Stewarding our Legacy Cities

In the center of Akron, Ohio’s newly developed main street, the city has plans to build a rubber statue.

Not literally, of course. Instead, the city will honor its “Rubber City” roots with a 12-foot bronze statue of a rubber worker holding a finished tire. In a news release, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said the statue will, “pay tribute to the lives of rubber workers and their families. Without the sacrifices of these workers, Akron would not be the city it is today.”

The statue makes for a great metaphor—not just for Akron, but for legacy cities across the country. Juxtaposed against a redeveloped main street, the statue pays homage to its history while acknowledging that times have changed and focusing on a new, modern economy.

Before their peak, legacy cities like Akron, Ohio, Lansing, Michigan and Gary, Indiana were boomtowns. Growth and economic prosperity developed at such a rapid rate that long term planning was sometimes an afterthought. Today, after years of disinvestment, population loss and economic stagnation, America’s legacy cities once again have an exciting future in front of them—but some tough challenges to tackle.

That’s why the National League of Cities hosted the Mayor’s Institute on Legacy City Revitalization in early September, bringing together mayors, local officials and private sector thought leaders to discuss the issues that legacy cities face.

Key Takeaways

Three key takeaways emerged from the meeting:

  • The importance of vision;
  • legacy cities are moving from “grey to green”;
  • and the need for public buy-in

Vision, Planning and Leadership

The luxury of allowing the economic boom to happen and for the city to follow or sit on the sidelines is no longer an option for the great cities that built America. Now, America’s legacy cities, towns and villages must commit to charting a vision based upon their legacy – this requires bold leadership. Today’s leaders of legacy cities must be the ones charting the vision forward. Many leaders expressed feelings of loss over their community’s glorious past. The way to counter that feeling is to create an encompassing and achievable vision of the city’s present and future. That new vision, however, must be baked into the fabric of municipality, its governance and its plans, so that all can be stakeholders, and all can be held accountable. There may be setbacks along the way, but now, local elected leaders can point to a driving force to keep things moving forward. Gone are the days of of waiting for a national turnaround or the next big thing to arrive in town.

From Gray to Green

As populations declined and companies went out of business, many legacy cities were—and still are—forced to take over grey and brown infrastructure: decaying properties that were once a symbol of pride and wealth for the community.

The problem facing legacy cities is how to transform these places to reflect a modern economy and a new generation. One recommendation that came out of the summit is to explore ways to turn grey/brown places green. Green, meaning environmentally green, or the green of money—or both. This vision seeks to draw from both possibilities.

Earlier this year, Youngstown, Ohio, transformed one of their community’s steel mills into an outdoor amphitheater. Now, the City is looks to transform one of their oldest buildings, located inside an opportunity zone, into a local grocery store and transportation . Youngstown, and many other cities, are also focused on transforming their river fronts. Legacy cities tend to be located along water ways due to their history of being transportation hubs. Now, instead of using those rivers for transportation, or in many cases trash dumps, legacy cities are working to make these habitats a place to gather residents and promote recreation and community spirit.

In 2000, the city of Philadelphia committed itself to tackling the blight that resulted from decades of population decline and property abandonment. To revitalize the city’s neighborhoods, Philadelphia partnered with ESRI to determine the neighborhoods experiencing the most stress (in terms of health, education and poverty). This ultimately allowed local officials to intentionally dedicate resources to wards at risk through a series of anti-blight policies.

Get Involved

What keeps and attracts residents to a community? Economic opportunity is clearly a factor. But social opportunity and development is also key.

In Gary, Indiana, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson looked to her residents for answers. Why did they stay in Gary and what would make them stay for generations to come? Their answer: social programming.

As a result, Gary applied for and was awarded an AARP Community Challenge Grant, designed to help communities make immediate improvements and jumpstart city projects. Through this partnership with AARP, Gary was able to build a park on a formerly blighted vacant lot and now offers free or low-cost events and programming to the general public.

Looking Ahead

The Mayor’s Revitalization Institute in Gary, Indiana was about sharing economic development strategies in legacy cities. Creating those strategies, however, can be more complicated when cities act alone. Instead, cities looking to restore their community should design a framework that allows for public buy-in and explores a partnership with a private or nonprofit partner.

To develop your downtown, consider the input of the International Council of Shopping Centers to unlock new retail opportunities as a catalyst for local economic development. Or, consider the expertise of the American Institute of Architects and their work in the affordable housing sector.

This month’s convening showcased the hope and belief still alive in legacy communities across the country. Coupled with knowledge sharing and a planned vision for the future, The Mayor’s Institute on Legacy City Revitalization only represents the start of something far greater. Residents are ready to partner with businesses and local leaders to drive their cities, towns and villages forward, and build out the next chapter of their legacy.

Carlin Daharsh small

About the Authors: Carlin Daharsh is the associate for Strategic Partnerships and Development at the National League of Cities.





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