Can the Rust Belt be saved?

A new study shows that while many Rust Belt cities are experiencing population losses, their suburbs are holding steady. Could revitalizing city cores save these former industrial centers?

Cities such as Buffalo and Detroit haven’t lost population because residents have packed up and relocated to places with warmer weather and better business. Residents are still hanging around—just not within official city limits.

The populations of many former industrial cities may be decreasing, but their suburbs continue to grow—and it is this failure to address urban sprawl that dooms the Rust Belt, reports Kaid Benfield, co-founder of Smart Growth America.

A new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland supports the argument that a dense urban core is vital to the strength of a city, Benfield says. The study, which examined population changes within 180 different metro areas, looked specifically at gains or losses throughout the area’s tracts, or regions that are defined for census purposes. For more information on the authors' methods, read the original report (pdf).

What they found might have profound implications on the way city planners operate. In regions that grew (think Atlanta and Chicago), the tracts near the center of the city stayed relatively steady compared to those in the suburbs. In those that shrank (e.g., Cleveland, Detroit), however, a much greater proportion of the population loss occurred in the city centers.

Benfield writes:

The comeback of America’s downtowns and adjoining older neighborhoods is real. But in those metros that lost population (e.g., Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo), losses remained greatest near the cores. A sign of encouragement for the shrinking regions… may be that their downtowns lost significantly less population after 2000 than did census tracts between three and fifteen miles from the central business district.

While strengthening and revitalizing declining city centers might be too daunting a task for municipal governments to handle, the business-minded could be able to make things work. If entrepreneurs and business leaders become interested in building better downtowns, these cities might still stand a chance.

Photo: Bob Jagendorf/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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