Youngstown 2010: What shrinkage looks like, what Detroit could learn

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- "Are you moving poor people out of their houses?" a Detroit woman asks Jay Williams, mayor of Youngstown, at  a recent symposium at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Williams was speaking about Youngstown 2010, a citywide plan adopted in 2005 that focuses on making Youngstown, a city east of Akron near the Pennsylvania border, relevant and alive. Youngstown's population is shrinking, and downsizing, right-sizing, or whatever you want to call it, is a major component of the plan. The question of how to relocate people is huge. The thought of closing neighborhoods, cutting services and moving the widow Mrs. Jones out of the house she raised her children in touches a nerve.

The scars of urban renewal are still visible in Detroit and most urban cities in the Great Lake region. To some, downsizing sounds like a fancy term for urban renewal, or code for moving the poor and the black out of neighborhoods that have gone to disarray. A large part of Detroit is poor and black, so any type of shrinking plan would affect people fitting those demographics.

Is Youngstown forcing poor people to move? "No, we're not," Williams told the woman in Detroit. "(Youngstown 2010) had to be larger than just land use."

Since adopting the Youngstown 2010 plan five years ago, the city has offered four relocation opportunities to residents in neighborhoods where, based on the city's data and planning, continued investment doesn't fit. All four declined, and the city respected that. Services haven't been cut; these residents still have trash removal, water and electricity.

Youngstown's efforts to right size -- guided by the 2010 plan -- have been less about relocation and more about accepting the city's smaller size, prioritizing funds, diversifying the economy, adopting smarter land use and sustainable planning practices, and thinking ahead.

"It's not just what we've done, but what we haven't done," says Bill D'Avignon, Youngtown's city planning director. " It's not just implementing and achieving, but changing practices -- not willy-nilly investment. We know the neighborhoods now; know what type of investment (the city) needs.

"Could we have done this without Youngstown 2010? Maybe, but probably not."

Making the city more nimble

The data and the mapping that Youngstown State University put together made the city's massive problems digestible. It showed where people were and weren't, as well as where to put money and where not to. "We better understood our priorities," D'Avignon says. "We've weathered the economic crisis better than most, I think, because of this plan."

Williams agrees that the city's right-sizing efforts have made it smaller and stronger fiscally. Though the general fund is down, "we're still moving forward," he says. "We've had some layoffs and cuts. We're restructuring city government little by little and treading water, waiting to get back up to speed. But we haven't been devastated ... and we can look to Youngstown 2010 for that. We're way more nimble."

The 2010 plan also called for diversifying the economy. Tax incentive programs, like the Youngstown Initiative, have assisted in bringing in and retaining investment throughout the city, as well as turning downtown around, from a ghost town with knee-high weeds to a vibrant place for eating, drinking and business making.

There is still steel business left: V&M Star Steel in the city's northwest corner, for example, is investing $650 million in its site. But other jobs are coming, too. A company from Los Angeles is establishing a global fulfillment center right downtown, a $4 million investment that could bring in as many as 1,000 jobs. An industrial park northwest of downtown called Salt Springs is home to a can manufacturing company that has just expanded its production another $100 million.

It's a small world

"I like what Williams is doing," says Robin Boyle, professor and chair of Wayne State University's Department of Geography and Urban Planning. "It's not all about what's happening on the ground, but the aggressive change in language."

Youngstown 2010 introduced an idea that a city can accept itself as shrinking and move forward. Williams says that Youngstown 2010 helped change the perception of Youngstown to Youngstowners. Words like sustainable, planning, image, smaller, vision, are peppered throughout the plan. Williams and company also unleashed a PR campaign, created a logo, and slapped it on every single project of progress, no matter how small, in Youngstown -- even just demoed structures turned into manicured lots.

"It was showing change, it was redefining the community, it was progress, and that was what Youngstown 2010 was," Williams says.

"Youngstown 2010 has been a significant whole new development of politics, language, dialogue, and coalitions," says Hunter Morrison, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at YSU.

There is no text book on how to resize a city, he adds. "The thing is, we're talking about (right-sizing), but really we don't know how to do it," Morrison says. "We don't teach kids this stuff. It was smart growth for a while; now it's smart shrinking. We don't know how to restructure these places. It's a new frontier."

Cities are like lungs, Morrison says. They breathe in and breathe out. Places like Youngstown and Detroit just need to figure out how to breathe better.

