Many American cities are in trouble. Serious trouble.

This was the recurring subtext of workshop discussions at a conference -- "Land Policy and Growth Management in Mid-Size Cities" -- held last week in Boston and sponsored by the Cambridge-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Several dozen city mayors, county executives and public agency officials attended the three-day conference, along with an equivalent number of urban economists, city planners, land use attorneys, public policy scholars and urban designers.

Participants included, among others, the mayors of Oklahoma City; Virginia Beach; Rochester, N.Y.; Cambridge, Mass.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Hartford, Conn.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Tallahassee, Fla.; Albuquerque; Wichita, Kan.; and Salt Lake City.

The conference was organized around a series of discussions focused on these topics:

Housing affordability and financing and the relation of housing development to economic growth and employment.

Planning public facilities -- transportation, utilities, education, fire and police protection, recreation -- and methods of financing through taxation, exactions, impact and user fees and public-private partnerships.

Urban design, preservation and architectural controls.

Conservation of natural resources and open space, wildlife habitat preservation and protection of air and water quality.

Land-use planning and regulation, innovative zoning techniques, including the thorny problem of siting "LULUs" -- Locally Unpopular Land Uses.

Governance and citizen participation -- consensus building, mediation and coordination of local, regional, state and federal authorities in planning, regulating and financing.

The goal of the conference, beyond fostering candid discussion, was to identify the kinds of research and information cities need to achieve their growth management objectives.

Of course, the most pressing needs are sources of money and, equally scarce, an informed, dedicated constituency willing to accept new policies and financial obligations.

Also were acknowledged to be lacking were visionary, proactive political leadership, coupled with appropriately empowered regional authorities transcending political boundaries.

The gloom and doom projected by some of the discussions somewhat eclipsed deliberations about growth management techniques, a reflection of contemporary circumstances and events of which all the participants were well aware.

Since 1980 and the advent of the Reagan era, the health and welfare of American cities has slipped ever lower on the federal government's policy and fiscal agenda. Support, or even concern, for housing and urban development has steadily dwindled. Many mayors said they feel that federal officials no longer considers cities to be an important constituent of the American political landscape.

With the House of Representatives turning down the federal budget package on the first day of the conference, the participants' cynicism about Washington and its potential for contributing to the enhancement of cities was only intensified.

Recession was on everyone's mind. New England was characterized as a "disaster" zone, and people from other regions of the country wondered how far behind they might be.

Collapsing real estate markets, declining property values and property tax bases, and increasing rates of unemployment are suddenly creating substantial tax revenue shortfalls in many jurisdictions. And no one would predict how long or how deep the economic slump might go. In the wake of rampant growth during the 1980s, communities may have relatively little growth to manage in the 1990s.

Some cities are losing population, but even many with increasing populations are experiencing much of their population growth among poorer families. Tax revenue generated by these new citizens often is substantially less than the costs of services they require.

Combating inner-city crime and drug abuse appears to be costlier each year, further putting the squeeze on urban budgets.

Philadelphia's potential bankruptcy was a topic of conversation, as was Washington's. After years of expansion and surpluses, states as well as cities are now facing deficits. Everyone is feeling the pinch.

Not surprisingly, there seemed to be substantial agreement that the bill for the profligate 1980s finally was coming due, that supply-side economics, inadequate management and regulation of growth, unprecedented borrowing and insufficient productivity all were contributing to the crisis.

Many conferees noted -- and economic studies confirmed -- that fiscal policies of the last decade have made the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer. Still worse, America's middle class has not benefited from the economic growth of the 1980s as it continued to move from city to suburb.

Urban, middle-class families have moved ever farther out from cities and major employment centers to find affordable places to live. They have had to buy two cars to commute long distances to two jobs and have had to spend ever larger shares of their two-job income to cover housing and automobile expenses. In the process, they have been able to accumulate only minimal savings.

Such economic symptoms are accompanied by physical symptoms of ill health in cities and their hinterlands: traffic congestion exacerbated by suburban sprawl; deteriorating infrastructure -- roads, bridges, utility systems -- resulting from deferred maintenance or failure to modernize facilities; water and air pollution; loss of agricultural and forest lands, wetlands and wildlife; and shrinking supplies of affordable land and housing for entry- and mid-level employees, including professionals.

When designers brought up the subject of aesthetics and environmental ugliness, particularly related to suburban sprawl and proliferation of the ubiquitous commercial strip, there was plenty of support for promoting architectural and urban design quality more affirmatively.

Yet participants also recognized that regulatory mandates by themselves are ineffective. Governments can't just issue commands for better design or affordable housing and expect citizens and businesses to respond.

Some government officials finally have realized that commanding developers -- and hence their customers -- to shoulder all the expense of providing or improving public infrastructure, including affordable housing, through proffers and exactions is economically unrealistic, inflationary and unfair. Mayors seemed to understand that all of their constituents, not just newcomers, contribute to urban problems and therefore should contribute collectively to their solution.

Perhaps they had heard about Robert Kettler conveying to lenders, in lieu of foreclosure, his thoughtfully planned properties in Northern Virginia. This occurred not only because of adverse market conditions, but also because the developer agreed to build substantial public amenities and infrastructure up front, long before revenue could cover debt repayment.

Already strangling from traffic gridlock, cities now face worsening economic gridlock. Neither can be mitigated only by taxing real estate entrepreneurs.

Industry and business, jobs, land use, housing, traffic and public services comprise a complex network of urban systems and activities. The network is unraveling, and with recession looming, funds needed to keep the network operating aren't there.

The mayors are stymied. No one wants higher taxes, but taxes are necessary. Everyone wants to curtail spending, but real solutions will cost real dollars. Policies advocated by experts appear politically controversial, if not unacceptable. City survival depends on jobs and jobs are leaving the cities.

Urban America is in for tough times. Perhaps the next conference should be about survival, not growth.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.