Issue #150, Summer 2007
Small is Beautiful - Again
The shrinking cities movement imagines revitalization without growth - and housing advocates take a hard look at what that means for the poor.
By Miriam Axel-Lute
No community developer likes to be told that the
housing she just built was "not doing anybody a favor." But
that's what Jay Williams, the young, incredibly popular mayor of Youngstown,
Ohio, said to Governing magazine last fall about much of the
low-income tax-credit housing built in his city over the past decade.
Williams is not anti-affordable housing. But Youngstown
has lost more than half its population since 1970, dropping to 82,000
from 170,000. Some neighborhoods have only a couple of occupied buildings
left per block. Others are semi-rural, never having gotten expected
development before the collapse of the area's steel industry depressed
the local economy. In the mid-20th century, Youngstown was a booming
steel center. But on "Black Monday," Sept. 19, 1977, Youngstown
Sheet and Tube announced it was closing most of its operations. By the
mid-1980s, the industry the city had relied upon had withdrawn or collapsed.
Average home values in the poorer neighborhoods hover around $8,000,
and even seasoned planners like Terry Schwarz, at the Urban Design Center
of Northeast Ohio, say the amount of abandonment is "stunning."
The housing market is weak enough that Youngstown's
chief planner, Anthony Kobak, notes that many in the city have said
building a new house just produces an abandoned building elsewhere in
the city. New housing scattered in some of the emptiest areas, sometimes
between two abandoned buildings, is the kind of development that drew
Williams' disparaging remark.
The mismatch between the city's physical size and
infrastructure and its population is serious enough that during the
2002 to 2005 Youngstown 2010 planning process, a vision embracing Youngstown
as a dramatically smaller city bubbled up from the community. The planners
embraced it and made it a central piece of their new vision. Williams
guided the process in his previous role as director of community development,
and it is his mandate as mayor to implement it.
How to implement it is the difficult question. The long-term vision is to target the city's efforts and resources to bringing back a dense, vibrant urban core and to eventually return some of the emptiest areas of the city to green space. In the short term, it means hard choices. For example, the city used to offer housing rehab grants to low-income residents on a first-come-first-served basis. But now they have decided not to approve them for the most devastated areas, targeting their limited resources to areas where they are more likely to have a bigger effect. For Youngstown and other shrinking cities, these hard choices are putting a new twist on the challenge of balancing the needs of places and people.
Shrinking Cities Movement
The term "shrinking cities" was coined for a project begun
in 2002, initiated by the German Federal Cultural Foundation and the
architecture magazine archplus, and financed largely by the German
government. The Shrinking Cities International (SCI) project gathered
four interdisciplinary teams to study shrinking cities around the world
- Detroit, Mich.; Manchester and Liverpool, England; Ivanovo, Russia;
and Halle and Leipzig, Germany. The project's second phase involved
a call for "interventions" to address shrinking cities, especially
in Germany, other than just knocking down large housing towers.
The concept has gained currency among some American urban studies researchers,
including those at the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at
the University of California, Berkeley, who have created a Shrinking
Youngstown may be one of the first American cities to embrace the term,
but the United States has plenty of places that meet the description:
Think Detroit or Cleveland. The most visible and most troubling thing
these cities share is an epidemic of abandoned property. In Flint, Mich.,
the five-year-old Genesee County
Land Bank owns a full 10 percent of the parcels in the city. In
Cleveland, one neighborhood is called "The Forgotten Triangle,"
which Schwarz calls "the most disturbing name for a neighborhood"
she's worked in. Empty parts of downtown Detroit are often described
as "urban prairie," home to enough wild pheasants that the
city has exported some of the birds to rural areas.
Trying to revitalize a city that has contracted this far can be a daunting
task. Joe Schilling, of the National
Vacant Property Campaign, recounts how community developers in Cleveland
came to see that they were bringing 200 to 300 new housing units on
line every year, but losing about 1,000 to foreclosure and abandonment.
