The City That Embraced Its Decline

Once considered the fastest-shrinking city in America, Youngstown, Ohio, decided it would stop trying return to its former glory. The years since haven’t been easy—but they could have been a lot worse.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Youngstown, Ohio, created quite a stir a decade ago when it unveiled a novel plan for the city: It would stop trying to return to its glory days as a city of 170,000 people and instead embrace the idea that maybe smaller is better. The Youngstown 2010 plan reoriented the former steel-mill town toward providing services to the neighborhoods with the most people, converting abandoned land into green space, and supporting the burgeoning healthcare industry. In doing so, it hoped to keep the remaining 66,000 people from leaving. Since unveiling the plan in 2005, the city has lost only about 1,000 people.

The Youngstown plan had its share of critics, including those who say it led the city to abandon its poorest residents. But it also put into motion aggressive action to fight urban decay and revitalize many parts of the city, says Ian Beniston, director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, which was launched in 2009 as a result of the city’s efforts to revive certain neighborhoods. Part of his group’s job is to identify the healthiest neighborhoods and fix up the houses there, while demolishing abandoned ones and finding new uses for the land. Beniston recently talked to me about what other cities can learn from Youngstown’s experience, though few are trying. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alexia Fernández Campbell: Can you explain the concept behind Youngstown’s plan for “smart shrinkage”?

Ian Beniston: The way I view that is, planning within the realms of reality. It's not that we don't want to grow. Given the option to shrink or grow, anyone is going to pick grow. But we're not operating in such a way as if we're going to grow tomorrow or even growing now. I think it's really a common-sense approach. It's not like “Oh look at us, we're dying.” It's more like, this is our reality, and we have to make decisions a certain way based on this.

Campbell: Why do you think it was considered such a novel idea at the time?

Beniston: I think it was considered such a novel idea because you had elected officials here articulating the message that perhaps smaller is better and that we're not growing. Not just now, but we really haven’t grown for two-and-a-half to three decades. So we need to start operating in such a way [that accounts for the lack of growth], and that impacts everything you do—when you're thinking about land use, thinking about delivering services, thinking about operations, and what the future city will look like. There were very few elected officials at the local level, anywhere in the U.S., who were articulating such a message publicly. Embracing shrinkage has to do with the fact that we had the infrastructure for 250,000 people and we currently have 65,000. That alone means there are going to be severe fiscal challenges.

Campbell: Did the city ever try encourage people from empty neighborhoods to move to more stabilized neighborhoods?

Beniston: The 2010 plan was very basic, so there was the clean-and green-portions of it, improving quality of life, redefining the regional and local economy, but it didn't get down to the property level of detail. [The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation] has taken the next step to developing detailed plans with a more market-and-data-driven strategy on the varying health of neighborhoods, so we know which neighborhoods are weak or distressed. We know which are transitional or functional or stable and we've tailored the specific work that need to happen to each of those neighborhoods.

Campbell: What type of work?

Beniston: In stable neighborhoods, for example, we really shouldn't be demolishing housing. This is oversimplifying this, but if there is a vacant home there, it is likely something that should be rehabilitated, whereas the neighborhood that is already 70 percent vacant, the strategy is probably demolition and reusing the land for another purpose. For example, recently we started working with a company that grows hybrid poplar trees on these acres of vacant land, which are then harvested. Those are the types of things—in areas with high vacancy—we need to be thinking of. They are strategies that generate some employment, plus also take property off the city's maintenance rolls and put it back to some sort of productive use that has some sort of benefit to the ecosystem.

Campbell: What do you think were the biggest successes and failures of the 2010 plan?

Beniston: I think the main success was that it spurred people into action. Whether that resulted in the plan being implemented verbatim or not is another question, but there is a connection with the plan and organizations like ours existing. As far as what it was not able to accomplish: It was not a detailed neighborhood plan, but nobody said it was. I think it was generally a good comprehensive plan, which did kind of awaken the community to what more needed to be done in neighborhoods and then the city did take action after that, updating the redevelopment and zoning codes, which hadn't been done in many decades.

Campbell: So are you actually trying to get people to move to these neighborhoods?

Beniston: Yes, definitely in the transitional neighborhoods, where we're bringing homes back to the market and cleaning things up as best we can. We're definitely fixing homes that are occupied, but certainly the vacant ones we are marketing to people to move into the neighborhood.

Campbell: From outside the city or within the city?

Beniston: From all over. Some people are from the suburbs of Youngstown, some people are from other places, some people are from within Youngstown.

Campbell: So it sounds like embracing the shrinking isn't really the plan anymore. You need people to move to the city to fill these neighborhoods, right?

Beniston: I think perhaps it’s more complex than you think. Where we focus organizationally on transitional neighborhoods in an effort to stabilize those places, we need to stem the population loss. There is still likely to be population loss, particularly in the weak and extremely weak parts of the city. We’re not going to be building new housing or fixing homes en masse if they are extremely distressed. That's part of embracing the shrinkage. It's the same thing with the northeast quadrant of the city, where the city has recently moved to shut down four miles of roadway. That's because there are no occupied homes left. So that section of the city is much, much different from these neighborhoods that I'm talking about. I mean, the fact that we have been losing population is the underpinning of everything that we do. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be closing those streets.

Campbell: Do you think that other Midwestern towns can learn anything from Youngstown?

Beniston: I definitely think they can learn from what we are doing here, especially smaller to medium-sized, shrinking cities throughout the Midwest. It’s important to understand that there is a resource gap between these big cities like Detroit and Cleveland, which get a lot of attention and resources pouring in. I mean Detroit has had resources come in from all over the country. But then you see cities like Gary, like Flint, like Youngstown, like Mansfield, Ohio, that have somewhere between 25,000 and 150,000 people. There is not a flow of national resources. So at that level of population, I think there is a lot that these cities can learn about how we've assembled partnerships and capacity to stabilize neighborhoods, partnering with city government, community banks, corporations.

Campbell: Why do you live in Youngstown?

Beniston: This is my home. I think most people from here, given the economic choice, perhaps would still be here if they could. I love it here. There is nowhere else I want to be.