Students design plans to help city of Youngstown

Jackie Mantey

Graduate students Adam Yaracs and Rob Dower work on future plans for the shrinking phenomenon of Youngstown. The city has experienced a decline in population. An informational program about the students’ work will run on PBS tonight at 10 p.m.

Credit: Steve Schirra

Once flourishing with steel mills’ billowing smokestacks and a rising population in the urban area, Youngstown is now facing a new dilemma because of a population that has been declining since the 1960s.

As the steel industry slowly left the city for cheaper production opportunities overseas, a different city was left in its wake – a city that needs help.

“We are trying to provide information and options for the people of Youngstown, because they have recognized that something needs to change,” said Charles Frederick, architecture professor at Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Center.

University graduate architecture students at the CUDC have been working with the city’s community members, political leaders and architects from Youngstown State to think positively about the changing face of Youngstown.

Through charrettes, or design programs, the group is focusing on ways to help with the challenges the city faces due to shrinkage.

Their work is not going unnoticed.

PBS 45 and 49 will be airing an episode titled “What to Do With a Shrinking City: A Youngstown 2010: Moving Ahead Special” at 10 p.m. tonight. The TV station followed the Kent State students’ work and will spotlight the phenomenon of a shrinking city that has not only hit Youngstown, but communities across the world.

“A shrinking city is when you still have the same limits and are expected to grow, but you have half the population and therefore half the money going into the city,” Frederick said.

Students and staff of CUDC are using the south side of Youngstown, better known as lower Oak Hill, to study the proposal of a shrinking city compared to the previous proposal of continuous growth, something that is no longer available for Youngstown.

Coping with a shrinking city

In the summer of 2004, individual communities throughout Youngstown held neighborhood meetings and discussed the shrinking city and plans for land use that individuals living in the areas had for their towns.

The ideas formed at those meetings were then combined to form Youngstown 2010. This plan is a list of recommendations to guide development through the year 2010.

“The goal of the 2010 is to create a vision of how to retool Youngstown,” said Steven Rugare, marketing associate and Kent State professor at CUDC. “They have lost half their population from the steel industry, and they need to rethink their old plans and learn how to operate on a smaller scale.”

Frederick said Youngstown is one of several shrinking industrial cities in America to recognize the need for a new planning system, and it is not necessarily a bad thing that the city is getting smaller.

“The steel industry made many forget about the natural resources in the city such as the Cuyahoga and Mahoning River Valleys,” he said. “No one questioned the quality of life because the city was making so much money. Now we have a chance to improve the quality of living through the natural process of the city with parks and such.”

According to the Oak Hill Neighborhood charrette, the city has reached a 70 percent vacancy rate, and the houses that are left are surrounded by vacant lots and run-down structures. The goal for the CUDC and its counterparts is to take this space and implement a sense of natural design rather than industrial.

“Every landscape deals with a process of maturing, and it evolves over time,” Rugare said. “There is a natural and cultural force everywhere, and Youngstown happens to be very fruitful in these areas.”

Planning a new look

The Shrinking Cities Institute in Cleveland joined forces with CUDC for the fall 2005 charrette portion throughout October, where they started working with professionals on fulfilling the design elements of the 2010 plan.

At a symposium on Oct. 14, four groups of university students studying at CUDC presented their designs to Youngstown officials and community members. The groups centered their attention on linking Oak Hill’s Mill Creek Park to other features of the town.

“Water exists here. Money does not,” Frederick said. “It is necessary to work with what is already there.”

Each team had a different perspective on what to do with the town.

“Our role, and the students’ role, is to inject concrete ideas into the minds of community members,” Rugare said.

The students had to consider several different aspects while thinking of designs for the city.

“They did a good job at listening to what the residents wanted, which is important because it is them who have to live there,” Frederick said. “Several students wanted to increase lots and introduce a suburban atmosphere to such an urban town.”

Other plans included taking the vacant lots and building a linear park that links to Mill Creek Park, limiting commercial use in a neighborhood with no retail, re-use of buildings for small businesses, two natural landscape paths that intersect at a neighborhood park and market, new housing and a linkage of parks to the already standing natural features such as the local cemetery.

Looking toward the future

It is hard to say when the new designs will be chosen or implemented, Frederick and Rugare said, due to several factors that can slow down the process.

“Right now we just have a brainstorm,” Rugare said. “These proposed ideas need a more careful study, legally and financially. It is difficult to put the plans in a definite time table.”

Until then, Youngstown residents will continue discussing the possibilities through local meetings and more design charrettes, but there’s one thing they shouldn’t focus on just yet, Frederick said.

“No one can say yet if Youngstown will grow to a large size again, but moving people into the town may or may not be a good idea,” he said. “You have to fix what you have before you can think about growing.”

Contact College of Architecture and Environmental Design reporter Jackie Mantey at [email protected].