Property values in the most depopulated areas have often dropped so
far that remaining owner-occupants are trapped.
"In some neighborhoods, you could channel public dollars into
those neighborhoods from now into the future and not have the kind of
impact you were hoping to see," says Schwarz. Building new low-income
housing in these areas may only serve to trap people in areas of concentrated
Another descriptor often used for struggling cities is "weak-market,"
and although there is considerable overlap between the two concepts,
not everyone agrees on their application. Kim Burnett, community revitalization
program officer at the Surdna Foundation,
says that at one shrinking-cities-themed conference she attended, hot-market
cities that had recently had a modest population dip, such as Boston
or the San Francisco Bay area, were deemed shrinking cities, although
their needs differ markedly from those of Detroit or Youngstown. On
the other hand, notes Burnett, some people studying these cities believe
that weak-market cities can be induced to bounce back, and therefore
it is a mistake to plan for them to stay small. "It is really hard
to get people to accept that they're not going to be the city they were,"
Even among those who are applying the shrinking-city lens to weak-market
cities only, there is no consensus about how to achieve the goal of
"right-sizing," or matching a city's infrastructure, budget,
and amenities to its size so it can regain a functioning economy and
healthy neighborhoods. Their most common recommendation is to stop spreading
development investment evenly throughout a city, instead targeting a
select group of neighborhoods. The idea is to be able to reach a threshold
of investment that will catalyze a turnaround. Richmond, Va., pioneered
the targeting concept with its Neighborhoods
in Bloom program. A 2005 study of the program by the Federal Reserve
Bank found that an investment of $20,100 per block seemed to be a critical
mass of funding that spurred dramatic improvement and the return of
the private market.
Where advocates of right-sizing part company from past practices and
other attempts to spur revitalization is that they are not aiming to
redevelop every acre. As Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which
is home to Flint, Mich., notes, if the market isn't there, trying to
force it will just perpetuate the speculation and abandonment cycle.
Kildee spearheaded the creation of the Genesee County Land Bank (GCLB).
Like most land banks, GCLB takes control of tax-foreclosed properties
(they now control 10 percent of the parcels in Flint) and manages them
until they can be returned to productive use. However, unlike many land
banks, GCLB isn't trying to resell every parcel at all costs. For many
properties it makes more sense to turn them into green infrastructure:
side yards for homeowners, parks, trails, urban agriculture, community
gardens, open space.
Youngstown, too, recognizes that it can be generous with its land.
It is even looking into offering land to companies that need to create
new wetlands to mitigate development elsewhere. "Maybe 10 or 15
years from now, as a neighborhood heals and the land heals, there might
be an opportunity to transfer some of this green infrastructure back
to housing or neighborhood commercial," says Schilling.
In fact, Youngstown's long-term and somewhat controversial goal is to allow or encourage some areas to empty out fully enough that the city can scale back services such as sewers or plowing and even contemplate removing some streets altogether. This would bring the city's infrastructure costs more in line with its population and allow it to focus its resources more on a healthy core. It makes sense, says Karina Pallagst, program coordinator at the University of California's Institute of Urban and Regional Development, but no one has made it happen yet.
Few people would disagree with the goal of taking control of abandoned
properties and demolishing those that are not salvageable. That is a
big enough challenge. But anything more than that poses a particular
challenge for the community-development world and its historic commitment
to distressed city neighborhoods.
If the remaining residents are not taken into account, the results
can be ugly. To Irene Baldwin of the Association
for Neighborhood and Housing Development in New York City, taking
certain areas off-line is reminiscent of a policy of "planned shrinkage"
proposed (and, residents say, implemented, though it was never made
formal) by then-New York City Housing Commissioner Roger Starr in the
Bronx in the 1970s. "They actually decreased essential services
- police, sanitation, etc. in certain neighborhoods," says Baldwin.
"It was an awful, failed policy that those neighborhoods are still
recovering from in some ways."
