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Thread: How to revive a declining rural/suburban town

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    How to revive a declining rural/suburban town

    This is a fairly broad question, so I'm open to any comments you may have. I'm considering doing some work for a small down about 15-20 miles outside of a major metro. It was formally rural but has experienced fairly rapid suburbanization over the past 20 years (doubled in population between 2000 and 2010). The median income has gone down quite a bit, and the older suburban developments are in decline. Many of the homes are not well maintained and property values are going down. Other nearby communities are getting wealthier while this community is getting poorer. Schools are not as good as they used to be and crime is going up. It is a surprisingly young town, with a median age of around 30. Development patterns are typically spread out without much of an identifiable town core, though several major commercial corridors. There is no public transit and the vast majority of people drive to work. There is, however, a community greenway that connects to a larger county network as well as a fairly large number of public parks and greenspace, albeit in some need of maintenance. As in many places, new development has come to a virtual standstill.

    So here's my question: What techniques do you suggest for revitalizing a town with these characteristics?

    Again, I know this is broad, but I'm looking for some brain-storming here. I'll do what I can to add in additional info if necessary. Thanks!

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Plus
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    Have you read/looked at Strong Towns http://www.strongtowns.org/
    Oddball
    Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves?
    Why don't you dig how beautiful it is out here?
    Why don't you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?
    From Kelly's Heroes (1970)


    Are you sure you're not hurt ?
    No. Just some parts wake up faster than others.
    Broke parts take a little longer, though.
    From Electric Horseman (1979)

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    I believe any good plan starts with a strong analysis. What are the market factors at work? What are the demographic trends, and why? What opportunities are available and what is the competition? Get to the root causes of what is happening, then find a way to work with (shape) market forces to bring about the desired changes from among those possible.
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  4. #4
    Cyburbian Tarf's avatar
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    I agree with Cardinal - you note the problems but not much about the circumstances leading to the decline. The root causes need to first be understood, along with other factors - e.g., is this town (or should it be) self-sufficient? Is this a bedroom community for the nearby urban area? etc. Without understanding the factors that have lead to the decline, it's impossible to identify potential solutions.
    In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. (Douglas Adams)

  5. #5
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    On a similar note to the two previous posts, I would recommend an "asset analysis." This can be broken down into different sectors like industry, entertainment, arts and culture, tourism, education, whatever. Its a way to identify what it is this town does have that can be built on as well as where holes might be that are contributing to its decline. Note that identifying the assets shoudl include not just ones that are strong and thriving, but also ones that are underperforming or even absent - an analysis of the assets the area does and does not have.

    It also might be worth doing a similar scan of the surrounding areas that are doing well. What do they have that this place doesn't? That's one way to get at what might be contributing to the decline and what might be invested in (better to invest in strengthening something that has some structure and presence than to try and invent/build/establish somethign from nothing, IMO)

    Lastly, it will be important to get some kind of sense of what this town WANTS to be. How do the residents there define "success?" What is it that would make them proud of the place or want to stay if they are considering leaving?
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Hawkeye66's avatar
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    Is there a point a town reaches where the loss of human capital assures a decline? It seems to me that it's about human capital now. The old model of recruiting the big industry is dead. It's like they have learned nothing. Big employers have come....then leave and compromise the community big time. So many of these towns have been "company towns" based around a company or sector. Youngstown, OH would be a good example, but there are many others just not as extreme in decline.

  7. #7
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    First off, I just want commend you for tackling such a complicated issue.

    Cardinal and Wahday could not be more spot on with their comments. I agree with their suggestions, more specifically that it is absolutely crucial to conduct a strong analysis of the region, including determining the root causes of this town’s decline, before taking any further steps. Before you can fix the problem you have to understand what caused this town to lose its footing in the first place. That alone sounds like a challenging task, as your town seems to be an economic enigma when compared to the nearby communities that are becoming wealthier. Perhaps it would be, as Wahday stated so well, better advised to understand what has attributed to the success of the surrounding towns, in contrast to your own as well.

    You mention various problems currently inflicting this town: a decline in property taxes, stalled existing housing developments, a decline in the quality of local schools, reduction in medium income and an increase in crime rates. These are huge problems to tackle, but many of those listed are sequential and products of a larger issue, not indicative of the causes for the downfall. If you are able to uncover the catalyst that caused this decline, then you can begin to plan possible solutions that may reverse the current socioeconomic problems you mentioned.

    I am unclear as to the specifics of the town, but there are a few characteristics you touched on that stood out to me. You mentioned that the town doubled in population between 2000-2010. This might be a place to begin your initial research. What factors caused the population to double so significantly during this period of time and how does this data differ from surrounding towns? Was the influx of new residents caused by a new industry that moved into the area opening up new employment opportunities? When did the decline begin in this region?

    The age bracket you cited was interesting as well, being 30 as the medium age. Does the data you uncovered state the economic and employment status of the said bracket? One final characteristic that stood out to me was the lack of a town core. It is possible that another factor contributing to this decline could be the result of a non-existent town center. If the medium age is 30, maybe employment alone is not enough to keep a fairly young age demographic in this town. Do the surrounding towns offer both employment opportunities and developed town-core centers? If so maybe this could be another factor drawing residents elsewhere.

