Cities Bounce Back

What we used to call the plight of the cities started slipping from the national agenda sometime in the early 1980s. Federal urban renewal programs were tagged as failures; federal dollars for city projects began to dry up.

None of that has changed over the past 17 years or so. But that doesn't mean American cities, on the whole, have slid ever deeper into decay. In fact, many cities are today experiencing economic and cultural renewal that has little, or nothing, to do with Washington's attentions - or inattention.

Parts of New York, like Herald Square, are cleaner than they've been in decades because of the vigor of business improvement districts, which pool private and corporate funds to get the job done. Cities as diverse as Cleveland, Philadelphia, and San Jose have developed theater and arts districts that restore liveliness and appeal to nondescript or blighted downtowns. New policing methods have helped bring crime down.

There's no shortage of planning models in circulation to spur renewal efforts. City boosters talk of "urban villages," which cluster services within walking distance of residents and foster a sense of community. "Infill" is another current concept, denoting the insertion of new buildings and businesses into older, declining areas.

But perhaps no idea is more discussed, or longer lived, than "regionalism." This ties cities to their surrounding suburbs, sharing services like transportation and the revenue to support them - and recognizing that the old image of central city as the "hole" left behind by the expanding suburban "donut" is invalid. The city and the suburb are tightly linked, economically and socially, and have to develop in tandem. The most successful experiments with regionalism are Portland, Ore., with its scheme for tightly controlling sprawl in its metropolitan area, and the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

Every approach to urban rebirth or vitalization has its downside, of course. Regionalism has proven singularly hard to pull off because of the resistance of suburban residents, or even residents in certain city neighborhoods, to sharing resources and revenue with poorer areas. Even the most optimistic new project - the opening of the $180 million New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts in Newark, for instance - faces long-term problems of adequate patronage and return on investment.

Great urban innovations of past decades, like Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, lose their allure and need renewal themselves.

But the sheer amount of creative thinking going on right now about cities is itself heartening. It's greatly aided by a strong economy in most of the country and a sharply dropping crime rate in many cities. Also beneficial, ironically, are the real estate opportunities presented by low-cost, but high potential "brownfields" - moderately polluted former industrial sites that can be economically converted to other commercial uses.

We continue to believe that an engaged national government has a role to play in helping alleviate persistent urban ills, such as decrepit schools and a scarcity of affordable housing. But its contribution won't be the massive spending programs of the past. Rather, the careful crafting of tax incentives and well-targeted grants. The feds may still have a coordinating and stimulating role, but the ideas - and the creative marshalling of resources - will come primarily from the cities, neighborhoods, and even suburbs themselves.

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