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Revitalizing American Cities

Book review of: Wachter S. M., Zeuli K. A. (eds). 2014. Revitalizing American Cities. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.
Jean-Philippe Meloche
Bibliographical reference

Wachter S. M., Zeuli K. A. (eds). 2014. Revitalizing American Cities. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

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1Many American cities have experienced dramatic economic changes in the past decades. Formerly vibrant industrial centres have been hit by the delocalization of manufacturing jobs since the golden years of steel production following World War II. Cities such as Springfield, Massachusetts, Youngstown, Ohio, or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are examples of small and midsize cities that have suffered from urban decline. Located in a region known today as the Rust Belt of the United States, many of these old industrial towns struggle to stabilize their economies and reinvigorate economic growth. The plights of these cities and the strategies they use have inspired the book Revitalizing American Cities, edited by Susan M. Watcher and Kimberly A. Zeuli (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). More than a book about urban resilience, this book is about urban economic development. It focuses on legacy cities and urban decline, which also makes it a book about renewal.

2The book’s authors first gathered at the Fifth Biennial Reinventing Older Communities Conference organised by the Development Studies and Education Department of the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia in 2012. Their discussions addressed the theme Building Resilient Cities. From this event, they produced a collection of chapters that offers a good overview of the mosaic of challenges, strategies and tools relevant to urban revitalization. Some of these chapters are based on academic research, while others are inspired by practical experience. Authors come from a variety of fields: economics, urban planning, law and real estate analysis. The Federal Reserve System has been a major contributor to the book, as many authors are members of this organisation. Contributions also come from academics and private sector practitioners.

3Although all chapters focus on urban decline and the renewal of legacy cities, the volume lacks a certain degree of continuity. This is tempered by Jeremy Nowak’s afterword, which offers a useful synthesis. That being said, the book can be read in order or not. Some readers may also find it convenient to only read chapters relevant to their interests. All chapters are autonomous in their content. Among targeted readers, this book may be of interest to researchers and students in urban studies. It may also be useful to economic development officers and urban planners, as well as to other actors involved in the administration or the development of former industrial cities.

4The book is divided in four sections. The first comprises four chapters on the economic growth of cities. Edward Glaeser and Gilles Duranton, leading academics in urban economy, explore the main drivers of urban growth in the first two chapters, underlining the importance of human capital and local entrepreneurship. The third chapter, written by Kyle Fee and Daniel Hartley, explores the relationship between city center density and urban decline. It argues that dense central business districts (CDBs) may represent an asset for urban revival. The fourth chapter, by Steven Cochrane and colleagues, offers a picture of the decline in manufacturing employment in large metropolitan areas and shift in economic activities from central cities to the suburbs. Recent data suggests a possible reversal of that trend, indicating a rise in the attractiveness of central cities.

5The theme of resilience appears in the second part of the book. This section contains three comparative studies of small and midsized industrial cities. They try to identify strategies that foster the diversification of local economies and ultimately the reversal of decline. The first of these chapters (chapter 5), by Yolanda K. Kodrzycki and Ana Patricia Moñoz, examines ten cities identified as “resurgent cities”. The second (chapter 6), by Kimberly Zeuli, contrasts two mill cities in North Carolina, while the following chapter (7), by Alan Mallach, offers a similar comparison between thirteen small industrial cities. Leadership and collaboration are identified as major components of the successful reconversion of industrial economies.

6The three chapters of the third section look at implementation tools for urban revitalization policies. Paul C. Brophy’s chapter (chapter 8) presents a neighbourhood level policy approach that focuses on the housing market potential of “middle neighbourhoods”. Alan Mallach (chapter 9) suggests the use of realistic and strategic incremental actions in line with local visions about urban renewal instead of ambitious large-scale or long-term plans. The last chapter of this section (chapter 10), by Frank S. Alexander, presents a range of legal and regulatory tools to deal with problems of vacancy, abandonment and foreclosure in declining neighbourhoods.

7The reconversion of local economies is the focus of the last section. Eugenie L. Birch’s chapter (chapter 11) examines the importance of educational institutions (colleges and universities) and medical industries as drivers of the new economy in legacy cities. In the following chapter (12), Catherine Tumber argues that green economic development represents an opportunity for economic renewal in midsize industrial cities. Laura W. Perna’s contribution (chapter 13) concludes with the ideas similar to those of the book’s first two chapters, which is that education and investments in human capital are essential to foster local economic growth. It also emphasizes the importance of linking local education with workforce needs.

8Two takeaways emerge from the book. First, there is no easy way out. Many authors have pointed to leadership as a major driver of success. It is not clear however if leadership is an endogenous factor in local economic development. If not, it is of little interest for revitalization policies, as leadership cannot be prescribed to foster economic reconversion. Some communities have it, while others do not. The factors that determine its presence remain essentially unknown, or may only be of exogenous nature. That is a reason why Alan Mallach suggests, in chapter 9, a reliance on small incremental actions rather than big plans. The way back to economic stability and eventually economic growth is a long and winding road for industrial cities. Some, particularly those most severely affected by deindustrialization, may find it more efficient to accommodate decline rather than attempt to reverse it.

9The second lesson that emerges from the book is the importance of education and human capital as key drivers of economic growth and urban development. Delocalized manufacturing jobs, which were typically low qualification jobs, have been replaced in the past decades by new jobs, in manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors, that require higher qualifications. Consequently, the qualifications of the local workforce must be upgraded in order to adapt to the ongoing economic transformation. As such, education constitutes a major tool to achieve urban revitalization.

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Electronic reference

Jean-Philippe Meloche, « Revitalizing American Cities  », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2014, Online since 18 January 2015, connection on 28 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Jean-Philippe Meloche

Jean-Philippe Meloche graduated in Economics (MSc) and holds a PhD in Geography from the University of Montreal. He is assistant professor at the Institute of Urban Planning of the University of Montreal and researcher at the Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis of Organizations (CIRANO). He is interested in urban economy issues and in the location of businesses and households in the urban territory. He has published several research reports and scientific papers on public policy, municipal taxation, and land use. Email:

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