacturing in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and
  • 30 distressed legacy counties that combine the challenges of manufacturing decline with pronounced levels of racial segregation and exclusion.

Read more about how these 141 legacy communities are faring on page 13 of the full report. 

Challenges facing legacy communities

While diverse in size, location, and recent economic performance, America’s legacy counties share a set of common challenges deriving from their shared history, and its impacts on their present-day potential.

  • In 1970, 34% of jobs in legacy counties were in manufacturing, 10 percentage points above the national average. By 2016, fewer than 11% of their jobs were in manufacturing, only about 2 percentage points above the national average. During that time, total manufacturing jobs in these counties declined from 3.7 million to 2.6 million.
  • While the number of legacy county adults with college degrees rose by about 69% from 1990 to 2013-17, it simultaneously rose by 112% in non-industrial counties, and by 134% in transitioned counties.

Figure 8

  • The vestiges of early 20th century racial exclusion policies in legacy cities remain today, as legacy counties exhibit higher degrees of Black/white residential segregation and income inequality than other counties with small and midsized cities.
  • Legacy counties exhibit worse health outcomes and behavioral factors among their populations than other counties, including above-average rates of adult smoking, adult obesity, physical inactivity, and teen births, that together reinforce existing economic and fiscal disadvantages.

Read more about the common challenges that legacy communities are facing on page 16 of the full report.

Assets of legacy communities

Notwithstanding their common challenges, legacy communities possess a common set of assets that can promote their adaptation to current economic and demographic trends.

  • Many legacy communities benefit from a strong sense of identity, evidenced by significant architecture; distinctive, human-scaled neighborhoods; prestigious cultural institutions; vibrant arts communities; and access to rivers, lakes, and bays.
  • Although jobs have declined or stagnated in many legacy counties over the past few decades, their higher-than-average employment densities (131 jobs per square mile) can help attract and retain industries and households seeking the economic and social benefits of urban life.

Figure 11

  • Legacy communities generally possess more affordable housing than similarly sized jurisdictions, making them potentially more attractive places for first-time homebuyers, and/or providing buyers or owners with more room in their budgets to upgrade older housing.
  • Overall, the 141 legacy counties contain 322 public and private four-year colleges and universities, enrolling 1.4 million full- and part-time students in 2017-18, the equivalent of about 4% of their total population. Of these, 23 are doctoral-granting institutions with high research activity, which can play a critical role in knowledge creation and economic diversification.
  • Some legacy counties contain cities that effectively serve as satellites to nearby larger urban areas. Altogether, 24 of the 141 legacy counties are part of a metropolitan area with at least 1 million people, providing them with access to larger consumer markets and modern infrastructure that provide opportunities for growth and prosperity.
  • Overall, a little under 10% of legacy county residents were foreign-born in 2013-17, up from 7% in 2000. Larger increases in foreign-born representation in economically stronger legacy counties signal immigrants’ attraction to these healthier local economies and the contributions they make to local economic growth.

Read more about the common and distinct assets that characterize legacy communities on page 23 of the full report.

Principles for achieving inclusive prosperity in legacy communities

The report concludes with a set of principles for pursuing inclusive prosperity in legacy communities, and examples of that approach in practice.

Engage all sectors

Leadership in legacy communities must involve the private and civic sectors as well in visible efforts that build trust and capacity for public problem-solving. In Northeast Ohio, the Fund for Our Economic Future—a collaboration between philanthropies, corporations, universities, and health care systems from across an 18-county region—supports organizations and initiatives that work region-wide to create jobs in new and existing industries, prepare residents for those jobs, and make jobs more accessible for under-resourced communities.

Leverage anchor institutions

After decades in which “town-gown” frictions bedeviled relations between legacy cities and their higher education institutions, closer partnership between these entities has moved into the mainstream of revitalization practice. In South Bend, Ind., the enFocus fellowship program aligns the talents of the University of Notre Dame’s STEM graduates with the needs of local businesses, nonprofits, and government through consulting projects. 

Partner to help underserved communities

Legacy-city leaders can begin to make meaningful progress on human capital development by putting long-excluded communities at the center of strategies to spur inclusive prosperity. In the legacy city of Rome, Ga., Purpose Built Communities partnered with the South Rome Redevelopment Corporation across eight historically Black neighborhoods to develop new mixed-income apartment homes, launch a new elementary school with onsite early learning and adult literacy programs (in collaboration with nearby Berry College), and open a new Boys & Girls Club and nearby community garden.

Work at the state level

For legacy communities facing a complicated set of interconnected challenges with limited funding and capacity to tackle them, small changes in state policy can either exacerbate or mitigate those pressures. In Massachusetts, MassINC launched the Gateway Cities Innovation Institute to design research, policies, and partnerships with more than a dozen small and midsized cities statewide; and to convene and develop cross-sector leaders in the cities themselves.

Read the report’s expanded roadmap for legacy community revitalization on page 29 of the full report.