Opening Up Vacant Lots Data

paulasegelheadPaula Segel joins us as a guest contributor from 596 Acres, a land access advocacy group that helps people see opportunities in their neighborhood vacant lots. This article originally appeared on the Sunlight Foundation site and is re-posted with permission from the author and blog editors.

In New York City alone, hundreds of city-owned sites languish, located primarily in low-income communities of color, collecting garbage and blighting the very neighborhoods they could enliven. Taken together, these forgotten spaces — fenced-off, inaccessible and lost to bureaucratic neglect — are larger than most city parks. Uneven growth in cities, even in seemingly strong market cities like New York, is a problem that is compounded by an uneven access to information about how people can influence the development of the places where they live. In cities across America, a lack of developed and maintained green spaces is just one symptom of municipal neglect; a lack of information about how people can shape the city comes with it.

Lot labels provide information about city agency owners directly on the fences of city-owned vacant lots (Photo: 596 Acres)
Lot labels provide information about city agency owners directly on the fences of city-owned vacant lots (Photo: Murray Cox)

596 Acres, a land access advocacy group, has been running a pilot project that helps neighbors see opportunities in the fenced vacant lots of New York City’s most historically disadvantaged neighborhoods since August 2011. We created a map of city-owned vacant land by sourcing and manipulating developed from available Open Data to create a useful resource and hands-on manipulation of that data to transform it into useful information. This map is the foundation of the NYC Community Land Access Project, which has evolved over the last three years to include social networking features that have already supported 143 neighbor-led campaigns to transform vacant lots throughout New York City into gardens, farms and play spaces. We have also built a specialized rolodex that leads New Yorkers directly to the individuals in city government who can answer their questions about the specific lots in their lives, cutting through the confusion of sixteen land-holding city agencies with different inventory stewards for different boroughs, and confusion about who the decision makers really are. The mapping tool also allows us, as the NYC Community Land Access Project, to put signs directly on the fences of city-owned vacant lots with specific information about city agency owners directly on the fences of city-owned vacant lots.

(Photo: Greg Mihalko)
(Photo: Greg Mihalko)

Twenty-five groups have gotten official permission to access the lots in their lives so far, transforming of 6.7 acres of fenced vacant parcels of land into open community spaces. Through the tool and direct hands-on advocacy, we are opening up the commons and creating spaces where people have the opportunity to build the city, together.

Our experience with the pilot project has led to three key partnerships with advocates in other cities: we built Grounded In Philly with the Garden Justice Legal Initiative in 2012, Living Lots NOLA with the New Orleans Food and Farm Network in 2013 and will soon be launching LA Open Acres with Community Health Councils in Los Angeles. Understanding that each city has a particular policy and real estate environment, particularly constrained in legacy cities, each of these tools transforms available data into information differently, so that it is useful for understanding opportunities for community land access in the specific community it serves in each city’s particular policy and real estate environment. In each instance, we have re-used portions of the code and re-applied the most effective pieces of the design, iteratively developing a platform for community land access called Living Lots. And in each city, advocates are using the tools to help protect existing community-managed open spaces, connect new farmers with land owners who want to see their urban land put to use, encourage land-holding agencies to make their lots available to the people who live near the lots and, of course, help neighbors connect directly with the decision makers who hold the keys to the lots in their lives.

(Photo: 596 Acres)
(Photo: 596 Acres)

This fall, with the help of a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov grant, we’ll be bringing Living Lots home and making a huge leap in the evolution of our NYC pilot project by creating Living Lots NYC. Living Lots NYC will be faster, include key filters (e.g. you’ll be able to see the lots in a particular community or city council district), show parcel outlines (which we can do now that MapPLUTO is free), have improved design, updated data about community gardens (thanks to an updated survey by our friends at GrowNYC), information about lots that were planned as “open space” under urban renewal (we have done an extensive analysis of all the plans the city has ever created), contact information for community boards directly associated with each lot, and more intuitive social networking and case-tracking features. To get a sense of where it’s going, check out Living Lots NOLA.

