Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 12:37 PM
This may be one of the few times that Flint, Michigan provides a model for U.S. domestic policy. Unfortunately, it’s kind of a dubious model. According to the UK Telegraph, the Obama administration plans to replicate Flint’s “urban shrinkage” concept throughout the nation, demolishing vacant homes and replacing them with open green space.
I wrote about the general premise of urban shrinkage a few weeks ago. The basic idea is that neighborhood blight (in the form of vacant homes) spreads like an infectious disease. It’s kind of like a tipping point; after a few houses become vacant and deteriorate, the rest of the block declines like a series of dominoes. Of course, there isn’t a whole lot of empirical evidence on exactly how the process works, but it’s pretty intuitive. Continued population decline, particularly in the Rust Belt, is only making this pattern more common. As a result, many civic leaders are shrinking urban landmass in order to offset dramatic population decline and increasing blight.
Genesee County in Michigan—containing the city of Flint—has established the Genesee County Land Bank Authority (GCLBA) to oversee the shrinking of Flint and other urban areas. The “land bank” approach targets areas comprised solely of vacant homes and other empty lots. The GCLBA then goes through a lengthy process of acquisition that hands ownership of foreclosed properties over to the land bank. The homes are demolished, and the resulting empty lots are “redeveloped, handed to neighbors, or returned to nature,” according to the head of the GCLBA. The dominant trend, however, is to return the vacant areas into undeveloped land and thus reduce the size of the city’s populated landmass.
Admittedly, I was a little flippant when I initially wrote about this issue (though, when am I not just a touch irreverent?). I’ve thought about it more, and I’m willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt—for now, at least. The plans for acquisition and redevelopment are so vague that it would be premature to levy any judgments. Part of me wants to see the rehabilitation and revitalization of existing homes and neighborhoods, but another part of me recognizes the utility of starting over. The real debates will occur over what to do with the newly empty green spaces. If—and only if—we can specify a clear vision of redevelopment, I might be able to get on board with urban shrinkage. If the plan follows a community-based approach, similar to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s successful bid for eminent domain here in Boston in the 1990s, I may support the policy.
Still, I have some reservations. The Telegraph reported that the Obama administration has their eyes on shrinking 15 urban centers, including Syracuse, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. The inclusion of Pittsburgh is slightly troubling. It’s just a little paradoxical to include a city in this economic recovery plan that supposedly has one of the strongest performing metropolitan economies (according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution). Pittsburgh has certainly suffered incredible population decline; in 1950, Pittsburgh was ranked number 12 among U.S. cities in total population, but plummeted to number 52 by the 2000 Census. That said, you'd think that one of the strongest metropolitan economies would be able to redevelop existing land on their own.
The “Pittsburgh Paradox,” so to speak, points to my underlying uneasiness with urban shrinkage. How can Pittsburgh—the supposed model for Rust Belt resurgence—require urban shrinkage? Either the Brooking Institution’s measurement of economic vitality is faulty, or urban shrinkage is a haphazard band-aid for urban decline. If shrinkage is part of our economic recovery plan, why does one of our nations strongest metropolitan economies need the help? Something’s not right here. I'm just a little weary of an economic recovery policy applied applied indiscriminately in cities with both weak and strong performing economies. If Pittsburgh requires urban shrinkage, other cities must require a lot more.
I expressed optimism yesterday in my discussion of the interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities—a new federal initiative that coordinates economic, transportation, housing, and environmental policies in a single, unified effort. Yet “urban shrinkage” looks like the regressive counterpart to the Partnership’s progressive goals and proposals. Shrinking landmass without a clear plan for redevelopment just seems like a hasty, reactionary response to a much larger problem. We don’t build stronger communities by trimming the fat and pretending like it never existed. No, we create economically sustainable communities and metropolitan regions with innovative policy that builds urban neighborhoods. Demolition (read: shrinkage) can be a start on the path to economic recovery, but that can’t be where we stop.
Metropolitan policy isn’t a zero-sum game; we don’t need to destroy some neighborhoods just to preserve others.