How to shrink a city

Not every great metropolis is going to make a comeback. Planners consider some radical ways to embrace decline.

Since cities first got big enough to require urban planning, its practitioners have focused on growth. From imperial Rome to 19th-century Paris and Chicago and up through modern-day Beijing, the duty of city planners and administrators has been to impose order as people flowed in, buildings rose up, and the city limits extended outward into the hinterlands.

But cities don’t always grow. Sometimes they shrink, and sometimes they shrink drastically. Over the last 50 years, the city of Detroit has lost more than half its population. So has Cleveland. They’re not alone: Eight of the 10 largest cities in the United States in 1950, including Boston, have since lost at least 20 percent of their population. But while Boston has recouped some of that loss in recent years and made itself into the anchor of a thriving white-collar economy, the far more drastic losses of cities like Detroit or Youngstown, Ohio, or Flint, Mich. — losses of people, jobs, money, and social ties — show no signs of turning around. The housing crisis has only accelerated the process.

Now a few planners and politicians are starting to try something new: embracing shrinking. Frankly admitting that these cities are not going to return to their former population size anytime soon, planners and activists and officials are starting to talk about what it might mean to shrink well. After decades of worrying about smart growth, they’re starting to think about smart shrinking, about how to create

cities that are healthier because they are smaller. Losing size, in this line of thought, isn’t just a byproduct of economic malaise, but a strategy.

The resulting cities may need to look and feel very different — different, perhaps, from the common understanding of what a modern American city is. Rather than trying to lure back residents or entice businesses to build on vacant lots, cities may be better off finding totally new uses for land: large-scale urban farms, or wind turbines or geothermal wells, or letting large patches revert to nature. Instead of merely tolerating the artist communities that often spring up in marginal neighborhoods, cities might actively encourage them to colonize and reshape whole swaths of the urban landscape. Or they might consider selling off portions to private companies to manage.

A few of these ideas are actually starting to be tried. In Detroit, a city that now has more than 40 square miles of vacant land, Mayor Dave Bing has committed himself to finding a way to move more of the city’s residents into its remaining vibrant neighborhoods and figuring out something else to do with what remains. A growing number of cities and counties are creating “land banks” to enable them to clear the administrative hurdles that previously prevented them from taking control of blighted blocks of abandoned homes.

The idea remains controversial. Mayor Bing’s proposal has been fiercely criticized in Detroit, and some planners — along with many of the residents of blighted neighborhoods — argue that planned shrinkage is simply an excuse to stop helping the people in the worst-hit neighborhoods, and will only compound the pain that industrial decline and the housing collapse have had on the lives of poor and working-class residents.

But to the proponents of the idea, it’s a recognition of reality, and, more than that, an opportunity to free struggling cities from a paralyzing preoccupation with past glories. At its most ambitious, smart shrinking offers an opportunity to rethink what makes a city a city: Some planners envision a landscape that isn’t recognizably urban, suburban, or rural, but some combination of the three, with multistory apartment buildings next to working farms, and public transit lines extending through neighborhoods where most households have ample space to park their cars.

“This is an area where five years ago basically nobody except a couple of academics and oddball planners were talking about it, and now it’s pretty widely accepted. You’ve got just a lot of land and a lot of buildings for which there is no quote redevelopment potential,” says Alan Mallach, an urban planning expert at the Brookings Institution. “Part of what you have to do is think about ways to use land that help improve the quality of life but don’t involve actual building.”

The golden age of growth for the American city stretched from the late 1800s into the early 1900s. As immigrants from rural America and abroad flooded in, cities expanded outward, annexing more and more of the surrounding land. By the 1920s, however, suburbs in many parts of the country began to incorporate and to assert home rule, hemming cities in. At the same time, the middle class began to migrate to the suburbs, leaving the cities to the poor. That meant less tax revenue and higher social services costs, and the process of outmigration fed on itself. As the manufacturing industries that had driven the original growth moved abroad or died out in the decades after World War II, cities from St. Louis to Chicago to Baltimore stopped growing in population and began to dwindle.

Some forms of shrinking are more destructive than others. In Boston, for example, much of the population loss came from a reduction in family size, with the number of households remaining roughly the same. In Detroit and Cleveland, however, the decline left large portions of the city barely populated at all. And the recent nationwide collapse in housing prices has only exacerbated the trend, taking a process that had been occurring gradually and sharply accelerating it.

“For the first time, places like Detroit and Youngstown are realizing that they are not going to regain the population that they lost,” says Daniel D’Oca, an urban planner and partner at the planning and architecture firm Interboro Partners who has studied Detroit’s abandoned lot problem.

Cities like Detroit have suffered from a collapse in tax revenue. They have to deal with block upon block of buildings that have been left to the elements and a frayed urban fabric where the last holdouts from once-bustling neighborhoods now are isolated among vacant homes and lots. As a result, simply providing basic services like garbage collection, electricity, policing, and firefighting becomes more expensive and more difficult. Today whole sections of Detroit and Cleveland and Youngstown look like ghost towns: boarded-up houses everywhere, boarded-up office buildings, schools, even hospitals and train stations alongside vacant lots, with wild animals creeping back in.

But though the trend is decades old, urban planners have only recently begun to think about shrinking not as a setback on the path to future growth but as a condition to be actively managed. It’s a radical shift.

“It’s so contrary to what most planners do, it’s contrary to what we spend our time teaching students, [which is] all about how do you manage growth and accommodate growth,” says Joseph Schilling, who teaches urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech University and helped launch the National Vacant Properties Campaign. “The challenge for planning is how do you adapt existing tools and planning strategies to deal with an economy and market that is either totally dysfunctional or will have maybe slow, modest growth at best.”