It’s not about technology, that’s too easy. It’s not about community gardens, that’s too messy. It’s about the right to remake ourselves by remaking the city.

If you’re in New York City, join 596 Acres on September 6 in Long Island City for a Ribbon Cutting at Smiling Hogshead Ranch and on October 2 to celebrate all our acres at the Mapping Matters gala in DUMBO.

Paula Z. Segal is the founding director of 596 Acres. She is a graduate of City University of New York Law School at Queens College, where she was a Haywood Burns Fellow in Human and Civil Rights and worked in the Economic Justice Project at Main Street Legal Services. Before joining the legal profession, Paula taught English to Speakers of Other Languages, developed curricula and ran an all-volunteer adult English school on the Lower East Side. She was also a member of the Empty Vessel Project. Paula is an attorney admitted to practice in New York State who is a partner in her own firm, Mohen & Segal, which focuses on legal services for entities working on our shared sustainable economy. She has practiced in the Disaster Recovery Unit at Staten Island Legal Services and at Rankin & Taylor.

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Preservation as Change of Mind

margoGuest writer and preservationist Margo Warminski offers some closing thoughts following the Historic Preservation Conference in Cleveland. This article was first published by the Preservation Rightsizing Network and is re-posted with permission from the author and blog editors.

I grew up in 48205. (Google it.) I lived in a place where the American dream went into reverse, and kept going backward. Eventually I moved to a calmer zip code but kept the Rust Belt DNA. Which is why I couldn’t wait to spend three days at the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference in Cleveland.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Throw so many bright, engaged, outspoken urbanists in a (big) room and you can’t help but be inspired, and challenged by tough truths (Looking for happy talk? Keep looking.) like:

1. For years, much of preservation was oriented toward controlling growth: a manifest destiny of new restoration districts, better ordinances and more wood windows. But what happens when the wheels come off and, in some neighborhoods, you can’t even give houses away? Preservationists, not just in rusty cities, need a change of mind: learning to live within limits. As we heard over and over, the overriding goals should be to keep buildings standing, and keep people in them—even if we have to compromise on guidelines and expectations.

IMG_03222. You can’t demolish away the problem of vacated neighborhoods. For years, cities have been whacking away at buildings in a kind of slow-motion urban renewal, yet vacancy continues to spread. As Alan Mallach ably stated, low demand, not vacancy, is the issue. [editor's note:While it’s true that demolition alone will not solve the problem, Alan’s point was that we should work both to rebuild demand (which is a slow, gradual process) while also implementing a strategic plan for demolition. Vacancy is a result of low demand, and all legacy cities have a large, and increasing housing surplus. When asked to comment on Margo’s point, Mallach reminded us that “demolition may not be the answer, but the reality of oversupply means that many buildings will be lost, either through demolition or neglect.”]

3. You can’t separate race, class, poverty, crime, unemployment, and extreme isolation.
4. You can’t save everything. We know this better than anyone.
5. And: time, resources, political will — never enough.

IMG_0352Most exciting was the four-hour closing workshop where we hammered together an action agenda, more or less in harmony. Our wish list included: more funding (saved, expanded tax credit; new products for low-value properties); more balance (money for stabilization, not just demolition); and more, better data. And we left with work orders:

1. Pitch the plans. Take meaningful, incremental steps.
2. Go top-down, bottom-up. Cities need both DIY-urbanism and activist government.
3. Reach across the room. Realize that first priorities of people in hard-hit neighborhoods probably aren’t restoring Italianate cornices. You can’t impose on people with different priorities.
4.Find common threads in tangled history. Newer residents of old neighborhoods may not cherish them for the original residents, but they may share values and aspirations with the founders.

Now, back to 48205. As a kid, I wanted to live on a street in a nearby neighborhood called Robinwood East. Just a bungalow block, but the name sounded glamorous. (Google-map it to see what’s left of it today.) For Robinwood East and Delhi Avenue and Flint and Youngstown and struggling historic places in lonely corners of America, that’s why this matters. Let’s go.

