With dwindling populations in Rust Belt cities (as an example, population loss in Chicago), some have suggested that urban contraction would be the best option. Youngstown, Ohio, which has dropped from a peak population of 170,002 in 1930 to 66,892 in 2010, has been demolishing empty houses and encouraging people to move to neighborhoods where more people live:
In 2006, the city abandoned all that. And Youngstown walked away from the most fundamental assumption of economic development and city planning: The idea that a city needs to grow…
But without the dream of growth, Youngstown just had a bunch of empty houses that no one was ever coming back to. So the city started demolishing thousands of empty houses…
The problem with shrinking cities is that they don’t shrink in a smart, organized way. It’s chaotic. Thousands of people will leave one neighborhood, and maybe a dozen people will stay behind.
So Youngstown has been offering financial help for those people left behind, offering to move them to a place with more neighbors.
The twist to this story is that a number of people were not interested in moving as they talked about how they had lived in their homes and neighborhoods for years. Due to this, the contraction plans have slowed down a bit. This is not too surprising: many people are attached to their homes and settings, even if presented with what outside observers would see as better options.
1. Accepting that Youngstown is a smaller city.
The dramatic collapse of the steel industry led to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and a precipitous decline in population. Having lost more than half its population and almost its entire industrial base in the last 30 years, the city is now left with an oversized urban structure. (It has been described as a size 40 man wearing a size 60 suit.) There are too many abandoned properties and too many underutilized sites. Many difficult choices will have to be made as Youngstown recreates itself as a sustainable mid-sized city. A strategic program is required to rationalize and consolidate the urban infrastructure in a socially responsible and financially sustainable manner.
If all goes well in Youngstown over the coming years and the city successfully transitions to a smaller city, they may just serve as a model for a number of other cities facing similar concerns.
It would be interesting to know how communities reach a point where they are able to truly realize that growth is not going to happen. Youngstown has been losing population for 50 years; what pushed them to the point of action in the mid 2000s? This is an important point to reach: cities and suburbs are supposed to grow over time. We have less clear ideas about communities that are on a slow decline – what do we do with the people there? Should we try to revive these communities? Can we admit that something went wrong? Is it acceptable or right to perceive places with massive population loss as “failures”?