Central City Revitalization Research Paper

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1. Definition

As cities age, their physical features gradually deteriorate. Buildings, public facilities, vegetation, open spaces, and other elements may be involved. Careful maintenance and preservation can minimize this process, but with the passage of time, nearly all structures, spaces, and other features will have to be restored, rebuilt, or replaced. This process, usually accompanied by negative economic and social conditions, is termed central city (or urban) decline. Ameliorative responses to these forces are known as central city revitalization. While improving the condition and appearance of buildings, parks, streets, and the other elements of the urban environment is the most obvious goal, closely linked are desires to improve economic and social circumstances for those who live in, work in, or visit the city.

2. Historical Evolution

From the very earliest human settlements to modern world metropolises, the revitalization of cities is an enduring theme in world history. Cities have been rebuilt in response to the depredations of warring invaders and the destruction from volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and earthquakes. More commonly, the forces of urban decline act less dramatically and over many decades. For example, during the Renaissance the medieval sections of several European cities were replanned. The clergy or nobility demolished ancient walls, straightened and widened streets, removed aged buildings, and added parks, monuments, and aesthetically pleasing visual features. The rebuilding of Rome under a sixteenth-century plan prepared by Pope Sixtus V and his assistant Domenico Fontana is a most notable example. In the early nineteenth century, royal architect John Nash redesigned a series of narrow London streets into today’s Regent Street, which connects Piccadilly Circus to Regent’s Park (also designed by Nash). Napoleon III’s Prefect of the Seine, Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, tore out thousands of Parisian slum buildings and built wide boulevards with landscaping, arches, and statuary in the mid-nineteenth century (Barnett 1986). The City Beautiful movement in the USA brought plans to revitalize San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and other central cities in the early twentieth century.

3. Contemporary Central City Revitalization

Central city revitalization is associated here with a more modern expression of this idea. A central city is generally thought to be a more densely populated urban core surrounded by a metropolitan area of lower density but larger land area. Many central cities in the advanced industrial nations of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have experienced decline, primarily since the middle of the twentieth century. There is little question however that of these, the USA has suffered the most severe and widespread central city deterioration. There is general agreement among social scientists and urban planners that suburbanization (the relocation of businesses and predominantly middle-and upper-income households from central cities to suburbs) has been the primary dynamic influencing these outcomes. While experts disagree on precisely how and why rapid suburbanization occurred, most concur that it was a combination of the attractiveness of suburban life and the desire to escape the noise, congestion, crime, declining schools, and changing racial, ethnic, and social profiles of city residents.

As urban decline progressed in the USA, once middle-class city neighborhoods became lower-income enclaves. Landlords reduced maintenance due to diminished income and city agencies cut public services in response to lower tax receipts. In most cases, overcrowding occurred, crime increased, tensions arose between older and newer residents, and more households departed for the suburbs. Downtown department stores and shops followed their customers outward, establishing suburban outlets at shopping centers and regional malls. Corporations sought more modern factory and office space in the suburbs. Maritime industries such as fishing and shipping relocated their operations away from the historic city waterfronts due to higher costs, eroding dockage, and the introduction of new cargo-handling technologies. National and state government programs built more highways connecting cities to outlying areas, making it easier for more affluent families to live in the suburbs and commute to central city employment. By the latter half of the twentieth century other advanced industrial nations experienced many of these urban forces, though generally with less severity than the USA. Cities such as London, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, and Toronto began to experience demographic shifts in their centers, rising suburbanization, and disinvestment in their downtowns, some neighborhoods, industrial areas, and waterfronts. In most cases private market interests were insufficient to reverse these trends and it was necessary for national, state, and local governments to step in.

