Creating Healthy Cities

By David H. McDonald

mcdonald-photoI have spent more than 40 years analyzing over 1,000 cities. During the late 1970s I was leading the growth initiatives of two retail chains with 800 stores. We were so intent on getting stores out of cities and into the suburbs that we would fly over towns and do a quick count of rooftops. If we found enough rooftops, we sent agents back into the town to relocate the stores into malls or strip centers or free standing—just get them out of the cities. We watched what these cities did to try and react to the loss of their retail and then their residents and they never seemed to understand what they needed to do or how to go about it.

Today, after 50 years of the exodus, I have analyzed the largest 300 cities in the U.S. Of these cities, about 39 percent are healthy and about 61 percent are stagnant and decaying. Up until about three years ago, not a single one of the stagnant and decaying cities had ever been significantly saved over those 50 years. That means that no elected officials, no think tank consultants, no architects, engineers or economic development specialists have ever saved one. On the other hand, every single one of the successful cities are successful, not because of what people have done, but because of special amenities, such as: All capital city towns are successful because of the infusion of cash government employees bring. Also, because decades ago many corporations chose to locate in a state’s seat of government. Oceans, mountains, rivers and climate play a role. Portland, Ore. is the fourth fastest growing city in the U.S. because of the outdoor life. College graduates will go there and work in fast food just to be near the outdoor environment.

As of about three years ago, two stagnant and decaying cities have all but totally turned themselves around: Cincinnati, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pa. In addition, a handful of other cities have done parts of the right things and every single time a city does the right things—it works! You need large corporations with extreme political clout and cash. These two things are not enough. The last component is that somehow they must have (or hire) an extreme understanding of commercial development and redevelopment. You want to redevelop a city? You had better truly understand large and complex developments. Most “concerned citizen groups” have no understanding of this.

Cities must demolish old office buildings. They are eyesores and turn off many people who prefer the shiny new suburbs. I like the term “suburbanize a city.” Open it up. Clear out the mess. Pave over the lots with free parking or create small parks. These open lots have another name: “Buildable Parcels.” Nothing new is likely going to get built next to ugly, outdated and environmentally unfriendly buildings. Finally, parking in the suburbs is free. Cities will never compete with the suburbs as long as they charge for parking. Never!

Over the past 40 years, David H. McDonald has founded two retail chains and co-founded two additional chains. He has been head of development for one of the largest real estate investment trusts in the nation and has directed the strategic growth initiatives for 13 retail chains. He has been in commercial and residential lending and appraising, has managed and leased high-rise office buildings, shopping malls and strip shopping centers, and has been involved with building Kmart shopping centers from the gulf coast of Louisiana to Virginia. He has generated his own demographic studies for 35 years. He is lecturing nationally on saving America’s cities through the American Program Bureau, and has written Saving America’s Cities. 


  1. ” I like the term ‘suburbanize a city.'”

    This kind of “urban renewal” thinking didn’t work in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, and won’t work now. For the first time in decades, urban centerss all around America are growing.

    The only thing thing Mr. Mcdonald gets remotely correct is that cities such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have begun a downtown resurgence. However, Mr. Mcdonald must be blind, because they certainly didn’t do it by demolishing buildings, creating parking lots, and imitating suburbs. Cincinnati built a streetcar, Pittsburgh expanded its light rail access. Those are just small examples of how these cities have begun targeting a more dense and livable approach to their cities through many projects.

    It’s laughable: “suburbanize a city,” give me a break.

    Have you ever been to either of these cities recently? I guess a better question is, have you visited the suburbs recently, they’re looking really great:

  2. “Suburbanize the city” is the opposite of what is working in these cities. They are converting old office buildings to residential uses to add new life to their downtowns, not demolishing them (many of which are historic treasures). No one is actively creating more surface lots or giving away free parking. They are recapturing the suburban demographic by building smart structured parking that’s hidden, strategically located to serve multiple uses, and acts as anchors. It allows the suburban demographic with cars to bring them (at a cost) until they realize they don’t need anywhere close to 4 spaces per 1,000 SF they once couldn’t live without.

    Cities are competing with the suburbs and winning. It’s not by trying to become the suburbs, it’s by becoming something the suburbs can’t offer. More amenities and tight walkable neighborhoods where the need for a car is reduced or gone.

  3. This article was obviously written by a suburbanite who has no clue about what’s happing in urban centers these days. I find it ironic that a photo of Cincinnati, one of the most exciting urban environments in the country, was chosen to illustrate the piece.

  4. You build Kmarts, huh? In Minneapolis, we closed a major street to allow a Kmart to take up two blocks, and it’s a community eyesore that we’re spending millions to try and get rid of. That doesn’t really surprise me though, since you’re referring to suburbs as ‘shiny and new’ despite my suburban experience largely being one of rotting strip malls with crumbling parking lots. You helped to destroy cities by bringing stores to lazy suburbanites, so I can’t imagine why anyone would take your advice on what cities “need”. Cities certainly don’t need more Kmarts.

    Just so you know, we tried everything you recommend. It was called “Urban Renewal” in the 1960s, and it was an unmitigated disaster. Many cities are still fighting to develop the acres of “buildable lots” left from the destruction of thousands of buildings that could have been rehabbed and saved. Free parking doesn’t help either – the customer that cares about free parking isn’t coming downtown to shop anyway.

    If cities are going to do well, they need to foster walkable communities, invest in affordable housing and mass transit, and stop allowing citizen groups to concern-troll the zoning laws to prevent new, market rate construction in their backyards. They don’t need to “suburbanize”, we already failed at that. Instead, they need to re-urbanize.

  5. I believe the average person would say that the assertion in the last paragraph about urban spaces is non-sensical at best as it relates to “successful cities,” which almost always have dense urban cores and old buildings that have been reprogrammed. Additionally, having spent much of the last 20 years in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the position is the perfect inverse of how both of those cities have been able to make such stellar turnarounds; repopulating their urban cores through revitalization of existing architectural resources (steel factories, mercantile buildings, machine shops, distribution centers, farmer markets, etc), not tearing them down and building urban/suburban spaces. It seems impossible to say otherwise.

  6. Really? You point to Cincinnati OH huh? Have you noticed all the revitalized OLD BUILDINGS in OTR that were rehabbed and a leading part of the city’s renaissance?

    Your evidence is the exact opposite of what you’re pushing.

  7. I disagree wholeheartedly with many things written here. I live in Cincinnati, one of the cities cited. Does it have corporate cash? Yes, but the reason for our recovery has more to do with the preservation of our historic buildings, our robust arts, the cheap land prices, and so much more. Not everyone is looking for a cheap shiny suburban city. I know I’m not.

  8. How can you refer to Cincinnati and the success there and mention tearing down historic buildings? Have you seen the beauty of our “old” buildings? And who needs parking lots if you have good transportation?

  9. So to be successful a struggling city is supposed to buy up all of the old buildings in its downtown from their current owners, demolish those buildings, pave some of the now empty parcels for use as free parking lots, and then market the rest of the now empty parcels to private developers to build shiny new buildings on them? Where exactly is a struggling city supposed to get the money to do this, and what makes you think that private developers would be interested in building shiny new buildings in the middle of a downtown area that has been levelled?

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