Why We Need a New Word for “Blight”

By Justin G. Moore

Driving through Soulsville, a community in Memphis that lives up to its name, we pass by modest homes, long-vacant buildings (including the house where Aretha Franklin grew up), deteriorated roads and sidewalks, and overgrown and dumped-on lots that presumably were once home to families and businesses. Our group had just met at the Memphis Slim House, a vibrant and inspiring local community arts and education organization that had mustered the will and resources to help nourish their neighborhood’s soul–one mural, one bus stop, one gathering place, one creative outlet, and one soul at a time.

But still, as we continued to explore this part of the city, it was hard to ignore all of the… blight?

Then a brief but strange encounter with the police during our visit reaffirmed that this community’s problems were deep and that the tools being used to deal with these problems are blunt and imperfect.… Read More

Perspectives from Newburgh, Part Two

We asked graduate students from Columbia University‘s architecture and urban design program to reflect on their studio in Newburgh, NY, and what makes work in legacy cities distinct from other American cities. The second winning submission comes to us from Anais Niembro and Nans Voron. Thanks to all the teams who participated!

Working in Newburgh was a challenge for us, as students coming from all other the world. We had to face specific issues deeply rooted in the social struggles of the last 50 years in the United States. We had to quickly analyze and understand this historical context in order to identify triggers and leverage the tools that we had.

Our involvement with the city of Newburgh was also a challenge for the community. Even though many stakeholders were enthusiastic about our collaboration, addressing the local community was difficult. Many were intimidated by our “investigation”, others worried that our work would lead to gentrification and to a loss of social ties amongst the residents.… Read More

Baltimore: From Consultation to Collaboration

anthonyscottheadshotBy Anthony Scott

Over the past eight months, I participated in the Opportunity Collaborative Fellows Program, which brought together 33 local leaders to respond to a plan developed for the Baltimore metropolitan region. The collaboration was initiated in order to 1) ensure the plan reflected the needs of the region, and 2) foster local leaders’ ability to think regionally to solve the region’s disparities.

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council (BMC), and the Opportunity Collaborative (the Collaborative)— a consortium of local governments, Maryland state agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations—worked for three years to develop the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (RPSD) for the Baltimore metropolitan region. The RPSD provides a way forward for Baltimore City and surrounding counties to coordinate investments in housing, transportation and workforce development, and to reduce disparities recently highlighted by police violence and the resulting unrest amongst residents. The Collaborative, funded by a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the U.S.… Read More

Perspectives from Newburgh, Part One

We asked graduate students from Columbia University‘s architecture and urban design program to reflect on their studio in Newburgh, NY, and what makes work in legacy cities distinct from other American cities. The first post comes to us from Katherine Flores. Thanks to all the teams who submitted posts!

Each city or town in New York’s Hudson River Valley has some degree of positive or negative aspects relative to one another. These nuances are what create the tension between defining regional systems and negotiating multiple urban design scales. At the scale of the city, each legacy city can carry its own identity. Newburgh and other cities such as Poughkeepsie or Beacon have similar situations from the stress, or even trauma, of going through urban renewal.

But in the case of Newburgh, when one first researches the city online it is likely you will get a crime alert. If you research Poughkeepsie, that is not the case.… Read More

A Call for Hope and Action

jeffjohnsonjpg-5c89c13a1efde7c7_mediumBy Councilman Jeff Johnson

As a member of Cleveland City Council, I have been challenged to respond to some difficult issues within the urban neighborhoods of the city. One of those issues is how to preserve Cleveland’s cultural heritage, including the structures and sites that are historic and important to the city, while it goes through very difficult economic and social change. Of course I know what I am facing in Cleveland are the same challenges that other leaders in Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Buffalo, and many other cities are also seeing each day. It was these significant challenges that led me earlier this year to work with the Cleveland Restoration Society and Cleveland State University to plan and organize the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference in June. I was delighted and inspired by what I learned during the three days at the conference.

