Detroit and other Rust Belt cities hoping to reverse decades of decline are finding new inspiration in unexpected places -- the older industrial cities of Europe.
In recent weeks, leaders from Detroit, Cleveland and other Midwest cities have traveled to Europe as part of a "Cities in Transition" exchange sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Kresge Foundation.
A trip this month took leaders to Leipzig, Germany, and Manchester, England, following an earlier visit to Turin, Italy. All three cities are reversing decades of job losses and population decline.
Whether European success translates to U.S. shores remains to be seen. Among key differences, Europeans tend to accept more government oversight than Americans. A more litigious U.S. society might stymie some of the more freewheeling, entrepreneurial programs Europeans are willing to try.
Even so, the trips have injected a note of excitement into industrial cities' attempts at reinvention.
"It was an amazing experience to see the past and current differences and similarities," said Brad Dick, deputy director of general services for Detroit, who visited Leipzig and Manchester. "Ten years from now, we will be showing global cities what Detroit did to change the conversation about us."
The Spinnerei complex in Leipzig, Germany, is the sort of urban redevelopment project that makes most American big-city mayors envious.
Spinnerei was once one of Europe's biggest textile mills, covering three-quarters of a million square feet and employing thousands of workers. The business shuttered in the 1990s when the collapse of communism knocked the props out from under the government-supported firm. About 90 percent of workers lost their jobs.
Almost immediately, though, artists began moving in, attracted by dirt-cheap costs and the industrial-chic environment. Spinnerei soon was home to hundreds of artists' studios, a dozen or so galleries, offices for architects, designers, jewelry and fashion producers, a drama workshop, dance center and more. The once-vacant complex is mostly occupied now.
This kind of European success is under new scrutiny by American leaders in Rust Belt cities including Detroit, Cleveland, Flint, Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. Leaders from all five cities visited Spinnerei this month as part of a tour of older European industrial cities, part of a three-year "Cities in Transition" program sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Kresge Foundation, among others.
Despite cultural differences, American urban leaders say they have found new inspiration in European success stories such as Leipzig in Germany and Manchester in England. They particularly admired the strong, unified vision each city fostered in the face of decline.
"Vision leads, really just having a vision that's out there that's been bought into by the community," said Marja Winters, deputy director of Detroit's Planning and Development Department, who visited Leipzig and Manchester this month. "All the strategy and plans line up."
"I think that's what we're hoping to accomplish here with the Detroit Works project," Winters said, referring to Mayor Dave Bing's program to transform the city.
Other U.S. participants agreed.
"It was clear to me that progress was achieved in both Leipzig and Manchester because of strong political and civic leadership," Mike Brown, a former acting mayor of Flint, Mich., who visited the two cities this month, said. "Clearly, if we can learn anything from Leipzig and Manchester, it is that we must have stable and committed leadership."
"Governmental innovation in partnership with the private sector has been extremely effective," added Presley Gillespie, executive director of the Youngstown, Ohio, Neighborhood Development Corp., who also visited Leipzig and Manchester. "New ideas are embraced, and both cities accept the 'risk' that is required to achieve innovation."
To be sure, European cities still have many of the same problems that plague Detroit and Flint. Unemployment remains high in Leipzig and Manchester, and poverty remains ingrained across generations of families.
Leipzig in particular suffers a high level of residential vacancies and low rents. Broadening the skills of younger people soon to join the workforce remains a key concern for both cities.
Yet, to a remarkable degree, Leipzig and Manchester show that urban progress is possible, and on a shorter time frame than American leaders may think possible.
Since the mid-'90s, both cities have revitalized their downtown cores as retail, shopping and cultural centers. They have built thousands of new housing units in neighborhoods and boosted new industry, like Manchester's drive to become a center of digital entertainment technology.
European cities tended to hit bottom at least a decade or more before their American counterparts, and so have been at the game of urban reinvention longer. Mike Emmerich, chief executive of Manchester's quasi-public Commission for the New Economy, told U.S. visitors earlier this month, "We've been sweating a model of civic entrepreneurship bloody hard for 20 years now."
One big reason for the comeback is a willingness to let the private sector lead the way. That surprised some Americans used to thinking of Europe as the home of socialistic central planning.
In recent years, Manchester has been remaking its blighted East Manchester district, once home to a heavy concentration of steel, coal mining and other industries. Tellingly, the city has filled redevelopment oversight boards there with people from private industry, not government.
"You can't stop the market from doing things it wants to do," said Ian Slater, deputy chief executive of New East Manchester, a quasi-public agency working to develop the district.
One small project provides a startling contrast with Detroit's way of doing things. In the East Manchester district, planners used empty shipping containers to create pod-like office space for entrepreneurs, filling up part of a vacant industrial warehouse with rows of the remade containers.
The converted shipping containers were rented out almost immediately and remain very popular with the entrepreneurs, who pay as little as $100 a month for the space. "I think we're going to have to get them out with shoehorns," said Katie Gallagher, business development manager of the complex.
Using shipping containers in this innovative way contrasts sharply with a similar project in Detroit, in which private developers have proposed using empty shipping containers to create housing. The project was proposed in 2008 but has languished since then due to city objections and financial conditions.
David Rudlin, an urban planner in Manchester, notes that the city readily allows business development that other cities might try to regulate more heavily, such as allowing tall buildings to rise in and around the historic city center. In Manchester, he said, "The tall building policy is, 'Yes, please.' "
In another representative program, Leipzig recently created "guardian houses," vacant and dilapidated buildings given to artists and other urban pioneers who live there rent-free in exchange for fixing up the properties. The buildings mostly would not meet codes by U.S. standards, but Leipzig moved ahead anyway.
When Leipzig officials explained the program to a group of visiting American urban experts, Robert Brown, director of Cleveland's planning department, said that liability issues and other concerns would probably kill such a project in America.