Legacy cities of the US

Ethan Zuckerman’s written version of his talk* at PopTech 2022 on legacy cities is packed with insights and a number of places and projects you’ve probably never heard of. It’s at once not Fab City and very Fab City. The history and downfall of some of the cities he writes about might not look like the rest of our posts here, but the emergence and potential of how they reinvent themselves, the innovation and grass root DIY of barebones creation is very much at home here.

Planning the trip, we called it “the rustbelt ramble”, but somewhere between Utica and Rochester, we started using the term “legacy cities” instead (4). The splendid buildings, the museums, the parks, the cemeteries are a legacy bequeathed by an older America to her grandchildren. The US park service makes passports to let us collect visits to National Parks: we need a legacy city passport where you get a stamp for seeing Diego Rivera murals in Detroit, George Eastman’s House in Rochester or eating beef on weck in Buffalo. […]

As cities shrink, there’s fewer people to pay taxes to support infrastructures that were meant to serve two or three times as many people as live in Cleveland or Detroit today. And so legacy cities feel weird – they feel empty, abandoned, unsuited to this moment in history.

Beyond this useful term of legacy cities, the talk is quite hard to compress into a blog post, probably because it was already quite compressed, but go have a read for his notes on decline, old ideas of “the good life,” an intriguing parallel with social networks, some history, and things to ponder, like these few numbers on city density.

Densely packed northern cities like New York City, Boston and Chicago have densities of more than 10,000 people per square mile. Detroit was that dense in its heyday, but in losing 2/3rds of its population, it now has the density of a newer city like Las Vegas, close to 5,000 people per square mile. New, rapidly expanding cities like Phoenix and Houston are between 3,000 – 4000 people per square mile. Some cities that have boomed recently – Jacksonville, FL, Nashville, TN – are even sparser at 1500 people per square mile. It’s amazing to think that Detroit could lose two out of three people and still be denser than many Southern cities.

Or Detroit’s inverted demographic split and new Afrofuturist vibes.

What this means is that legacy cities belong to the people who stay and for the people for whom they still represent a better life. Detroit has become a Black city, roughly 80% African American, and from restaurants and art galleries downtown to abandoned houses converted into Afrofuturist wonderlands, it’s clear that the Detroit version of the good life is a lot more vibrant than a Starbucks on every corner.

Zuckerman then goes over some cities where refugee populations play an increasing role, and ends with climate change and coming migrations, which will certainly have huge impacts on a great number of cities.

And we should take refugee cities seriously, because in the next few decades, a lot of us are going to become refugees. As the South gets hotter, the West gets drier, as coastal cities flood, my guess is that a lot of people will be leaving their home towns. It’s not hard for me to imagine what Phoenix might look like in a few decades, when the water runs out. I’m guessing it looks a lot like the Salton Sea, that magical resort in the desert an easy drive from LA, which is now abandoned and plagued with toxic dust storms. […]

You what’s gonna be a great place to live in about thirty years? The Great Lakes. They’ve got 21% of the world’s fresh water. The farmland that surrounds these legacy cities is projected to get more lush and productive. The extreme heat that will make America’s fastest growing cities uninhabitable will be a whole lot more tolerable a thousand miles north.

* Side note for people who like conference talks: Zuckerman highlighted what he said in his talk in light blue and, since the talk had to be shorter than he planned, gives us all is speaker notes alongside it. Nice idea.

Image: Cleveland Arcade, Cleveland, OH, by Ethan Zuckerman.