The first era of central city revitalization was under way by the 1950s and is generally termed ‘urban renewal.’ While the details varied from nation to nation and city to city, urban renewal usually involved financing and rules provided by the national government, with program implementation by the municipal and/or state governments. Real property in declining central city enclaves was acquired, occupants were moved to other locations in the city, decaying structures were demolished, large areas were cleared and master plans for redevelopment were prepared. Land was sold cheaply, supportive public facilities were upgraded, and other incentives were provided. In the USA in many cases, hospitals and universities expanded into these areas. In downtowns, pedestrian walkways, parking garages and office buildings were constructed. Often, public or social housing for low-and moderate-income households was erected, although fewer units were built to replace the number destroyed, lowering population densities. By the 1970s a combination of the high public costs of urban renewal, the politically and legally contentious issues of land acquisition through condemnation and eminent domain, and the social disruption of compulsory household relocation brought urban renewal to a halt in several nations.

Gradually, national governments replaced urban renewal with a more selective approach. This process, never known by a singular identifying phrase, could be called ‘urban conservation.’ The emphasis in urban conservation was the rehabilitation and restoration of older buildings, their re-use for new purposes, isolated or ‘spot’ land clearance and relocation, and greater efforts to involve indigenous residents, businesses, and institutions in planning for the future of their communities. Instead of erasing older neighborhoods, concern was for extending their utility and, where necessary, adapting them to new uses. Closely allied with this trend was the growing popularity of historic preservation and an awakened interest (primarily among young adults) in architecture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These urban ‘gentry’ fed a process now known as ‘gentrification.’ While some of the gentry were the beneficiaries of government subsidies designed to spur urban conservation, most received no public assistance for renovating their own homes (Davies 1980, Gale 1984).

Urban conservation sought to revitalize other central city sections as well. Downtown storefronts were rehabilitated, streets were repaved and new lighting, vegetation, signage, and other features were added. Public spaces were built or expanded and new or upgraded mass transit systems were installed. Rotting piers and dilapidated factories and fish processing operations were removed from waterfronts and replaced by marinas, parks, pedestrian ways, restaurants, housing, hotels, and entertainment facilities (Breen and Rigby 1994).

Obviously, central city revitalization is a complex process, unfolding over several years, even decades, with multiple participants, complicated financing mechanisms, and a multiplicity of people who are affected in various ways. It may be understood from several disciplinary perspectives.

3.1 Physical Dimensions

Nothing conveys the impression of decline more readily than the/sheer visual impact of deteriorating architecture, bridges, streets, street furniture, parks, playgrounds, schools, public transit systems, and the other physical manifestations of urban life. These many signs of deterioration contribute to an ethos of disrespect among residents, often resulting in poor maintenance, vandalism, and destruction. Those forced to live in slums, dispirited by their surroundings, are left to measure their personal worth in terms of the sights and sounds that greet them each day. Visitors to the city avoid these enclaves, if possible, further isolating their residents and limiting their economic opportunities. Another impact of decline is the/sheer ineffectiveness with which such conditions serve their residents and others. Uninhabitable dwellings and apartments offer no shelter, vacant factories and offices provide no jobs, empty shops offer no goods or services, deteriorating schools undermine educational processes, and broken playground equipment provides no recreation. The physical dimensions of urban decline usually result in a lack of confidence among property owners, banks, and developers which contributes to further disinvestment, thus compounding the dilemma.

3.2 Economic Dimensions

Closely related to these conditions are the economic dimensions of central city decline. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, central city decline was blamed mainly on rising suburbanization in Western societies and the attendant devaluation of urban locations. Since then, the world has undergone increased economic restructuring, resulting in firms relocating business activity not merely to the suburbs but to other regions and nations altogether. As traditional employment in manufacturing industries declined, especially in central cities, employment in fields requiring higher education accelerated. Some cities ‘captured’ more of these jobs than others. Aggressive investment followed and in cities such as San Francisco, Boston, Sydney, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vancouver, London, Frankfurt, Geneva, Brussels, Madrid, and Paris, downtown, waterfront, and neighborhood revitalization has been widespread.

