A Tale of Two Cities

hankwebberphotoBy Hank Webber

The dominant narrative about legacy cities is one of decline, loss of population and increasing poverty. This narrative is, at best, dramatically oversimplified. Legacy cities do face great challenges, but they are also full of hope and resurgence, and scores of increasingly vibrant neighborhoods. Legacy cities can best be thought of not as places of decline but rather as straddling between two very different worlds.

First is the world of urban revitalization: the growth of diverse, vibrant urban neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly attractive to young people and the firms that employ them. Every large city I know has neighborhoods that are getting better by traditional economic criteria. St. Louis, the city where my wife and I live and where I focus much of my research, is clearly a legacy city. Yet the neighborhood where we live, the Central West End, is not only very attractive by all conventional standards, it is also rapidly getting stronger. Forest Park is getting better, street life is improving, and white-collar employers are moving in. There are ten or so other neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis that are experiencing similarly strong positive trends.

Basketball court, North St. Louis
Basketball court, North St. Louis

But there is another world present in almost every legacy city. That world is one of depopulation, the growth of low-density, very high-poverty neighborhoods, and the abandonment or disinvestment of large tracts of the city. That is the world of North St. Louis and much of Detroit. It is also the story of much of the far South Side and South Suburbs of Chicago. Many of the decaying neighborhoods in older industrial cities have lost their traditional economic role; they were built to house industrial workers and those jobs have been lost, probably forever.

The balance of these two worlds varies by city. In some cities, the larger story is revitalization. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have both seen widespread improvement in recent years. In other cities, the dominant story is depopulation and low-density poverty. But in most legacy cities, there is both revitalization and depopulation. Amidst decline, Detroit has growing and vibrant neighborhoods and Chicago, the most successful of older industrial cities, still faces great challenges.

Fell's Point, Baltimore Waterfront
Fell’s Point, Baltimore Waterfront

I do not believe that urban design is the root cause of either urban revitalization or urban depopulation, but it can contribute to both. Successful urban revitalization depends on attracting people who have choices, in many cases a great numbers of choices, when considering where to live. Given that older industrial cities, with rare exceptions, do not provide great public services (e.g. public schools), it is critical that neighborhood and cultural life be vibrant and attractive. For all of the attention to public spaces and park design, I am struck by how little we know about what makes great, walkable streets and how to use space to build neighborhood social capital. Community design centers, among others, are critical players in building a science of high quality, small-scale urban interventions. Solving the problem of large-scale urban depopulation is even more vexing and currently has many fewer people working in this space. There are, unfortunately, large parts of many cities that are unlikely to be revitalized by normal market forces in the next few decades. All of us who care about cities need to focus deep attention on how these parts of cities can become assets to both residents and their metropolitan regions.

Henry S. Webber is the Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration at Washington University and Adjunct Professor at the Sam Fox School of Art and Architecture, teaching courses on topics including community development, health policy, and strategic management and social welfare policy. Previously, Webber was a faculty member at the University of Chicago, where he worked to promote the revitalization of the North Kenwood/Oakland and Woodlawn neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side.

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