Saving America’s Cities

I am surprised and pleased by both the amount and quality of feedback I have been receiving about the new interview with David McDonald, author of “Saving America’s Cities”. There is clearly passion on this subject.

I decided to supplement the interview with a blog post to allow readers an opportunity to channel that passion in sharing their perspective by leaving a comment.

The feedback inspired me to research the subject a little deeper. I was surprised by the diversity of thought I found on the root causes for the decline. Here are a few of the resources I reviewed you may also have an interest in.

Partnership for Sustainable Communities has a lot of great reference material ranging from community planning to green building to zoning.

“US Cities May Have to be Bulldozed in Order to Survive” presents a drastic solution to the challenge. The article calls for a 40% reduction in the size of cities as a way to create economic solvency and stimulate progress.

“Unions and The Decline of Cities” concludes capital flight and reduced demand for labor are cited by the author as a driver of urban decay. The data presented suggests cities with above-median unionization depopulated by an average of 7% while those with below-median unionization grew an average of 32% over the study period of 1973-75.

Drug Policy and The Decline of America’s Cities suggests a key root cause is Government’s failure to deal with the destructive illegal drug supply industry that tends to have a concentrated base of operation in the core of America’s cities.

America’s Cities Go Bust! gives an international perspective. It is interesting to read about our challenge from the perspective of a Russian news agency.

This is clearly just the tip of the iceberg. Is it drugs?  Is it Unions?  Is it lack of funds?  Is it all of the above, or something completely different? My take-away conclusion is the challenge is multifaceted, complex and difficult to deal with on many levels. There is a large and expanding body of work focused on the subject. But, from what I have read so far, it doesn’t appear we are any closer to a simple national solution.


David’s interview started a great dialogue. Let’s keep it going. What are your thoughts on the root causes of the economic problems faced by America’s cities? What are you seeing that appears to working that should be cause for optimism?  If you could select only one thing to address that would contribute to saving America’s cities what would it be?  What references have you found most helpful in understanding the scope of the challenge?


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17 Comments so far

  1. Bob Chalfant

    July 24, 2011

    I submit a slightly expanded solution by paraphrasing Hillary Clinton:
    It takes a region to save its cities.

    Cleveland and Cuyahoga County is being utterly transformed with
    A. $5 Billion in new construction (,

    B. new Port Authority vision and leadership,

    C. new form of County Government and leadership,

    D. longer term plans for the Opportunity Corridor and its associated local business development, and

    E. innumerable new ventures being created around tech, medical devices, stem cell research, materials, the list is long and distinguished.

    F. Readers should download JumpStart’s poster of the Entrepreneur Ecosystem in PDF: to gain a perspective on Northeast Ohio. Find a way to become part of that universe

  2. Tom Paul

    July 24, 2011

    I am an architect in Cleveland, Ohio and I can not agree with you more on the article of revitalizing a city. Without making bold moves with the private sector and developers leading the way our existing stagnant cities are going to see minimal if any growth. Local government needs to be apart of the incentive to bring growth and step aside and let it happen.

  3. Ed Burghard

    July 24, 2011

    @Bob – The JumpStart poster on the Entrepreneur Ecosystem is simply outstanding! I would encourage everybody to download a copy and review it carefully. The information contained in the poster is very helpful and the model well conceived. Congrats on a great job, and congrats as well on the consistently strong contributions JumpStart makes to Ohio economic development.

  4. Jeff Donohoe

    July 25, 2011

    At this point, I’m more concerned with how to save America. Our deficit is out of control, and there does not appear to be any desire on the part of our elected officials to rein in spending.

  5. Bill LaFayette

    July 25, 2011

    This was fascinating. Two thoughts: The work that David prescribes is long-term, unglamorous and requires heavy lifting. You have to figure out your strategies and persevere. But private-sector leaders can at times disengage just like those in the public sector if they don’t see quick wins — then all is for naught. So realistic expectations must be created at the start. Second, as tough as truly regionalizing is, there has to be added value in thinking about what is outside the region but close. Wright-Patterson AFB and Battelle each do incredible R&D work. But Dayton claims Wright-Patterson and Columbus claims Battelle and neither talks about the other. Never mind that they are within an hour’s drive of each other and doubtless work together daily. What a tremendous advantage that no one is talking about!