Margo Warminski is the Preservation Director at the Cincinnati Preservation Association, where she leads research, advocacy, and community outreach about preservation through monthly programs and assisting with agency events and publicity. She has worked in the historic preservation field in the Cincinnati area for over twenty years.

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Military Park: A Catalyst for Newark’s Renaissance

kimberlyheadKimberly Dowdell writes on the transformative effect of open spaces and the hopeful future of one legacy city in New Jersey.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Military Park in Newark, New Jersey last month, Senator Cory Booker made the insightful remark that “strong American cities require strong parks and urban spaces.” As several hundred people gathered to celebrate the official re-opening of the historic park, there was a renewed sense of hope for the future of Newark as a strong city. The energy in that celebratory space and moment in time seemed to reflect a new beginning for Newark’s downtown, as well as the 6-acre, triangular-shaped park that was being ceremoniously handed back to the public after more than a year of construction – and decades of disrepair.

Established in 1667, Military Park initially served as a training ground for soldiers – as well as a camping site for George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War in 1776. Nearly a century later, Military Park became the official town commons of Newark and gained further distinction as the site of several important American monuments and statues. But by the late 70s, Newark experienced dramatic economic decline, much like other legacy cities, which resulted in the gradual neglect and ultimate desertion of Military Park, which was deemed unsafe by the public. This condition persisted for the next few decades, causing Military Park to further diminish and evolve into a ghost of its former self.


After many years of analysis, planning, design, approval and fundraising–efforts starting in 2003 were picked up again in earnest by 2010–the Military Park Partnership (MPP) broke ground on a $5 million revitalization effort in May 2013. Led by Biederman Redevelopment Ventures (BRV), the firm responsible for reviving Manhattan’s Bryant Park, MPP assembled a team of landscape design, lighting design, engineering, building design and construction professionals to chart a new path forward for Military Park. fountainGiven the park’s perception as a dangerous and uninviting place, it was important that the redesign signal a warm welcome to a safe, positive environment for all visitors. This was achieved in part by pushing the park’s southern-most trees outwards towards the street, creating a much more generous entry space for the park.

Once inside, visitors are greeted by the 1965 bust sculpture of John F. Kennedy, Jr. as well as several new shaded tables and chairs. Walking further north, visitors encounter a breathtaking floral arrangement inside and around the iconic sword fountain, which is the centerpiece of the entire park, culminating in the 1926 Wars of America monument – the sword’s symbolic handle. jfkbustMoving along the finely groomed, tree-lined space, visitors continue to see chairs and tables along with gorgeous pops of color achieved though planters placed along the walking sequence. Directly behind the sword, there is a redesigned stair tower that leads to the parking structure below. Previously, this small structure appeared to be dark, dreary and unsafe. Today, the new cladding materials and greater transparency into the stair tower alleviates the previous concerns about park safety. MPP has also addressed this issue by hiring a security staff to monitor activity in the park at all times. The occurrence of crime in Military Park is expected to be virtually eliminated, addressing much of the reason that the park was underutilized in the past.


In addition to heightened safety and openness, Military Park boasts an exciting new line-up of programs and activities for all citizens to enjoy, from yoga, ping pong, and chess, to outdoor reading rooms and public concerts. An important addition to the park for larger scale events is the new Comfort Station that offers safe and clean public restrooms. One of the most exciting new amenities of the park is Burg, a gourmet hamburger venue that will offer a variety of food and beverages for park visitors to enjoy during their stay, scheduled to open this fall.

prudentialThe rebirth of Military Park plays a vital role in the City of Newark’s revitalization plan. Directly across from the park on Broad St., Prudential is building a 20-story office tower, while several new retail spaces are being constructed along Military Park’s western side. Northwest of the park, Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral remains a long-standing fixture in the community. Northeast, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) is also an important anchor for the park. To the east, on Park Place, there are a variety of retail, office and institutional neighbors, including a hotel and conference center.