I was particularly energized by the workshop on the last day of the conference, as a room full of participants with diverse talents and experiences talked about the previous two days and the priority issues for historic preservation in our legacy cities.… Read More

Federalism and Municipal Innovation: Lessons from the Fight Against Vacant Properties

bentonBy Benton Martin

Cities maintain a vital role in serving as laboratories for novel government initiatives. The prevailing view of city authority, however, is that they have only those powers granted by the state. Additionally, in seeking to be innovative, cities risk running afoul of legal doctrines that reserve certain policy areas for regulation only by the federal government.

Two examples of property regulation in legacy cities serve as important reminders to city officials about federalism in the United States.

First, consider land banking. Facing rampant blight, Genesee County in Michigan developed a creative solution involving a local government entity (the land bank) acquiring, and seeking to repurpose, vacant properties. The County faced opposition, however, from limitations imposed by state law. Taking the challenges head on, local leaders persuaded the state legislature to adopt groundbreaking legislation enabling land banking. The ensuing success prompted many other municipalities to adopt this approach.… Read More

Let Them In. Bring Them Here.

fleischerBy Peter Fleischer

For our second post in honor of National Welcoming Week, Peter Fleischer joins us from Empire State Future to highlight the various imperatives of immigrant integration in legacy cities.

If it were only a case of 50,000 destitute children interned for trying to enter the United States, we would not still be reading about this ongoing sadness. Many right-minded, good people fear that where there are 50,000 today, there will be 500,000 or perhaps five million refugees before long. So what should one do? I say bring them here. They are kids. They are not a threat, economically or otherwise.

We have room here in the Lake Belt (formerly dubbed the Rust Belt), and soon we will need these brave and oh so familiar strangers, fleeing poverty, hatred and violence, wanting a better life. From Duluth, Minnesota through Milwaukee, Kankakee, Gary, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, all the way to Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut, our legacy cities have room.… Read More

The Future of Legacy Cities in an Era of Welcoming

rachelheadBy Rachel Peric

In honor of National Welcoming Week, Rachel Peric, Deputy Director of Welcoming America, joins us to discuss opportunities to embrace and engage immigrant communities in legacy cities like St. Louis and Dayton.

Immigration has dominated news headlines for much of this summer, with little progress made in the debate on Capitol Hill. Yet, regardless of what is happening in Washington, immigrants are being welcomed across the country into communities that recognize that their greatest strength comes from their diverse residents. In Legacy Cities, there is a growing recognition that a wellspring of resilience resides not only in the untapped assets of infrastructure and longstanding institutions, but in the people who have and will continue to shape the future. As in centuries past, New Americans should be welcomed as vital partners in expanding prosperity for our nation’s cities.

Today marks the start of National Welcoming Week, an event that celebrates the growing movement of communities and leaders across the United States that fully embrace immigrants and their contributions to the local and national fabric of our country.… Read More

Opening Up Vacant Lots Data

paulasegelheadBy Paula Segel

In New York City alone, hundreds of city-owned sites languish, located primarily in low-income communities of color, collecting garbage and blighting the very neighborhoods they could enliven. Taken together, these forgotten spaces — fenced-off, inaccessible and lost to bureaucratic neglect — are larger than most city parks. Uneven growth in cities, even in seemingly strong market cities like New York, is a problem that is compounded by an uneven access to information about how people can influence the development of the places where they live. In cities across America, a lack of developed and maintained green spaces is just one symptom of municipal neglect; a lack of information about how people can shape the city comes with it.

596 Acres, a land access advocacy group, has been running a pilot project that helps neighbors see opportunities in the fenced vacant lots of New York City’s most historically disadvantaged neighborhoods since August 2011.… Read More

Preservation as Change of Mind

margoBy Margo Warminski

I grew up in 48205. (Google it.) I lived in a place where the American dream went into reverse, and kept going backward. Eventually I moved to a calmer zip code but kept the Rust Belt DNA. Which is why I couldn’t wait to spend three days at the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference in Cleveland.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Throw so many bright, engaged, outspoken urbanists in a (big) room and you can’t help but be inspired, and challenged by tough truths (Looking for happy talk? Keep looking.) like:

1. For years, much of preservation was oriented toward controlling growth: a manifest destiny of new restoration districts, better ordinances and more wood windows. But what happens when the wheels come off and, in some neighborhoods, you can’t even give houses away? Preservationists, not just in rusty cities, need a change of mind: learning to live within limits.… Read More