  6. Robert Ridley

    July 25, 2011

    Don’t ignore certain neighborhoods just because you consider the people who live there “undesirable.” This happens in Cincinnati when more attention is paid to downtown and certain “trendy” neighborhoods, and other neighborhoods are treated as if they don’t exist except to be made a joke of, as in “don’t get caught driving through that neighborhood.”

    Don’t only pay attention to those neighborhoods because you want to evict the current residents. This is what happened in Mt. Adams back before I was born, and is currently occuring in West End and Over-the-Rhine.

    Don’t assume that everyone who lives in those neighborhoods is unemployable. In particular, don’t assume that everyone who lives in those neighborhoods is unintelligent or uneducated. Using myself as an example, I grew up in Avondale, graduated college, and still have been unable to enter the middle class, because I have been unable to secure simply an INTERVIEW for positions paying middle class income. I have no way of knowing, but people who look at my resume and see my zip code, and are also familiar with Cincinnati demographics know exactly where I live, and know the perception of we who live here. So who knows how many interviews I have been passed over for and how many of my neighbors are in the same situation simply because of their street address.

  7. Bob Chalfant

    July 25, 2011

    Thanks for starting that thread: I didn’t see the “but” at the end with a constructive comment. Politicians have been politicians since the dawn of man, some better, others worse. As a teen in the 60’s, I have a healthy respect for political discontent at the grass roots level. Having said that…

    Each one of us is responsible for making our corner of the universe better for having been here. I’m preaching the entrepreneurship gospel to over 100 students every 4 months, and sometimes the seed sprouts and grows here in NEO. I’d like to see how others are saving our cities.

  8. Milton Nunez

    July 25, 2011

    So many cities, and the country itself, are in critical condition due to many mistakes of the past, i.e.:
    a- two wars (stupid decisions) have worn out our economy
    b- the financial sector (banks and stock market firms) have mismanaged our retirement funds against our interest (only to make in-side players rich)
    c- taking advantage of federal insurance systems for housing and subsidizing banks, profitable businesses, rich oil sector companies, the rich and powerful, etc.

    In general the 1990 and first decade of 2000’s have been the worse period in history for increased corruption in the public and private sectors equally. History has shown us lessons and could happen again (corruption is what really distroyed Rome) so the most important silver bullet to start the “saving the cities and regions of America” is eliminating or at least controlling corruption at all levels and all sectors. It may be neeeded for us to go back to that “Quaker” mentality of freedom and strict honesty, that was what made this country so attractive to the first settlers.

  9. Ed Burghard

    July 25, 2011

    I want to share a link to Ed Morrison’s blog where he shares a link to a new report on sustainable economic development solutions from the National League of Cities. High quality reference for supplemental learning.

  10. Bill Crable

    July 25, 2011

    Young men and women need to become productive members of society through taking responsibility of their own lives as they reach adult age. This has been proven time and time again by individuals who have successfully moved on from what is perceived to be an environment with boundaries. I’m not saying this is easy, just that effort, perseverance and responsibility can help people overcome so much in life – and this applies far beyond those hanging out on street corners! Obtaining a job in this country is not your right, you have to earn it by wanting a job, show you are capable of performing that job and apply yourself in trying to keep that job. I think many people in this economy have found this out the hardway. We now need to focus on what consumers want, provide goods and services to meet those demands and return the economy to a more healthy state than it has been in the past.

  11. John Erskine

    July 26, 2011

    Fascinating pieces, some of them, such as the Cato Institute piece on unions and the decline of cities utterly wrongheaded – if unionisation was so bad, how do they explain Munich and BMW, VW and Wolfsburg, and Audi and Ingolstadt? All successful car companies which recognise unions in most of their non-US operations, all based in successful cities. In fact, in VW’s case, unions are on the board. And 20% of VW’s shares are owned by the state of Lower Saxony….

    To Jeff I’d say that your deficit isn’t a problem, your unrealistically low levels of taxation are – both personal and corporate. Add to that a model of healthcare that consumes more taxation per capita than systems like Britain’s NHS, and delivers worse public health outcomes…

  12. Cynthia Moore

    July 26, 2011

    “Cincinnati as an example of a city that has done it right”? I certainly don’t see it. I am always shocked when I travel and see construction, and pedestrian traffic, and lively and alive downtown areas … in stark contrast to what I see in Cincinnati. Look at Loveland, Ohio if you want to see it “done right”. While not a big city, couldn’t the same efforts apply to Cincinnati. Loveland went from a sleepy little town to a vibrant, bustling center. One can go there to shop, eat, exercise, people watch…. I often want to walk into the city manager’s office and say, “congratulations”. There are people from all walks of life gathered there interacting and … most importantly … spending money. (By the way, I don’t live in Loveland, nor do I own a business in Loveland, but i go there to partake in the liveliness.)

