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Research On Revitalized St. Louis Neighborhoods Shows Pathways To Renewal

Drive through the streets of St. Louis, and it becomes obvious that some neighborhoods are doing better than others. Overall, population is down in the city and inner ring of suburbs. But there are pockets of growth and renewal that have popped up.

New research from University of Missouri-St. Louis Professor Todd Swanstrom and Washington University Vice Chancellor Henry Webber gives insight on why those areas -- what Swanstrom calls "islands of renewal" -- are doing better than others. The researchers analyzed census data from 1970 to 2010 and identified neighborhoods that experienced decline followed by renewal. They then determined characteristics that may have led to their renewal.

"It's very important that St. Louis not throw away neighborhoods," said Swanstrom. "Not throw away this incredible built environment...with this wonderful housing stock, brick-frame housing stock, [these] wonderful parks and all the infrastructure. And yet in a way, as a region, we are investing in more development on the fringe, and building more housing units on the fringe, than there are new families in the region, which means, of course, abandonment."

Through case studies of the Central West End, Shaw/Botanical Heights, Maplewood and Mark Twain, Swanstrom and Webber outlined four different pathways for other communities to follow.

According to Swanstrom and Webber, the Central West End and Shaw neighborhoods have experienced revitalization in part because they are "place lucky" - they are located near anchor institutions such as the Missouri Botanical Garden and Forest Park.

Maplewood owes its renewal in large part to thoughtful planning of commercial and residential areas, as well as civic engagement and good schools.

Mark Twain has been able to maintain a relatively stable community because of strong civic engagement and good housing as well.

"It’s very difficult to find an African American neighborhood that has come back," said Swanstrom. "Mark Twain has come back in that it has maintained itself..stability is a victory in that situation."

The neighborhoods in North St. Louis have been hurt by lack of access to good jobs, said Henry Webber. After the manufacturing industry declined, job opportunities in those neighborhoods dried up.

An encouraging indicator, however, is that the diversity of Shaw, Maplewood and the Central West End has remained steady over the past twenty years, and is seen as an attractive attribute by people surveyed, said Swanstrom.

Both Swanstrom and Webber emphasized the need to attract young people, especially families, to stay in and move to neighborhoods. And, they added, with good urban centers and good schools, older neighborhoods have the potential to be attractive to young people.

"Every survey we have says that it is exactly those older amenities that are attractive to young people with choices," said Webber. "The people who are going to create the companies that are going to be tomorrow's Express Scripts and Monsantos are people with lots of choices. And statistically they are very attracted to walkable, vibrant, mixed-use, older neighborhoods."

In fact, they predict that soon, the neighborhoods in trouble will be the inner-ring of the suburbs that were built after World War II with no urban center.

Swanstrom and Webber's neighborhood change presentation can be viewed on the Community Builders Network website.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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