With so much new and positive activity brewing in Newark, the future of the city is bright, and Military Park is an indicator of this because it truly belongs to the public and will succeed or fail based on the public’s embrace. As Senator Booker suggests, Military Park directly reflects the strength of the city. In the coming months and years, this area of downtown Newark is expected to flourish. Military Park will be the centerpiece of this renaissance and I am proud to have been a part of the project team tasked with bringing the vision of this revitalized urban oasis to fruition.


Kimberly Dowdell is a licensed architect, project manager and urban strategist. Currently, she is a Sheila C. Johnson Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she is pursuing a Master of Public Administration. Kim previously served as a real estate project manager for Levien & Company where she managed the Military Park assignment in Newark and the Middle Collegiate Church project in Manhattan. She is a native of Detroit, Michigan and a co-founder of SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design). Kim’s mission is to make cities better places for people to live, learn, work and play.

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Sacred Landmarks: The Jewish/African American Connection

kathleenheadLast month, we had the pleasure of meeting Kathleen Crowther, President of the Cleveland Restoration Society, and she offered a great deal of insight on historic preservation and developing strategic partnerships toward economic development goals in older industrial cities like Cleveland.  This article by Kerri Broome and Dawn Ellis appeared previously in the CRS Know Your History series.

Nationally, the relationship between Jewish and African American communities is complex, nuanced and richly textured. Throughout the years, both groups have been able to find similarities in their history and to empathize with the other. When it comes to housing, both groups have faced discrimination and restriction, and have, consequently, found themselves sharing neighborhoods. The Great Migration of African Americans and the second wave of Jewish immigrants (Eastern European) partially overlapped, resulting in large numbers of these two groups locating in prescribed areas of northern American cities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

The first Jewish immigrants arrived in Cleveland from Germany in the 1830s, settling primarily in the Central area and gradually moving eastward towards the suburbs through the end of the 19th century and into the middle of the 20th century. The subsequent wave of Jewish Eastern Europeans to move into Cleveland in the 1870s and 1880s entered into areas already inhabited by the earlier Jewish immigrants.

Friendship Baptist Church (Formerly Willson Avenue Temple)
Friendship Baptist Church (Formerly Willson Avenue Temple)

Early in the 20th century, African Americans also lived in other parts of the east side, but no area was predominantly African American. As other ethnic groups dispersed and racially restrictive covenants were put in place to limit where the rising African American middle class could buy property, the area around Central Avenue slowly became exclusively African American. As Cleveland’s Jewish population followed the national trend of moving from the urban neighborhoods to the suburbs, African Americans were able to rent or buy property in these areas. Several of Cleveland’s synagogues were bought by African-American Christian congregations.

While the current congregations have made changes to adapt the original Jewish synagogue design for their contemporary Christian worship, many of these sacred landmarks still hold evidence of their origins as Jewish places of worship. For example, there is often a Star of David detail incorporated into the façade or the stained glass windows may still feature Jewish symbols. Through the legacy of a shared space, some of these congregations nurture their relationship and choose to stay connected through periodic gatherings and combined services.

As this summer marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, a key period of Jewish/African American partnership, and a time when this collaboration was most fruitful in accomplishing one of its main goals–the end of discrimination in housing, education and employment–this examination of the relationship between Cleveland’s immigrant and migrant communities is indeed timely.

More photos ahead.

Continue reading

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A Tale of Two Cities

hankwebberphotoHank Webber joins us from Washington University in St. Louis to discuss design interventions in cities with dual narratives of revitalization and depopulation.

The dominant narrative about legacy cities is one of decline, loss of population and increasing poverty. This narrative is, at best, dramatically oversimplified. Legacy cities do face great challenges, but they are also full of hope and resurgence, and scores of increasingly vibrant neighborhoods. Legacy cities can best be thought of not as places of decline but rather as straddling between two very different worlds.

First is the world of urban revitalization: the growth of diverse, vibrant urban neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly attractive to young people and the firms that employ them. Every large city I know has neighborhoods that are getting better by traditional economic criteria. St. Louis, the city where my wife and I live and where I focus much of my research, is clearly a legacy city. Yet the neighborhood where we live, the Central West End, is not only very attractive by all conventional standards, it is also rapidly getting stronger. Forest Park is getting better, street life is improving, and white-collar employers are moving in. There are ten or so other neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis that are experiencing similarly strong positive trends.

