Monday, September 2nd, 2013

What Triggers a Civic Turnaround?

Lots of cities in America are struggling with low population growth and sluggish economies. Poor demographics and economics lead to fiscal problems that result in more people and businesses leaving, perpetuating a downward spiral. Detroit, which recently filed bankruptcy, is an extreme case, but many cities and states find themselves in similar straits, including much of New England and especially most of Rhode Island.

How to places break out of this and renew prosperity? Looking at cities where there has been change, I have observed several basic patterns of turnaround.

Structural Changes

Many cities failed for structural economic reasons like deindustrialization and globalization. Similarly, many ended up reviving for similar external reasons. In her seminal book The Global City, Saskia Sassen noted that while globalization permitted the dispersal of economic activities to lower cost locations, it created a parallel need for specialized financial and producer services to manage and control those global production networks. These services were disproportionately concentrated in so-called “global cities” like New York and London. While once those cities had fallen on hard times (in NYC’s case, nearly going bankrupt itself in the 1970s), globalization more than any other factor perhaps brought them back to life. Unfortunately, localities have no ability to conjure up these macro-economic changes.

Natural Lifecycle Progression

In a few places, notably Pittsburgh, it seems that the problems simply reached the end of their life cycle. To borrow a phase, they “hit bottom” and started reviving, if slowly. Of course, many places hit bottom and stayed there. Pittsburgh has been helped by the presence of large, world-class institutions. Being in the Marcellus Shale formation that’s the epicenter of the American gas fracking boom doesn’t hurt. It’s worth nothing that Pittsburgh has been fairly slow growth and still faces big challenges, including major pension and infrastructure problems.

Outsider Influx

Other cities hit a growth inflection point when they were able to attract a critical mass of outsiders. I have argued that having a critical mass of outsiders, that is, of people who aren’t long time natives or “boomerang” migrants, is almost a prerequisite for major civic change:

You need them, and you need enough of them that they a) don’t get beaten down by the man, so to speak and b) that they become a base of support for change in their own right. Once this group becomes large enough, it opens up the field of possibilities. They have the insights and different ideas from having lived elsewhere. They aren’t bought into the status quo or burdened by the baggage of the past. They are willing to question they way things are done. They are more likely to want change. In short, outsiders are the natural constituency for the new. That’s why outsiders are so important for a community to change, and why absent enough newcomers, change is difficult if not impossible.

Of course, this almost begs the question: how do you attract those outsiders? This would appear to be a second order factor. It would be worth doing a deep dive on how significant inward migration began in these places. Also, the places that seemed to do well on this model – like Nashville or Denver – are places that weren’t in terrible shape to begin with.

Transformational Leaders

Any number of cities lend themselves to a narrative of transformational change led by a particular leader or group of leaders. You can think of Richard M. Daley in Chicago or Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York. Cory Booker in Newark may be an emerging story in this mold. Or in previous generations there were business magnates like J. Irwin Miller in Columbus, Indiana that through superior vision combined with clout were able to put their community on a different path than other similarly positioned cities. (Among other things, Columbus, Indiana is an internationally renowned center of modernist architecture, with no fewer than six National Historic Landmarks in a modernist style).

The obvious question here is how much leadership had to do with it. So many of these large tier one type cities came back at the same time that it seems likely some common outside force like globalization was the real driver. Or at least that it was a prerequisite to enable the leadership to be effective. However, there are some examples like Columbus that appear to be less the result of outside forces.

Civic Sector Led Revitalization

Some cities have done well in models without a single dominant leader such as a larger than life mayor. In Indianapolis, for example, it was a broader coalition of business, community, and institutional leaders that championed items such as their sports hosting strategy that had a transformational impact. This is the model most cities try to use, but it has failed nine times out of ten in delivering transformational impact, so would appear to be a very high risk strategy.

What other models suggest themselves? I won’t claim this as a comprehensive list.

