Modern “cities that have vanished”

Who needs Atlantis and El Dorado if there are interesting tales of modern “cities that have vanished“?

This reminds me that we tend to think that cities and countries will tend to grow in population regardless of what happens. Obviously, this isn’t true in every circumstance. Particularly in situations involving natural disasters or ecological change (the focus of books Collapse by Jared Diamond), cities can become inhabitable. But, this modern lists also highlights that political decisions can lead to vanishing cities.

In more American terms, this could lead to some interesting discussions about whether cities should be contracted or whole areas of development need to disappear. In two hundred years, might people be talking about a mythical Detroit that once was an economic powerhouse?

An argument for expanding Detroit rather than contracting it

In the last few years, a number of commentators have suggested contracting cities like Detroit or Youngstown. So it might seem strange to suggest expanding Detroit instead – but this idea is rooted in some interesting recent works:

I’ve come to learn my friend’s idea is a favorite thought experiment among a certain subset of Detroit-area urbanophiles. Sometimes they will reference David Rusk, the former Albuquerque mayor whose book Cities Without Suburbs makes the case for the economic vibrancy of “elastic” cities (like Houston, Austin, Seattle and Nashville) whose central hubs have the capability to annex or otherwise regionalize their surrounding suburbs into a unified metropolitan area.

The takeaway from the census stories was that Detroit plummeted to 19th place on the U.S. city-size list, behind Austin, Jacksonville and Columbus (Columbus!). But the Detroit metropolitan area — which we’ll define, for these purposes, as Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — still retains a population of nearly four million. If our territorial-expansion fantasia could have been magically enacted with even two-thirds of this figure, the Greater Detroitopolis would easily vault past Chicago to become the third-largest city in the U.S., behind New York and Los Angeles. This would translate into more state and national clout (and allocated funds, many of which are based on population) and eliminate the need for much of the wasteful duplicate spending inherent in maintaining dozens of tiny separate municipalities, especially at a time when many of these suburban communities have announced their own cutbacks. (In February, the westside suburb of Allen Park announced plans to eliminate its entire fire department.)

Super-sizing Detroit could also translate to better policy. When Indianapolis enacted a similar “Unigov” city-suburbs merger in the late Sixties (under Republican mayor Dick Lugar), the region experienced economic growth (and the benefits of economy of scale), AAA municipal bond-ratings and a broader, more stable tax base. The same could happen in metropolitan Detroit, which sorely needs to attract young people and entrepreneurs in order to fill the void left by the region’s dwindling manufacturing base. Elastic cities are less segregated and have fewer of the problems associated with concentrated areas of poverty. And though sprawl wouldn’t necessarily be reigned in, the region could finally adopt a sensible transportation policy to unite its businesses and residential areas. At the moment, suburban Detroit maintains its own bus system, separate from the city’s, and a planned $150 million light rail project, slated to run from downtown Detroit up the main thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue, would nonsensically stop at 8 Mile Road, the suburban border. That’s a formula to limit, not maximize, growth.

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, has written several books (Cities Without Suburbs and Inside Game/Outside Game) about this subject. Rusk’s argument in both books revolves around this idea of “elasticity” which is the ability for cities to expand their boundaries. According to Rusk, more modern cities (particularly those in the South and West) have been able to annex more land compared to older cities like New York City, Chicago, and Detroit. With more land, Rusk argues these cities have lower rates of residential segregation, a broader tax base, and more beneficial outcomes.

Of course, these plans are not easy to implement. The trick is convincing suburbs that they should vote for annexation by the large city. Why would wealthier Detroit suburbs want to become part of the City of Detroit? Historically, such annexations in Midwest and Northeastern cities stopped in the early 1900s as suburbs no longer needed the city services big cities offered and the city was increasingly viewed as a dirty, problematic place.

The last city I recall reading about (in The American Suburb by Jon Teaford) that was able to successfully do this was Louisville, Kentucky. Teaford described how the city was able to convince the suburbs that the annexation would improve the city’s business standing, particularly through having a larger population.