Basketball court, North St. Louis
Basketball court, North St. Louis

But there is another world present in almost every legacy city. That world is one of depopulation, the growth of low-density, very high-poverty neighborhoods, and the abandonment or disinvestment of large tracts of the city. That is the world of North St. Louis and much of Detroit. It is also the story of much of the far South Side and South Suburbs of Chicago. Many of the decaying neighborhoods in older industrial cities have lost their traditional economic role; they were built to house industrial workers and those jobs have been lost, probably forever.

The balance of these two worlds varies by city. In some cities, the larger story is revitalization. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have both seen widespread improvement in recent years. In other cities, the dominant story is depopulation and low-density poverty. But in most legacy cities, there is both revitalization and depopulation. Amidst decline, Detroit has growing and vibrant neighborhoods and Chicago, the most successful of older industrial cities, still faces great challenges.

Fell's Point, Baltimore Waterfront
Fell’s Point, Baltimore Waterfront

I do not believe that urban design is the root cause of either urban revitalization or urban depopulation, but it can contribute to both. Successful urban revitalization depends on attracting people who have choices, in many cases a great numbers of choices, when considering where to live. Given that older industrial cities, with rare exceptions, do not provide great public services (e.g. public schools), it is critical that neighborhood and cultural life be vibrant and attractive. For all of the attention to public spaces and park design, I am struck by how little we know about what makes great, walkable streets and how to use space to build neighborhood social capital. Community design centers, among others, are critical players in building a science of high quality, small-scale urban interventions. Solving the problem of large-scale urban depopulation is even more vexing and currently has many fewer people working in this space. There are, unfortunately, large parts of many cities that are unlikely to be revitalized by normal market forces in the next few decades. All of us who care about cities need to focus deep attention on how these parts of cities can become assets to both residents and their metropolitan regions.

Henry S. Webber is the Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration at Washington University and Adjunct Professor at the Sam Fox School of Art and Architecture, teaching courses on topics including community development, health policy, and strategic management and social welfare policy. Previously, Webber was a faculty member at the University of Chicago, where he worked to promote the revitalization of the North Kenwood/Oakland and Woodlawn neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side.

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Vacancy at Various Scales

terry_schwarzTerry Schwarz joins us to discuss the benefits of studying “natural neighborhoods,” or planning at the sub-watershed level as a way to explore the aggregate effects of the many smaller interventions happening in legacy cities.

Surplus real estate is a common characteristic of legacy cities. Population decline and the ongoing effects of the foreclosure crisis have led to an unprecedented number of vacant and abandoned buildings, which in turn has given rise to the large-scale demolition programs underway in Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and many other legacy cities. In the wake of demolition efforts, cities need to take a thoughtful approach to the management and reuse of vacant land, given that much of this land is unlikely to be redeveloped in the foreseeable future.

Detroit has over 100,000 vacant lots within city limits. Philadelphia has approximately 40,000 vacant lots. In Cleveland, the current count stands at about 21,000. Community gardens, greening projects, side yard expansions, and infill development are the most frequent responses to urban vacancy, but these strategies only address a small percentage of the large and growing inventories of vacant land in legacy cities.

Youngstown Neighborhood Development Meeting, Source: Defend Youngstown defendyoungstown.blogspot.com
Youngstown Neighborhood Development Meeting
Source: Defend Youngstown defendyoungstown.blogspot.com

Some cities have developed broad strategies for dealing with population loss and urban vacancy. The Youngstown 2010 Plan, Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland, and Detroit Future City each provide a strategic framework for vacant land reuse at the citywide scale, with varying degrees of specificity. These three cities, among others, have also launched pilot projects at the parcel scale to introduce green space uses into depopulating neighborhoods.

