Greening the Rust Belt

Greening the Rust Belt or shifting it from rust to green, requires collective invention, imagination and problem-solving. It requires a dramatic recasting of a narrative of loss to one of potential and promise. The narrative of promise- green- will be created from extant and potential resource pools. It will transform problems to opportunities and obstacles to assets.

From a Narrative of Loss- Rust...

Currently, Rust Belt, older industrial cities, suffer from a cultural narrative- a branding if you will- fuelled by industrial and population loss and the economic ascendency of the Sunbelt States. During the 1970’s and early 80’s, as the recession worsened, the social construction of the “Rust Bowl,” (hearkening to the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s), became branded in people’s minds. Cities literally went from “economic powerhouse to basket case,” and prevailing images of disinvestment, shuttered buildings, broken windows, abandoned factories, steel mils and demolition- became etched into our consciousness (High 1997, p. 56). As the term “Rust Belt” broadened its use, writes historian Stephen High, it literally took hold in the minds of Americans as a signifier of loss of industry and economic prosperity. Interestingly, notes High, Canadian cities suffering a similar sense of loss and decline during this period, avoided appropriating the Rust Belt brand because they collectively viewed their regional identity as based on more than just economic terms. In the US, however, the negative narrative stuck and the industrial decline of NY’s industrial cities was made worse by urban renewal policies, federal transportation highway programs, suburbanization and urban flight. Cities like Utica, NY spent the decades since the 1970’s dissembling much of their urban fabric in an effort to remove blight, neglect, and decline. Deindustrialization along with these other factors, combined to create extreme negative economic and social impacts and in many cases, left cities like Utica, as mere ghosts of their former selves.

Towards a Narrative of Promise- Green...

Today, NY’s Rust Belt cities and communities find themselves in the midst of a period of reorganization or what ecological resilience theory terms a post-disturbance “adaptive cycle.” They are suffering economically with high poverty levels, decaying infrastructure, and vacant and abandoned property confirming the narrative of loss and decline. However, these same cities and their regions are actually primed for new learning and transformation and according to the Brookings Institute, "renewed prosperity" based on their asset pool (Brookings, 2007). With innovative thinking and planning, NY State’s Rust Belt cities can become green cities offering a high quality of life and environment to their dwellers.

In sustainable planning, economic growth, environmental protection and social justice interrelate to measure urban performance. This is why cities that are being “reborn” in a sustainable image recognize that while economic performance is important, it isn’t everything. Cities, as places, perform well when they provide their citizens with a high quality of environment and community life to sustain them. Not only are pressing global environmental and societal realties- like climate change and peak-oil- demanding us to radically rethink our behaviors and priorities, but sustainable planning is guiding us to reconsider, systemically, how to adapt and modify the structures, practices and values shaping our individual and community health and well-being so that they support, rather than threaten us.

Seeking to redefine urban performance, and considering the current position of Rust Belt cities, undergoing reorganization and poised for renewal and regeneration R2G NY asks:

  • Where are the empty/available niches and assets that will propel the next growth/exploitation phase of the Rust Belt city?
  • What resources are available to utilize?
  • What capital (human, social, economic, natural, cultural) remains or is available to build on?
  • What networks can be restructured, adapted or generated to optimize innovation and re-invention?
  • How can we use resilience and sustainable performance measures to both activate and gauge urban performance?

R2G NY believes that academia and higher education are among Upstate NY’s most valued assets and that they have a vital role to play in helping New York’s communities “bounce back,” grow more resilient and ultimately prosper. Through engaged teaching, research, Extension and outreach, academia can heighten recognition of Upstate NY’s asset pool. It can promote the use of sustainable design and planning theories, principles and practices. And, most importantly, it can get to work, alongside communities and citizens, by engaging in creative problem-solving that is altogether enabling, actionable and visionary. Through such work, it can participate in representing and nurturing the very resilience it aims to cultivate and promote.

Restoring Prosperity:
The State Role in Revitalizing America’s Older Industrial Cities (2007)

According to Brookings, New York State is home to seven cities with the potential for radical reimagining. They are Albany, Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Binghamton, cities that in up until the mid-twentieth century were engines of commerce, industry, education and culture. Today the collective energy, knowledge, innovation and creativity of many is needed to help shape and navigate these same cities from rust towards green and resilient futures.