What are Legacy Cities?
Legacy cities are older, industrial urban areas that have experienced significant population and job loss, resulting in high residential vacancy and diminished service capacity and resources.
Despite very real challenges, each city also has real assets—from strong cultural fabric and anchor institutions to abundant historic architecture and available land—that support their ongoing initiatives to strengthen their communities.
Legacy cities are mostly concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast, with the majority in the states of Ohio, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania.
America’s legacy cities have experienced profound social and economic disruption as a result of fundamental shifts of the global economy in recent decades, and policy decisions made at the local, state, and federal level.
Legacy cities have lost between 20–70% of residents since their mid-century population peak, but are still vibrant, mid-sized cities home to around 50,000 to 1.5 million people each.
Legacy Cities Today
Although legacy cities underperform the nation in jobs, population growth and economic diversity, they are home to a number of assets that serve local communities and help them strengthen as centers of their metropolitan regions.
Below are some of the leading organizations working in each city.
The Case for Legacy Cities
Legacy cities have traditional walkable neighborhoods, beautiful historic buildings, and a range of civic institutions—from museums and performance venues to parks and public markets—that enrich the lives of city and regional residents. They have a resonant historic narrative of immigrants and migrants who share a common quest for freedom, economic opportunity and better lives for their families.
Legacy cities have a lower cost of living compared to similarly large and mid-sized cities in other parts of the country. Some companies choose to locate their administrative functions in places like Cleveland to avoid the personnel and real estate costs associated with larger, more expensive cities, while other cities are transforming former manufacturing sites for new industrial uses.
Legacy cities are not ghost towns. Despite sustained population loss, property abandonment and the preponderance of “ruin porn” images and stories in the mass media, legacy city metropolitan regions represent an economy that is the fifth largest in the world today, at $2.6 trillion annual output. When aggregated as a group, the legacy cities economy displaces France and follows only in terms of economic might: the US, China, Japan and Germany.
Resilience and Sustainability
Many legacy cities have a comparative advantage over stronger market cities in a future of diminished natural resources and more challenging climate realities. Legacy cities are resilient places located in regions relatively safe from earthquakes, droughts and ocean-related weather events. Many of these cities are built adjacent to ample sources of fresh water, all have a surplus of available land, and have existing transportation and telecommunication infrastructure—meaning increased capacity to support national population growth.
The industrial era created vast wealth, a portion of which remains in legacy cities in the form of physical and financial assets like fine arts institutions, national sports teams, universities and transportation networks. As a purely economic proposition, the enormous value of the physical infrastructure, civic institutions, and human capital embedded in these cities should be prioritized to support national competitiveness.
All Americans should be able to convert their hard work into increased income and better lives for themselves and their families. We must prioritize inclusive economic development strategies that connect jobs to residents within the region, provide inner city entrepreneurs with access to capital and allow for poor residents to incrementally advance their income by connecting with the strong economic flows of their region.
The Legacy Cities Initiative
The Legacy Cities Initiative is designed to help spur equitable revitalization in formerly industrial cities that are struggling with economic and population decline. The Initiative will center around the collection and dissemination of information on legacy city revitalization efforts:
- What is happening in which legacy city
- Who is undertaking this work
- Promising new policies or programs
- New research efforts and findings
If you are doing work to bring about equitable revitalization in one or more legacy cities, whether as a funder, practitioner, advocate, researcher, or resident, please tell us about it by filling out this survey. You can also contact Senior Policy Analyst Jessie Grogan at firstname.lastname@example.org to share information about your work.
The Legacy Cities Initiative will build on many years of work in the public, private, civic, and academic sectors to foster equitable revitalization in legacy cities. This website and blog were was previously home to the Legacy Cities Partnership, a project of The American Assembly and its partners from 2012-18
The Partnership was founded by The American Assembly, the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City, the Center for Community Progress and their partners.
Our Framework for Change
Rigorously and objectively analyze city assets, understanding both opportunities and constraints
Develop a creative vision for the future of the city, grounded in a thorough understanding of its economic geography, the role in its region and its function in the global economy
Design strategies for residential, commercial and industrial areas with approaches tailored to their market potential and also informed by social and environmental factors
Implement inclusive economic growth strategies that address the intensity of concentrated poverty in legacy cities, promoting revitalization that not only attracts newcomers but also increases opportunities for current residents
Forge supportive partnerships among federal, state and local governments by coordinating efforts to target resources and revisiting regulations that impede joint efforts, incentivizing regional collaboration towards shared benefits
Build the city's ability to execute complex revival strategies by strengthening leadership, improving fiscal health, investing in information infrastructure and supporting a healthy business environment