What Triggers a Civic Turnaround?


Lots of cities in America are struggling with low population growth and sluggish economies. Poor demographics and economics lead to fiscal problems that result in more people and businesses leaving, perpetuating a downward spiral. Detroit, which recently filed bankruptcy, is an extreme case, but many cities and states find themselves in similar straits, including much of New England and especially most of Rhode Island.

How to places break out of this and renew prosperity? Looking at cities where there has been change, I have observed several basic patterns of turnaround.

Structural Changes

Many cities failed for structural economic reasons like deindustrialization and globalization. Similarly, many ended up reviving for similar external reasons. In her seminal book The Global City, Saskia Sassen noted that while globalization permitted the dispersal of economic activities to lower cost locations, it created a parallel need for specialized financial and producer services to manage and control those global production networks. These services were disproportionately concentrated in so-called “global cities” like New York and London. While once those cities had fallen on hard times (in NYC’s case, nearly going bankrupt itself in the 1970s), globalization more than any other factor perhaps brought them back to life. Unfortunately, localities have no ability to conjure up these macro-economic changes.

Natural Lifecycle Progression

In a few places, notably Pittsburgh, it seems that the problems simply reached the end of their life cycle. To borrow a phase, they “hit bottom” and started reviving, if slowly. Of course, many places hit bottom and stayed there. Pittsburgh has been helped by the presence of large, world-class institutions. Being in the Marcellus Shale formation that’s the epicenter of the American gas fracking boom doesn’t hurt. It’s worth noting that Pittsburgh has seen fairly slow growth and still faces big challenges, including major pension and infrastructure problems.

Outsider Influx

Other cities hit a growth inflection point when they were able to attract a critical mass of outsiders. I have argued that having a critical mass of outsiders, that is, of people who aren’t long time natives or “boomerang” migrants, is almost a prerequisite for major civic change:

You need them, and you need enough of them that they a) don’t get beaten down by the man, so to speak and b) that they become a base of support for change in their own right. Once this group becomes large enough, it opens up the field of possibilities. They have the insights and different ideas from having lived elsewhere. They aren’t bought into the status quo or burdened by the baggage of the past. They are willing to question they way things are done. They are more likely to want change. In short, outsiders are the natural constituency for the new. That’s why outsiders are so important for a community to change, and why absent enough newcomers, change is difficult if not impossible.

Of course, this almost begs the question: how do you attract those outsiders? This would appear to be a second order factor. It would be worth doing a deep dive on how significant inward migration began in these places. Also, the places that seemed to do well on this model – like Nashville or Denver – are places that weren’t in terrible shape to begin with.

Transformational Leaders

Any number of cities lend themselves to a narrative of transformational change led by a particular leader or group of leaders. You can think of Richard M. Daley in Chicago or Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York. Cory Booker in Newark may be an emerging story in this mold. Or in previous generations there were business magnates like J. Irwin Miller in Columbus, Indiana that through superior vision combined with clout were able to put their community on a different path than other similarly positioned cities. (Among other things, Columbus, Indiana is an internationally renowned center of modernist architecture, with no fewer than six National Historic Landmarks in a modernist style).

The obvious question here is how much leadership had to do with it. So many of these large tier one type cities came back at the same time that it seems likely some common outside force like globalization was the real driver. Or at least that it was a prerequisite to enable the leadership to be effective. However, there are some examples like Columbus that appear to be less the result of outside forces.

Civic Sector Led Revitalization

Some cities have done well in models without a single dominant leader such as a larger than life mayor. In Indianapolis, for example, it was a broader coalition of business, community, and institutional leaders that championed items such as their sports hosting strategy that had a transformational impact. This is the model most cities try to use, but it has failed nine times out of ten in delivering transformational impact, so would appear to be a very high risk strategy.

What other models suggest themselves? I won’t claim this as a comprehensive list.

A Look At Providence and Rhode Island

Where does Rhode Island fit in? Well, it hasn’t seen a turnaround yet. But there has been a sort of slow growth in personal incomes that could add up over time. In this light, Providence would be a sort of Pittsburgh-like city from a lifecycle perspective, though I should note with a much smaller asset base. Alon Levy made the case for this view last year in a piece called “The Quiet Revival”:

Rhode Island may have one of the highest unemployment rates in the US today, but income growth is high; things are slowly getting better. The most visible growth in the US is in population rather than income, and so the usual markers are new housing starts, new infrastructure, and a lot of “coming soon” signs. Providence of course doesn’t have much of this. Instead, people are getting richer, slowly… Economic growth in the richest countries is slow enough that people don’t perceive it. Instead, they think it’s the domain of countries that are catching up, such as China, where it’s so fast it includes new construction and the other markers that signify population growth in the first world. In the long run, it matters that a city’s income grows 1.8% a year rather than 1.1%, but it’s not visible enough to be captured by trend articles until long after the spurt of growth has started.

Given the lack of structural economic forces boosting the city, and a comparatively small base of newcomers, particularly outside of Providence proper and other core cities, this will likely have to do for now, unless we witness the emergence of a disruptive and transformational type leader.

This post originally appeared in GoLocalProv on August 26, 2013.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile.

Photo by Will Hart.

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Anti growth policies will mean any decline is permanent

One point I like to make on this general subject.

A city with anti growth policies and inflated urban land prices, will probably NEVER recover from an economic decline.

For example, Liverpool in the UK. It is absurd to have a local economy similar to Detroit, yet housing to still be unaffordable.


Under "Natural Lifecycle Progression you include the phrase "It is worth NOTHING that Pittsburgh..." Is that a typo? Freudian slip perhaps?

Athena, It was a typo.


It was a typo. Thanks for catching it!