January 29, 2014

Penn IUR Urban Book Talk: Revitalizing American Cities

past event


Revitalizing American Cities, the latest release from Penn IUR’s book series with the University of Pennsylvania Press, The City in the 21st Century, explores the historical, regional, and political factors that have allowed some industrial cities to regain their footing in a changing economy. To celebrate the release, Penn IUR welcomed roughly 150 members of the public to attend a panel discussion featuring the book’s editors and a few contributors, including Paul Brophy, Principal at Brophy & Reilly LLC; Steven Cochrane, Managing Director of Moody’s Analytics; Catherine Tumber, Visiting Scholar at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs; Kim Zeuli, Senior Vice President and Director of Research and Advisory Services, Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC); and Eugenie Birch and Susan Wachter, Co-Directors of Penn IUR and editors of The City in the 21st Century series. The event was co-sponsored by University of Pennsylvania Press and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Theresa Singleton, Vice President of Community Development Studies and Education at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, began the discussion by highlighting the continuing need to connect research and practice in economic development, particularly with regard to small and mid-sized cities. Such cities play a key role in society, but are often not the focus of research, investment, or action.

Susan Wachter pointed to Bethlehem, PA, as a city that exemplifies many recent trends. Industrial decline led the once-dominant Bethlehem Steel to file for bankruptcy in 2001, but today Bethlehem is one of the two fastest growing cities in Pennsylvania. De-industrialization also impacted Concord and Eaton, North Carolina, as textile mills shuttered overnight and left the towns reeling. Kim Zeuli pointed out two key factors that led Concord to revitalize faster than Eaton. Leaders in Concord acted quickly and the city was able to leverage certain competitive advantages, such as access to the local airport and the presence of NASCAR. Indeed, cities that have revitalized often benefit from the presence of anchor institutions. Often in small cities, anchor institutions can tailor strategies to local needs to great effect. This is particularly true of community colleges, according to Steve Cochrane. Paul Brophy argued for increased efforts in what he called “middle neighborhoods,” those which are neither impoverished nor prosperous. According to his research, middle neighborhoods represent a large share of cities’ property values: 32% in Baltimore; 44% in Pittsburgh; and 51% in Newark, NJ. These communities face an increased risk of decline over time if cities do not target them for investment.

According to Catherine Tumber, small cities may gain a competitive advantage due to lower land rents, which had long been an advantage of the suburbs. For decades, the prevailing macroeconomic trend was suburban job and population growth and urban decline. Steven Cochrane contrasted this with his current research that indicates central cities have outpaced the suburbs in population growth and service sector job growth since 2009. According to Cochrane, many cities have also seen growth in manufacturing jobs, and the exodus from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt seems to have subsided. The key question is how small and mid-sized cities can best take advantage of the confluence of these trends.

Today, argued Kim Zeuli, it is increasingly common for people to decide where they want to live and then find work, a reversal from previous decades, and many tech and service jobs are indistinguishable by place. Despite these similarities, Paul Brophy stressed that each city must craft its own future. This idea surfaced more than once, and it was perhaps best articulated by Kim Zeuli, who stressed that the economy of each city is unique and demands a different set of ingredients for revitalization.

The panel discussion gave way to a question and answer session with a very engaged audience that outnumbered the seats available (for thematic clarity, some of the ideas discussed have been inserted into the above summary). Revitalizing American Citiesemerged from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s “Reinventing Older Communities: Building Resilient Cities” conference in 2012 and is the latest contribution to a young but growing body of research on the obstacles and opportunities faced by our nation’s small and mid-sized cities.


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