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opinion | alan mallach and lavea brachman

Gateway cities don’t need a silver bullet

They have been called shrinking cities and gateway cities. But by any label — our preferred term is legacy cities — medium-sized metropolitan areas struggling with manufacturing decline and population loss are a never-ending project in many parts of the country, including Massachusetts. Almost every year some silver bullet — a sports arena, a casino, a conference center — promises salvation and rebirth for Brockton, Lawrence, New Bedford, Springfield, or Pittsfield. Avoiding the fate of Detroit, which just filed for bankruptcy, only adds to the pressure for a big solution.

The truth is the silver-bullet syndrome can inhibit revitalization. A megaproject can become an important asset, but it is not a strategy for change in itself, unless it is integrated into larger schemes to make a meaningful contribution to the city’s future. A more incremental approach built on collaboration and partnerships — combined with a fresh appreciation of existing assets, beginning with the physical urban form of these cities — holds more promise for rebuilding.

The way forward may look a bit more like silver buckshot — with a focus on these key areas:

■   Have faith in downtowns. The physical fabric of the central core, with density, a walkable urban texture, and proximity to major institutions and employers, is a powerful attraction for young single people and couples, and a strong basis for residential redevelopment. Set a friendly regulatory environment for infill redevelopment, reinvent public spaces, and encourage private market reuse of older buildings.

■   Sustain viable neighborhoods. In these targeted areas, build partnerships with neighborhood associations and community development corporations to implement multifaceted neighborhood strategies that draw demand, rebuild housing markets, and address destabilizing elements such as crime, foreclosure, and property abandonment.


■   Don’t be afraid to demolish. Repurposing large inventories of vacant land strategically is a major springboard for change in heavily disinvested areas. Cities should explore large-scale reconfiguration of land uses, including the use of vacant land properties for public open space, urban agriculture, or stormwater management.

■   Reinvent the economic base. Not every city can become the next biotech capital. But an honest assessment of local assets and regional competitive advantages can help build new export-oriented economies. Partner with local educational institutions and major employers to build an educational and workforce development plan and a competitive regional labor market.

■   Build new partnerships. In almost every city, universities and medical centers — “eds and meds” — are bedrock institutions, part of a foundational network of public, nonprofit, and private collaboration. Similarly, state and federal governments must rethink their roles, becoming more nimble, more effective, and less biased toward suburban areas.


■   Make sure all city residents benefit from change. Many cities are fractured, with large and growing economic and racial disparities. Engaging residents, and providing the educational and workforce development systems they need to become competitive, can build a stronger city for everyone.

In our research for the report “Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities,’’ an analysis of 18 of these struggling cities published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, one additional theme came up time and again: Strong regions are a distinguishing feature of thriving cities around the world.

While legacy cities and their regions are already inextricably linked by social and economic realities, far more must be done to make these connections positive forces for regenerating both the city and the rest of the region. Public policy changes at both state and national levels should be pursued to foster greater regional integration. Regionalized infrastructure, particularly transit, sewer, and water systems, should be encouraged to strengthen city and regional ties that foster economic growth.

All this may sound as if so many pieces need to fall in place. They do. Yet an approach we call “strategic incrementalism” can help keep the momentum going. The daunting obstacles to change can be overcome through a process of gradual, incremental actions driven by a shared vision. Rather than devote significant time and resources to large-scale comprehensive planning, legacy cities should focus on building partnerships, supporting multiple initiatives, and more organically internalizing a shared vision for the future.


America’s legacy cities were once the great economic engines of this country. The right mixture of new forms and directions, fueled by their powerful assets and historic can-do culture of achievement, can provide the springboard for a new era of prosperity.

Alan Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. Lavea Brachman is executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center.