The challenges of legacy cities

Significant job and population loss, regional migration and suburban flight have left an impoverished urban population behind in legacy cities.

The height of prosperity and growth for most Legacy cities was during the 19th century and early 20th century. By mid-20th century, The Lincoln Institute of Land Policies publication Regenerating American’s Legacy Cities stated legacy cities were characterized by:

Significant job and population loss; regional migration and suburban flight that left an impoverished urban population behind; and a reduced housing market demand that led to diminished property values and abandonment. These changes resulted in decreased municipal resources, and reduced capacity to deal with legacy cities ever-growing problems. Local government fragmentation, sprawl, and inconsistent state and federal policies all exacerbated the challenges and contributed to the condition of today’s legacy cities.

The Land Institute looked at the percent of Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, Baltimore, Pittsburg and Philadelphia’s population as a whole using 2010 U.S Census data for the age groups 25 to 34 years old living in these legacy cities. This population was targeted because “people 25-34 years old often begin to establish themselves in the workforce and sink their roots into the community.” The research revealed two significant findings:

  • Baltimore, Pittsburg and Philadelphia were losing population overall, but they were gaining large numbers of residents between 24-34 years old. This age group made up a significant larger share of the population.
  • People between the age of 24-34 years old in Cleveland, Detroit, and Flint were leaving the city at a significant greater rate than people in other age groups.

The report concluded by stating people in the age group 25 to 34 years old increased population in Baltimore, Pittsburg and Philadelphia and had the potential to stabilize the population loss in these cities. Unfortunately, there was a significant increase in the out-migration of people in the 35-39 year old age group suggesting “In-migrants may not see urban living as a long-term choice, or may be deterred from making that choice as they enter their child-rearing years because of perceived problems with school quality and public safety.”

What is the status in legacy cities of the current and next generation? Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count in Michigan Project Director’s research revealed:

As Michigan looks to strengthen its economy and improve education outcomes among the next generation, it must address the challenge of ensuring more infants have the right start to early childhood in its legacy cities. These cities house a significant number of young children, particularly some of the most economically disadvantaged and those in communities of color. Roughly half of the state’s children of color live within these cities. On average, one of every three county births was to a legacy city resident. Almost all (90 percent) of the state’s infants born to women of color were located in the 15 counties where Michigan’s legacy cities are situated.

Therefore, if legacy cities want to attract and keep residents who migrate to or currently live in their cities, there needs to be plans to reduce inequities in education and employment and increase public safety. These articles are examples of the importance of analyzing Census data and collecting local and regional data when planning or making policy decisions.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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