Monday, December 11, 2006

Downsizing Pittsburgh

For a city once at the top of the urban hierarchy, shrinking is hard. Those who stay behind, remember what the place used to be. But is a declining population necessarily a bad thing? Youngstown, Ohio is currently asking itself that very question:

If Youngstown has made peace with its smaller self, however, its policy makers are still grappling with the key question: What does it mean to manage shrinkage in an intelligent way? Volumes have been written about how to implement “smart growth.” But what about smart decline? Youngstown may emerge as something of a national laboratory for ideas on how to cope with urban contraction. It’s not that the town’s civic leaders want to be in that position — they simply see little choice. “We’re on our way to accepting some obvious things about what the city is and isn’t going to be,” says Jay Williams, Youngstown’s 35-year-old mayor. “It was unrealistic to think we’ll be a 100,000 person city. But why not be an attractive city of 80,000 or 85,000 that offers a quality of life that competes with other cities across the state and across the country?”

Youngstown learning to love shrinkage is an urban novelty, enjoying some blogosphere fame as well as some attention from the New York Times. But looking more closely at the tale of renewal reveals a familiar story:

Lately, though, a new generation of civic leaders has come of age in Youngstown. Mayor Williams, a home-born banker who also worked as the city’s community development director, was just five years old on Black Monday. Several key positions are in the hands of outsiders whose thoughts aren’t haunted by ghosts of the mills. Anthony Kobak, Youngstown’s planner, arrived from Cleveland in 2000. So did David Sweet, the president of Youngstown State University, who had previously been dean of the urban affairs program at Cleveland State.

A year later, Sweet asked Hunter Morrison to join him. “Many of the politicians and the business leadership who were here when things collapsed either retired, moved or died,” Morrison says. “One thing that happened in the 2010 planning process is people looked around and said, ’You know what? The boss is dead. We don’t have to ask permission anymore.’ ”

Mayor Williams and his cadre of urban scientists moved into a vacuum. Youngstown has developed into a frontier geography, a fringe space, where novel ideas thrive. Cleverly, the city used the anxiety about population loss to engage citizens, activating them in the process. People are talking, but there appears to be little opposition to the renewal scheme of downsizing the city.

As word gets out that all the old bosses have left Youngstown, developers will smell opportunity. I must admit, I'm intrigued:

“Here’s the pitch,” Anthony Kobak says. “Look how easy it is to get out of the city and into the country. We’re right off the interstate. Our housing stock is incredibly affordable. We’re an hour from two international airports. Perfect for telecommuters, retirees, anyone trying to get out of the rat race. It’s just amazing what’s here."

Reads like a perfect place for Globalburgh to set up shop. I'd prefer the Mon Valley, but airport access is vital for global connectivity.

No comments: