Cities on the Edge: Tools and Assistance for Revitalizing Distressed Communities

By Katherine Takai

“While municipal bankruptcies have gotten a lot of national headlines, it’s not the bankrupt cities that are the widespread problem. It’s the ones on the edge—the ‘distressed’ cities. These are places that likely will never declare bankruptcy but are nonetheless struggling to become economically viable again.”

This quote from Liz Farmer’s March 2014 article in Governing Magazine refers to the plight of cities, like Scranton, Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, Wisconsin and others across the nation, facing the effects of population decline, job loss, and high rates of poverty. Vacant properties, brownfields, and other remnants of lost manufacturing industry are common.

Population and job loss, decreased public service capacity, and abandoned, vacant land are issues that are all too familiar to me as a native of Metro Detroit. Through my work with local governments on sustainability issues, I have observed cities that are home to declining urban centers in many areas of the country that face similar challenges. Low-income and minority communities are disproportionately represented in these cities; and these communities are most susceptible to environmental harm, often with little capacity to voice their concerns with decision-makers.

This isn’t always the case though. We’ve seen the effectiveness of integrating environmental justice principles to enhance economic competitiveness in the Regenesis effort to revitalize Spartanburg, SC. Spartanburg’s city and county governments’ partnership with local community groups and leaders demonstrated the key role that local government can play in efforts to address economic development and environmental justice issues.

National Resource Network

And Spartanburg isn’t alone – efforts to increase the economic competitiveness of cities across the country are introducing an opportunity to integrate equity and environmental justice considerations for more sustainable and resilient communities. One such effort is the National Resource Network, recently launched through funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide local leaders in city governments with the expertise and resources necessary to tackle the biggest barriers to increasing economic competitiveness. The Network, a core component of the White House’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative (SC2), offers access to experts, technical advice, and information to address the biggest barriers to economic competitiveness.

Through the Network website, you can explore customized tools and advice, such as:

  • The Resource Library – a searchable database of vetted published resources with information about targeted topics for overcoming obstacles faced by distressed cities, including public health, economic development, sustainability, citizen engagement and more.
  • The Technical Assistance Clearinghouse – the country’s first-ever searchable database of more than 100 technical assistance programs offered to local governments and communities from federal, state, and local agencies and non-government organizations.
  • 311 for Cities” – an online assistance resource where local public agency staff in selected cities can connect with a rich a network of private and public sector expertise and receive strategic help on key issues their cities are facing. See if your community is eligible to participate in “311 for Cities.”
  • The Request for Assistance (RFA) portal – a direct technical assistance program designed to help local governments and their partners develop and implement strategies for economic recovery. The Network is now accepting applications from eligible cities to have a team of the Network’s private and public sector experts provide on-the-ground help to implement locally identified projects and initiatives that will deliver economic benefits in the near term. See the FAQs for more details.

To address issues facing cities similar to those in Detroit, finding the resources, knowledge, and expertise to identify and implement solutions presents a seemingly overwhelming challenge. This is especially true for smaller communities with less staff and capacity. As a comprehensive resource for distressed communities, the Network aspires to decrease the size of the challenge and broaden the federal government’s reach to those cities who may not traditionally have the capacity to apply for government assistance and truly transform communities through local action.

HUD Secretary Julián Castro recently said, “knowledge is fuel for progress and innovation. The National Resource Network will be a valuable tool in helping local governments address their challenges and achieve their goals. It will provide on-the-ground technical assistance and human resources that cities can use to build for the future. Working together as partners, I know we’ll expand opportunities for more Americans.”

About the Author: Katherine Takai has been a project manager with the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Sustainable Communities since 2012. In addition to working on the National Resource Network, she supports EPA’s National Brownfield Training Conference, the Local Government Environmental Assistance Network (LGEAN), and a number of other local government sustainability projects. She has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy & Management from Carnegie Mellon University.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.