Report: Block-by-block approach best for rebuilding cities

     The Detroit skyline rises behind the Monument to Joe Louis, also known as

    The Detroit skyline rises behind the Monument to Joe Louis, also known as "The Fist". (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

    Many Pennsylvania cities have improved economically and stabilized their populations after decades of losing residents, but they’re still lagging behind the state as a whole. 

    Many Pennsylvania cities have improved economically and stabilized their populations after decades of losing residents, but they’re still lagging behind the state as a whole, and full restoration of infrastructure and neighborhoods eludes most of them.

    Those are the main takeaways from a report released recently by the Wilkes-Barre-based Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development. The study was commissioned by state lawmakers.

    The Institute’s Executive Director Teri Ooms led the study, which examined population losses and other trends in the Commonwealth’s urban areas. Researchers distinguished between large and small cities. They examined the 20 most populous cities in Pennsylvania as well as the 40 boroughs and cities with populations between 10,000 and 20,000, leaving out the state’s 200 or so municipalities with fewer residents.

    Ooms says urban revitalization hinges on more than population growth. It also requires a stable local government, good healthcare infrastructure, strong public school districts and new job opportunities. Local officials also need to facilitate a planning process that involves varied stakeholders. They should, she says, think about “the headlines you’d like to see describing the community over the next 20 years,” and let that drive the plan. It should include a timeline, specify financial resources and inform the creation and amendment of local laws and policies, she says. Ooms says the Blueprint for Detroit’s Future is a must-see because it includes those elements as well as a block-by-block implementation strategy for rebuilding the bankrupt city.

    The highlights: 

    A smaller percentage of Pennsylvanians are living in cities now than in 2000 — That seems to contradict what some people have said is a trend toward living in cities. While the state’s population grew nearly 3.5 percent, smaller cites and boroughs lost 2 percent of their collective residents since 2000. The largest cities’ populations barely increased – by one hundredth of a percent on average. Bigger cities that lost residents (such as Harrisburg) did so at a slower rate than in the past.

    Vacancy rates are lower in smaller cities (10.3 percent) than the state as a whole (10.9 percent) and large cities (13.2 percent) –That’s important because empty properties often become blighted. Unsightly neighborhoods mean bad first impressions, Ooms says, exacerbating cities’ struggles to grow their population, tax and economic bases. 

    Pennsylvania’s urban dwellers aren’t as well educated — More populous urban areas have a higher percentage of residents with bachelor’s or advanced degrees (23 percent) than smaller ones (22 percent), but lower than the state in general (27 percent). Eighty-eight percent of Pennsylvanians hold a high school diploma. That drops to 84 percent looking only at smaller cities and boroughs and 81 percent in larger cities.

    Unemployment rates are lowest in south central and southeast Pennsylvania — They are highest in large cities: 16 percent vs. 8.8 percent  in smaller communities and 8.3 percent statewide. Poverty rates trend similarly: 25 percent in urban areas, 16 percent in smaller cities and boroughs, and 12.6 percent statewide.

    Ooms presented the findings to the state Senate Urban Affairs Committee this week.

     

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