Shrinking Cities, Growing Relationships

by Christi Collins

Institution: George Mason University
Year: 2015
Keywords: dialogic theory; urban decline; community engagement; community activism
Record ID: 2060580
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1920/9225


Across the United States many major cities—particularly in the industrial Northeast and Midwest—are shrinking. Central city populations are relocating to suburban areas in massive numbers causing a self-destructive cycle of vacant lots, economic decline and negative perceptions. Citizens who identify as a community member, have knowledge of issues and participate in the community, known as “active citizens”, have long been not only a desired but indeed a crucial part of society. Literature in sociology, philosophy, and public administration presents arguments for the benefits of active citizenship to both the individual and the community. Dialogic communication theory posits that dialogue forms a mutually beneficial relationship between governments and resident publics (Kent & Taylor, 2002). This relationship may help to foster more active citizenship and assist in combating the negative attributes of a shrinking city. To explore the potential role of dialogic communication between resident publics and public officials in shrinking cities, this study drew on interviews of city employees at four shrinking cities (St. Louis, Rochester, Cleveland and Detroit). Specifically, the goal of these interviews was to examine these professionals’ attitudes towards active citizenship and the communication tactics they use when communicating with resident publics in order to combat the common challenges of shrinking cities. The results of this study found that, first, active citizens are important in a community and that they are highly valued by government staff. Second, that the challenges caused by dramatic population loss are complicated, often intertwined, and amplify one another such as vacant homes allowing for increased crime, leading to increased out migration and then, again, increasing the number of vacant homes. This all creates a negative spiral of decline that is extremely difficult to reverse. Professionals in these shrinking cities are leveraging multiple communication tactics to combat this negativity, but most importantly, are working to leverage a relationship with active citizens to collaboratively address the problem. Specifically, this study found that city government professionals have recognized the importance of being transparent in all communication with residents and have been able to leverage strategic communication about the initiatives that the city hosts to reverse the physical decline to additionally help combat the negative image of decline. Further, city professionals have found that engaging with residents in regard to the ‘makeover’ of the city has cultivated active citizenship within the city and as a result, has promoted rebuilding. Finally, the communication practices that the professionals in these cities are using are indeed dialogical and professionals have repeatedly expressed an interest in becoming even more dialogical with residents.