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Legacy Cities Key to Pandemic Recovery

Caption: Abandoned factories like this one in Cincinnati, have plenty of character and capacity to house a midwestern urban renaissance. Photo by John Yung

Over a century ago, as the Spanish Flu ravaged cites across the United States, that era's futurists and visionaries were envisioning a new society that embraced nature, order, and sprawled cities out, away from polluting industry and noise. For the next 100 years, our society worked tirelessly to achieve that dream and succeeded more than anyone could imagine.

However, that dream came at a considerable cost. The rise of the automobile, single-family housing, and its underlying government policies and subsidies perverted and perpetuated a system that has given way to increase health, environmental and financial tolls, let alone an increase in societal rot and isolation. It's a dream that is increasingly not shared by each new generation of Americans.

Even as COVID-19 winds through America's densest cities, it has found its way into suburban and rural places alike. Sprawl-apologists are quick to blame cities for illness, but as this pandemic unfolds, the virus finds people wherever they gather, regardless of settlement choice. This means that while cities so far have borne the brunt of the epidemic, they are also crucial to our economic revival when this is over.

Caption: Legacy Cities have large historic industrial corridors with plenty of capacity. Picture is Camp Washington in Cincinnati, OH. Photo by the City of Cincinnati.

Cities, especially those in the Midwest, will become key to a convergence of two trends coming out of the pandemic. One, as illustrated in a recent New York Times article ( is that superstar coastal cities have begun to lose their allure. Growing wealth inequality was already the driving factor away from superstar coastal cities, a trend this pandemic may surely increase.

However, the article implies a more significant opportunity for suburban communities. That would be a false assumption. Market trends show, even before the pandemic, increased desirability for walkable communities. These communities, typically of the "streetcar suburb" style of development prevalent in the early 20th century, provide the best balance of walkable amenities, densities, and public space between dense urban cores and generic auto-centric sprawl. These communities are prevalent in the Midwest.

Amenity rich and affordable urban cores are also part of legacy cities in the Midwest. It's worth noting that the woman interviewed in the New York Times piece wondered about living closer to her family in Pittsburgh than staying in expensive New York City. Budget-minded professionals will find many of the amenities they desire in these cities as large tech companies and other corporations evaluate which jobs are better worked remotely than on-site.

Another trend is the growing desire for onshore manufacturing and production ( ) away from the now vulnerable global supply chain. In a recent interview the CEO of Bright Machines, Amar Hanspal, told Fast Company: “Moving forward, factories and supply chains will require, and businesses will mandate, much more resilient manufacturing through nearshoring and even onshoring, full automation, and software-based management.” Case and point, with COVID-19, surgical, and N95-masks, made in China, are in short supply. Nasal swabs for the needed tests are manufactured in Lombardi Italy. Both of these, initial epicenters of the virus, have slowed the global response and ability to fight and detect the virus. No place more evident of this is in the United States.

Caption: This under construction industrial infill development out of Changwon City, South Korea is an example of how new industrial development in the United States could evolve in urban spaces. Illustration from WSP. (

Add to this the growing threat the virus is posing to the food supply chain within the country. Poultry and meat slaughterhouses in Iowa and South Dakota shut down from the rampant spread of the virus. Albany, Georgia, an epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., is also the home of toilet paper manufacturing for Proctor and Gamble.

Relocating manufacturing to a local economy will become a measure of resilience going forward. Locally sourced will go from bougie farmer's markets and fleas to necessary commerce for the local economy. In the near term, nasal swabs and other supplies essential for pandemic response are shifting to being made locally (

) as the Food and Drug Administration changes guidance.

As these trends converge, legacy and "rusting" cities, predominately located in the Midwest, will become the keys to a revival of the national industry. Cities in the Midwest already have plenty of land, water resources, buildings and transportation, infrastructure vital to re-localizing an industrial economy. Old industrial corridors stand ready to revive in the changing 21st-century economy. However, much of this infrastructure has frayed and will need significant investment. New urban industries will also need to be cleaner, thus opening up opportunities for innovations.

Plenty of old industrial buildings could house vertical farms, 3D printing facilities, studio rental spaces for handmade furniture, clothing, crafts, and other commodities. Some of these activities, already present in cities, will accelerate. Legacy cities, once the epicenter of an industrial economy, are now the key to reestablishing a resilient economy.

These convergences are an opportunity for legacy cities in the Midwest. No other part of the county boasts the level of affordability and capacity for the industry in the country. Legacy cities need to position themselves to seize this tremendous opportunity.


John Yung has dedicated his 14-year career towards advancing communities in development, planning, and zoning. As lead planning consultant for commercial real estate firm Urban Fast Forward, he leads the urban development and policy division with a focus on revitalizing and enriching city centers and neighborhoods. Mr. Yung became an advocate for New Urbanism in 2004 after reading Suburban Nation in college. In 2010, he was a crucial part of the team that developed, implemented, and regulated the first Cincinnati-area form-based code in Bellevue, KY. He is a manager of, a founding member of CNU-Midwest, and an award-winning author.

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