Pennsylvania’s Cities Need New Habits

By Peter Lombardi, czb Associate

In a state where urban decline and revitalization have been critical topics for nearly a century, one has permission to be skeptical about news heralding the latest resurgence of Pennsylvania’s cities.

But today seems different. In cities across the United States, young adults and small households are showing a growing preference for city life, urban anchor institutions are taking a leadership role in regional economic development and investments in more attractive and vital downtowns are producing transformative levels of market demand.  

In Pennsylvania, from Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh to Center City in Philadelphia, to historic urban neighborhoods tucked throughout the state, there are unmistakable signs of progress.

But there are also signs of significant weakness. Progress is endangered by urban ailments that are more pronounced in Pennsylvania than almost any other state.

Consider concentrated poverty. A look at Pennsylvania’s largest urban centers — cities with more than 10,000 residents and boroughs with more than 15,000 — reveals that they contain a quarter of the state’s population but nearly half of state residents living in poverty. These concentrations dramatically lower one’s chances of escaping poverty, create wide disparities in local school performance and weigh heavily on regional economic vitality.

Consider, as well, chronically high rates of vacant housing. Most of the state’s largest cities and boroughs have experienced population losses of 25 percent or more since their peaks. And while populations are stabilizing or rebounding, more than three quarters of these urban centers have vacancy rates exceeding 10 percent — the sign of an unhealthy surplus that keeps housing markets weak. This inhibits the rationale to reinvest, blunts the private sector’s motive to build needed new housing stock and drains confidence in neighborhoods by making blight commonplace.

Both of these red flags are exacerbated by and contribute to an inability by Pennsylvania’s urban centers to compete for a fair share of the state’s middle- and upper-income households. Nearly all of the state’s largest cities and boroughs have median household incomes that are below — often well below — the statewide median of $53,000, and only a fraction have concentrations of college graduates that exceed the state average. Without these households, cities are unlikely to be healthy and competitive.

czb’s recent work on a plan for Erie, where more than 4,000 housing units are vacant and poverty is nearing 30 percent, underscores these observations. A field survey of over 25,000 residential properties found that more than one-third exhibit signs of moderate to significant distress. And while the number of middle- and upper-income households in the Erie region has grown by almost 20 percent since 1969, their numbers in the city have plummeted by 33 percent — upending what used to be an even distribution of these households in the region.

How has this happened despite decades of public and corporate investment in downtown Erie, a solid checklist of big-ticket projects and millions spent on anti-blight measures?

The answer should sound familiar to Pittsburgh, Scranton, York or almost any other city in the state. The decline of manufacturing and retail within city limits and the relocation of the middle class to the suburbs and beyond have hamstrung Erie for years. And by spreading increasingly scarce resources too thin, underinvesting in major assets and focusing more on fixing distressed neighborhoods than making stable ones stronger, the result is a city that can’t compete for the strong households it needs.

These problems and habits are visible throughout the state. Changing them will not be easy, but Pennsylvania’s cities and regions must change course to fully participate in the 21st-century urban resurgence.

This means reinforcing and leveraging strong neighborhoods, investing in assets at a scale sufficient to transform market perceptions and reasserting the walkable, human scale of design that more and more households crave and that form the core of Pennsylvania’s historic communities.

Public-private coalitions are needed in every city to make this happen. But the state can help by assisting local agencies and land banks in tearing down blighted and abandoned housing to bring supply and demand into balance. It can spur greater levels of reinvestment in historic city neighborhoods through an expansion of preservation tax credits. It can support local code enforcement and infrastructure investments that boost confidence in stable neighborhoods. And it must recognize that investments in affordable housing — often seen as a major tool of neighborhood revitalization — can be counterproductive if used indiscriminately in soft markets.   

Signs of progress in Pennsylvania’s urban centers are clearer now than they’ve been for generations — but so are the shadows of problems deferred. To truly take part in this urban upswing, to make it last, and to move toward a commonwealth of sustainable and competitive cities, it’s time to form some new habits.  

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (February 7, 2016)