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“Right-Sizing” Is Not the Answer to the Challenges of Our Cities

By Arthur Ziegler
President, PHLF

We don’t know the future; Rust Belt Cities need to stop planning that there isn’t one.”

I recently saw this headline in an article on the web news magazine CityLab, and I was immediately reminded of what seems to me to be a misguided idea of people who are involved in urban planning, and even in historic preservation, that cities can be “right-sized.” Talk about a top-down strategy to excuse or as they often call it “manage decline.” What is the right size for Youngstown or Manhattan?

In the United States there are a series of major cities that are attracting young people, tech firms, advanced medical research, and lots of businesses providing jobs and a good quality of life. Has anyone done a study of what those cities share in common in the form of job creation, de-regulation, openness and diversity, public amenities, taxation, and what the Rust Belt cities share in common, and then look at the two groups for differences?

I have also noticed the trend where we have started calling rust belt cities “legacy cities,” and the primary subject does seem to be managing decline. We do have abundant evidence that retaining historic neighborhoods is one of the prime ingredients to attracting people into a city to live, to visit, and to hold on to the people who currently live there.

We preservationists should be arguing positively for appropriate changes in our cities that will make them attractive rather than giving up on large portions of our cities.  Fortunately, the latter has been limited in Pittsburgh, but if you look at every neighborhood that has been subject to significant demolition and compared it to the historic neighborhoods where preservation was the fundamental ingredient in continuing to make our city attractive, you will see ample evidence that the “giving up” attitude of those who want demolition is harming the future of those cities.

In the CityLab article, Jason Hackworth of the University of Toronto, said that “this wave of destruction has not lead to market rebound or a decrease in social marginality. Those Rust Belt neighborhoods with the most disassembly since 1970 didn’t get better—they got worse.” Meanwhile, Alan Mallach, a scholar who was converted from the demolition approach, noted that “demolishing a lot of houses might be removing that neighborhood’s chance to survive in the future.” I certainly agree with him.

We preservationists should believe in the values of the architecture of our historic cities and encourage change and updating in other ways to compete nationally. Based on careful sensitivity to what is working elsewhere and to the great architectural treasures that we have can build new vibrancy. There is a bright future for rust belt cities, but we must begin with believing that to be true, and then we must have optimism and work towards utilizing the architectural legacy of these cities. Luckily Pittsburgh is doing that.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633