Urbanist Insights & Principles

Rethinking Civic Action and Philanthropy

“Urbanist” movements, which attempt to draw attention to the great cultural and economic value of historic core cities and which try to imagine new, vital futures for those cities, have sprung up in many American cities.  These movements have attracted civic activists, historic preservationists, young professionals, and quite a few political leaders.  While these grassroots movements look different from city to city, their members tend to subscribe to a common set of powerful insights and principles: 

  • Many older core cities in the U.S. are languishing because they have urban cores that are in a precipitous state of decline from which recovery is possible but not certain.  In light of this reality, it is important to recognize that those metropolitan regions that are thriving have robust core cities that contribute significantly to their regions’ prosperity and growth. 
  • Many of America’s historic cities have been growing smaller and poorer for decades.  In the 70’s and 80’s population loss was driven by the trend to smaller households.  In recent years it is driven by a loss of households.  During the 90’s, it was not uncommon for the older core cities of metropolitan regions to lose between five and ten percent of their populations – and some lost much more than that.  The 2010 Census showed that most historic American cities had continued to lose population. 
  • The fundamental problem in historic core cities is that nearly all of those who have left were middle-class people who “pay the freight” in terms of municipal services, and who support educational, cultural and other institutions.  As they left, the city became the place in which the majority of the region’s poor were concentrated.  In response, city governments and others often struggled to provide social services and subsidies to lessen the impact of poverty on low-income individuals and families in the city.  While this no doubt helped low-income households, it exacerbated the out-migration of wealth, which led to a slow, inexorable cycle of decline in many cities. 
  • Policies that make an historic core city the “reservation” for its region’s low-income people and that force the city to bear this burden alone (i.e., that deny the problem of poverty belongs as well to the suburban communities surrounding the city) are intrinsically unjust and contribute to the city’s decline.  These policies deprive low-income people of important life choices, including the opportunity to live in mixed-income communities with better access to jobs, higher-performing schools, etc. 
  • Any reversal of the decline of historic core cities will require a significant repopulating of those cities with middle- and higher-income people.  While the issue of displacement of low-income people must be addressed, this issue is far from being a major one in most core cities, which are de-populated and disinvested.  In any event, there is no future for low-income people (or anyone else) in a dying or dead city. 
  • Repopulating an historic core city with middle-income people is difficult but not impossible and requires selling the city to niche markets.  In the short term, it will not be possible to persuade the “home-grown” middle class that left the City to return.  In essence, these cities must attract a new kind of middle class.  Based on the experience of those few older cities which gained population during the 1990’s, the most promising niche markets are:  1) Young professionals, 2) “Empty Nesters,” 3) The “Bohemian Cluster” of artists, gays and lesbians, and others attracted to alternative lifestyles, and 4) Immigrants from developing countries who desire to come to the U.S. for economic opportunities denied them in their home countries.  The last group, in particular, drove the growth of the few cities that did experience population increases between 1990 and 2010. 
  • Most historic core cities still have formidable assets on which to base efforts to rebuild:  regional growth, tax base, colleges and universities, arts and culture organizations, some strong neighborhoods, and, in an increasing number of cities, an awakening downtown housing market. 
  • We should direct our civic leadership, philanthropy, etc. to strengthening and building on our assets (rather than endlessly responding to problems) and we should give highest priority to pursuing middle-class repopulation strategies – rather than to other causes, no matter how urgently they may be proposed.
© Terry Grundy 2015