By Nick Hamilton

This is an abbreviated story of the thinking and planning that created two conferences: one that led to something new and big, and a second whose effects are still unfolding. The first was the 110th American Assembly in Detroit in 2011, where the term legacy cities was coined in recognition of the distinct challenges and opportunities this group of cities faces.

The Legacy Cities Partnership was founded as a result of this meeting, as a joint project of the American Assembly at Columbia University, the Center for Community Progress, and the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City. Its goal: to strengthen legacy cities’ capacities for policy change and governance reform, develop a superior understanding of urban stabilization and regeneration, and connect an array of related federal, regional, state, and local initiatives.

A few months ago, the Assembly was pleased to co-sponsor a closely related effort: the second conference, the Historic Preservation in Legacy Cities convening in Cleveland. In my capacity at the American Assembly, Ihelped organize the closing policy workshop, an event intended to produce actionable recommendations for the community of preservation practitioners and leaders. The forthcoming workshop report will develop these recommendations into a public format.

Shared Principles and Realities

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East 4th Street in Cleveland (Photo: Stephanie Sung)

The Cleveland convening was based on a central principle of both the Assembly and the Legacy Cities Partnership: that a framework for positive change must include a vision for the future that is built on a rigorous analysis of cities’ assets and liabilities. An important and underappreciated asset for most legacy cities like Cleveland is a rich historic fabric. The vernacular and formal civic, residential, and commercial built environment gives these cities an authenticity and vitality that makes them attractive and meaningful to current and potential residents. Identifying creative ways to reuse, activate, and unlock these assets will be critical to the success of legacy city revitalization efforts.

The convening also addressed a significant challenge that is especially common in legacy cities: the limited organized civic and financial capacity to advocate for and implement change. Successful revitalization is more likely when civic groups are working together and conversations are happening across professional silos. Speakers at the conference spanned multiple disciplines and repeatedly stressed the need to deploy limited preservation dollars according to a strategy, while workshop participants recognized the urgent need for meaningful collaboration.

As anyone working on the ground in legacy cities knows, resources are scarce. Demolition begins at $10,000 per house, while renovation frequently costs upwards of $100,000. Mothballing everything in a city that is unlikely to see a population rebound over the next few decades is unsustainable. Strategic responses must be balanced between demolition and preservation to be viable and successful.

Moving Forward

One of the conference panels showcased new ideas about how to develop strategic preservation responses by using new layers of information to help allocate limited dollars. In one example, Emilie Evans, Matt Hampel, and others showed how a pared-down city- or community-led survey of historic buildings can enable cities to map their assets—and help prioritize demolition funding for other buildings—without breaking the budget. Mandy Metcalf also demonstrated a promising new spatial analysis technique that shows where neighborhood-scale commercial nodes (intersections, commercial corridors) are happening in clusters rather than in isolation. This points to where historic preservation as a form of economic development might be strategically employed with limited dollars. The Preservation Rightsizing Network continues to be a locus for creative thought in how the community should move forward.

Several things stood out to me at the close of the conference and workshop:

  1. None of these preservation tactics should be used in isolation: all need to be paired with long-term revitalization visioning on the scale of Detroit Future City.
  2. Preservation must be informed by a meaningful civic engagement process that gathers information from individuals on the ground about local assets.
  3. Preservation is a valuable component in the toolkit for revitalization because of its intensely local nature. It can be an effective mode of local organizing with spillover effects of capacity-building.
  4. Interdisciplinary perspectives are often missing from the preservation conversation. However, by gathering diverse interests that include a spectrum of interests we can move closer to a revitalization framework that has a chance for success.

Learn more about the Legacy Cities Partnership and the American Assembly at

Nick Hamilton leads the urban policy work of the American Assembly, including the Legacy Cities Partnership. Founded by Dwight D. Eisenhower at Columbia University in 1950, the American Assembly develops practical and nonpartisan recommendations on how to improve public policy through research and the convening of academic, business and civic leaders.