Rightsizing: In The Meantime

by Letters 4 the Damned

Rightsizing: In The Meantime

For legacy cities rightsizing has become a major concern. As jobs leave the area the city declines and not only does it suffer from increased crime, poverty and obsolete education but as people leave they leave their homes behind. Though “the impacts of population loss are not purely physical”(The 110th American Assembly, 4) a major concern is vacancy and abandonment. The Rustbelt has been the main victim of this loss in population. “The places that built America into a financially optimistic middle-class nation on the move—Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Youngstown, Rochester—have been plagued by population loss for decades.” (Bertron and Rypkema, 1) “While some older cities began to rebound in the 1990s, others are still losing population and jobs. These include large cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, as well as many smaller cities such as Youngstown, Scranton, Saginaw, Trenton, and Utica.” (The 110th American Assembly, 5) Much of our history has been comprised of accommodating population growth so this idea of adjusting for population loss or rightsizing is a fairly new and at times controversial concept. Previous attempts at urban renewal initiated by the 1949 Housing Act failed miserably to say the least. Though the goal was honorable, to provide “a decent home and suitable living environment for every U.S. family”(Fishman, 204), the methods that this act utilized completely undermined the goal and resulted in hyper segregated ghetto’s and profited large businesses who demolished low income housing and replaced it with middle to high end condos, homes, and apartments. This forever left a stain on the idea of urban renewal/rightsizing and is why these processes are referred to now as long-range plans. Furthermore in regards to city plans, rightsizing is talked about more than it is put into action. The 1990 city plan of Cleveland mentions rightsizing and similar terminology, as at that point it was an issue that could no longer be ignored. Yet, despite its large impact on communities, rightsizing strategy in most cases is not a primary focus. Youngstown’s comprehensive plan seems to be one of the few that directly addresses and focuses on needed rightsizing efforts. Although new strategies of urban renewal include reusing land for things such as community gardens or sports parks, converting and repairing once abandoned buildings for reuse, and preserving the culture of a community through historic preservation it is still a somewhat taboo topic due to its prior history. “Public meetings around rightsizing are much more rare, likely reflecting political wariness around the issue.”(Bertron and Rypkema, 5). Despite the stigmatization of rightsizing the majority of the cities are turning towards agency cooperation and assistance regarding the issue. By consulting not only other cities that are having similar troubles but federal and state agencies as well, municipalities are developing a better understanding of how to approach rightsizing with methods that benefit, not harm, the community. It is important to note that every city is different but previously successful methods are a great place to begin and can be tailored to better suit individual communities. In regards to Cleveland one of its biggest recent successes is the innovative bus rapid transit line, this “$200 million transit investment has triggered over $4 billion in investment in the teeth of a brutal recession.”(The 110th American Assembly, 10) Other investments include a 500 million dollar investment by CSU to “reconnect the city and support a residential campus”(The 110th American Assembly, 10) while Cleveland Clinic invests in clinical and research facilities and University Circle, Inc. evolves into a “community service organization.” (The 110th American Assembly, 10) ”The BRT investment proved to be catalytic in triggering institutional and market-responsive investment.” (The 110th American Assembly, 10) All of these above efforts and successes address rightsizing through encouraging residents to move back to the core. As has been seen, partly because of these types of development, there is an increase in population particularly from 2 emerging types of demographic trends, both young professionals and empty nesters are returning to the city. Population decline is still a major concern because even while “the number of middle-class American’s who want to live in central cities seems to be growing, it is far below the number of people still moving out of cities.”(Favro, 2) Rightsizing can address population decline through adjusting the physical fabric of a city such as with demolition, yet one of its most effective methods is using redevelopment rather than demolition to encourage population growth. While preservation in this regard is a very effective method it still manages to play a small role in this process. Though its methods are effective and innovative, unfortunately for the time being “Preservationists are aware of what’s happening but they’re doing triage. They’re not really in dialogue with people who are creatively rethinking the city.”(Bertron and Rypkema, 12). Whether it’s the politicized nature of Cleveland or an unequal distribution of power among city organizations rightsizing efforts are still, as in other cities, far behind the needs of the community.