Of course, anyone looking at New York's housing market today, or even
15 years ago, would be hard-pressed to imagine policies designed for
shrinking cities to be relevant there. But it should stand as a reminder
that "policymakers and funders sometimes are wrong in their predictions
about neighborhood viability," says Hersh.
"Hindsight is 20/20," agrees Beth Lewis, executive director
of Jubilee Urban Renewal Corp., which in cooperation with two other
organizations built much of Youngstown's tax-credit housing over the
past decade. "It's hard to know what a neighborhood is going to
look like until the abandoned homes come down."
Even if you are right about a neighborhood's viability, there's still
the question of creating humane policies for the people who've stayed
put. Jennie Dennison-Budak, the director of Interfaith
Home Maintenance Service in Youngstown, understands wanting to direct
new construction and major rehab dollars for the most impact. "It's
hard to justify putting $50,000 into a $20,000 house that's the only
house on the street," she says.
Interfaith provides emergency or necessary home repairs, such as installing
a new furnace or fixing a water main break, to low-income owners on
an as-needed basis. Dennison-Budak sees this as a very different question
from major development investment. "If you can't sell your house
and you can't move, what are your choices? You can't just sit there
and freeze to death; that's inhumane." She notes that enabling
the low-income elderly, for example, to stay in their homes probably
saves the public more in terms of not paying for nursing-home care than
the potential savings in shut-off services if enough of them move out.
And so, Dennison-Budak reacts strongly to comments like the one Hunter
Morrison, director of the urban and regional studies program at Youngstown
State University and a prime mover in the city's planning process, made
to Governing: "What we're saying in Youngstown is, the past
is the past. It's time to turn granny's picture to the wall." To
her, this implies that the homes, community ties, and general welfare
of the people remaining in depopulated neighborhoods should take a back
seat to the goal of saving money on city services. "The idea of
'turning Granny's picture to the wall' is pretty abhorrent," she
sputters. "You can't [revitalize the city] over the bodies of people
who thought they were doing their part." (Mayor Williams, whom
Dennsion-Budak supports, has, in fact, explicitly promised to continue
services to all occupied areas.)
In some ways, the legacy of urban renewal leaves the residents of America's
shrinking neighborhoods better defended against wholesale disruption
than Europe's, says Pallagst. "In [the former] East Germany, for
example, they don't have a [community-development] lobby. When cities
say 'We have to shut down this housing block, people don't protest,
they just move.' "
Nonetheless, the shrinking cities conversation must eventually address
the question of relocation. "If you're going to take things off
line, you're going to have to move some people who are isolated on some
blocks," says Burnett.
But it's a difficult discussion to have, especially in the aftermath
of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. New London,
allowing the principle of eminent domain to be applied to the taking
of residential property for private development. Since Kelo,
anti-eminent domain sentiment around the country has spurred legislation
restricting the taking of property to combat blight. Youngstown plans
to keep relocation voluntary, hoping to offer people in depopulated
areas who would have qualified for home-rehab assistance the same grant
for a house in a better neighborhood. "We've always shied away
from saying 'eminent domain.' We never believed in having it come to
that," says Kobak. "There's always negotiating a better opportunity,
there's always waiting people out."
Of course negotiating and waiting can take a long time, while costs to service these areas mount. Burnett thinks the model of "responsible relocation" being developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for helping households displaced by redevelopment projects could be relevant to shrinking cities, if expensive. Casey's program involves a wide array of financial and social supports to ensure that relocated families end up in better housing situations than they started in.
The Balancing Act
"The community and owners need to be involved," says Schilling.
Yet having a true community-planning process is often easier said than
done. "You have to ask, and then you have to listen," says
Dennison-Budak, "and those two things in that particular sequence
are rarer than they should be."
To protect the most vulnerable, there would be a threshold of city
services and housing assistance for all areas, even those not chosen
for new investment. "You say 'We're going to provide a basic level
of services citywide, but in core areas we're going to increase the
level of investment,' " says Schwarz.
