Youngstown, Ohio: The Incredible Shrinking City

Facing steep population decline, Youngstown, Ohio, is repositioning itself.

When the mills shut down in the 1970s and ’80s, the smokestacks and foundries that symbolized steel belt manufacturing cities gave way to factory shells and rust. First unemployed, workers then began to move away for good. Unlike former steel powerhouses, such as Pittsburgh and Allentown, that have tried to attract new industry and grow their way back to prosperity, Youngstown, Ohio, is hitching its future to a strategy of creative shrinkage.

Last year Youngstown 2010—a partnership between the city’s planning department and Youngstown State University—unveiled a comprehensive plan to reduce nonessential infrastructure, attract new businesses, and rehab deteriorated and abandoned spaces. In fact Youngstown is the first city in the United States to adopt this disarming approach to the problems of population decline. “It’s politically and professionally uncomfortable to face the shrinkage of a city or region, even though it may be staring you in the face,” says Frank Popper, an urban-planning professor at Rutgers and Princeton universities. “I think it’s enormously brave and creative and innovative of Youngstown to be taking on this task.”

Brave? Maybe. But Youngstown has little choice: once a city of more than 170,000, it counts roughly 80,000 residents today. The town had to recast itself as a smaller place. “You had all of this excess infrastructure and a declining tax base,” says Oliver Jerschow of Urban Strategies, which developed the basis for Youngstown 2010’s plan. “But on the positive side, Youngstown had these legacies that a typical city of eighty thousand would never have.” Those legacies include assorted cultural venues, a 140-acre university campus, and the five-mile-long Mill Creek Park.

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The city’s willingness to downsize attracted Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC), whose Shrinking Cities Institute partnered with Youngstown for last year’s annual charrette. The institute focused on Oak Hill, a neighborhood that, with a staggering 60 percent vacancy rate, ranks among Youngstown’s most blighted. “We wanted to take the vacancy and turn it into an asset rather than the liability it is now,” CUDC senior planner Terry Schwarz says.

Over the course of a weekend last October, four teams of design students, Kent State faculty, and CUDC staff worked on new visions for the neighborhood that would eliminate redundant infrastructure and capture key parcels to create large open green spaces. Shrinkage is a new problem requiring new solutions, according to Schwarz, so in mapping out their designs the students had to depart from the New Urbanist strategy of replacing empty lots with infill developments. “In Youngstown there’s zero demand for new residential development and very little demand for retail uses,” she says. “So the things we usually do—mixed-use housing with green space and such—didn’t have any relevance here because it simply would never happen.”

But if Youngstown’s residents don’t need housing, people from neighboring regions do. Ultimately the city may have to surrender to its location and become a bedroom community for Cleveland and Pittsburgh, each about 70 miles away. So in the end growing smaller may transform Youngstown into something else, says Charles Waldheim, a University of Toronto architecture professor who participated in the most recent Shrinking Cities conference. “To the extent that northeastern Ohio has a market for housing,” he says, “it seems that Youngstown’s future is making itself available for the garden living of the suburb.”

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