Cleveland, Youngstown, Buffalo, and Detroit all lost half their population in the recent 50 years and in 2010 at least 20 cities began drafting formal plans for rightsizing. As of that same year “one in 13 houses in Cleveland sat empty”(Moe, 1) and one noticeable common theme has been that “nearly all of the shrinking cities in the United States have exceptional universities and relatively healthy suburbs.”(Favro, 1) The common cause behind this is arguably that the suburbs have drawn the population from the city in a sprawling manner while high tech jobs that support suburban development are generated via the universities. Earlier methods such as in the late 1970’s when “Cleveland tweaked local law to help the city reclaim and redevelop abandoned properties.”(Dokoupil, 2) have largely focused on demolition. This idea of “bulldozers, grass seed, and foreclosure law” (Dokoupil, 2) won awards from academic institutions such as Harvard as is in the case of Genesee County, Michigan in 2007. This same demolition approach to rightsizing was carried out emphatically in Pittsburgh under 29-year-old Mayor Luke Ravenstahl who aggressively addressed 28,000 abandoned parcels and tripled the demolition budget as well as a creating a “Green Team” to clear lots and sell them for 200 dollars to nearby residents. Though demolition is a key theme in most rustbelt cities and is successful in reducing blight, the demolition method of rightsizing “failed to impact crime, attract new investment, or reduce the rate of housing abandonment” (Favro, 1) solving only a part of the problem. Furthermore, this demolition perspective on rightsizing led to criticism, stalling rightsizing efforts in cities such as Youngstown, Ohio. This is why strategies such as preservation are an excellent alternative option to demolition. Baltimore’s efforts, similar to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, have begun to focus on newer redevelopment strategies such as developing new parks and housing on inner city streets rather than just leaving behind vacant lots. Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation pointed out “even in areas where widespread demolition is unavoidable, we should preserve pockets of unique housing and landmark buildings wherever possible.” Not only have preservation strategies been shown to increase property value but it is also a valuable tool in rebuilding community morale. In Cleveland, historic preservation is beginning to emerge more and more as a solution to population decline issues and although the politicized system makes it difficult at times, much headway has been made. These alternative options are catching on as evidenced in Youngstown, Ohio when they became a trend starter through the use of a comprehensive plan for rightsizing, which did not rely on the more conventional methods of redevelopment. It instead focused on the green movement including reusing land for various communal purposes. These “innovative uses for vacated land” such as “urban agriculture, reforestation, and parkland creation” are being utilized more often “to manage vacated portions of a city.” (Moe, 2) The Obama administration is a large supporter of reusing vacant property and has funneled 2 billion dollars to aid in rightsizing through the use of land banks. “Policymakers are increasingly considering the land bank model to address the problem of vacant and abandoned properties in cities like Cleveland, which has an abundance of vacant housing.”(Fitzpatrick, 1) More importantly, cities like Cleveland are dealing with concentrated areas of abandoned and vacant housing that attract criminal activity. Several factors discourage private investment in these areas, the strongest being the quality of the land. Land banks purchase undesirable land and clear it of defects allowing private companies to get insurance on otherwise uninsurable land. This encourages private investment and allows for productive reuse of the land. Other land that is not invested in can simply be returned to nature to be used as open or green space, aiding in environmental health of both neighborhoods and the general world climate. Through my research I have come to find that while some cities do differ in strategy, largely rightsizing is being addressed through national and interstate cooperation. Overall strategy changes when new methods are shown to be effective in the areas that they are applied thus rightsizing is a cooperative effort and should be, due to its varying complex nature, evolving strategies, and relatively new nature.

I am quite certain that given time rightsizing policy and procedure will adapt to what works. However I do feel at the moment reuse and redevelopment should be the main focus, and that historic preservation is an excellent tool in supporting this broader strategy. In Cleveland in particular these issues need to be more aggressively addressed. The welfare of a community should not be victimized in the name of politics. We see this same attitude at the national level in regards to congress at the moment. Individuals who hold political office must hold in higher regard the general welfare of the people they serve rather than their personal bias. Politics are what need to be adjusted, as many of these strategies could be more easily applied if it were not for the politicized nature of our city and other cities as well. This evolution of serving the public into serving the self is the main issue, and though as idealistic and utopian in nature as it may seem, it would not be ethical to accept otherwise. In the meantime we must work harder as a community to push forth these efforts and establish the importance of rightsizing and while legislation takes its time and personal notions hinder policy, maybe we should build a community garden while we wait.


American Assembly, The. Reinventing America’s Legacy Cities. Publication of the 110th American Assembly. April 2011.

Bertron, Cara and Donovan Rypkema. 2012. Historic Preservation and Rightsizing: Current Practices and Resources Survey. Washington, DC: Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Dokoupil, T. (2009, November 26). Cutting Down To Size: How Pittsburgh Is Managing Population Loss. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://mag.newsweek.com/2009/11/26/cutting-down-to-size.html

Favro, T. (2010, April 5). American cities seek to discover their right size. Retrieved from http://www.citymayors.com/development/us-rightsizing-cities.html

Fishman, R. (2000). The American Metropolis at Century’s End: Past and Future Influences. Housing Policy Debate, 11(1), 199-213.

Fitzpatrick, T. J. IV. (2008, December) Understanding Ohio’s Land Bank Legislation. Policy Discussion Papers. 25, 1-12.

Moe, R. (2010, January 3). Rightsizing shrinking cities requires patience and prudence. Plain Dealer. Retrieved from http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2010/01/rightsizing_shrinking_cities_r.html