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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Smaller cities can benefit from revitalization, too

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 9, 2009

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Andre Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, believes that New England's smaller cities hold the potential to absorb much development that could help save the region's countryside from sprawl.  But it will take some policy reforms to realign incentives away from greenfield development and back to traditional centers.

Leroux writes in the Federal Reserve Bank's journal Communities and Banking that most small New England cities were once booming industrial centers, with robust populations, employment, shopping, and infrastructure.  Augusta, Maine (by: Terry Ross, creative commons license)But, like some of their larger counterparts, over time they became subject to considerable disinvestment in the form of plant closings, job losses, weakened civic infrastructure, and shrinking tax bases.  In urban New England the losses were exacerbated by the region's traditional dependence on a manufacturing economy.

Meanwhile, greenfield development prospered, to the effect that New England was losing some 1200 acres of undeveloped land each week before the current recession.  As readers of this blog know well, across the country there has been an increasingly strong smart growth response to sprawl that has brought great new models of development.  Ironically for New England, though, many of these models are based on design principles almost identical to those found in the smaller New England cities that suffered disinvestment.  Leroux puts it this way:

"While sprawl was continuing in many suburbs, smart-growth developments nationwide were emulating the traditional patterns of small New England cities, with their lively and walkable squares, downtowns, and neighborhoods. Advocates of cities were drawing attention to their human scale, enriched by numerous amenities: railways, rivers, and parks; historic mills, homes, and churches; institutions  such as museums, small colleges, and hospitals; diverse populations; and competitive housing and job opportunities."

Burlington, VT (by: Konrad Glogowski, creative commons license)Leroux notes that various reviewers have used differing approaches to define the region's cities that are ripe for revitalization, emerging with overlapping but different lists.  He highlights 18 of them in a sidebar, including Bridgeport, Hartford, Augusta, Holyoke, Pawtucket, and Burlington, among others.

Leroux's seven-step plan for ripening the reinvestment opportunity includes the following:

  • Improve neighborhoods and urban parks, instituting foreclosure prevention activities to head off future abandonment and displacement.
  • Invest in civic life to create a more participatory citizenry.
  • Develop transparent municipal systems.
  • Prioritize state infrastructure investments that strengthen smaller industrial cities as opposed to supporting infrastructure sprawl.
  • Level the development playing field and institute state policies that expose the hidden long-term costs of greenfield development could help.
  • Sixth, support education reform and lifelong learning.
  • Finally, incubate the green economy. historic mills, like this one in Lawrence, MA, can be adapted to modern uses (by: Mass Innovation)Former mill cities could be ideal for industries like green manufacturing, construction, and energy partly because they offer inexpensive start-up space.

I bolded the two that, from my perspective, seem especially important.  Reforming infrastructure investments won't be easy, though.  Read the whole article here.

As I reported earlier, Grow Smart Rhode Island has weighed in on the related issue of how a more targeted economic development strategy could aid revitalization by focusing on businesses whose operations are well-suited to adaptation of older building stock.  Many of the examples highlighted by Grow Smart involve the information economy.

When the recession eases, the timing will be good.  Americans are clearly shifting their preferences toward more living and working in cities and walkable communities.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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цarьchitectSep 9 2009 12:59 PM

I used to pass through Bridgeport on the Metro-North every weekend. Aside from really depressing me, the many disused factories and empty lots look like prime redevelopment land. Visiting, it was clear that some areas had pretty strong social networks. The potential is there, but I don’t see how to get redevelopment started.

Don KnappSep 9 2009 08:53 PM

Nice post. I want to add that many of the New England cities you mention here are members of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, which means they're committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and growing sustainably.

I think a point worth reiterating is that these small cities have the building blocks to be very green cities; their density and walkability gives them an advantage in reducing transportation emissions. In ICLEI's Small Communities Toolkit (to help these local governments reduce emissions) we cite another inherent advantage: close-knit community members with more active ties to their local government, making it easier for the two to collaborate on climate and energy actions.

A big challenge for these and other cities, however, is retrofitting old building stock for energy efficiency. But local governments are making headway with innovative financing programs to help homeowners and businesses make the upgrades, like revolving energy loan funds. A steady stream of retrofit projects can also help revitalize the local economy.

jim noonanSep 9 2009 09:13 PM

Bravo. That is the kind of post I started looking at this blog to read.

Things get started by coordinated programs and investments in older downtowns. There are several keys: Create activity after the 9 to 5 work period; streamlining permitting for redevelopment projects; try to find a local investor willing to stick with an area during a transition period; create a mix of uses including residential uses; support the downtown with development in the rest of the mid-size community to provide customers for downtown businesses and tax support for public services.

This is happening in many communities in Maryland, and the progress is real even in the face of a weak economy. It is good to see smart growth mentioned as a possibility in these kinds of communities. Some people seem to think it should only happen in big city centers. It should, of course, happen there as well, but much of the success of Smart Growth in Maryland has occured in precisely these kind of communities.

Kaid @ NRDCSep 9 2009 09:42 PM

Thanks so much for the kind words. I continue to believe that there is nothing more important that we can do for sustainability than to pursue inclusive, walkable revitalization in areas that have disinvested over time. The suggestions you all make are spot on for how to maximize the potential.

David SotoSep 11 2009 11:05 PM

The same thing is happening in Puerto Rico. All the investment is going to sprawl while traditional urban centers, with their traditional architecture and walkable neighborhoods are taking the hit.

JoyceSep 13 2009 07:31 AM

The same thing is happening all over this country. Read Suburban Nation to find out why. Federal transportation and lending practices have incentivized sprawl. We did this to ourselves. With the credit markets stumbling, perhaps now is a good time to put policies in place that will stop the madness.

AllentownSep 13 2009 07:32 AM

The same thing is happening all over this country. Read Suburban Nation to find out why. Federal transportation and lending practices have incentivized sprawl. We did this to ourselves. With the credit markets stumbling, perhaps now is a good time to put policies in place that will stop the madness.

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