Downsizing the city

Abandoned building, Flint, MichiganTough times call for tough decisions: faced with long-term urban decline accelerated by the global economic SNAFU, the US Government is considering razing sections of some failing cities in order to keep them from collapsing. What were once bustling industrial towns  are now underpopulated, underfunded and poorly maintained, and pruning them back like a rosebush might just enable them to survive.

Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes.

Most are former industrial cities in the “rust belt” of America’s Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside.

“The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we’re all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way,” said Mr Kildee. “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.”

If things don’t get a lot better very soon, I imagine there will be some small cities that collapse entirely, littering the country with hollow remnants of the late industrial age, a series of Twentieth Century ghost-towns inhabited by wildlife and a few back-to-the-land loners. Meanwhile the larger cosmopolitan centres – anywhere with a diverse enough economy to attract a newly itinerant workforce – will presumably keep growing as the ongoing urbanisation of the world gathers pace.

It’ll be interesting to see whether we’ve gotten much better at urban planning in the last half century or so; many of Britain’s planned cities of the post-war period were less than glowing successes, as the architectural philosophies of the day were based on principles that we’d now consider naive at best. But downsizing for survival is a time-honoured tactic in nature as well as economics; perhaps we’re living in the last days of suburbia. [via Slashdot; image by NESJumpman]

3 thoughts on “Downsizing the city”

  1. Interesting. In the back-story to 2000AD’s Judge Dredd it took a global nuclear war to result in rise of the three maga-cities (East Coast, West Coast, and Texas) with the rest of North America reduced to a radioactive wasteland populated by mutants, crazies and gangs of outcast criminals. Is the current economic melt-down going to eventually result in a similar scenario?

  2. Went to a session on Monday, November 10, 2008, on “Sustainable Design and (un) Development in Cities” by Justin Hollander of Tufts at Harvard. As a student of the Professors Popper at Rutgers who first proposed the Buffalo Commons, Hollander has been examining the cities that have lost population in the last 50 years or so, asking how people are planning for decline rather than growth. He is part of a small movement called “smart decline.”

    It was a rudimentary presentation mostly dealing with Hollander’s studies of the Rust Belt and Flint, MI. It seems that some of the loss in housing has been replaced by urban agriculture but Hollander didn’t really get that agriculture can be both economically transformative and necessary for survival in a sustainable future. Hollander spoke with favor about the transition now happening in Youngstown, OH and their mayor, Jay Willliams, and the work of the Shrinking Cities Institute at UC Berkeley.

    Planning for decline as well as growth is a wise move but politically difficult. Nobody talked about the present housing and mortgage crisis and how it might relate to these issues which I thought was interesting. I brought up resource issues and Peak Oil, especially as one cause mentioned for population decline was the transition away from rail transport and we may soon be transitioning back from trucks. Lots of blinders here, smart people with extremely narrow vision.

    370 cities lost population from 1950-2000 worldwide
    122 metropolitan areas in the US lost population from 2000-2004 – German Federal Cultural Council
    European countries are confronting population loss (and aging)

    Smart decline toolkit to be released soon by Kent State Univ

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