The Atlantic piece suggests this annexation would be difficult to implement:

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s benign proposal to ease the ability of state counties to merge into loose metropolitan authorities has been a non-starter in the Detroit area. “I don’t think anyone would support it,” Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano told the Detroit News.

With a decreasing population (a “staggering 25% in ten years”), Detroit will have to make some decision about moving forward.

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”?

Places that might be deserted due to a lack of homebuyers

The issue (amongst many) in the ongoing economic malaise is a lack of homebuyers. To have a hot housing market, such as happened in much of the 1990s and some of the 2000s, you need both sellers and buyers. What happens if this temporary trend of a lack of buyers turns into something less than temporary?

One suggestion is that certain areas will be deserted:

Many economists argue that the housing market may take four or five years to recover. Even if that’s proven to be true, the all-time highs of 2006 may never be reached again.

The devastation in some regions will never be repaired. Parts of Oregon, Georgia and Arizona have become progressively more deserted. Since jobless rates may never recover, there is little reason to hope that the populations in these areas will ever rebound. Some homes will be torn down in these pockets of high foreclosures in the hopes that reducing supplies will boost prices. Whether that idea will work in hard-hit areas such as Flint, Mich., and Yuma, Ariz., remains to be seen.

If this comes to pass, this would be an interesting period in American history. Yes, we do have some instances of population loss: the “ghost towns” of the Old West come to mind as people poured into a region and then seemed to leave just as suddenly. Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Buffalo and Pittsburgh have been experiencing a slow but steady population drain over the last few decades. And I have tried to find evidence of “lost suburbs” – places that would go against the typical narrative of American suburbs continuing to grow in population and sprawl further out from cities.

But this prediction suggests that certain metropolitan regions might not have any hope of recovery. While some of these are Rust Belt places that already had issues (like Flint), others are newer, particularly locations Nevada, Arizona, and California. As a matter of public policy, what should be done? Should we prop up locations with government aid? Should we write certain areas off and let them slowly lose population until the critical population mass is gone? Is contraction worthwhile (something that has been debated now for several years regarding Detroit) or is simply losing a city or region a better option?

In the long run, the only possible solution seems to be to convince people that these areas are desirable places to live. One selling point, and this seems to come up a lot on the front page of Yahoo, is that these places have affordable housing. This may be the case but that won’t be enough to attract people – these areas need jobs, economic engines that will bring stability and profits to hard-hit regions. And which companies might be willing to step up?

Interestingly, Illinois ranks #5 on this list. It looks like this analysis says the main factors are a limited population growth and a severe loss in manufacturing jobs over the recent decades. Certain areas of the Chicago region seem more immune to this than others. DuPage County is populous and wealthy, partly due to the influx of higher-end, technology-related jobs that have entered the county since the 1960s. Because of this, DuPage County has an unemployment rate always multiple points below the national average.

Shrinking cities: a quick guide

The Boston Globe summarizes some of the planning to shrink cities such as Detroit and other Rust Belt cities:

The resulting cities may need to look and feel very different — different, perhaps, from the common understanding of what a modern American city is. Rather than trying to lure back residents or entice businesses to build on vacant lots, cities may be better off finding totally new uses for land: large-scale urban farms, or wind turbines or geothermal wells, or letting large patches revert to nature. Instead of merely tolerating the artist communities that often spring up in marginal neighborhoods, cities might actively encourage them to colonize and reshape whole swaths of the urban landscape. Or they might consider selling off portions to private companies to manage.

As the article mentions, some of these plans are beginning to get off the ground. However, I suspect it will be a while before these cities start to look different than they do today. These sorts of plans are usually mentioned for cities that have already “failed,” meaning they can’t find better uses for this vacant or underutilized land. It will take quite a bit of political will (and capital) to admit this and get to a point where residents, business interests, and politicians want to truly pursue contraction.

Learning from Flint, Michigan

An article from Slate about Dan Kildee, a former politician in the Flint area and recent co-founder of a nonprofit dedicated to helping cities in trouble, and his ideas about turning around this hard-luck Michigan city. The general idea as the journalist describes it: “manifest-destiny-in-reverse for urban areas.”