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.