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Resilience: Many Cities, Many Meanings

Mary Newsom / Apr 26 2013

For Release Friday, April 26, 2013

Mary NewsomCAMBRIDGE, Mass. – On the day much of the Boston area stayed indoors for the manhunt of a Boston marathon bombing suspect, I was in town for a conference on “The Resilient City.”

Like almost everyone in Boston, most conference attendees obeyed the April 19 “stay indoors” order. And the whole bizarre experience – seeing usually crowded streets deserted – gave a different twist to the idea of city resilience, one that may help broaden what we think the term means.

Typically, “resilient city” denotes one that can survive and thrive amid environmental degradation, global climate change and massive population growth worldwide. The World Urban Campaign website says, “A Resilient City is one that can withstand and recover quickly from natural or human-made disaster.”

I suppose a massive hunt for a youth believed to be armed and dangerous (in fact he was hiding, wounded, in a backyard boat) would be in the category of human-made disaster. And Boston’s citizenry, by heeding warnings and obediently staying inside, did their part to help assure their city’s resilience to the trauma of the marathon bombing.

Boston, with its history of survival and change over several centuries, is a particularly apt place to ponder what “resilience” really means for a city. Why can some cities stay healthy, while others seemingly can’t? Different cities, obviously, need different strategies.

Even the conference itself was resilient. Its sponsors – the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Nieman Foundation and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design – produced an abbreviated agenda for Saturday. One powerful, if gloomy, presentation came from the Brookings Institution’s Alan Mallach. He talked about “legacy cities” – a term coined to avoid the more negative “shrinking cities.”

Not all U.S. cities are distressed; some are thriving. But while even places like Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis remain important job centers, they’re seeing dramatic increases in spatial, social and economic disparities. “The economic city is becoming increasingly uncoupled from the geographic city,” Mallach said. Too many city residents lack the education needed for the available jobs, and so they live in persistent poverty. Wealthier, better educated suburban residents commute into the city to fill the jobs, a geographical mismatch akin to the income and education mismatches.

He cautioned about the tendency to let good news about downtown revitalization overshadow the gloomier, larger picture. “If I hear, read or see one more article or blog about how Detroit is coming back … I may get violent,” Mallach said. Downtowns in Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland and Cincinnati are spectacular, he said. That’s the easy part: “Downtowns are the low-hanging fruit of urban regeneration.”

And the much ballyhooed return of the Millennials to U.S. downtowns? Yes, that’s progress for legacy cities, Mallach said. His caution: “But they are exacerbating the disparities” of poverty.

Reporter Steven Litt of The Plain Dealer noted that his city, Cleveland, now has fewer than 400,000 people in a region of 2 million. Jobs keep moving out, as the paper reported this month. “Who owns the problem?” Litt asked Mallach. “Who is responsible for dealing with it?”

Nobody owns the problem, came the reply. Yes, city and local governments have to deal with problems, but many lack the will or capacity to deal effectively with the larger situation. “We do not have effective regional government to address the issue,” Mallach said. And, “Most state governments have effectively turned their backs on the cities.”

But what about cities that aren’t shrinking? Their challenges, if they’re to stay strong, have more to do with the future than the past. And the future is daunting, even for places gaining population, jobs and new businesses. As sea levels rise from global climate change, waterfront cities in particular must adapt.

John Macomber of Harvard Business School pointed out that regardless of what you think about sea level rise, we’ll see more flood disasters. Globally, as millions flock to cities – which historically grew on coastal areas – the poor will repeat the age-old pattern of settling in low-lying areas avoided by the wealthy. Think of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. So even if seas don’t rise, as flood-prone land fills with settlements, we’ll see more lives lost to flooding.

In case you’re not pessimistic enough yet, consider this wisdom from Mallach. He grew up in Israel, and in Hebrew there are two words for “hill,” he said. One means the natural landform. The other is “tell” – the mound that remains at an abandoned human settlement. “Cities historically come and go,” he said.

But with today’s extensive public infrastructure and social safety net, our cities aren’t going away, he said. And while Mallach benefits from his mountains of city data, I’m still more optimistic. In Charlotte, inner-ring neighborhoods of ’50s and ’60s suburbia-style houses are reviving, attracting young singles and families determined to live as close to the center as they can afford – as long as it’s walkable and bicycle friendly.

Even Mallach conceded, “A rising tide lifts some boats at least a little.” And neighborhood blight gets lifted a house, and a block, at a time. Will that, alone, save Detroit, which has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950? Not likely. But cities aren’t alike. Maybe every city, even the legacy cities, has its own form of resilience.

Mary Newsom is associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute where she directs, a website of news and analysis about urban issues in the 14-county Charlotte region. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. John Stanga
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    “Globally, as millions flock to cities – which historically grew on coastal areas – the poor will repeat the age-old pattern of settling in low-lying areas avoided by the wealthy. Think of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. So even if seas don’t rise, as flood-prone land fills with settlements, we’ll see more lives lost to flooding.”

    As regards the above quote, this is a very broad and sweeping generalization about the “causes” of human settlement. For example, the lower 9th Ward was NOT originally settled by the poor. It was settled by a range of social and economic classes. Only recently (since the 60s) has it become an enclave of poverty.

    And, there are numerous counter-examples where low-lying land is occupied by the wealthy–the New Orleans lakefront neighborhoods being instances.

    I am growing weary of the trope–repeatedly trotted out–that high-land = wealth or that low-land = poor. As Albert Einstein said, “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

    This is an oversimplification in an otherwise good article.

  2. Linda Guthrie
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I give as an example of low-land poor and high-land wealthy the historic community Newburyport, MA, where High Street was populated by wealthy merchants with their elegant, large Federal-style captain’s houses and the lower and the riverside development by the poorer class of clam diggers, fishermen and other trades people. The society of classes and where they settled in Newburyport is well-documented in John Marquand’s novels. In support of the previous poster’s comments, another counter-example is the more recent development on the low-land barrier beaches of Plum Island in this same community where the newly wealthy have transformed summer shacks into million-dollar, year-round residences, several of which were toppled in a fierce winter nor’easter due to a continuing cycle of erosion, with several more homes condemned and uninhabitable. Local photographs of Plum Island’s 2013 devastation can be found here /quantumking/.

  3. Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I suggest you take a look at the book,” Curing Urbanitis.”

    It will give you a bigger view of ‘Metro-America’ and the only way to save existing cities over generations. Other than Porland OR, all other cities are not either willing or able to focus on the realities of continued growth.
    New ‘Metro-Cities’ are a feasible alternative,at least for a significant percent of the next ten million people!

    How about a Conference on “Curing Urbanitis”?

  4. Peter Dreier
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    The bottom line is that troubled cities can fix themselves on their own. Yes, they can bribe some businesses and sports teams to locate downtown, but they lack the resources and taxing authority to generate sufficient good-paying jobs, pay for decent schools, provide adequate affordable housing, and pay for the necessary municipal services like infrastructure, public safety, and parks that the urban population needs. No other democratic country expects cities to fund all these things on their own. National governments play a much larger role elsewhere. Without a strong federal policy that deals with and helps pay for jobs, housing, health care, education and other aspects of a humane society, most US cities, and a growing number of suburbs, will remain on the brink of disaster.

  5. Rick Harnish
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Why isn’t there outrage over the military shutdown of a whole city to look for one guy?

  6. Bill Tirrill
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Rick Harnish–Apparently the people who were affected didn’t think it was outrageous. Why do you?