Viewpoint: Economics should be a priority for 'cities in transition'

Planners need to focus less on regulation and more on the economic conditions affecting development

By Alan Mallach

Hundreds of U.S. communities are "cities in transition." These cities range from one-time industrial powerhouses like Detroit, that have been losing population and jobs for decades, to boom-bust cities of the Sunbelt like Las Vegas that are still reeling from the aftermath of the housing bubble. While they vary in many ways, these cities have one central thing in common: they are facing major regeneration challenges stemming from fundamental changes to their economic, demographic or physical conditions.

For most local officials and planning practitioners, planning has dealt with growth. Planners and local officials adopt plans and ordinances that regulate growth, and developers proceed to build according to those plans. Alternatively, developers seek a variance or rezoning, which the municipality or county generally has the discretion to approve or deny. Planners usually pay little attention to the economic conditions affecting development. They are concerned with the environment, aesthetics, service provision and similar issues, but rarely with economics.

Planning in cities in transition is a very different matter. If planning is going to help distressed towns and cities get back on their feet, it must focus on economics. While the planner's mantra in a growing community might be "adopt the best land use strategy and the economics will follow," in a city in transition it might be "adopt the best economic strategy, and the land uses will follow." Planners need to become activists and entrepreneurs more than regulators. They must come up with strategies that will bring investment into the city, revitalize the city's neighborhoods, and grow businesses and jobs. More often than not, these goals require public involvement, such as land assembly, infrastructure improvements, loan guarantees or tax increment financing. Planners should understand these tools and know when they can contribute to the community's vitality, rather than wasting scarce public dollars.  

The goal is not to create a ribbon-cutting photo opportunity for the mayor, as useful as those can be for a planner's credibility. It is to design, gain community support for and implement strategies that lead to sustainable economic regeneration. Rather than creating a largely passive regulatory framework, however, it demands strategic policy planning. That means preparing a plan based on a careful assessment of the community's realities and opportunities to tackle the city's problems and rebuild its economy and neighborhoods. That requires taking on complicated issues, such as environmental cleanup, gaining control of —  and reusing — vacant properties, rebuilding markets and revitalizing neighborhoods. It also entails working with politicians, business leaders, community activists and citizens to come up with a vision of what their community can be and building a consensus for change.

All of that is difficult, often far more so than a typical planner's job. But for planners who want to help shape the future of America's communities, aiding cities in transition is perhaps the most rewarding and challenging work that a practicing planner can find in this country.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Alan Mallach is a non-resident senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and teaches in the graduate city planning program at Pratt Institute in New York. He is the co-author, along with Joseph Schilling, of Cities in Transition (2012) and author of A Decent Home: Planning, Building and Preserving Affordable Housing (2009). He can be reached at

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