Greening the Rust Belt
Utica: Yesterday and Today
Like dozens of other cities in a particular swath of the northern and northeastern United States, Utica suffered dramatic population and economic decline for several decades beginning in the middle of the last century. As its manufacturing industries dried up or moved away, the city became part of the “rust belt” narrative, confronting job loss, disinvestment, urban decay and vacant land, poverty and abandonment. Its population reported in the 2010 census is just over 62,000, down from a peak of 120,000. Utica's strategic location on the Erie Canal contributed to its economic prowess in the 1800s, particularly in the textile manufacturing industry. It later saw booms through the manufacturing of machine tools and radios, among other things. The city's rich and colorful history includes a population of older and newer immigrants from all over the world. Generations of citizens with Italian, Polish and Lebanese heritage join the contemporary influx of new immigrants arriving in the last three decades from countries including Bosnia, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia and Somalia. This newest influx of refugees is one of Utica's defining characteristics and is now accounting for about one-sixth of the city's population. These new faces are helping to breathe new life in Utica's economy and redefine its future.
Utica's aging infrastructure and building stock, high poverty levels, lack of long range planning, economic disinvestment and changing demographics are all indicators of the challenges and changes this formerly industrial city is facing. In addition to its ethnic diversity, other assets which Utica claims include historic architecture, a robust arts community, cultural and educational institutions, extensive parklands, a high availability of vacant lands ready to be repurposed, and numerous non-profits, social services and revitalization efforts underway– Rust to Green Utica among them.
R2G Utica Launches in 2010
R2G NY acts on the premise that the rust-belt city's asset pool is the raw material for creating the resilient community. Its messy, complex and entangled mixture of social, cultural, ecological, environmental, entrepreneurial, urban and regional assets is a fertile medium for production and renewal. Therefore R2G NY acts as a facilitator helping to identify, activate, “grow,” connect and assemble inherent and potential assets. Such a place-based and participatory action research oriented approach involves a process of research and engagement that is, in and of itself, “asset” building and aimed at creating scaffolding for empowerment, innovation, experimentation, and innovative decision-making and action.
Rust to Green Utica began to take hold in February 2010 when an initial representative group of community partners began meeting with the R2G NY Cornell Researchers Paula Horrigan, Jamie Vanucchi and Deni Ruggeri. All meetings with this group were facilitated sessions probing community problems, needs and assets. Lots of discussion and dialogue was documented on flip charts and used to begin charting directions and action steps. Three months later the group formalized Rust to Green Utica and framed its local mission while beginning to activate a “smart network,” of stakeholders and partners committed to using sustainable theories and practices to advance projects impacting Utica's built, social, economic and governance environments. The R2G Utica Core group became an originating “site,” for the larger emergent “smart network,” that since those first beginnings has been working in partnership with R2G NY to convene, direct and facilitate collaboration, dialogue and joint responsibility for community problem-solving in a variety of arenas including food systems, green infrastructure, waterfront planning, public space and streetscapes, downtown revitalization.