However, inbetween high-level city-wide strategies and small-scale interventions for individual sites, there is a need to address vacancy in a more coordinated way at the neighborhood scale, where inter-related actions can produce a network of greening and redevelopment uses with additive benefits. When exploring options for vacant land, natural boundaries are often more relevant than political subdivisions. Nature’s equivalent of a “neighborhood” is a sub-watershed.

As defined by the EPA, a watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place. Sub-watersheds are smaller drainage areas (or catchments) within a larger watershed. For example, Greater Cleveland has five major watersheds which drain to Lake Erie. Within these larger watersheds, there are numerous sub-watersheds that drain to smaller tributaries or culverts as water makes its way to the lake.

Thinking about vacant land at the scale of a sub-watershed enables us to see how greening and redevelopment strategies for individual vacant parcels can impact economic, ecological, and human health outcomes at the scale of a neighborhood, city or region. Planning at the sub-watershed scale enables us to make better choices about where to concentrate infill development and where to set aside vacant land for permanent green space and green infrastructure uses.

Dugway Brook Watershed
Source: Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative

To illustrate this point, we can look at the Dugway Brook, one of Cleveland’s many sub-watersheds. An initial overlay shows all existing green spaces with the sub-watershed. The next overlay adds vacant lots in ecologically useful locations, which in this case means sites that align with culverts (buried creeks) that feed into Dugway Brook. These sites can be aggregated into greenways that allow for natural infiltration of stormwater and create a public amenity. Finally, we can overlay the areas within the sub-watershed that offer the best potential for future infill development.

Planning at the sub-watershed scale is a way to explore the aggregate effects of many, small-scale interventions on the long-term regeneration of legacy cities. For example, can numerous parcel- and neighborhood-scale tree planting efforts achieve city-wide and regional impacts in terms of improved air quality and a reduction of urban heat island effects? Could hundreds (or thousands) of small-scale green infrastructure installations have a measurable effect on water quality, the health of the Great Lakes, and combined sewer overflows? Can scattered site food production (community gardens, urban farms, etc.) have an impact on food security issues at the city-wide or regional scale?

If we examine these issues at the sub-watershed scale, we can assess whether many small actions will add up to large-scale outcomes. And whether there are thresholds or tipping points at which urban systems begin to shift to more sustainable states.

Terry Schwarz is the Director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC). Her work at the CUDC includes neighborhood and campus planning, commercial and residential design guidelines, stormwater management and green infrastructure strategies. Terry launched the CUDC’s Shrinking Cities Institute and established Pop Up City, a temporary use initiative for vacant and underutilized sites in Cleveland.

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Redeveloping Commercial Vacant Properties in Legacy Cities

A HOW TO MANUAL for Legacy Cities friends/leaders/advocates: this set of specific guidelines, tools and strategies for redeveloping commercial vacant properties and business districts in legacy cities is now available for download here.

The Greater Ohio Policy Center, in partnership with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and with support from the Center for Community Progress, has developed the guidebook including the following tools:

  • Guidance on planning & partnering for commercial revitalization
  • Methods for analyzing the market
  • Advice on matching market types & strategies for commercial revitalization
  • Legal tools for reclaiming commercial vacant properties
  • Funding sources for overcoming financial gaps
  • Menu of property reuse options
  • Ways to attract & retain business tenants
  • Methods and models for managing a commercial district
  • Strategies for building markets in legacy cities

Please share this comprehensive resource with people in your LC network!

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Media Round-Up!

This week in legacy city news:

Detroit Launches Website to Auction Homes to Residents, Not Developers
by Bill Bradley at Next City
Detroit launched buildingdetroit.org on Monday, which aims to auction off houses with the goal of ensuring they serve as real neighborhood building blocks. How? Buyers have to prove they are moving in (or being rehabbed for prospective homeowners). Also, you must be a Michigan resident or business in order to bid.

Is the ‘Rust Belt’ a Dirty Word?
by Richey Piiparinen at Huffington Post
“Rust Belt”: does it connote a lost industry and the shame of being left behind, or is it a powerful way to reclaim one’s history?

America’s Urban Future
by Vishaan Chakrabarti at New York Times
A broad call for policies that advance urban interests: increasing density, city infrastructure and amenities.