Questions have been raised of cities that have been less successful regarding how much financial support governments should supply to prop up urban economies. While nearly all cities advance revitalization programs and projects with government incentives such as loan, grant, and tax relief schemes, some have been more effective at attracting private sector investment than others. Should billions of dollars of scarce government resources continue to be invested in these less promising communities? Or, should they be spent on other social needs such as health care or environmental protection? Does it make more sense economically to help needy people in city centers to move to the suburbs, where job, housing, and education opportunities are often better? Economic issues such as these have accompanied the late twentieth century phenomenon of central city revitalization.

3.3 Social Dimensions

The primary social cost associated with revitalization is the displacement or dislocation of low-income households, often racial or ethnic minorities, as the prices of housing appreciate due to increased investment activity. Rents and property taxes may be raised in response to these forces and tenants are forced to make way for more affluent successors. The socioeconomic composition of a residential neighborhood is likely to change as a result of these dynamics, and religious, ethnic, and cultural organizations may lose members. Small businesses in downtowns and neighborhoods may lose their lease and vacate their premises, leaving low-skilled employees jobless. In short, the positive economic outcomes of revitalization do not redound equally to the benefit of all who live or work in the city (Sanders 1980).

3.4 Political Dimensions

Whenever there are threats to the existing social and demographic composition of central cities, there are political implications, as well. While city administrators may promote revitalization activities, some elected officials with constituents in the affected areas are likely to resist. This is especially true in ethnic and racial minority voting districts that have elected a city councilperson, for example, from their own ranks. Fearful that the councilperson will not be re-elected if the composition of the neighborhood electorate changes significantly, they may promote organized resistance to reinvestment and displacement activities.

On the other hand, pro-growth political administrations in city governments, keen to attract revitalization activity, may overlook or disregard the negative externalities (i.e., unintended outcomes), such as household displacement, which result. Collaborating with developers, banks, corporations, and investment firms, so-called ‘growth machines’ or ‘regimes’ result, which foster economic growth with little regard for the negative effects on low-income and minority households, as well as their businesses and institutions (Logan and Swanstrom 1990, Teaford 1990).

3.5 Historic Cultural Dimensions

As central city urban renewal and highway construction removed thousands of older structures during the 1950s and 1960s, a growing appreciation arose for the historic and cultural legacies being destroyed. Historic preservationists organized and local governments enacted historic landmark and district ordinances to protect older neighborhoods and sections of downtowns and waterfronts. Urban conservation replaced urban renewal as government officials and business interests recognized that a community’s historic identification could enhance the local tourism economy. Railroad stations, public schools, warehouses, factories, hotels, office buildings, movie theaters, churches, and other structures, depending on their age and stylistic identity, qualified for special protective measures. Revitalization schemes often adapted the older structures to new uses. In other cases only the street-facing facades of aged buildings were preserved, while the interiors were demolished and replaced with modern spaces. Notable examples of historic districts include the Vieux Carre in New Orleans, the Old City of Quebec, the Altstadt in Bonn, the Lace District of Nottingham, the Marais in Paris, and Gamla Stan in Stockholm.

3.6 Design Dimensions

Closely related to the historic significance of urban spaces are the challenges to architects and designers of integrating modern structures into historic settings. New office buildings and hotels, for example, can tower over cathedrals or public libraries built in the last century, casting shadows. Newer materials such as glass, concrete, and steel do not necessarily blend in with the brownstone, brick, or granite surfaces of another century. Larger structures generate more vehicular and pedestrian traffic, causing access and parking problems. Some successful design projects have created ensembles of existing and new buildings, joining them in complexes linked by glass-covered atria, pedestrian walkways, bridges, and other devices. In other cases, new spaces have been placed partially below-ground under and adjacent to historic buildings, thus presenting a less obtrusive profile at street level. A second challenge is the alteration of historic buildings for new uses. Sometimes called adaptive use, these conversions tax architects’ design skills as they try to accommodate modern demands for elevators, access for the handicapped, heating and cooling equipment, fiber optic cable, and office devices such as computers, photocopiers, facsimile machines, and other communication tools. Equally challenging are the constraints imposed on older buildings by local building codes, especially in settings where earthquakes, cyclones, and hurricanes occur.