Part of the difficulty planners face in thinking about the problem is that there are no real case studies of managed urban shrinking in the United States. There is, however, some precedent abroad. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany, the former East Germany experienced a massive emptying, with waves of residents from cities like Leipzig, Dresden, and Jena leaving for the more prosperous west.

Leipzig’s government in particular realized its diminished size would be a permanent condition and responded accordingly. According to Tamar Shapiro, the director of the comparative domestic policy program at the German Marshall Fund, city officials set out to address the problems created by all of the empty homes abandoned by those who had left. Unmaintained, they were an eyesore, and as they fell apart, a danger. They dragged down the value of the surrounding properties and left hollowed-out neighborhoods that attracted squatters and crime.

But since eminent domain was all but unheard of in Germany and the city couldn’t afford to buy out the remaining landowners in the largely abandoned neighborhoods, officials came up with something else, a new kind of land-use contract in which private owners signed over control to the city for a period of several years in exchange for not having to pay property taxes. The government was free to do what it wanted with the space — which was usually tearing down the buildings to create parks and other green spaces — and if the city’s population were to begin to grow again, the owner would be able to develop the land again when the contract ended.

Planners and city and state officials are beginning to look at similar ideas here in the United States. Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and several other cities have multiple nonprofits dedicated to turning vacant lots and blocks into parks. Many of the plots are tended in some way, some are left to return to nature, perhaps with a trail or two through them. The aim is partly aesthetic, but also an attempt to increase the value of neighboring homes and neighborhoods by replacing vacant houses or other signs of blight with greenery.

Other organizations are looking to turn vacant lots to more straightforwardly productive uses. Urban farms, for example, are spreading in several cities. These are not just community gardens, but larger-scale operations meant to be viable commercial enterprises. One of the most successful is the Ohio City Farm, a 6-acre plot behind a large housing development across the Cuyahoga River from downtown Cleveland. The farm, still in its first growing season, produces over 100 varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables, and is worked by a few young entrepreneur farmers, residents of the housing development, and, thanks to a local nonprofit, refugees who have resettled in the area.

The abundance of vacant land is also providing a better way to deal with storm water runoff, a serious problem for large cities. Because rainwater and sewage typically flow into the same pipes, large storms overload urban sewage systems, causing raw sewage to be dumped into surrounding waterways. Soil, of course, absorbs water much better than concrete. Cleveland and Philadelphia are now dotted with vacant lots that have been landscaped into so-called bioswales, patches of land with a slight gradient, loose soil, and vegetation, that collect storm water and filter out the pollutants it picks up as it flows over city streets — relieving some of the pressure on the sewage system.

Some areas are being targeted as sites for green energy production. Lackawanna, N.Y., a former steel town just south of Buffalo, has a wind farm built over the ruins of a decrepit Bethlehem Steel plant. Terry Schwarz, a planner who heads the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and has worked extensively with the city to repurpose vacant lots, believes that some of the land could make good sites for land-intensive energy sources like solar cells, or for geothermal wells to power adjacent buildings.

Schwarz’s larger vision is of a city with a reduced ecological footprint.

“We’re trying to take advantage of this moment to put a more sustainable pattern of urban development in place,” she says. “We want to delineate parts of the city where development probably shouldn’t have occurred in the first place.” One idea she and others are pushing is opening up the many creeks paved over during the construction of Cleveland. Doing so would leave the city braided with waterways, making it more pleasant and restoring a more natural water flow into the Cuyahoga River.

Schwarz and other planners involved in these efforts argue that some of the lessons they’re learning about how to use open land as a form of green infrastructure could apply in cities that aren’t facing the same population decline.

“How you unearth a creek in the city, how you separate storm water and sanitation water, it’s part of thinking more productively about landscapes, about a more ecological urban form,” says Dan Pitera, an architect at the University of Detroit Mercy.

All of these proposals, of course, merely shrink a city’s supply of inhabited land. Edward Glaeser, an urban economist at Harvard, argues that cities like Detroit might think of shrinking in a more fundamental way, selling off parts of the city to private entities. Those companies would then manage their parts of the city the way the holders of private charters governed colonies in the early days of North American settlement. Glaeser concedes that the idea is politically improbable. Still, he points out that recent decades have seen the rise of privately owned and managed housing developments throughout the suburbs — he’s just proposing trying it in the city.

“You could think about the city shrinking not just in terms of the number of occupied homes, but that the city’s own political footprint would shrink, in the same sense that it expanded like crazy in the 19th century,” he says.

Shrinking, as a strategy, certainly has its critics, who see it as a continuation of decades of coercive urban renewal strategies. Rather than trying to revitalize dying neighborhoods, shrinking simply gives up on them. “I’ve yet to be shown a city or a community that has been revived through shrinkage,” says Roberta Brandes Gratz, an urban critic and the author of the recently published “Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.”

Proponents of shrinking readily agree that forcing people to move should, whenever possible, be avoided. But the larger issue, they argue, is that talking about shrinking or not shrinking is somewhat beside the point; these cities have already shrunk, and they need to reconcile their new population with a built environment meant for many more people.

It’s a problem even the fastest-growing cities may someday face. “One hundred years ago, Cleveland wouldn’t have expected to be in the situation it is today,” Schwarz says, “but all cities grow and all cities decline and I think there are lessons that we can about how to manage decline that apply to all cities.”

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.


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