Downsizing as urban development

Since at least the Louisiana Purchase, American urban planning has been focused on growth. Most urban planners grapple with promoting, or in some cases containing, growth. Very few find themselves in the situation of Marja Winters, deputy director of Detroit’s Department of Planning and Development, who must figure out how to shrink her hometown.

William Livingstone House, Detroit

An article in Wednesday’s New York Times chronicles the inside-out planning that happens when cities like Detroit retract. Recent census data show the continuing exodus from Detroit, once the nation’s fourth-largest city. Today, it stands at fewer than 714,000 residents according to the article.

For Winters and her team, this means reconfiguring roads, bus routes, police stations, and redirecting development to areas with the best chance of sparking a recovery–and where strapped city coffers will get the most bang for their buck. None are easy decisions, as inevitably some neighborhoods will be abandoned in an effort to consolidate what is working into a more tightly knit city. But all are out of necessity. More than 100,000 parcels of land are vacant in Detroit today. Approximately 12,000 homes need demolition–at $10,000 a home by some estimates. Only 38% of Detroiters work in the city, according to an expansive analysis of Detroit’s footing. The city is emptying out.

It is not alone. In 2006, Youngstown, Ohio, abandoned the idea that a city needs to grow. Like Detroit, it began planning for a reorganization into a smaller city. According to a March 15 NPR report, that meant offering people incentives to move out of neighborhoods so city planners could consolidate the city services, and in turn save money. But the problem was, not everyone wanted to move. People had put down roots and were not about to pick up stakes. So the process is moving more slowly than planned. Bulldozers come in only after heads of the household have given up the ghost and moved or have passed away. As the report notes, “The city can only follow the people who leave with bulldozers. Take down their homes and hope that the population does eventually stabilize, while there’s still some city left to enjoy.” As of the most recent census, Youngstown has lost 18% of its population over the last decade.

Downsizing is not necessarily bad, says Jennifer Bradley, a fellow with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.  “Ungrowth is not surrender but a phase of urban evolution,” she told the Times “Room for Debate” blog. However, downsizing must be well planned, she argues:

Ungrowth needs to be bottom up, slow and exquisitely careful. It will take a long time to convince residents of battered cities that the new city landscapes dreamed up by their neighbors, city planners, foundations, academics and outsiders are worth uprooting their lives for. Americans have been spending for growth for centuries. Our commitment to ungrowth, and new ideas about how cities change and what they look like, needs to be sustained for decades.

Downsizing might not be confined to old industrial cities like Detroit and Youngstown. The rapid development in far-flung suburbs might also be a target. As Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson wonder in another Room for Debate post, “the oversupply of platted vacant lots in states like Arizona, Florida and Idaho that may never be developed prompts us to ask: Will planned shrinkage become the new normal?”

They call for careful retrofitting of those areas, with an eye to reusing land with the ever-rising cost of a gallon of gas in mind.

New research reveals that in 2008, a median income household living in a location-efficient neighborhood spent 12.6 percent of their income on transportation, versus 35.8 percent for those stuck far from jobs and transit. “Drive ‘til you qualify” affordability is no longer sustainable. Instead, we need to use cheap land for food and energy production, redirect growth inward, ease the production of affordable infill housing and retrofit our shrinking suburbs.

Yet throwing some cold water of caution to such plans is Richard Florida, in a rebuttal to top-down plans to shrink cities. “The record of schemes to revive cities by assembling and remaking neighborhoods is littered with disastrous unintended consequences,” he says. And how, he asks, “do we guarantee that the notion of shrinking cities does not become cover for private developers looking to assemble massive parcels of centrally located and well-connected urban land on the cheap?”

An antidote to top-down revitalization schemes, he argues, is a Jane Jacobsesque bottom-up, neighbor-led revival.

Instead of handing over neighborhoods or even whole sections of cities to city hall or private developers, we’d be much better off enabling residents to take control of and build on community assets, engaging them in community-based organizations that can spearhead revitalization and build real quality of place.

It’s all food for thought as we face chapter 2 in the nation’s history of land development.

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