A Look At Providence and Rhode Island

Where does Rhode Island fit in? Well, it hasn’t seen a turnaround yet. But there has been a sort of slow growth in personal incomes that could add up over time. In this light, Providence would be a sort of Pittsburgh-like city from a lifecycle perspective, though I should note with a much smaller asset base. Alon Levy made the case for this view last year in a piece called “The Quiet Revival”:

Rhode Island may have one of the highest unemployment rates in the US today, but income growth is high; things are slowly getting better. The most visible growth in the US is in population rather than income, and so the usual markers are new housing starts, new infrastructure, and a lot of “coming soon” signs. Providence of course doesn’t have much of this. Instead, people are getting richer, slowly… Economic growth in the richest countries is slow enough that people don’t perceive it. Instead, they think it’s the domain of countries that are catching up, such as China, where it’s so fast it includes new construction and the other markers that signify population growth in the first world. In the long run, it matters that a city’s income grows 1.8% a year rather than 1.1%, but it’s not visible enough to be captured by trend articles until long after the spurt of growth has started.

Given the lack of structural economic forces boosting the city, and a comparatively small base of newcomers, particularly outside of Providence proper and other core cities, this will likely have to do for now, unless we witness the emergence of a disruptive and transformational type leader.

This post originally appeared in GoLocalProv on August 26, 2013.

Topics: Economic Development, Strategic Planning
Cities: Providence

16 Responses to “What Triggers a Civic Turnaround?”

  1. Paula says:

    I’m a native Pittsburgher, and I always want to add a caveat about the success story of new Pittsburgh–a huge chunk of the “surplus” population moved out or died since things really began unraveling in the 70s or 80s.

    So, it took awhile to “level out,” as it were, and a lot of suffering was involved. Everyone looks at the gleaming universities, but nobody asks what happened to a couple hundred thousand people who weren’t exactly hot hires at the medical center.

  2. Matthew hall says:

    Indy and Columbus are far too young to have had a turn around. They’re cheap and cheerful sunbelt towns without the sun.

  3. urbanleftbehind says:

    But indy and cols have a considerably milder climate than other Midwestern metros, plus enough locals versed in severe weather driving that local roads are not death traps after a one-time freeze Luke Atlanta or Dallas.that is one advantage.

  4. Roland S says:

    @Paula: We seem to be seeing a similar trend in New Orleans. The city was afflicted first by white flight and then by general population loss before losing tens of thousands of residents virtually overnight. The aftermath of Katrina brought many migrants to the city, but the loss of native-born residents has given the outsiders even more influence than their numbers suggest.

  5. Jon Seisa says:

    But you don’t want a mass migration into your city of foreign poverty and an uneducated demographic that over-stresses tax-based social services, medical services and education as is the case for Liberal California’s cities, and is a growing trend across America where illegal aliens are prevalent. Immigration candidate quality for new citizenry should be controlled to also attract a good percent of societal contributors with professions or profession potential (architects, engineer, doctors, scientists, educators, business people, etc.) not be a free-for-all for the criminally minded and those with a seedy background.

  6. Rod Stevens says:

    The word “turn-around” may require too much too soon. I usually use that word when there is a crisis of some sort.

    Maybe it’s inappropriate to use conventional metrics. I would ask, “is the city becoming a better place to live?” That way you get around all the usual hype about jobs and big new mega projects when, for the average person, life is no better than before. I think we’ve focused too little in these efforts, on what municipalities themselves are supposed to do: provide public services and create good places to live, shop, work, play and learn. Last year, for the first time, I noticed that the city of Portland, OR had actually puts some nice benches and plantings down in a local area, away from all the hoopla of downtown. That told me that city government had at last begun to focus on what locals need and enjoy.

  7. urbanleftbehind says:


    What you call “criminally minded foreign poverty” helps keeps Chicago from being Detroit, and is a civic net positive that many Rust Belt metros wish they had a chunk of.

  8. Rod Stevens says:

    In some ways, the field of urban revitalization is like economic history: everyone is looking for “big bang” drivers and “economic engines” that will pull everything along.

    That used to be the view of the Industrial Revolution. For years, various historians subscribed to Walt Rostow’s “big bang” theory that iron and steel pulled England out of its rural past. Contemporaneous actions at the time gave rise to big economic development projects like the Aswan Dam. Then Paula Deane, another historian, showed how the roots of the Industrial Revolution were locked into the changes in credit, legal instruments, new agriculture, and transportation projects that had been underway for the previous 100 years, all of which were crucial to the new commercial economy. Without letters of credit, Jethro Tull’s plow, canals, and a reliable legal system, the coal and spinning industry would have been deeply constrained. It’s the same with cities: they are ecosystems of commerce and learning that need all the various parts working and in good order. Rather than fixing just one, they all need to be working well.

