Lessons from the Industrial Heartland

2009 May 20
by Aaron Knoll

The historical aphorism most widely repeated is “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” In this case the “history” I’m referring to is the decline of the United States’ industrial heartland, more commonly known as the Rust Belt. These cities along the Great Lakes, by virtue of geography and well-connected transporation systems caused them to become the centers of inudstry at the beginning of the automobile and electrical age. Now, nearly all of these cities are in some sort of decline. 

Nature reclaiming a side street in the city of Detroit, Michigan

Nature reclaims a side street within the city limits of Detroit, Michigan

One thing many rust belt cities have in common is political fragmentation. Whereas new large cities like Phoenix are able to annex their suburbs and make them part of the city proper, cities like Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit were unable to keep suburban growth within their city limits.  New York City annexed adjacent boroughs in 1898, whereas upstate Buffalo’s efforts failed as suburbs cited home rule. Amherst, NY – suburb of Buffalo 20 minutes outside the city limits – grew nearly 10% in the last decade – while Buffalo declined similiarly. 

What else can we learn from the Rust Belt that we can also learn from this most recent recession? That planning for the status quo, in this case, constant growth- isn’t always the smartest solution. Planners and city administrators must consider worst case scenarios also. For example, a community organization seeking to make use of vacant land in Buffalo was unable to secure permits for urban farming because the city’s master plan did alot room for that sort of development. Detroit is offering up vacant lots to entrepreneurs who want to use vacant lots for growing nearly anything. Other cities like Youngstown, Ohio are planning to reduce city size by intentionally shrinking amenities and housing stock to adjust to the new realities. 

Perhaps most striking is the inherent contradiction that arises from the failure of the old industrial heartland to consider the future that has arrived. While declining cities search for ways to “recover their former glory,” They’ve failed to take advantage of the new opportunities that this decline has afforded them. Grassy fields, park space (Detroit would have no problem providing the paltry 1.5 acres of park space per 1000 people New York strives to).

Detroit is a city that, on the surface, contains elements of the non-city. Standing on a street corner with one or two lone homes in sight, the soft hush of grassy fields, and the quiet chirping of birds in the distance, Detroit often feels rural. (Rust Belt Roadtrip Blog)

Cities like Detroit and Youngstown have legacies that smaller cities could never have provided without their former glory. In fact, many of these cities with manufacturing legacies now have a brighter healthier future for the children in these declining places- one noted positive aspect of decline is the noted increase in environmental quality. 

Now back to the original point. Surely there are lessons that can be learned. What can Detroit and Youngstown tell a city like Phoenix or Ningbo? A truly successful long-term plan must be honest and consider that the present does not necessarily indicate the future. Second, long term governance must be regional, or at least regionally oriented such that growth and decline’s benefits and detriments are inequitably distributed.

Now of course these are only my quick thoughts from my desk in New York City this morning, perhaps my colleagues from Pratt out on the road can offer some additional insights as they’re physically touring the Industrial Heartland right now. Stop by their blog and wish them luck as they try to make sense of what lessons that planners can learn from the history of the Rust Belt’s decline.


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