Youngstown: Land use and neighborhood planning implementation in a US postindustrial shrinking city

Youngstown, Ohio is a postindustrial city in Ohio, USA that has been challenged by economic decline and a seemingly insurmountable number of vacant and neighborhood properties. To address these challenges through spatial planning, Youngstown has created new citywide land use and neighborhood plans since 2005, with the goal of reducing vacant land, demolishing vacant buildings, and “right-sizing” the city’s urban form to its lower population. Since 2016, Professor Brent D. Ryan and Professor Shuqi Gao of Southeast University, Nanjing, China, have conducted longitudinal research to examine the implementation of Youngstown’s citywide and neighborhood plans.

In a paper published in 2019 in the Journal of the American Planning Association, the study found that Youngstown’s non-statutory land use plan was only partially implemented as zoning, due to political, legal, social, and economic resistance. The findings were a caution to comprehensive plans that did not take such potential resistant factors into account. A second paper, published in 2021 in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, compared implementation of demolition strategies carried out by city government and by the nonprofit Mahoning County Land Bank. Gao and Ryan found that city-led demolition conformed to neighborhood plans less than did Land Bank-led demolition, because city actors were subject to political and social factors that mitigated against conformance with plan suggestions.

Additional Youngstown-related research now underway is examining the longitudinal conformance of neighborhood plan implementation and neighborhood plan monitoring. This study is motivated by multiple foundational questions in planning theory: how long does a plan remain valid? When does implementation start to diverge from plan suggestions? Does plan monitoring assist in conformance with plans, or with implementation in general? These study findings are expected to be published in late 2023. Additional studies of Youngstown spatial planning are envisioned for the 2023-24 academic year

How Plan Monitoring Improves Plan Implementation: A Longitudinal Evaluation of the Neighborhood Planning Process

Plan monitoring is broadly believed to address plan obsolescence. We inquire to what extent neighborhood plan monitoring meetings enhanced implementation conformance over that achieved by original plans in the shrinking city of Youngstown (OH), via a monthly-based longitudinal evaluation of demolitions. We find that monitoring meetings’ recommendations diverged rapidly from original plans; that a combination of monitoring and plans maintained a stable conformance ratio; and that plan monitoring is more important for politically unstable implementation actors than independent actors. We conclude that plan monitoring is a valuable but challenging tool to react to uncertainty by offering suggestions for improved plan monitoring.


Can Neighborhood Planning in Shrinking Cities Achieve Demolition Goals? A Conformance and Performance Evaluation of Neighborhood

We examine conformance and performance dimensions of demolition recommendations in seven “Neighborhood Action Plans” (NAPs) issued between 2015 and 2017 in the shrinking city of Youngstown, Ohio. We use geographic information systems (GIS) to compare plan-suggested and actual demolitions. We examine whether overall statistics are similar and who was responsible for demolition. We conduct interviews with informants to understand causality. We find that NAPs are better implemented from performance than from conformance perspectives, but that nongovernmental organization (Land Bank) demolitions conformed more closely than local government. Interviewees provided several causes: procedural differences, overlapping responsibilities, influence of political decision makers on plan implementation, and shifting NAP goals.


Plan Implementation Challenges in a Shrinking City: A Conformance Evaluation of Youngstown’s (OH) Comprehensive Plan With a Subs

Problem, research strategy, and findings: In 2005, Youngstown (OH) released a widely publicized comprehensive plan, the Youngstown 2010 Citywide Plan. This plan emphasized “smart shrinkage,” reflecting the city’s downsized built environment and reduced population. In 2013 the city released the Youngstown Redevelopment Code, which was zoning intended to implement the comprehensive plan. In this study we measure whether the comprehensive plan conformed with the Youngstown Redevelopment Code by comparing land use designations on a parcel-by-parcel basis between the comprehensive plan, the pre-2013 code, and the Youngstown Redevelopment Code. To better understand the causality of conformance, we conducted semistructured interviews with framers of the comprehensive plan and the Youngstown Redevelopment Code documents. We find weak conformance between the comprehensive plan and the Youngstown Redevelopment Code; most of the comprehensive plan’s downsizing recommendations were unimplemented. There was close conformance between the pre-2013 code and the Youngstown Redevelopment Code, and most of the differences between them reflected the comprehensive plan’s recommendations. Informants attribute the weak conformance between the comprehensive plan and the Youngstown Redevelopment Code to many of the former’s ideas not being legally defensible. Changing political regimes, shifts in public opinion, and the driving need for economic investment were also cited as contributors to this weak conformance. Takeaway for practice: Our findings indicate that implementing smart shrinkage land use recommendations in shrinking cities is likely to be challenging because legislators may resist codification of reduced populations and lessened economic capacity. Translating comprehensive plan ideas into zoning regulations may be subject to political, social, economic, and legal forces that limit plan enactment. These findings may apply to all cases where comprehensive plans require translation into zoning regulations for implementation. Local government officials and planners should consider these constraints on plan implementation through zoning when they are framing comprehensive plan strategies.