    Also, Cincinnati didn’t just slowly decay, it imploded after the riots, simply folded in on itself. Get the kids in Cincinnati busy and fulfilled, give the young people something constructive to do (I think trails and biking do indeed enhance an area), build more trails, offer city bikes that can be ridden in the city from one place to another, support what is happening on Fountain Square at night with kids and older adults and positive attractions. Make it beautiful and people will keep it beautiful. Encourage pedestrian traffic so that people feel safe ….

  13. Charley Bowman

    July 27, 2011

    To follow on Mr. Ridley’s comment: Neighborhoods are the foundation of economic development. Street, water and sewer main maintenance/replacement, sidewalk maintenance, housing exterior maintenance and internal inspection of rental units are key to revitalizing a neighborhood.

    New neighborhoods are nice to have to attract workers of a certain income level, and the residents in the existing neighborhoods are as valuable, if not moreso as they provide an institutional knowledge of the community and its history, and a valuable source of employees.

    I was once driving a new CEO through a town I was managing – it was a run down neighborhood. He asked me, “If you can’t take care of this neighborhood, how are you going to take care of my company?” I did not have an answer. We did start on a plan that included the above items and in three years, revitalized the neighborhood which in turn reduced the number of police/fire calls and other service calls.

  14. Jackie Messersmith

    August 3, 2011

    Beyond the social aspects being discussed, how about the governing and operational aspects? I believe those two things influence the community as a whole. I think a trip to Disney World for an inside look at how to govern and operate a city would be helpful. Anything Disney does is with the customer in mind. Contrast that to our city government where anything they do is with re-election in mind.

    Our community is a system made up of many parts; if one part fails the rest will follow.

  15. Kathy Stockman

    August 4, 2011

    In the past number of years, I’ve noticed a trend of recruitment minus retention. I’ve seen this at my kids’ schools as well as the rest of the city’s attempt to entice people to Cincinnati. This simply blows my mind.

    While I certainly understand the importance of recruitment, this city has those things build in with colleges and businesses like P&G bringing people in to the city for school and work experience. Honestly, Cincinnati has always been a city of immigrants coming in. The city needs to focus on keeping them. (up to now, I’ve said nothing you don’t already know).

    So how do we get people to stay? Not with parties on Fountain Square or even the streetcar and not even the arts (and I’m an art historian active in the local arts). This city needs to focus on the wonderful long-lasting institutions that make Cincinnati home.

    Churches, schools (Walnut Hills, Nativity, etc), clubs that have lasted generations are the true pillars of the community. These are the places where people find community…a place that is comfortable…a place to sow seeds and take root.

    Instead of focusing all energy on creating a college social night life around Fountain Square, find a way to get people to engage in these institutions (most are non-profit) that are historically the focus of a community.

    Until we do this, Cincinnati will always be branded as a place of transition….a place for yps to enjoy for the moment and only until they are ready to settle down. If they are not aware of the historical central communities of the city, they will move somewhere else to find them when they need them.

  16. Barbie Doran

    August 4, 2011

    Jackie previously stated: Beyond the social aspects being discussed, how about the governing and operational aspects? I believe those two things influence the community as a whole. I think a trip to Disney World for an inside look at how to govern and operate a city would be helpful. Anything Disney does is with the customer in mind. Contrast that to our city government where anything they do is with re-election in mind.

    @Jackie Messersmith great point! This city has long forgotten to do things with the customer in mind. Our city government only has re-election in mind. Much like the problem in Washington DC. If small businesses were run this way, they would be out of business. We are all struggling in this economy, but customer/resident centric is the key!

  17. Barbie Doran

    August 4, 2011

    @Jackie Messersmith great point! This city has long forgotten to do things with the customer in mind. Our city government only has re-election in mind. Much like the problem in Washington DC. If small businesses were run this way, they would be out of business. We are all struggling in this economy, but customer/resident centric is the key!

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