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Room for Debate in the New York Times recently posed the question: Places like Detroit are steadily losing people. Can empty urban lands be brought back to life?
A number of experts to weighed-in on this urban planning question. I’ve summarized each contributor’s response here, but also recommend reading the full text of their responses for a more nuanced understanding of their viewpoints.
Jennifer Bradley is a fellow with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. Her work focuses on land use and economic development in Great Lakes metropolitan areas.
—Bradey argues that there are many of potential uses for vacant and abandoned land: urban agriculture; watershed restoration; park networks, public arts zones, etc.
—She argues that growth as a goal is an outdated mindset: “The nation now needs a parallel commitment to physical ungrowth. Ungrowth is not surrender but a phase of urban evolution.”
—Remaking cities is cost-intensive, and not supported by the market. Foundations don’t have sufficient funds to make up the difference.
—Bradley proposes that cities be able to reallocate money they already receive from the federal government for ‘unbuilding’ programs. “The federal government spends $104 billion a year subsidizing home-building through the mortgage interest deduction. What if it took 10 percent, or even 1 percent, of that money to help places unbuild and reinvent?”
How not to ‘Save’ a City
Richard Florida is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. He is the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class” and “The Great Reset.”
—Florida notes that few ‘planned shrinkage’ and ‘benign neglect’ efforts have been successful in the past.
—The challenge is keeping the fabric of the community intact and ensuring that re-development and/or revitalization really do occur. “How 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?”
—Florida points to successful bottom-up, organic renewal schemes, such as New York’s Greenwich Village and Boston’s North End to Columbus’s German Village as positive examples.
—Residents and local community organizations should spearhead revitalization.
No City is Disposable
Toni L. Griffin is an adjunct associate professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and an urban planner and designer.
—Griffin is surprised by reactions to the Census figures regarding Detroit’s 25% decrease in population: “Are we really willing to allow one of the core centers of the Great Lakes Region and the birthplace of the middle class to slip into the abyss?”
—He reaffirms the value of the city as “engines of the economic, civic and cultural life of a region.”
—Griffin points to “the failure of urban policies that have allowed regional sprawl to decentralize the urban core, leaving behind crumbling and excessive infrastructure, concentrations of generational poverty and weakened civic capacity.”
—He proposes strategies for (1) reversing the trend towards sprawl and (2) exploring non-traditional strategies for how extra land can be transformed into more productive uses.
An Age-Old Problem
Sam Staley is the director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and the co-author of “Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century.”
—Urban decline is not a new phenomenon.
—Failure to find a solution is sobering; “No city has yet found the silver bullet to bring them back on a broad scale. We haven’t even found a magazine of conventional bullets that can be fired in a way to bring most of these cities back.”
—Staley recommends a people-based approach to revitalization (rather than bricks-and-mortar); a “policy framework that focuses on rebuilding people-based competitive advantages in an economy that is highly mobile, global in scale and footloose.”
—Declining cities should: “ensure their neighborhoods are safe, cut the costs of doing (and opening) businesses, ensure access to quality elementary and secondary education, provide transparency in government spending and programs and maximize the value of their existing physical infrastructure.”
Ways to Reuse Vacant Lots
Michael A.Pagano is the dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is co-author of “Terra Incognita: Vacant Land and Urban Strategies” and co-editor of Urban Affairs Review.
—Pagano offers a series of suggestions for land re-use projects, including: gardens; side yards; outdoor art; and park-lets.
—He also suggests ways to re-structure the the tax system. “Cities should reconsider their tax structure to provide incentives for property owners (as well as city officials) to maintain their buildings and improve their vacant land.” Specifically, he recommends a land tax with a “use” imperative and imposing new fees that will keep vacant spaces clean and secure.
An Un-American Idea
Terry Schwarz is the director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.
—Schwarz points out that, while some cities are shrinking, the U.S. population overall is growing.
—”Growth management practices are sometimes implemented at the local or regional level, but we urgently need to plan growth at the national scale to respond to emerging challenges of climate change, rising energy costs and water scarcity. Repopulating shrinking cities must be part of the equation.”
—She suggests retrofitting old cities and re-use older urban infrastructure, and treating places like Detroit as “laboratories for understanding and restoring urban ecosystems.”
The Paradox of Greater Cleveland
Brad Whitehead is president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, a philanthropic network in northeast Ohio.
—Whitehead points out the trend toward growing regions surrounding shrinking cities:
“Take the case of northeast Ohio. According to the latest census, each of our major cities lost significant population over the last decade: Cleveland 17 percent, Akron 8 percent, Youngstown 18 percent. Yet the region’s population overall grew slightly over this period — and surprising to many — the economy outperformed the nation’s on many measures during the Great Recession.”
—Cities aren’t necessarily shrinking, they are spreading out.
—”When the regional population grows 1 percent but developed land increases 60 percent over a few decades, big problems result. Hollowed-out core cities are only the most visibly painful manifestation.”
—Whitehead blames government structures that pit neighboring communities against one another through incentives.
—He suggests “regional tax policies that discourage “beggar thy neighbor” municipal financing strategies and land use policies that more closely align infrastructure to economic and population growth should be at the top of any governor’s, county executive’s or mayor’s list.”
What About the Suburbs?
Ellen Dunham-Jones is a professor in the School of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. June Williamson is an associate professor at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at The City College of New York. They are co-authors of “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.”
—Shrinking cities are not a new phenomenon in history: “What’s perhaps more remarkable today are shrinking suburbs — and the specter of the end of cheap oil.”
—Failed strip malls and “zombie” subdivisions across the country are examples of extreme sprawl and demonstrate our collective dependence on cars.
—The authors suggest: “Transit-served properties could be targeted for redevelopment into mixed-use, walkable nodes and corridors, as near Northgate Mall in Seattle and along Columbia Pike in northern Virginia. More modest revitalization can occur through the re-inhabitation of former strip malls with libraries, schools and other community-serving uses like the Jackson Medical Mall in Jackson, Miss.”
—”Incentives for filling in and re-using urban land must be balanced with more robust disincentives to urbanize additional land at the fringes. First steps include revising local zoning and subdivision regulations and conducting greyfield audits of underused parking lots and vacant land.”