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St. Louis needs a strategy for its future, says Brookings researcher

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2013 - As St. Louis grapples with its urban revival, the focus should be on building a sustainable city for tomorrow and not about recapturing the past, suggests a researcher at the Brookings Institution who will speak at a symposium Friday sponsored by the Saint Louis University Law School.

"One of the things St. Louis has to do is have a serious conversation that recognizes that it will be a smaller city with a demographic mix that is different than it was originally built to accommodate,’’ said Alan Mallach, a non-resident senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution and a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. 

"You can’t rebuild a place the way it was,’’ said Mallach, who will be among the presenters at "Saving the Cities: How to Make America’s Urban Core Sustainable in the Twenty-first Century,’’ which will include presentations by academics, governmental officials and nonprofit leaders.

The reality is that St. Louis, with a current population of about 318,000, will not be getting back the half-million residents it has lost since 1950 -- at least not any time soon, Mallach said.

And the residents of St. Louis' neighborhoods have changed, just as they have in most other older cities, he added.

"Most St. Louis neighborhoods were built for one purpose: to house married couples who were for the most part raising children. Working-class married couples, middle-class married couples, rich married couples – that was the basic model for what the demographics were about. That model is changing,’’ he said. "Today, about 40 percent of the population is single people. The percentage of households that are married couples raising children is 10 percent.’’

It is important first to recognize the key ingredients that can make a city sustainable – and then determine how to achieve them, said Mallach, who has worked in the field for 40 years as a writer, city planner and consultant on housing and land use.

"It’s not about having arenas or convention centers or even beautiful waterfronts. It’s not about things,’’ he said. "Does the city work for the people who live in it? Do people have opportunities to get the skills and education necessary to work and to improve their lives? Does the city offer quality of life? Does a city have the kind of economic activities that can provide jobs and income for the population and support public services?”

Mallach believes St. Louis is neither the most successful nor the least successful of the cities he has studied.

A new city plan

Mayor Francis Slay released the final version of the "City of St. Louis Sustainability Plan” today. The full report is available on the city’s website

"It’s somewhere in the middle of the pack,’’ he said. "But what’s really interesting about St. Louis -- and it’s not unique in this respect -- is that the disparities are enormous. There are many parts of St. Louis that are thriving. What’s happening in downtown St. Louis around Washington Avenue in the last couple of decades is impressive. At the same time, you don’t have to go very far north to find that you’re in an area that people have essentially given up on. St. Louis is a very divergent city with real highs and lows.’’

Mallach noted that some really good things are happening in the city, which means great opportunities -- but not for everyone.

"St. Louis has a lot of jobs, relative to its population, but most of those jobs are filled by commuters,’’ he said. "And a lot of those jobs require skills and education that a lot of the city’s population doesn’t have. There’s a plus, but there’s a gap.’’

Mallach said that from his perspective -- as an outsider looking in -- the city seems to lack an overall direction and sense of its future.

"It’s very fragmented,’’ he said. "This neighborhood is doing some neat stuff. Or, Barnes-Jewish Hospital is growing, and a lot of neat stuff is happening around it. Or, this and that. But it almost seems like the city, as a whole, is less than the sum of all of these parts.’’

Works by Alan Mallach:

Mallach credits neighborhood leaders and organizations that have created vibrant pockets in the city but stressed the need to tie these efforts together and develop an overall strategy for land use, growth, education and workforce development. 

The effort will require a partnership between city government, neighborhood associations and community development corporations, particularly at a time when public dollars for development are scarce.

"One of the issues is where do you put resources?’’ he said. "It is critical for any city to have neighborhoods that people want to live in. Which means that if your income goes up, you stay rather than move out. Neighborhoods where people choose to live, even though they could live anywhere. The more neighborhoods like that a city has, the better off a city is.’’

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.