  9. Matthew Hall says:

    In cincinnati’s case it was the failure of all the alternatives and the changing macro economy. Together they pulled the rug out from under the old boys network that used to run Cincinnati and still attacks it from beyond its municipal borders.

  10. Claude Masse says:

    Yes.The idea of infrastructure enhancement extending into neighborhoods in Portland made me think of flower pots and urban gardens,tree plantings,&dog parks.Where do the children play?Are not these assets the lungs of the city?When I seek warmth on an early spring day,I find a sun soaked opening.No problem the canopy has still not leafed out.When shade is a premium on a scorching afternoon,tree shade is there for use.The best conversations take place in the shade.Maybe a needed nap too.America’s great cityscapes require every sense intact.And though we don’t quite see some of the gems in full flower,my guess that our best conversations are still ahead.

  11. Stéphane Dumas says:

    It might be off-topic but I spotted this article from the Architects Newspaper about the “Buffalo Boom” via a topic on the Skyscraperpage forums. That article mentionned then Buffalo beginned a upswing, maybe it could be the subject of a future article on the Urbanophile.

  12. George says:

    Urbanleftbehind, I would think that a lot of Fortune 500 companies and the financial sector have a lot more to do with Chicago not being Detroit than what Jon called “criminally minded foreign poverty”. No matter how nice Chicago and the North Shore may be, wealthy people will not stick around forever. A friend of mine in Glencoe saw his property tax go up 7% a few years ago. He called a friend at city hall who told him that it was only the beginning. High taxes and rising debt will kill Chicago, just as surely as it can kill every city.

  13. Jon Seisa says:

    I saw this great video a couple months back on YouTube about the subtle and virtually undetectable telltale signs of a city headed for economic demise, in particular San Francisco, where they cited gradual infrastructural deterioration as a prime indicator, i.e. city surface streets with potholes and reduction and cuts to maintenance of municipal infrastructure, signs of the proverbial “beginning of the end”.

    On the surface SF seems quite invincible, gleaming with its towering skyscraper backdrop… they just opened the new “Made In China” state-of-the-art $6.4 Billion new east span of the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge (5 TIMES OVER BUDGET and a DECADE in the making thanks to materials failure and CA’s complicated and draconian regulations due to Liberal environmental activists’ championed laws and subsequent litigations—while in 1937 the Golden Gate Bridge took a mere 4 years to be constructed)… yet at closer examine of mere rudimentary surface streets things are not quite so pristine in the Golden Gate City, which the video indicated and demonstrated. So there are these exotic and glorified endeavors, like the new bridge and the race to build the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi in SF, Cesar Pelli’s Transbay Transit Tower, but these are apparently only superficial icing on a decaying cake where other areas of the city are entering neglect.


  14. Paula says:

    @Jon: You’re absolutely right. You have spotted the pattern.

    I don’t know San Francisco, but looking at several cities I DO know well (large and small, past and present), giant gee-whiz projects do somehow capture all the thought and energy that once went into basics for ordinary citizens. Once this occurs regularly, it is a sign of impending decline.

    As daily life deteriorates, those who can flee, do. More gee-whiz projects will fly off the planning boards at the behest of local power players who are becoming alarmed–only at the wrong things and way too late.

    If ordinary citizens are finding daily life inordinately hard, there are going to be fewer of them. The gee-whiz projects then consistently fail to have the promised impact, and the cycle repeats, the downward cycle uninterrupted.

  15. Jon Seisa says:

    @ Paula – Your paraphrasing makes it clearer. Thanks. Yes, it is a shame the funds and energy are misaligned into the wrong focus. Simple things city dwellers take for granted, like methodical, systematic and periodic care to rudimentary, yet essential, infrastructural basics, when lost as a primary priority is actually a sign that something is awry and decline is afoot.

    I saw this other great video done by a highly observant Brit who punctuated Dubai’s failure that will be reflected in its lack of longevity and its eventual pending doom, due to the complete absence to have in place a fundamental infrastructural care system for these rudimentary basics. He pointed out that though these amazing edifices have sprung up from the barren desert floor there were visible signs of foundations with holes, crumbling telltale signs of infrastructural negligence, pointing to a bigger reality, “un-sustainability”.

  16. Deni says:

    Claude Masse…Very insightful and interestingly thought provoking

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