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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Declining Cities and Towns: Turn Declining Neighborhoods to Forest

I've heard our city officials express the view that we "can't just sit here and be stagnant," that Madison and any town must "grow or die." I'm not convinced that bigger is always better.

Flint, Michigan, may believe bigger would be better, but they are facing the reality that growth just isn't an option. Flint has struggled for decades as auto plant shutdowns have caused it to lose almost half of its population, from 200,000 at its peak in 1965 to 110,000 today. (See Michael Moore's classic Roger and Me for history—Moore notes that layoffs in Flint in the 1980s happened even as car sales rose and GM posted record profits.)

Naturally, Flint has tried to reverse or slow its decline. But as this New York Times article explains, some leaders in Flint are realizing the best way to save the city may be to shrink it faster:

Instead of waiting for houses to become abandoned and then pulling them down, local leaders are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods.

The population would be condensed into a few viable areas. So would stores and services. A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval.

“Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life,” said Dan Kildee, the Genesee County treasurer and chief spokesman for the movement to shrink Flint. “We need to control it instead of letting it control us.”

... Mr. Kildee was born in Flint in 1958. The house he lived in as a child has just been foreclosed on by the county, so he stopped to look. It is a little blue house with white trim, sad and derelict. So are two houses across the street.

“If it’s going to look abandoned, let it be clean and green,” he said. “Create the new Flint forest—something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure” [David Streitfield, "An Effort to Save Flint, Mich., by Shrinking It," New York Times, 2009.04.21].

Perhaps related, I had a conversation at last nights MWAIS conference dinner with Dr. David Olson, University of Nebraska–Lincoln prof and Montrose HS graduate. We talked about small rural schools and small towns. For all of our affection for small towns, we recognize that maybe some dots on our map just aren't culturally or economically viable. I certainly don't want to be the one to decide which schools or which towns don't get to survive. Officials in Flint will find it similarly challenging to decide which neighborhoods to bulldoze. But I suppose there comes a point where urban (or rural) decline is like gangrene: you're not going to save every neighborhood, and maintaining roads and water pipes and schools amidst abandoned houses is only sapping resources from viable neighborhoods. Sometimes you have to cut off the leg to save the patient.

And in Flint's case, cutting off the leg isn't a complete loss. I do find something appealing in the idea of replacing a dead neighborhood with a forest, a thing of beauty that would improve the quality of life for the folks who still call Flint home and would benefit generations to come.

Grow or die—I still don't buy it. Maybe there is an equilibrium point where a town's size is just right. Maybe cities need to accept growth and decline in harmony with changing economic conditions. And when decline is inevitable, as in Flint, maybe you can still grow... grow a good forest.


  1. Unless a dramatic shift has occurred steady growth is positive. When exploring Detroit 15 years ago I was in total shock: buildings with no roofs, countless empty homes and piles of garbage in the streets. Looked like a war zone.

  2. The rich, family values crowd decided they were paying too much in wages. They sent the high paying jobs overseas...but they still maintain their family values drumbeat....strangely echoed by families who have lost everything to China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Central America. It's a great world when those who pay the wages can get people to destroy their own families for a philosophy that died in the 18th century before industrialization. People moving around the nation and the world in search of a better life rarely have families...or give up the ones they have....either permanently or temporarily. They are the modern equivalent of slaves.

  3. An anonymous correspondent suggests farm fields instead of forest, or maybe even smaller green space. I think lots of green space interspersed among housing would be lovely, plenty of space for all the kids to play right at their doorsteps. However, there's also an infrastructure issue: right now the city has to maintain roads, sidewalks, water pipes, etc. to sparsely populated neighborhoods that don't generate the tax revenue to support a service network built for twice the population. That's why they're looking at clearing whole neighborhoods and condensing the population.

    ["JM" -- interesting comment! Next time, please leave a name.]

  4. At the top: John, I agree that, under normal cicumstances, steady growth should be fine. Flint and Detroit are not in normal circumstances. Sometimes you have to scale back to survive. I also wonder at what point a city reaches the limits of reasonable growth. Can healthy growth go on forever, or does it need to stop at some optimal size, beyond which growth is unavoidably unhealthy?

    Barry: Indeed! I've heard that once upon a time, Flint and Detroit offered the highest wages in the nation. Good union jobs seemed to do more for family values than any of the ploys of modern wealthy, moralizing Republicans.

  5. Endless growth is not sustainable. Towns, cities, states, and nations must eventually figure out how to maintain zero growth and, in some cases, negative growth in a positive way. In my opinion, "eventually" is "now."

  6. Believe it or not, Flint once had the highest per-capita income in the nation, yet the city never grew much bigger than 200,000.

    Now it's close to 100,000, and a lot of houses are just rotting. The plan to shrink the city is just common sense at this point.



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