Second, the areas that are targeted for investment should include sufficient
new affordable-housing development to absorb existing demand and that
of people who might be ready to move in from other areas. In fact, Schwarz
emphasizes that a commitment to creating affordable housing has to be
part of the deal of accepting targeted investment. Relocation assistance
should be provided to those who want it. "You've got to be able
to offer people something better than the status quo," says Schilling.
Some people are also talking about models that don't aim to empty depopulated
areas, but rather try to increase the value and quality of life without
draining precious investment resources from other areas of the city.
Schwarz, for example, suggests an aggressive side-lot program. Many
cities will give a vacant lot to a neighboring property owner for a
side yard, on condition that the owner maintains it. But many of these
programs have a restriction of one lot per property owner. What if,
says Schwarz, you gave one owner several lots? Even in a distressed
area, a half-acre or an acre of property can be a meaningful asset,
increasing property values and the financial position of remaining owners.
Larger lots might even attract new residents who are interested in the
unusual idea of semi-rural living right next to a city downtown. "If
we grab [the interest of] 2 percent, or heck one-half percent [of buyers],
suddenly we've created market demand in an area that doesn't have any,"
Schwarz also recommends taking a lighter hand with zoning and regulation
in areas that have become very low density, to allow a more "organic"
mix of uses. Residential zoning usually prohibits most commercial uses,
especially those likely to be noxious to their neighbors. But in a mostly
empty neighborhood, if a property owner opens a car repair shop that
is a block away from its nearest residential neighbor, who is it hurting,
asks Schwarz. Why not replace strict zoning with a policy of "show
us how you would use this land without creating a nuisance, and we'll
take it back if it becomes a nuisance," she suggests. This means
people could become more entrepreneurial about what they do with their
land, which would also increase its value.
Schilling presents another possible scenario, in which small village-like
clusters of housing are developed for remaining residents in the neighborhood,
allowing them to retain, and even strengthen, their local networks,
while letting the city deliver services more effectively and package
land into larger contiguous green spaces.
Talk of clustering and semi-rural densities, and especially talk of
decommissioning streets, makes some urban advocates nervous that the
premise of not engaging in large-scale redevelopment of these areas
might give way to the allure of suburban-style housing developments.
"CDCs and private developers [have been] chasing the suburban housing
market, thinking the only way to lure them back downtown is to build
suburban style," says Schilling. One example is the Church Square
development in Cleveland, which Schwarz describes as "a suburban-style
shopping center with some very large suburban-style houses built nearby."
Kobak veers into this realm when he talks about the potential for "bigger
private driveways" in areas with fewer streets.
But chasing suburban growth smacks more of urban renewal and the "growth
at all costs" mindset than the "proud to be a small city"
places like Youngstown are trying to adopt. Taking out streets reduces
the accessibility of neighborhoods for existing residents, and adding
suburban housing doesn't necessarily result in less costly services.
In cities with very tiny lots, downzoning can make sense, says Burnett,
but in cities that already have larger lots, you do run the risk of
compromising the urban fabric. And, of course, there's the question
of whether the market is really there.
And after all, the whole point and promise of the right-sizing and
regreening movement, as Kildee says, is that "It doesn't make a
lot of sense for us to require growth for us to consider our community
successful." It's a hard assessment to make, and once made, the
real work begins. But with careful attention to the needs and rights
of the residents of the weakest market areas, the result just might
be cities that are both healthy and humane.
"There's real promise in shrinking cities," says Schwarz.
"It drives me crazy when people get all depressed about the decline,
because there's lots of opportunities too."
Miriam Axel-Lute is a freelance writer and editor and proud resident of the modestly shrinking city of Albany, N.Y. Her Web site is www.mjoy.org.
Shrinking Cities International
The Shrinking Cities Group
Urban Design Center of Northeastern Ohio: Kent State University
National Vacant Properties Campaign
Building a Better Urban Future: New Directions for Housing Policies
in Weak Market Cities.
Bringing Buildings Back: From Abandoned Properties to Community Assets.