PLAN 69: Article
Voices From Forgotten Cities

Revitalization Strategies for Older Industrial Cities

This fall, more than 30 practitioners, political leaders and scholars convened at MIT to talk about the challenges facing Forgotten Cities - old, small, once-prominent cities that used to supply the world with clothing, machinery and luxuries but have lately come to be leaders in unemployment, poverty and crime.

Flint, Michigan. Youngstown, Ohio. Allentown, Pennsylvania. There are 150 of these cities in the United States, home to 7.4 million people, and they have typically had to contend with generations of decline. Yet these cities feature some of the most imaginative and instructive revitalization work currently going on anywhere in the country.

The focus of the meeting was a recent report detailing some of these revitalization efforts, prepared by Professor Lorlene Hoyt in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning with André Leroux, former Director of Policy and Planning at Lawrence CommunityWorks. The two had worked together for years through MIT@Lawrence, a university-community partnership connecting MIT faculty, students and staff with local organizations and civic leaders in Lawrence MA. (See PLAN 66.)

The report reveals that the most successful reinventions of such cities involve small groups of people bringing disparate others together in ever-expanding networks. These 'innovative revitalization coalitions' are primarily focused on small, attainable successes and relentlessly building on them, suggesting that hundreds of small but better decisions are more powerful in the long run than the big investment, or 'silver bullet' approach. The value of these coalitions is the way they shift expectations, providing people with a different story to tell about themselves and a more productive way of interacting with one another.

The report emerged from a seminar series hosted by Hoyt in 2004 that featured practitioners, political leaders and scholars from some of these cities talking about their work there. The seminars were recorded, transcribed, edited and organized to take the reader through the arc experienced by Forgotten Cities - from an era of dominance through an era of decline and eventually arriving at a new reality, characterized by a lack of civic capacity, inadequate governing capacity and a chronically low collective mindset.

The purpose of the meeting this fall was to update the report with news of what has happened in these cities since the speakers' series and to discuss how best to move forward. Two primary avenues were identified. One is to develop a way for practitioners in Forgotten Cities to share best-practices and learn from each other's experience. That goal is being addressed, at least initially, through the website of MIT's newly-renamed Community Innovators Lab - until recently, known as the Center for Reflective Community Practice - which will act as an online clearinghouse and forum.

The other avenue identified was the need to coordinate all the research currently going on around the country in various cities and schools, as well as at the Brookings Institution and other think tanks. According to Hoyt, there is currently a somewhat surprising surge of research in this area, perhaps because so much attention has been paid to the larger urban areas, sometimes with heartening results. There seems to be some consensus, she says, that it is time now to consider the smaller cities, as well.

The seminar series and the report are part of a larger research project led by Hoyt that identifies new methods for improving the quality of life in Forgotten Cities by combining lessons from academic literature, the classroom and the field. Her initial research examined a subset of ten Forgotten Cities to find evidence of new initiatives. The case studies in the report are the result of more than four dozen on-site interviews with coalition leaders in Reading PA, Youngstown OH and Lawrence MA.

The research was sponsored by MIT in conjunction with PolicyLink, a national nonprofit working to advance policies to achieve economic and social equity, and the Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, a non-profit umbrella organization for affordable housing and community development activities in Massachusetts and New England.

For a copy of the report, contact Lorlene Hoyt at lorlene@mit.edu.

PLAN 69
Posted February 2008