From Grand Rapids to Ghana: In Developing-World Healthcare Market, Low-Tech is the New Cutting Edge
by Steven Thomas Kent at Rapid Growth Media
“When I was growing up [in Grand Rapids] it seemed like this kind of stuffy place that was not very innovative in the past. But since we’ve been gone, going to college and traveling and doing all these things over the past decade, coming back and just seeing how it’s changed and how the startup scene is getting very vibrant. It just seemed like the perfect fit right now.” -Katie Kirsch, part of a company exporting affordable medical technology to Ghana

Where Ohio is Sprawling and What It Means
a writeup on the Greater Ohio blog on recent report by Smart Growth America

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The Shrinking Services Problem

ericscorsoneDr. Eric Scorsone joins us from Michigan State University to outline solutions to shrinking budgets in legacy cities, particularly in his hometown of Saginaw, MI.

Legacy cities often face the difficult task of providing critical public services like police and fire protection and code enforcement, just when their tax base and fiscal capacity are shrinking. These very problems are occurring just as state and federal governments are reducing their support to city governments to balance their own budgets. Higher tax rates often become necessary just to try and maintain revenue streams. Cuts to public services, which are often an important element in attracting and maintaining population, are also implemented.

Witness the city of Saginaw, MI where a shrinking tax base and falling state support has led to the police force being the same size as it was in 1900. Saginaw also faces a huge underfunded liability related to retiree health care that will force further cuts or higher taxes in the future. Public services were over-consumed in the past and the city did not set aside enough funds for pensions and health care. Thus, legacy cities often face the double whammy of declining services and higher tax rates which only compounds their overall economic challenges. The solution lies in breaking this problem through two complementary solutions:

1) major changes to state laws that restrict local tax options or increase state aid
2) growing the tax base where possible via new economic development programs and attracting the empty nester boomers and millennials seeking an urban lifestyle

The second solution will require investments in some public services and new funding strategies.

Dr. Eric Scorsone is an Extension Specialist and Co-Director of the State & Local Government Program at Michigan State University. Dr. Scorsone’s work focuses on assisting local governments in the areas of performance measurement and reporting, service delivery options and strategies, intergovernmental cooperation and board governance. Dr. Scorsone previously worked as as an economist for the Colorado Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget and as senior economist for the City of Aurora, Colorado.

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Media Round-Up!

This week in legacy cities news:

The Persistence of Failed History: “White Infill” as the New “White Flight”?
by Richey Piiparinen at Urbanophile
Piiparinen explores the “back-to-the-city” movement, an inversion of 1968′s flight to the suburbs, challenging the little proven trickle-down effect of “white infill” in the inner city.

Can Youngstown Make It On Its Own?
by Alan Mallach at Rooflines
“The entire region [has] to realize not only that Youngstown isn’t going away, but that their decline and that of the city are totally intertwined—and that the region isn’t going to revive until or unless Youngstown does.”

When Will We Hear About the Actual People in Detroit?
by Bill Bradley at Next City
Bill Bradley wonders when public officials will talk about the real problems in Detroit: poverty, crime and social inequity.

How to Make Detroit’s Data Accessible
By Nancy Scola at Next City
Also at Next City, an interview with nonprofit Data Driven Detroit director Erica Raleigh.

The U.S. Cities Where the Poor Are Most Segregated From Everyone Else
by Richard Florida at Atlantic Cities
7 of top 10 most poverty-segregated American cities are legacy cities: Milwaukee, Hartford, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and Baltimore.

Reading, Writing and Renewal (the Urban Kind)
by Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times
An article and slideshow on Henderson Hopkins, a school (and “community center, library, auditorium and gym”) at the center of a new redevelopment project in Baltimore.

“Baltimore demolished many great old school buildings in the 1950s and ’60s and replaced them with incredibly depressing places,” recalled Christopher Shea, president of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit organization overseeing the plan. “We wanted to go in the opposite direction. We wanted Henderson-Hopkins to be an inspiration and magnet for the neighborhood.”

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