March 25 2013

The Outlook for Middle America: Planning for Declining Cities of the Midwest

What once was an economically thriving steel, automobile, and manufactured parts region of the twentieth century, the modern Midwest landscape depicts a contrasting existence of abandoned factories, boarded up buildings, and deteriorating main streets. As the Midwest moves forward, it is evident from numerous examples such as Detroit, Michigan, that many cities will have to downsize in order to remain sustainable and efficient. This shift in scale will play a huge role in how cities are planned in the future.

Communities such as Greenville and Galesburg, Illinois have experienced the closing of important industries that once used to sustain them.  In Minnesota, the Ford Assembly Plant closed its doors in 2011 taking away approximately 800 jobs from the Twin Cities.  Not only do these towns find themselves in a tough predicament, but change in form of agriculture is also having an effect on the region’s economy. The conversion from small family-owned farms to “mega-farms” has created tension and competition, and has completely eliminated the notion of locally produced or homegrown food. This has affected not only the now impoverished farmers, but also the region as a whole.

Ford Assembly Plant

So where do we go from here, and how can we plan more effectively? An Iowa native, Richard Longworth proposes a number of different solutions in his book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism:”

  • The creation of a Global Midwest Forum, a roundtable for the region’s best minds to identify the issues and trends that beset the Midwest and setting an agenda for future action. Longworth’s idea stems from Richard Florida’s proposed  “global creativity forum” which brings political, artistic, business, scientific, and other leadership to the table;
  • Collaboration of brainpower, but this time between the Big Ten and other major liberal and catholic universities as well as medical centers (such as Mayo and the Cleveland Clinic). A rational regional approach would let each university specialize in what they do best. The resulting dispersal of resources across the region could build true centers of educational excellence;
  • High-speed rail is another answer in terms of bridging the gap between major Midwest epicenters. Public rail is the key to a unified Midwest both socially and economically;
  • Immigration is another vital aspect. Although the economy of these places is declining, immigration is still at an all time high;
  • A unified Midwestern voice to speak globally, as well as nationally. This means that the Midwest should sell itself as a single region, not as a fragmented collection of states; and
  • A final idea proposes a regional need for a Midwest journal, with global coverage and thoughtful analysis, to supplement the parochial local press and to set the regional agenda.

Some of Longworth’s recommendations are already starting to emerge in the Twin Cities. There is an evident boom in non-motorized transportation, high-speed rail and the local food movement.

Based on the solutions provided, are there any additional strategies that could induce economic and social vitality to the Midwest region? As more young adults move to urban centers, how can urban planners and politicians address and plan for declining cities in a more effective way?

Credits: Image by Jasna Hadzic. Data linked to sources.

Jasna Hadzic

Born and raised in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but having spent most of her adult life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A.; Jasna Hadzic has been greatly influenced by both cultures, most specifically in terms of architecture, planning, and design. The transition of living in a small European pedestrian-oriented city to a large and vehicle-oriented American city greatly influenced her interest in the field of planning. She came to appreciate the vibrant, culturally diverse and faster-pace of life, while also looking toward her native city as a paradigm of sustainable living with traditional architecture, multi-modal transportation systems, and pedestrian-friendly spaces and streets. A recent Master’s graduate in Community and Regional Planning and G.I.S from Iowa State University, Jasna’s Thesis focused on the analysis of the built environment and demographic factors that influence physical activity, while examining street connectivity and infrastructure. In addition, Jasna holds a B.E.D. in Environmental Design, with a minor in Urban Studies, from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Her most recent work experience as a Planning Research Assistant at the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, as well as volunteer work with the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity has exposed her to new city projects, as well as community engagement. Her career goal is to not only work directly on sustainable urban design projects, but to also ensure equitable and sustainable planning practices.

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This entry was posted on Monday, March 25th, 2013 at 9:31 am and is filed under Community/Economic Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “The Outlook for Middle America: Planning for Declining Cities of the Midwest”

  1. Steven Petsinis Says:

    Great Article!
    Was thinking perhaps a state or public enterprise could buy up land within areas of decreasing densities to regenerate it.
    They may then be able to construct green belts or other forms of landscapes that enrich the area and lessen the housing stock, something like this could increase the value of areas.

  2. Jasna Hadzic Says:

    That is a very compelling proposition and one worth exploring.
    You might be interested in the following article, which provides a similar solution to city of Detroit’s decreasing density by demolishing homes in less dense neghborhoods to make room for urban farming. Here is the link to the article:

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