Legacy cities have legacy costs, including disinvestment from the inner city, as well as regional economic decline. The spiral has been ongoing for decades. The new white paper by consultants Richey Piiparinen and Jim Russell entitled “From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland”, funded by the Cleveland-based neighborhood non-profit Ohio City Inc., examines the systemic reasons behind legacy city decline, all the while charting a path to possible solutions.

Shrinking city theorists say the problem with the legacy city is that people leave. But urban powerhouses such as New York lose more people in a day than the Cleveland’s of the world do in a month. The real problem with legacy cities is an absence of newcomers, as it is this lack of “demographic dynamism”, or “churn”, which has inhibited economic evolution.

To arrest economic decline, cities commonly undertake a patchwork of strategies. These include retention strategies that supposedly “plug” the brain drain; attraction strategies that emphasize placemaking, residential density, and urban amenities; or “big ticket” developments such as convention centers and casinos. The authors take another stance, theorizing that migration is the key to economic development. Cities that lack churn need churn. Without it, legacy cities can act as echo chambers of patronage and provincial thinking.

But churn in itself is not enough. Often, the importance of inmigrants equates to filling condos or restaurant booths. Take the case of Ohio City, an inner city neighborhood bordering Cleveland’s central business district. The neighborhood, home to the iconic West Side Market, has made strides in its recovery. Investment is coming in. Condos are being built. Restaurants are opening. But this is not enough.

In fact the mistake cities make when it comes to reinvestment is to settle with the low-hanging fruit of gentrification. Here, the neighborhood is seen as a center of consumption, with trickle-down effects from increased commerce said to reach low-income residents living in gentrifying, or potentially gentrifying, neighborhoods. This does not happen.

This does not mean the reinvestment going on in neighborhoods such as Ohio City is unwelcome. It is only to say something else is needed. Ohio City needs to be made into a neighborhood that produces, not simply one that consumes.

One way to do this is to ensure that the diversity of race, class, and businesses that currently exist in the neighborhood continue in the face of increasing market demand. For instance, Ohio City is 36% Black, 20% Hispanic, and 54% White. The neighborhood’s race and class mixing has actually increased over the last decade. Ensuring such heterogeneity can remain in the face of market demand is the challenge of the day. To date, no city has systematically ensured a process of policies that prioritizes the long-term benefits of integrated communities over the short-term benefits of consumer-driven gentrification.

The benefits include increased economic mobility for individuals who grow up in integrated neighborhoods. For instance, a new study called “The Equality of Opportunity Project” found that Cleveland ranked 45th out of 50 metro areas in terms of upward mobility. A child in Cleveland raised in the bottom fifth of an income class only has a five percent chance of rising to the top fifth in her lifetime. The study, however, concludes that “upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods”.

Cleveland is at a threshold. The re-investment is coming, and the importance of this infill as a means to arrest its economic and demographic decline cannot be overstated. Yet this will only occur if re-investment is leveraged so as to develop real economic growth. In other words, simply developing “creative class” enclaves in the likes of Ohio City and Tremont will do nothing to transition Cleveland from a segregated, siloed city with high rates of poverty into a globalized, integrated city comprised of neighborhoods that produce human capacity.

Where people live informs them no less than where they work or go to school. Neighborhoods are factories of human capital. Equitable, integrated environments maximize potential. America needs to go past the gentrification model of revitalization. The cities that still have a fighting chance, like Cleveland, should lead.

Read the white paper here.