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Legacy Cities in a Post-COVID World: View From Experts in the Field - Economic Innovation Group

To explore what the present moment means for the future of legacy cities, I conducted over 15 hours of interviews with practitioners working on-the-ground in municipal government and community development in 10 cities located in the Great Lakes region. Each of these cities – ranging in size from Chicago to Sandusky, Ohio – is at a different place in its post-industrial development trajectory, and each is facing a slightly different set of challenges.  

The legacy cities that are located in the Great Lakes region are no strangers to world-altering change. Long before 2020 and its unprecedented series of economic and social disruptions, these cities weathered several decades of repeated storms as a result of deindustrialization, mass suburbanization, and regional outmigration.  

Despite significant challenges, none of these legacy cities are without opportunities. As the adjective “legacy” implies, to varying degrees all of them possess civic and cultural assets that are a legacy of time when they were relatively more economically prosperous places.  

There has been a lot of speculation about what the events of the past six months will mean for American cities in the future. Although most of the legacy cities of the Great Lakes region have been spared some of the most dramatic social and economic disruptions that have roiled their bigger coastal counterparts, their future, too, is unclear, particularly in the longer-term.  

So, the question remains:  how will the present’s cascading series of catastrophic and interrelated social and economic problems affect our cities?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Those of us who live in legacy cities understand that there is no such thing as a city that is too big or too important to fail. There is no place that is immune from potentially significant, long-lasting decline.  

It is possible that legacy cities, in the medium-to-longer term, could benefit from social and economic disruption in many of the nation’s superstar cities, as residents, businesses, and investors rethink the wisdom of concentrating so much wealth and opportunity in so few places. The affordability and quality-of-life that legacy cities offer have been touted as mostly unrealized advantages for a long time now. If coupled with modest improvements in economic outlook and better job opportunities, these advantages may finally give these places a competitive edge. 

On the other hand, many legacy cities have been hurting for decades now, and despite the pain that is being felt in many of the nation’s most prosperous places, it is difficult to imagine that this current time of economic hardship, social unrest, and institutional dysfunction will do anything other than make legacy cities’ already fragile position more precarious in the short-term. Some of the largest of these cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, have been held back and continue to be hampered by racial economic disparities and levels of residential segregation that are among the worst in the nation.

Not all legacy cities are the same. They differ greatly in terms of size, scale, and competitive position. It is possible that some of those that are economically healthier, or that were beginning to trend in the right direction prior to the pandemic, may benefit in the medium to long-term by the forces unleashed by 2020. Some of the mid-sized cities, in particular—those which are large enough to contain a critical mass of economic activity, at a small-enough scale to be more manageable in a time of national crisis—might be able to use their size to their advantage.  

Although it is still too early to know how these places will fare in a post-COVID world, it is not too early to think about how they might best position themselves to overcome their current challenges and build on existing, and perhaps new, opportunities.  

For the remainder of this two-part series, I will be sharing what I learned from these interviews about what the future may hold for legacy cities in a post-COVID world.

The “Eds and Meds” economy has sustained legacy cities across the country, to varying degrees, since the collapse of manufacturing that began in the 1970s. The healthcare and education economy has affected each of these cities differently, ranging from Pittsburgh, where it has been transformative; to Baltimore and Cleveland, where the results are a bit more mixed; to cities like Youngstown and Flint, where it has perhaps helped at the margins but has failed to come anywhere close to replacing the robust industrial economy that came before it.

For the past few years, there have been real questions about how the “Eds and Meds” economic base will fare as the 21st Century wears on, particularly in light of demographic changes and spiraling, increasingly out-of-control education and healthcare costs. Is an economy that relies heavily on these sectors really sustainable in the long-run?  Even in the short-run, has it been enough to create broad-based prosperity and equitable economic growth? In his brilliant book, The Divided City, Alan Mallach devotes an entire chapter to asking these types of questions. And it is clear that they are more important than ever.

The onset of the pandemic has caused this already somewhat unsteady “Eds and Meds” economic base to teeter, and it is in serious danger of toppling in many places. Many universities have been absolutely devastated, as the pandemic has completely disrupted traditional in-person classroom instruction, college sports, and many of the other social activities that make college enjoyable and worthwhile. More families than ever are now unwilling or unable to pay the increasingly-exorbitant costs to send their children to college. As a result, many universities have had to lay off or let go of faculty and staff, as budgets have dipped deep into the red. For years, many analysts have been predicting that the college bubble would burst. It is looking like the future may have finally arrived.

Healthcare is not faring much better than higher education, despite the somewhat counterintuitive outcome that hospitals would be struggling in the midst of the greatest healthcare crisis of any of our lifetimes. Many hospital systems, which are typically the largest employers in most legacy cities, have lost millions of dollars as normal revenue streams have been severely disrupted throughout the pandemic.

As lockdown restrictions have eased considerably in most places, things are slowly “getting back to normal” at many hospitals. But, as with universities, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many underlying structural problems with the business model behind our healthcare systems; including, but certainly not limited to, long-term debt incurred by massive capital expansions at many facilities, as well as opaque, burdensome, and often financially-devastating costs to the patients themselves. 

It is unclear, as of yet, what reform of our higher-education and healthcare systems might look like and how, in turn, those reforms might impact the economic base in legacy cities. What is clear, however, is that both sectors are almost certain to undergo significant disruption over the next decade or so.  

In many places, “Eds and Meds” have been a significant (if imperfect) backstop that took the edge off of some of the economic pain experienced after the collapse of heavy industry. But it is clear that legacy cities will not be able to rely on healthcare and education alone to sustain them over the next decade. It will be more important than ever for legacy cities to build diverse and resilient economic bases that can attract more capital investment, more people, and more innovation. Transitioning beyond “Eds and Meds” will be a heavier lift in some places than in others. As Pete Saunders, the community and economic development director of Richton Park, a suburb just outside of Chicago, remarked, “A city like Chicago can absorb disruption to these sectors far easier than a city like Saginaw.”

Despite significant social, economic, and technological changes, geography, in many ways, is still destiny. Although many legacy cities have lost much over the past four decades in terms of people, jobs, and national prominence, all of them still have significant place-based assets to build upon.  

At the macro level, they still remain advantageous geographic locations for transportation and logistics, are located in a part of the country that is largely free from natural disasters and blessed with fertile and productive farmland, and, perhaps most importantly, in an age of climate change and environmental degradation, are clustered around the Great Lakes, which contain over 20% of the planet’s freshwater.

At the micro level, each of these cities contains a wealth of cultural institutions, historic architecture, a diversity of housing, and walkable downtowns and neighborhood business districts that despite years of decline, in most cases, still far outclass those that can be found in many Sunbelt cities of a similar size.

All of these geographic and place-based assets give these cities a lot to build on. In order to take advantage of and leverage these assets, it is critical that they develop their capacity for placemaking, in order to improve how their neighborhoods look, feel, and function.  

Ian Beniston, Executive Director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) points out that doing this well means “incremental and relentless” improvement. In Youngstown, this has meant things like demolishing some vacant and abandoned structures, while identifying, acquiring, and rehabilitating others. It has meant beautifying and stabilizing neighborhoods, particularly those located near important civic assets, such as parks, universities, or key business districts.

To see the full story from Economic Innovation Group, click here.