Facing the Urban Challenge: The Federal Government and America’s Older Distressed Cities

By Alan Mallach
Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings

Washington, DC (May 1, 2010)- The end of World War II heralded an era of urban disinvestment in the United States. Suburban flight, deindustrialization and automobile-oriented sprawl triggered massive population and job loss in the cities that had driven America’s economic growth for the preceding century. While some cities began to rebound in the 1990s, others, including great cities like Detroit and Cleveland, have continued to decline. As their population has shrunk, lack of demand has created a new urban landscape dominated by vacant lots and abandoned buildings. At the same time, they contain assets important for the future of their states and the United States as a whole, including major universities, major centers of medical research, and rich traditions of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Since the Housing Act of 1949, the federal government has attempted to shape the contours of the nation’s cities. For all the programs launched and dollars spent, however, it is hard to show much connection between the urban condition today – either the revival of some cities or the continued distress of others – and federal initiatives of the past sixty years.  Why?  Federal initiatives have lacked a coherent strategy, have lacked coordination, and have failed to make a sustained commitment to any project, neighborhood, or community.  
While it is impossible to tell what the next few years will bring, for the first time in many years it is opportune to propose new ways for the federal government to address the challenges of America’s distressed older cities. Reflecting that these cities will look very different in the future from what they were in the past, regeneration efforts need to focus on three complementary goals: strengthening core areas by building on key physical, economic and institutional assets; preserving viable residential neighborhoods and housing; and identifying long-term non-traditional and green uses for vacant lands and buildings. The federal government can play a major role in this process in five key areas:
*Strategic planning
*Reutilizing urban land
*Investing in transformative change
*Revitalizing neighborhoods.
*Addressing affordable housing.

Beyond these areas, three cross-cutting tasks are of critical importance:  
*Better coordinate federal resources directed to the distressed older cities.
*Use federal resources to leverage state policy change.
*Build the capacity of local government and others to carry out effective strategies for change.  
This is the moment for bold federal action, but this action should reflect a different approach to using federal resources, fostering transformation based on a new vision of the future of these cities.

Related Resource:
Facing the Urban Challenge: The Federal Government and America’s Older Distressed Cities