Cleveland was a key American industrial center built near large coal and iron ore deposits during the late 19th century. It was home to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company in the 1860s. Meanwhile, the steel industry was booming in Cleveland as well. Cleveland became a transportation hub, serving as the halfway point between the natural resources from the west and the mills and factories of the east. However, since the end of World War II, rust-belt industrial cities such as Detroit, Youngstown, and Cleveland have experienced notable population loss and urban shrinkage due to a decline in their economic and social bases. In the case of Cleveland, it was the loss of manufacturing jobs that caused the major economic and demographic shift. There is no clear definition of shrinking cities; there has been a range of interpretations of the phenomenon. The Shrinking Cities International Research Network, on one hand, defines a shrinking city as a densely populated urban area with a minimum population of 10,000 residents that has faced significant population loss for two years or more and is facing economic transformations with symptoms of structural crisis.
From a planning perspective, there is the dilemma that urban development is strongly interlinked with growth, leading to the perception that urban shrinkage is a threat or taboo. Trying to maintain a strategy of economic growth with the goal of regaining population growth used to be the common reaction of city planners towards urban shrinkage, oftentimes leading to success. In shrinking cities such as Cleveland, it is important to “advocate a new sensibility in planning that relies on honesty when it comes to coping with future challenges of shrinking cities” (Pallagst). Some planners and cities have resorted to “planned shrinkage,” in which they let hopeless neighborhoods fall to dust, and support the healthier areas that remain standing.
Reflecting on industrial cities, Florida wrote in “The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited, “I have spent my entire life living, working, and studying in industrial cities. I adore the realness and authenticity of these great cities. Cities such as Pittsburgh have imposed bottom-up, community-based efforts for growth rather than top-down policies set by local governments. While Pittsburgh’s government and business leaders implemented big-government solutions such as stadiums and convention centers, it was the community groups and citizen-led initiatives that led to a major turn-around for the city. Community groups, local foundations, and nonprofits- not city hall or business-led economic development groups- drove its transformation. They played a key role in stabilizing and strengthening neighborhoods, investing in green technology and infrastructure, and spurring the development of the waterfront and redevelopment around the universities. Many of Pittsburgh’s best neighborhoods, such as its South Side, have avoided the “wrath of urban renewal.” Others like East Liberty have benefited from community initiatives designed to remedy the damage done by large-scale urban renewal efforts that “left vacant lots in place of functioning neighborhoods and built soulless public housing high-rise towers.” The East Liberty neighborhood is now home to several new community development projects, including a Whole Foods Market, which provides local jobs as well as serving as an anchor for the surrounding community. This kind of bottom-up process takes considerable time and perseverance. In Pittsburgh’s case, it took the better part of a generation to achieve stability and the potential for longer-term revival.
It is more rewarding to invest in local assets and businesses rather than invest in large projects such as stadiums, convention centers, and hotels. It is important to employ local people and utilize their skills, and invest in improving quality of place. “Urban revitalization based on luring so-called big game projects no longer has a place in the advanced countries. If economic developers want to do that today, they should move to China. That’s where all the big corporate projects are or are heading. Revitalizing older cities in North America and Europe increasingly depends on being able to support lots of smaller activities, groups, and projects."
Brandon E. Young