Thinking About Shrinkage

12 06 2009

Much ado has been made about Flint, Michigan’s long steady decline as a manufacturing centre, with General Motors’ role as corporate bad guy brought to the world’s attention through Michael Moore’s first documentary, Roger and Me. The 1980s and 1990s job cuts in Flint caused it to almost halve its population as people moved on to greener pastures. Similar urban abandonment can be seen about 100 miles to the southeast in Detroit, and has been experienced in other “rustbelt” cities such as Cleveland. But the recent housing crash and recession are now making it a phenomenon that can be seen across the US, with foreclosures and job losses hollowing out neighborhoods in places as geographically diverse as Orange County and Stockton, California, to Cook County Illinois, with those cities and counties struggling to find the tools and expertise to deal with it effectively. In Canada, it is a problem that has mostly affected mill and mining towns in the hinterlands of British Columbia and Northern Ontario, but it could certainly start to be seen on a larger scale in Ontario manufacturing cities as the effects of the recession begin to shake out.

Edmonton's Petro-Canada oil refinery

Edmonton's Petro-Canada oil refinery

There has been more hope for an economic turnaround of late, but the long-term outlook suggests that this problem of urban decay may continue. It was not until 2008’s volatile oil markets that the slumbering public consciousness was awakened to the idea that our fossil fuel energy sources are neither infinite nor indefinitely cheap. Peak Oil is a theory, first postulated by Dr. M. King Hubbert in 1956, suggesting that there is a bell curve-like character to oil discovery and production, and that once past the top of the curve, oil production will not only begin to shrink, but will also become increasingly difficult and expensive. Hubbert correctly predicted the US oil production peak in 1970, and there are indications that the theory is now beginning to play out worldwide. This will likely result in increasing pressures on those living in middle and working class suburban areas as the cost of living in their far-flung and transit-unfriendly neighborhoods skyrockets. Transportation costs will be the biggest issues for residents of these areas, but there will also be other affordability pressures such as increased food costs, and indeed increased costs for everything not locally made, as shipment and production becomes costlier.

The other looming specter, of course, is climate change. While there are still a fair number of skeptics out there, the 2007 IPCC report and media such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth have done a lot of work to shift the public consciousness, and we are now seeing climate change deniers start to become a rare political and public breed. What precisely will be done, and how fast, is of course up for much debate, but I think there is little doubt that we are entering a time of action on the issue. And if greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in countries such as Canada and the U.S. generate between 25 and 30% of those countries’ total emissions, and if something approaching half of all other emissions are related to the heating, cooling and operation of our buildings, then it is clear that cities are prime candidates for major change.

It seems likely that some urban areas will face changes similar to those in Flint, as their economies fail and people leave entirely, or simply reposition themselves for less expensive lifestyles by moving into more walkable and convenient neighborhoods. Other places may not feel the economic pinch the same way as Flint has, but will still be compelled to adapt to climate change imperatives. Cities may need to shrink.

Suburban housing sprawls across the landscape in Edmonton, Canada

Suburban housing sprawls across the landscape in Edmonton - will such far-flung areas be in demand in the future?

Many cities have already been thinking about this issue, attempting to densify their existing neighborhoods in order to make more efficient use of infrastructure that has already been built. But most cities have pursued the strategy of densification at the same time as they have been approving new neighborhoods on the urban edge, essentially attempting to have their cake and eat it too. With the cake morphing into a shrinking pie, we may not have the luxury of doing both in the future. Economist Arthur C. Nelson suggested last year that the US already had roughly as much suburban housing as it will need in 2030, but only half as much urban housing. Lifestyle changes and the unaffordability of single-detached housing is already pushing us in the direction of more dense urban living. Energy scarcity and the changes that will be demanded in the fight against climate change will only serve to accelerate those trends.

Flint has begun taking advantage of changes to Michigan law allowing municipalities to take control much faster of properties for non-payment of taxes. The growing land bank now offers opportunities. As there are fewer buyers than foreclosed-upon houses, the most obvious solution is to demolish; a grassy lot causes fewer problems than a boarded up house. But when you have the majority of a block being foreclosed on, or huge swaths of entire neighborhoods, demolition does nothing to repair the social fabric of a neighborhood, and nor does it do anything to improve its affordability, from a municipal perspective. Garbage trucks that stop twice on a block guzzle a lot more diesel and worker time than a fully-occupied block, and those increased service costs (for all services, not just garbage pick-up) are most definitely not going to be met by the reduced tax revenue coming from the area.

Flint’s proposed solution? Selective shrinkage. While the criteria for which neighborhoods will stay and which ones will go are not fully-defined, the idea is that the city will make use of its land bank to bolster the populations of healthier neighborhoods while pulling the curtain down on those they feel will not recover. The choice of which areas will go will no doubt be controversial, but the offer of an equivalent or better house in a thriving neighborhood versus remaining in a neighborhood in permanent decline will likely be a simple choice for most. The city will still have the same amount of land in its inventory after the swap, but it will benefit by concentrating the population in areas that are easier to provide with services. Genessee County Treasurer Dan Kildee, quoted in a New York Times article on the issue put it simply: “Not everyone’s going to win… But now, everyone’s losing.”

San Francisco's Potrero Hill Community Garden

Places such as San Francisco's Potrero Hill Community Garden may become essential elements of future neighborhoods

What to do with neighborhoods that have been slated for closure is the next obvious question. They offer all sorts of potential for urban adaptation that would hitherto have been difficult to achieve. In Flint, Dan Kildee’s suggestion is to create “the new Flint forest — something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure”. But this is only one of many possibilities, another being using the cleared land for urban agriculture, community gardens to allow residents of densifying cities space to grow their own garden vegetables, or potentially a conversion to larger-scale agriculture. When Cuba lost its source of cheap oil, fertilizers and chemical imports with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, they were forced to come up with creative approaches to fill the gap, particularly for food production. The desperate response was ultimately very successful, providing Cubans with greater food security:

The popular gardens range in size from a few square meters to three hectares. Larger plots of land are often subdivided into smaller individual gardens. Garden sites are usually vacant or abandoned plots located in the same neighborhood if not next door to the gardeners’ household. Land for the gardens is obtained through the local government body (the Poder Popular) at no cost, as long as it is used for cultivation. – cityfarmer.org

Will such drastic changes be absolutely necessary? Will our lives really change so much? I think there is a good chance that they will. But even if change is ultimately more modest, it is important that we begin seriously thinking about the possibilities. The planning profession has been focused since its inception on the rational organization of space, but that organization has, for the most part, been dependent upon growth. Rarely has the profession given serious attention to the dynamics of shrinkage and how to manage change in neighborhoods, or entire cities, that are no longer functional economic and social entities. Sure, planning has worked in declining neighborhoods and sometimes helped to turn them around, but the process has usually entailed an infusion of new money and life; essentially, robust regrowth, a jolt of energy from outside sources. In an era of declining resources, a different approach will be needed, centered around a philosophy of adaptation and the creative and efficient reuse of existing resources.

The alternative may be the depressing conditions one can see today in Flint, or, even worse, in Detroit. Hopefully both cities can make the changes they need in order to rebound from their long, slow declines. Their pitiable fates over the last several decades are demoralizing scenarios we would be wise not to repeat elsewhere.

Flint in Pictures – New York Times

100 Abandoned Houses of Detroit – by smooveb on flickr.com

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