3.7 Behavioral Dimensions

At least since the late nineteenth century, questions have arisen about the effects of urban environments on human behavior. Leaders of social reform movements often cited the pernicious effects of crowding, inadequate sunlight, and poor air circulation on immigrants. Alcohol abuse, mental illness, prostitution, street violence, and other forms of social deviance were sometimes linked to the debilitating effects of the slums in which they occurred. Later, urban renewal advocates implied that tearing down these blighted areas and relocating their inhabitants to newly built public or social housing would substantially reduce the incidence of social deviance. Thus, a connection— still unsupported by empirical research—was suggested between urban revitalization and behavioral change. If there is a consensus among social and behavioral scientists, it is that urban environments have moderate impacts on human behavior but that other conditions such as poverty, racial prejudice, and crime have greater explanatory power. Ironically, studies of those who were forced to move due to urban renewal or revitalization processes found that some people experienced greater personal hardships, at least over the short run, when taken out of their earlier neighborhood (Gans 1982, Nasar 1988, Schill and Nathan 1983).

3.8 Environmental Dimensions

The notion of environmental sustainability has achieved prominence since the 1970s. It argues that there are certain natural limits on the capacity of individual ecosystems to support human life without significant environmental degradation. Suburban sprawl is viewed as unsustainable, due to its extravagant consumption of space, prime agricultural soils, water supplies, water pollution, and other effects. Urban decline is seen as a consequence of suburbanization and sprawl. Central city revitalization has been advocated as a means to redirect growth from suburbs to central cities. Environmentalists and some urban planners have argued that older city centers should be revitalized and reused to meet continued human needs for urban space, rather than allowed to become underutilized, decaying slums.

4. Methodological Issues And Future Research

As a public policy issue, central city revitalization raises questions that are generic to public policy research. Are the costs of revitalization outweighed by the benefits accruing to the public? Or, in a somewhat different frame of reference, how effective are revitalization expenditures in achieving designated social objectives such as increasing property tax receipts, lowering unemployment rates, and increasing household income? Are there less expensive options for achieving the same level of effectiveness? Given the complexities of revitalization programs and the duration of time over which they must unfold to show measurable effects, these questions are difficult to answer with certainty.

Another difficult methodological issue is sometimes termed ‘the substitution dilemma.’ It asks, to what extent do public expenditures in revitalization programs engender benefits that would have been forthcoming even in the absence of those expenditures? For example, if a city government offers tax incentives to developers to invest in downtown rebuilding projects, would they have made those investments without the incentives? If market conditions were quite negative prior to commencement of the downtown program, the incentives may have been necessary. However, as conditions improve (especially after the first few developer projects have been completed), continued tax incentives for subsequent projects may not be necessary. Yet, the city government may continue to ‘substitute’ public subsidies (e.g., tax incentives) for private investment when, in fact, the investment climate has improved to the point that developers would be willing to undertake projects even without those subsidies.

A third research issue questions the impact of new technology, especially telecommunications, on the physical, economic, and social character of central city life. Suburbanization and global economic restructuring have reduced the importance of many central cities as centers of culture, religion, and commerce. With the introduction of telephones, radios, televisions, and automobiles within the past century, the necessity for central places began to unravel. Today, with the internet, computer networks, facsimile machines, cellular and digital telephones, and other devices, businesses and individuals have more locational freedom than at any time in the past. Large headquarters buildings in downtowns may become less important, especially among global industries with facilities and clients in several nations. As retail sales increasingly take place over the Internet, the need for downtown (and suburban) department stores and speciality outlets will probably diminish. With newer telecommunications equipment, white-collar workers in many fields are able to carry out their duties from their homes or other remote locations. Thus, research will be needed to understand the evolving purposes of central cities for meeting residential, commercial, cultural, and entertainment needs in the future. To be sure, there will always be human need for contact with others. Whether those needs will be sufficient to sustain large central cities into the twenty-first century, especially in their present configurations and organizational structures, remains to be seen. Urban revitalization initiatevesym pathetic to the evolving future of central cities must be carefully examined.


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