    It sounds like you are in a position that does not enable to give specific details, but if possible could you elaborate a bit more on the data you have presented? What I would personally like to hear is the unemployment statistics of the "age 30" bracket you mentioned, that particular tidbit stuck me as “odd.”

  8. #8
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    You would also need to look at regional policies regarding such things. In most places it is far too easy to build on the urban fringe where the promises of new tax revenues allows that municipality to put in brand new infastructure. This sucks value out of the older areas. At the same time the infastructure assets are old and many could be to the point of needing replacement. Without land available to increase tax base, these places are literally hosed. There is little left for these smaller first ring suburban towns or rural towns where the 'new' part of the town is out by the intersate to do but whither and die.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Thanks for the input. As many of you have said I'll need to do a lot more background research on the causes of the current problems. The circumstances of this town and its virtually non-existent planning department will require me to do a lot of interviewing and digging, but that's one of the fun parts of planning. I guess I just needed some peers to remind me that sometimes the only answer to your question is more questions...

  10. #10
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    And don't forget that the process of talking to people and engaging them in these additional questions and assessments can also be a process of rallying people behind a desire to do something substantial to correct the problems you are experiencing. Its a lot of groundwork, but its not done in a vacuum. For every business owner or property owner you talk to, you are laying the groundwork for future collaboration, building capacity and getting people thinking.

    I also might recommend looking at the Rocky Mountain Institute which has some good literature about local economies and strategies to help keep local dollars local, how to stimulate sustainable economimc growth, etc. Some very useful information there. Still, this should not replace the need to do some strong assessments of what exactly is going on that is leading to the decline. But once identified, it will help you devise approaches to potentially turning that around. THe Main Street program in your state mightbe another place to look.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  11. #11
    BANNED
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    Some small towns have flourished and expanded, most are declining, either slowly losing their populations or struggling to hold on to those they have. It’s a challenge to attract businesses and investors to small communities with their limited labor pool and market access: young people have little choice but to leave. And, with the exodus goes the future of towns with too few people to support schools, or libraries, or doctors, or even churches.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Midori's avatar
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    So who has the answers

    The questions suggested are very good, but who knows the answers? Do you poll the planning commission, local officials, random dudes at the corner diner?

    There is a wealth of demographic information available through the census bureau, but interpreting that data is much, much harder, and at best I can hope only for a set of good assumptions.

    On a related note, that last question: "What does the town itself want to be" is the hardest one of all for me. Some of my towns are easily guided--almost too easily. The education level is low, and they pretty much agree with whatever the professional suggests just because they don't feel qualified to do otherwise. Any tips you all have for drawing the communication out of your people and becoming more skilled listeners?

  13. #13
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Midori View post
    The questions suggested are very good, but who knows the answers? Do you poll the planning commission, local officials, random dudes at the corner diner?

    There is a wealth of demographic information available through the census bureau, but interpreting that data is much, much harder, and at best I can hope only for a set of good assumptions.

    On a related note, that last question: "What does the town itself want to be" is the hardest one of all for me. Some of my towns are easily guided--almost too easily. The education level is low, and they pretty much agree with whatever the professional suggests just because they don't feel qualified to do otherwise. Any tips you all have for drawing the communication out of your people and becoming more skilled listeners?
    Get involved with the TN APA chapter. there are a lot of good people there. And many are not in the big 4 metro areas.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Midori View post
    On a related note, that last question: "What does the town itself want to be" is the hardest one of all for me. Some of my towns are easily guided--almost too easily. The education level is low, and they pretty much agree with whatever the professional suggests just because they don't feel qualified to do otherwise. Any tips you all have for drawing the communication out of your people and becoming more skilled listeners?
    There are just as many bad consultants out there as good, and just being a big company is no guarantee of being good. I might even argue that many of the larger ones are simply planning mills where you will see the same material recycled over and over again. A good consultant will tell you that they often receive some of the best ideas from ordinary folks, and you are right, getting to these people can be a challenge. It won't be through public meetings and workshops. The best places I have found are the library (set up a table and intercept people as they come in) and the local restaurant where all of the farmers and retirees congregate in the morning. I also use my border lab-border collie. We walk the streets of downtown or visit the dog park, where people want to strike up a conversation to meet the dog. I collect some of the best public input that way.
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  15. #15
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    Bring a highway

    Another no brainer way to revive a town could be to route a highway through that town.
    It brings in more traffic, traffic stops and such...

  16. #16
    Cyburbian jwhitty's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hemanr View post
    Another no brainer way to revive a town could be to route a highway through that town.
    It brings in more traffic, traffic stops and such...
    I thought Robert Moses was dead.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hemanr View post
    Another no brainer way to revive a town could be to route a highway through that town.
    It brings in more traffic, traffic stops and such...
    This is actually not a bad concept, assuming you mean highway, and not an interstate, passing through a small town. Though for that matter, small towns on interstates tend to continue to function better than their counterparts several miles from an interstate.

    Towns and highways go hand in hand. Roads either connected towns, or towns formed along roads, and particularly where two or more major roads converged. These roads carry the traffic that supports local businesses. I believe that highway bypasses often damage the economic viability of downtown districts when they divert this traffic. In that vein, maintaining the highway through town could be considered elemental to the district's success.
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