Contracting Youngstown

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.

You can read more about this on Youngstown’s website. In their Youngstown 2010 plan, the first statement of the Vision talks about seeing the city as a smaller place:

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”?

0 thoughts on “Contracting Youngstown

  1. Hey, Interesting subject, I heard part of this coverage on NPR the other day.

    Growth, of either the economic or population kind, is such an ingrained expectation, that it is interesting to think of policies that might actually help manage contraction of various sorts (one thinks of the dire European population predictions particularly). Literally growth cannot go on forever, so it seems reasonable to have more policy options that might be up to the task.

    As a home-owner, (gulp, what was I thinking!) in South Bend, a city with similar, though perhaps not as a severe growth problem, it is interesting to think about this. My neighborhood (built shortly after the turn of the century) features relativley narrow lots that once were full of densely packed houses. Now a good variety of those houses are down and the city struggles to let go of those old lots (as presumed real estate tax sources) even as the probability of them ever being occupied continues to dwindle. SB seems often to be in denial about what really might be in their future. Whatever the limits of Youngstown’s policies, at least they’re facing the challenges more realistically.


  2. So when will a city like South Bend figure out that the present course is not sustainable? It sounds like Youngstown is a bit ahead of the curve – though one could argue that it still took decades to decide on this new path when their population has been dropping.


  3. Pingback: Are the suburbs a Ponzi scheme? | Legally Sociable

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