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Editorial | Urban Rebirth

Rust-proofing our aging cities

Once again, Pennsylvania has lost the Rust Belt follies.

Of 302 mid-size to large U.S. cities analyzed recently by the Brookings Institution, 65 missed the urban rebirth begun in the 1990s. They lag their peers in key economic indicators, such as employment growth, new business starts, college graduation rates and income levels. Nine of these cities, including Philadelphia, are in Pennsylvania - the most of any state.

On the flip side, under Gov. Rendell, the state of Pennsylvania has worked harder than other struggling Northeast or Midwest states to turn those trends around.

And there's no better time to do it. Cities - even former manufacturing centers - are poised for resurgence, Brookings finds in "Restoring Prosperity: The State Role in Revitalizing America's Older Industrial Cities."

Many of these cities have remarkable physical resources, particularly waterfronts, historic sites, walkable neighborhoods and mass transit. They can capitalize on rich cultural and social offerings, such as museums, theater and sports teams.

Demographics and economics are trending toward cities. Immigrants, smaller families and empty nesters are shifting housing trends. Globalization demands workers educated in cities' abundant universities, colleges and medical facilities.

Cities can turn their fortunes around, but not without help from nonprofits, the private sector and better government policy.

Brookings recommends:

Fix the basics. Reduce crime and cut prison recidivism rates; improve neighborhood schools; and create a competitive cost of living for families and businesses.

Build on economic strengths. Reinvigorate downtowns; invest in "eds and meds," culture and entertainment, advanced manufacturing; expand mass transit; and enhance regional cooperation.

Transform the physical landscape, as Pennsylvania is doing through its Growing Greener grants. Upgrade crumbling roads and pipes; build up amenities such as waterfronts and parks; demolish vacant buildings and market lots; enhance historic sites and buildings.

Grow the middle class. Invest in vocational training; improve benefits for low-wage workers; and help low-income families retain wealth.

Create strong, healthy, mixed-income neighborhoods.

Restoring urban prosperity benefits everyone. It reduces unemployment and poverty rates; increases housing and business location options; and raises property values - in and near cities. Creating desirable cities uses land efficiently, decreases energy costs, and reduces air pollution.

Smart investment can turn cities into a boon, rather than a drain on government coffers.