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Legacy Cities


In 2012, The American Assembly partnered with the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City, the Center for Community Progress, and others on a project to support the revitalization of former industrial cities. In early 2018, The American Assembly handed off its legacy cities work to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Stay tuned for more news later this fall about LILP’s new Legacy Cities Initiative. Visit for more information.

Legacy cities thrive when the assets, energy, capacity and love for these places at the local level can be nurtured by positive shifts in public policy, coordinated advocacy and investment. Also important is mutual learning about effective programs and careful, strategic implementation. Below is a snapshot of the insights and efforts conducted by The Assembly and its partners over the past five years.

What are Legacy Cities?                       

Legacy cities are older, industrial urban areas that have experienced significant population and job loss, resulting in high residential vacancy and diminished service capacity and resources.

The Facts

US legacy cities have experienced profound social and economic disruption as a result of fundamental shifts of the global economy in recent decades, and policy decisions made at the local, state, and federal level.

Legacy cities have lost between 20–70 percent of residents since their mid-century population peak, but are still vibrant, mid-sized cities home to around 50,000 to 1.5 million people each.

US legacy cities have experienced profound social and economic disruptions as a result of fundamental shifts in the global economy in recent decades. Even so, policy decisions at the local, state, and federal levels have done little to support their growth through these shifts.

Although legacy cities continue to underperform in jobs, population growth and economic diversity, they are home to a number of assets that serve local communities and help them strengthen as centers of their metropolitan regions.

The Case for Legacy Cities                       

Historic Fabric
Legacy cities have traditional walkable neighborhoods, beautiful historic buildings, and a range of civic institutions—from museums and performance venues to parks and public markets—that enrich the lives of city and regional residents. (And legacy cities are mostly concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast, with the majority in the states of Ohio, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania.) They have a resonant historic narrative of immigrants and migrants who share a common quest for freedom, economic opportunity, and better lives for their families.
Legacy cities have a lower cost of living compared to similarly large and mid-sized cities in other parts of the country. Some companies choose to locate their administrative functions in places like Cleveland to avoid the personnel and real estate costs associated with larger, more expensive cities, while other cities are transforming former manufacturing sites for new industrial uses.
Economic Productivity
Legacy cities are not ghost towns. Despite sustained population loss, property abandonment and the preponderance of “ruin porn” images and stories in the mass media, legacy city metropolitan regions represent an economy that is the fifth largest in the world today, at $2.6 trillion annual output. When aggregated as a group, the legacy cities economy displaces France and follows only in terms of economic might: the United States, China, Japan, and Germany.
Resilience and Sustainability
Many legacy cities have a comparative advantage over stronger market cities in a future of diminished natural resources and more challenging climate realities. Legacy cities are resilient places located in regions relatively safe from earthquakes, droughts and ocean-related weather events. Many of these cities are built adjacent to ample sources of fresh water, all have a surplus of available land, and have existing transportation and telecommunication infrastructure—meaning increased capacity to support national population growth.
National Competitiveness
The industrial era created vast wealth, a portion of which remains in legacy cities in the form of physical and financial assets like fine arts institutions, national sports teams, universities, and transportation networks. As a purely economic proposition, the enormous value of the physical infrastructure, civic institutions, and human capital embedded in these cities should be prioritized to support national competitiveness.
Economic Opportunity
All Americans in the US should be able to convert their hard work into increased income and better lives for themselves and their families. We must prioritize inclusive economic development strategies that connect jobs to residents within the region, provide inner city entrepreneurs with access to capital and allow for poor residents to incrementally advance their income by connecting with the strong economic flows of their region.

Six-Point Framework for Change:

  • Rigorously and objectively analyze city assets, understanding both opportunities and constraints.
  • Develop a creative vision for the future of the city, grounded in a thorough understanding of its economic geography, the role in its region, and its function in the global economy.
  • Design strategies for residential, commercial and industrial areas with approaches tailored to their market potential and also informed by social and environmental factors.
  • Implement inclusive economic growth strategies that address the intensity of concentrated poverty in legacy cities, promoting revitalization that not only attracts newcomers but also increases opportunities for current residents.
  • Forge supportive partnerships among federal, state, and local governments by coordinating efforts to target resources and revisiting regulations that impede joint efforts, incentivizing regional collaboration towards shared benefits.
  • Build the city's ability to execute complex revival strategies by strengthening leadership, improving fiscal health, investing in information infrastructure, and supporting a healthy business environment.
“All of us regularly interact with, depend on, and utilize cities for our livelihood and enjoyment. Even if we do not spend much time within city limits, urban vitality is essential for the entire country to generate the productivity, create the opportunity, and achieve the promise of a better future for everyone. Our nation and our cities face a common destiny. The power to shape it is in our hands.” Henry Cisneros, Interwoven Destinies: Cities and the Nation




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The American Assembly
475 Riverside Drive, Suite 456 New York, NY 10115
212-870-3500 -