"Nobody fully understands the terms," Boyle says, and motions towards his bookshelf. "All of these careers and books and papers, we're not sure what this all means. What we do know is that we're a world of more, coming into a world of less. And it's important to have a communitywide understanding that the future means less."

Historically, nearly every American city that has experienced shrinkage has just pushed through it. Youngstown could have a model to change this. "We're creating a model to be smaller, better and more nimble," Williams says.

Serious shrinkage is decades away

While Youngstown's population has shrunk likely below 70,000, the city's infrastructure is still covering its 36-square miles the same as when 170,000 people lived there. In the last five years Youngstown has positioned itself on a path toward implementing more of the 2010 plan's land-use measures.

"We've stopped building things scattered," Morrison says. There is no new housing construction, unless a development is directly related to the university. "We've rethought downtown's landscape and maintained that land. We've spent more on landscaping and greening investments. We've brought in a farmers market. This all matters. Has it resulted in wholesale change? No. But it helps. It'll take as long to fix as it did to break. In 2030 we'll see a difference for sure."

Relocation isn't off the table. It's still part of the process, but relocation is step 50 and Youngstown may be at step 15. There are a lot of levels between planning for right-sizing and truly right-sizing.

And for now, that one house on that empty block in a neighborhood that is no longer viable for investment will probably end up staying in that neighborhood. "This will not be urban renewal," Morrison says. "Mrs. Smith will have the full rights of citizenship. We'll make sure she is OK. And, at some point, she may want to do something with her house or land."

There is other progress on the ground. The city, community and university are armed with data and a plan. And, just like Detroit (and maybe the one thing Detroit can match with Youngstown), there are passionate groups across the city -- like the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, the Idora Neighborhood Association, and Wick Neighbors Inc. -- pushing to improve Youngstown's quality of life, reduce blight, build neighborhood confidence and keep Youngstowners informed.

The YNDC is working closely with the Idora Neighborhood Association to aggressively remove the blight and restore the neighborhood. Ian Beniston, assistance director of the YNDC, says that in six months Idora will look considerably different.

In Wick Park, organizers are aggressively pursuing the development of urban gardens along Wick Avenue, where nearly a half dozen car dealers formerly stood. (More on some of those projects here.)

But passion alone doesn't remove blight, fix schools, build coalitions, collect and organize data; it takes leadership and political will.

Where's Detroit's 2020 plan?

There are a variety of programs already rolling in Detroit that will change the city in 10 years, as the Detroit Free Press recently pointed out. Planning superstar Toni Griffin is coming to Detroit to get ducks in a row. Bing told NBC's "Dateline" that Detroit needs to consolidate. But Detroit does not yet have a plan to guide it through the next decade.

Though Youngstown is considerably smaller than Detroit, and though Youngstown 2010 is, essentially, still a fledgling plan, there are things to pull from it.

"Look to the anchors. They'll play a monumental roll in Detroit," Williams says. "Target neighborhoods, work on those neighborhoods, put resources in those neighborhoods. … Target six smaller Detroit communities. Focus on those; address those quality of life issues specifically. Whatever the plan, it has to be bigger than the mayor and the city council. We come and go. The city isn't going to go anywhere.

And keep the process moving forward, he says. "We indoctrinated Youngstown 2010, put it in the charter to amend it at least every 10 years. … It's almost like breathing."

This is something Detroit can emulate, Boyle says.

"We're going to be a smaller place, with certain nodes of activity, a revamped school system. Strong nodes with stuff in between," Boyle says. "Once people get behind that and can say, 'Yep, we're gonna have 650,000 people with core strength,' then we can move (forward). That's the first thing. Long, long, long before land use is a part of the talk."

Morrison sums it up nicely: "The time is now. It's time to rethink Detroit not as it was, but as it will be.

"There are 900,000 stories in the big city," he says. "And you're going to have to listen to them all. It'll be a daunting task, but it needs to be done."

Mr. Bing, I hope you have your notepad ready.

Terry Parris Jr. has 900,000 stories to tell, and he shares many of them in Model D each week. Send feedback here.


Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams looking at vacant property map - Youngstown City Hall

Mayor Jay Williams - Youngstown City Hall

Cracking paint in Wick Park - Youngstown, Ohio

Urban garden in Wick Park - Youngstown, Ohio

Abandoned, blighted house in Wick Park - Youngstown, Ohio

You Can Change Youngstown - Youngstown, Ohio

Photos by Terry Parris Jr.
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