Rust Belt cities look to Old World for new growth ideas

Detroit and other Rust Belt cities hoping to reverse decades of decline are finding new inspiration in unexpected places: the older industrial cities of Europe.

In recent weeks, leaders from Detroit, Cleveland and other Midwest cities have traveled to Europe as part of a Cities in Transition exchange.

One trip, which came after a visit to Turin, Italy, took leaders to Leipzig, Germany, and Manchester, England. All three cities are reversing decades of job losses and population decline.

Whether European success translates to U.S. shores remains to be seen. Among key differences, Europeans tend to accept more government oversight than Americans. A more litigious U.S. society might stymie some of the more freewheeling, entrepreneurial programs Europeans are willing to try.


Even so, the trips have injected a note of excitement into industrial cities’ attempts at reinvention.

“It was an amazing experience to see the past and current differences and similarities,” said Brad Dick, deputy director of general services for Detroit, who visited Leipzig and Manchester. “Ten years from now, we will be showing global cities what Detroit did to change the conversation about us.”

The Spinnerei complex in Leipzig is the sort of urban redevelopment project that makes most American big-city mayors envious.

Spinnerei used to be one of Europe’s biggest textile mills, covering 750,000 square feet and employing thousands of workers. The business was closed in the 1990s when the collapse of communism hit the government-supported firm. Some 90% of the workers lost their jobs.

Almost immediately, though, artists began moving in, attracted by dirt-cheap costs and the industrial-chic environment. Spinnerei soon was home to hundreds of artists studios, a dozen or so galleries, offices for architects, designers, jewelry and fashion producers, a drama workshop, a dance center and more. The once-vacant complex is mostly occupied now.

This kind of European success is under new scrutiny by American leaders in Rust Belt cities including Detroit; Cleveland; Flint, Mich.; Youngstown, Ohio; and Pittsburgh. Leaders from all five cities visited Spinnerei in December as part of a tour of older European industrial cities, part of a three-year Cities in Transition program sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Kresge Foundation, among others.

Despite cultural differences, American urban leaders say they have found new inspiration in European success stories such as Leipzig and Manchester. They particularly admired the strong, unified vision each city fostered in the face of decline.

“Vision leads — really just having a vision that’s out there that’s been bought into by the community,” said Marja Winters, deputy director of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department, who visited Leipzig and Manchester last month. “All the strategy and plans line up.”


Since the mid-1990s, both European cities have revitalized their downtown cores as retail, shopping and cultural centers. They have built thousands of new homes in neighborhoods and boosted new industry, such as Manchester’s drive to become a center of digital entertainment technology.

The European cities tended to hit bottom at least a decade before their American counterparts, and so have been at the game of urban reinvention longer. Mike Emmerich, chief executive of Manchester’s quasi-public Commission for the New Economy, told U.S. visitors, “We’ve been sweating a model of civic entrepreneurship bloody hard for 20 years now.”

European cities also take a more integrated approach to revitalization, linking housing, business, education, transit and recreational planning in unified efforts instead of separate silos, as often happens in America. And European policy tends to promote long-term visions and multiyear efforts, while U.S. policy tends to shift with each election cycle.

Alan Mallach, a New Jersey urban planner who has studied Detroit and visited Leipzig and Manchester, said European cities have a clear advantage over U.S. counterparts.


“You’re talking about a way of thinking about how local government operates and makes decisions that is just really, really different from how it’s done” in the U.S., he said.

Gallagher writes for the Detroit Free Press/McClatchy.