They were once powerhouses, these old industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest, centers of employment, finance and culture. But since the mid-20th century, these cities have lost jobs and population and now face daunting social, economic and operational challenges.
Scholars Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman looked at 18 such cities to see which were recovering and why. Their report, "Regenerating America's Legacy Cities," published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, is a clear and perceptive analysis of post-World War II urban dynamics. Hartford was not one of the cities the authors chose to examine, but it certainly qualifies.
Though saved to some degree by the retention of its insurance sector, Hartford has lost almost a third of its population from a peak of nearly 180,000 in 1950 and has lost nearly all of its once-powerful manufacturing sector. It has the highest rate of unemployment in the state and leads in a number of other negative metrics as well.
Many cities start a comeback by rebuilding their central cores. Hartford has been trying to do that, intermittently, for decades. There now are several downtown housing proposals in the pipeline, as well as the move of the University of Connecticut's Greater Hartford campus to downtown.
The authors warn that reversing population decline should not be a goal in itself. The authors suggest that real population growth flows from positive physical, social and economic changes in the city that make people want to live there. In other words, population growth should be a result of revival; it won't trigger revival. It is interesting to note that cities that are coming back, such as Philadelphia and Boston, are gaining population in the 25-34 age group.
The authors also warn against the lure of mega-projects such as casinos, convention centers and arenas. These "rarely if ever justify the public investment or the loss of opportunities resulting from the diversion of public resources to such facilities." Hartford has often succumbed to the lure of mega-projects.
Instead of big silver bullets, the authors strongly recommend a pattern of "strategic incrementalism," a step-by-step progression toward a shared vision.
But what vision, shared with whom?
Cites need an economic vision. They need to reinvent their economies -- no small task -- using their assets, such as universities and medical facilities. The new economies, like the ones in the glory days, need to be based on exports. We can't get rich doing each other's laundry.
But a regional economy doesn't stop at the city line, especially with a small city such as Hartford, so legacy cities have to be better connected to their regions, the authors say. Each needs the others' assets; they rise and fall together. The Brookings Institution has persuasively argued that it is the metropolitan regions, not cities or states, that are the country's economic engines.
Hartford's connections with its suburbs is not strong. There's a regional water and sewer authority and an active council of governments, but this remains the land of localism. Could there ever be more formal regional governance here?
It would be a hard sell, to be sure, particularly with schools. But perhaps -- someday -- something like the two-tier Miami-Dade structure might appeal, in which each municipality has an elected government and provides some services such as police, while a county or regional government oversees two dozen other departments including parks, public works, economic development and transit.
The authors acknowledge the political obstacles to creating such an entity, but say the potential benefits -- cost savings and efficiencies in government and a more productive planning and economic development system -- are worth the effort.
In the short term, perhaps the Capital Region Development Authority, created last year to stimulate the city's and region's economies, can be the catalyst that gets both on the same page.
The report is available at http://www.lincolninst.edu/pubs/2215_
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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