Three Lessons From America’s Legacy Cities

May 24, 2019 - (4 min read)

In the previous century, America’s legacy cities experienced massive population growth, becoming centers of innovation known around the world. This status was then followed by rapid population decline, as a result of a shifting global economy. But even as many American communities struggled to adjust to the changing economic winds, many remain and have become centers of innovation and growth.

Perhaps no city has exemplified this better than the city of Pittsburgh. Last week, the National League of Cities (NLC) brought local leaders, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, from America’s legacy cities and thought partners from the private and foundation sectors together to share stories of success and work through common challenges.

As Peduto shared in a presentation to the group, Pittsburgh has established a bold vision for the city, building on recent success and a wealth of community assets, while directly confronting the complex challenges that we all continue to face. But Pittsburgh isn’t the only community with a comeback story to share. These three core lessons we learned over our few days together in Denver can be applied to all American communities.

Commit Time, Treasure and Talent to People and Places

For legacy cities to thrive, says Lansing, Michigan Mayor Andy Schor, the philanthropic and private sectors need to commit time, treasure and talent. On time and talent: local industries can support by donating their expertise and the time it takes to complete a project. Treasure is funding. Resources and investment are crucial to realizing your community’s vision, but for places with limited budget, they can be hard to come by. Treasure can come from local businesses who see a future in your community.

Legacy cities are full of residents who have lived, worked and raised families as their community rose and fell. Their collective insight reveals an honest appraisal of the policies and practices that worked and ones that did more harm than good. When starting tough civic dialogues, such as tackling infant mortality or planning new economic development, start with residents and their stories.

Find Your Space Among Global Competition

During the massive economic growth of the last century, especially post World War II, many legacy cities prioritized building around just one industry. In today’s global economy, that strategy has proven defunct. Instead, to compete in global and regional markets, legacy cities must become nimble.

Hartford, Connecticut is doing exactly that. The city is working to build an innovation ecosystem that is globally competitive as an insurance and manufacturing hub. Hartford took steps to realize this vision by gathering its legacy insurance companies to pool resources into a venture capital fund. This money will be used to bring in and learn from global competitors in the industry.

The city has also created a start-up seed fund to help manufacturers advance 21stcentury production. Lastly, Hartford is working to create a strong medical technology pipeline with neighboring universities like Yale, where students solving complex problems can test their products on a smaller market—while building a family and a future in Hartford. Scale and stay are Hartford’s model.

You are a Member of Your Community

While leading the people of a legacy city, it is important for an elected official to show true vision and commitment. It is one thing to be a leader in name only, but communities are looking for a leader to be bold, try new things and embody the spirit of what legacy cities need.

Mayor Schor was the first mayor in 30 years to place his children into the Lansing Public School system. By doing so, the mayor showed his residents that he believed in his community. In addition, the city of Lansing was one of the first in the nation to pilot community policing, which can be a complicated and controversial policy. Public education and community policing can both be challenging issues to tackle, and Mayor Schor’s dedication to and involvement in his community helped ease transitions and build support for his policies.

Councilmember John Kinnaird from Waco, Texas added that a shift in mentality has helped his Council feel more empowered. Elected officials, he said, went from saying “there is nothing we can do” to “let’s see what we can do”.

Our communities have always been a place to reimagine, reinvent and inspire for the next generation. Just ask the current legacy residents: they are ready to do whatever it takes to solve their communities’ problems.

The National League of Cities will host another legacy cities convening this fall in Gary, Indiana.


About the Author: Kyle Funk is the research assistant, urban innovation, at the National League of Cities.