Remaking Cities

How can post industrial cities recover?

by Abby Eberts

America used to be an industrial powerhouse.  Today, our factories are empty, companies are leaving our nation for those overseas, and the prosperity of cities is declining.  Many post-industrial cities, such as Pittsburgh are in need of help.  However, there is not one simple solution to this ever-growing problem.  Post-industrial cities need to find a way to grow, to become prosperous again.  These cities can pursue this through a number of different avenues involving communities, physical assets, and politics, all while understanding what the citizens of the city need.

Understanding that the problem of population decrease in these post-industrial cities is, in fact, a major issue is the key to understanding it.   Perhaps the strongest example of a giant to fall is the city of Detroit, Michigan.  States that are home to post-industrial cities have had a sharp decrease in population, showing dramatic decline from April of 2010 until July of 2012.  Specifically, Michigan experienced a population decrease, the most dramatic of any of the states in the two and a half year time period.  Population decrease was particularly prominent in the former powerhouse city of Detroit.  By 2010, Detroit had lost another 24% of its population from the previous decade.  A strong example of the decline of Detroit is the Boston-Edison district, once one of the most affluent areas of the city.  But, it has fallen leaving the area broken, empty, and seemingly without hope.  Recently, the city filed for bankruptcy, leaving much about the city up to debate, from pensions to unions, to common public services.  However, the city has tried to solve their issues by bettering the city overall.  Detroit is a city in the process of rebuilding, and much is to be learned from its successes and failures.

A major issue in the rebuilding of Detroit, along with other post-industrial cities is meeting the needs of the people.  This includes listening to and understanding what the communities need.  Looking to the United Kingdom, communities have begun to play a large part because of the Localism Act, which put power in the local people’s hands.  It changed the planning system from the classic government-run, “top-down” system to a very local, condensed system where the people made the decisions for themselves.  The Localism Act additionally introduced many new rights to communities as a whole, a Community Right to Build, a Community Right to Bid, Neighborhood Planning and Neighborhood Orders. Because of the government’s aid, communities in England have the power to start the local rebuilding process, as opposed to waiting for the government.  As part of a firm who works with specifically with communities, Partner at John Thomson and Partners Charles Campion stated that “community involvement and desire can help them [the communities] overcome political short-termism and then bring all of the powers together behind that vision with a continuing community involvement to help deliver it.”  The local communities are the driving force of the rebuilding of cities, and it is imperative that their voices are part of the planning process.

A community, as a whole, does not have a single viewpoint.  There is debate, differing of opinions, and varied demographics within these communities.  Therefore, it is important to consider the people that make up the communities in the restructuring and remaking of cities.  The change in urban demographics, as well as the lack of voice of the “common people” has led to crime, destruction, and overall negative outcomes in a vicious, never-ending cycle.  It is important to consider exactly how cities today are being affected by the social change and the segregation of society between those who have a voice and those who do not.  It is imperative that those who, at some point, did not have a voice, are now able to speak their mind to the rest of the community and that their needs will be met and heard.

To successfully rebuild cities, it is necessary to understand the political community within the city.  A leader who is out of touch with what the community wants and needs can come across as cold and unwilling to help.  Race and political lines create tension in rebuilding a city, making political restructuring necessary.  Power structures have changed, and leadership should be representative of the population.  Politically, it is important for government to have a say in what the community does.  England’s Localism Act would be nothing without the funding from the government.  However, it is important that political lines are drawn, and rights are reserved for the communities themselves.  The balance of political, local, and racial power must be steady, and representative of the needs and wants of the people.

While the communities and the people are necessary for rebuilding cities, the structure and the physical building process is integral for the remaking.  It is absolutely imperative that cities map out their assets; what they currently have, what can be expanded upon, and what they can completely restructure.  There is an opportunity to make parts of a broken city successful once again, and found ways to rebuild around these assets.  It has been found that creating a “central backbone” of a city can be beneficial, connecting industrial zones to a downtown area.  This area is to be open and available for public use, once again reinforcing the idea of a local hub. Another important infrastructural change involves changing highways to electronic toll ways, creating revenue for the city.  Rates would be higher at peak times, following the standard set by many different consumer-driven industries.

Speaking about possible avenues for growth and restructuring, Mayor George Ferguson of Bristol, England stated that “I think we need to do more with the civilized areas of the city, like you’ve done with Market Square [here in Pittsburgh].  An idea that I’ve got is how to celebrate one of our local musicians and one of our local artists who have reached international fame with space that they can display their work, like you’ve done with Andy Warhol.” Communities come together because of these people and places.  They have the power to create a sense of unity, making a city stronger socially.  It is important that communities find a place to bond, not just a way to bond through innovating around the existing land pattern of the city.

Revenue is important for cities.  It is difficult for them to make money after a major economic downturn.  Local governments are looking for new ways to find money to enact these changes.  Without money, it would be impossible to restructure a city.  It must be understood that new methods of taxation and revenue must be found (Remaking).  Abolishing property taxes and restructuring the system is an idea that can be used to create revenue.  High property taxes tend to scare off citizens, while local, everyday payments such as tolls and user fees are more widely accepted.

The combination of ideas all lead to an end goal, the goal of bringing an area together to create a city.  This newly redone city will be powerful; it will be an example for other cities facing similar issues.  There are many ways for cities to regrow and restructure themselves to benefit the people.  It is necessary for their regrowth that they focus on communities, the physical planning, the politics, and more.  I can now take the information that I have learned and apply it to the real world.  I have the voice and the medium to let those working to rebuild cities know about the solutions discussed by more than three hundred professionals.  The community, the people, the “soul” of the city is the city is the most important part of it, and it is absolutely necessary to capture to create a new, successful, post-industrial city.

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