"Shrinking Cities": Let's Be Careful What We Wish For

schematic of AIA plan for open space and villages in what is now Detroit

Readers of a certain age will remember Joni's Mitchell's iconic anthem "Woodstock," celebrating the famous 1969 music festival (which, incidentally, she did not attend, but I digress). The song became a monster hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (who did attend) in 1970. Its chorus, propelled by the group's trademark high harmonies, called us to get "back to the garden."

It was, and is, a fantastic song. But it is not, I repeat not, a reliable environmental solution to urban problems. Unfortunately, it does fairly characterize where a lot of the environmental movement's sentiment and energy was in the 1970s when we, pretty much like everyone else, vilified cities and romanticized the countryside. What we didn't realize then, but now do, is that auto-dependent sprawl with solar panels and compost is still, well, auto-dependent sprawl. And that compact, walkable cities, suburbs, and towns are not the problem but the solution.

Which brings me to something that is becoming all the rage with a certain stardust-tinged segment of the planning world: re-vegetating older, industrial "shrinking cities" with green space where vacant properties and isolated occupied homes now stand. Let's clear the debris of vacant houses and lots, the argument goes, and turn their spaces into gardens and natural areas, since the economies of Detroit, Buffalo, Baltimore and the like can't support repopulation. In other words, just as some of us had finally convinced the environmental movement of the terrific value of cities in reducing per-capita environmental impacts, along comes a movement to de-urbanize cities.

I noted my concern with this strategy last month in a post about Detroit, which has been presented with a plan by an architects' study group to do exactly that. (See image: everything outside the designated "centers" would be proposed for greenways or reserved as "opportunity areas" for potential agriculture.) One member of the team apparently suggested "that Detroit could recreate itself as a 21st-Century version of the English countryside."

The idea is definitely catching on, reportedly even in the Obama administration. An article by Tom Leonard in the London-based Telegraph, headlined "US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive," puts it this way:

"Dozens of US cities may have entire neighbourhoods bulldozed as part of drastic 'shrink to survive' proposals being considered by the Obama administration to tackle economic decline."

The concept is usually traced in the press to Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County (Flint), Michigan, though in a comment to a longer version of this post on my NRDC blog he says that his proposals have been badly caricatured.

I think there is probably a happy medium of carefully targeting some vacant parcels for urban gardens and such, but I really hope this doesn't lead to a "first bathwater, then baby" situation. The truth is that the depopulation of our cities is itself somewhat exaggerated.

In particular, I wish the turning-cities-back-to-nature crowd would give at least some mention to a major reason why these places now have vacant properties: the flight of investment and population to the metro fringe. Everyone is saying or implying that it is all the decline of the industrial economy, but it's not that simple. Most of these regions are not, in fact, declining in population much or at all: The metro areas of Detroit, Baltimore and Boston all grew from 1990 to 2003. Metro Baltimore and Boston continued to grow in the 2000s; metro Detroit did decline between 2000 and 2008, but only by six-tenths of one percent.

Viewed from this perspective, the problem is not one of much if any real metro area depopulation but mainly the changed geographic distribution of that population as regions have failed to address sprawl. That is a problem that needs fixing. Converting large amounts of currently urban land "back to the garden" without also addressing sprawl will only ensure that any further population shifts or recovery will occur in favor of the fringe, where the per-capita environmental damage is the greatest.

I for one am really, really glad this idea (at least the extreme form of it) didn't have traction a decade or two ago, when it easily could have led to the demolition of vacant houses and properties in such wonderful, now-recovering neighborhoods as Old North Saint Louis, Boston's Dudley Street, or even Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine, now poised to become a national model of revitalization done well. Every one of those terrific neighborhoods could have been subjected to the same logic, since they all suffered serious decline and depopulation in weak-market regions before things began to turn around in recent years.

As Roberta Brandes Gratz recently wrote on Citiwire:

"One is hard pressed to find a city or even a neighborhood that was ever regenerated through demolition of vacant buildings. Didn't we learn of the hollow results from the discredited post-World War II urban renewal policies that destroyed - and for decades left bereft - vast tracks of troubled residential structures?"

Plant a neighborhood garden or create a neighborhood-scaled park? Absolutely. And enjoy it. But turn large tracts of city land "back to the garden" without also curbing sprawl on the edge? I'm not convinced, and I don't even think Joni would be.

(As alluded to above, there is a longer version of this post on my NRDC blog, with more photos, quotes and links for those who are interested.)


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