Suburbia Project

Flint Considers Radical Retrenchment

A proposal gaining traction in economically desperate Flint, Michigan would demolish whole neighbourhoods and relocate the city's remaining residents into a few viable communities.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 23, 2009

Between what may turn out to be the worst recession in 80 years, the advent of peak oil and the ongoing decline of the Northeast rust-belt, cities are beginning to confront the question of how to go about adjusting to the collapse of that special set of conditions that allowed affluent, automotive suburbia to dominate postwar development.

Doubtless some suburbs will be integrated into the urban form, intensified and made more walkable and transit-friendly. Other suburbs will continue to decline into ruins. But what about a planned elimination of suburbs - a deliberate withdrawal of people back into the city proper?

An astonishing NY Times article reports that the city of Flint, Michigan is seriously considering desperate measures to survive its ongoing decline:

Instead of waiting for houses to become abandoned and then pulling them down, local leaders are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods.

The population would be condensed into a few viable areas. So would stores and services. A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval.

Like several failing rust-belt cities, Flint has suffered a steady decline in population over the past few decades, from a high of 200,000 in 1965 to just over half today, with a third living in poverty.

The city of Flint is already struggling with a $15 million deficit. As foreclosures and house abandonments continue to rise, it's becoming economically impossible for the city to continue providing municipal services to a population spread thinly over 88 square kilometres (34 square miles).

On many streets, the weekly garbage pickup finds only one bag of trash. If those stops could be eliminated, [said Dan Kildee, the Genesee County treasurer and chief spokesman for the movement to shrink Flint], the city could save $100,000 a year - one of many savings that shrinkage could bring.

A major problem is deciding which neighbourhoods to save and which to sacrifice. "Not everyone's going to win," said Kildee, noting that some people would be forced to give up homes on streets slated for demolition, "but now, everyone's losing."

Since the county government gets possession of abandoned houses, it would offer displaced residents empty homes in salvageable neighbourhoods in place of their old homes.

In the land left after sacrificial neighbourhoods are demolished, supporters of this plan envision a Flint forest that would encircle the remaining city.

Flint's Best Hope?

The hanging question is whether this is a survival tactic or a frank admission of failure. As Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective Program at the University of California, Berkeley is quoted saying in the Times article, "Shrinkage is moving from an idea to a fact. There's finally the insight that some cities just don't have a choice."

As shocking as it sounds, this may well be Flint's best hope to salvage a livable, manageable city out of the unweildy remains of its postwar suburban heyday.

In the absence of some compelling draw that would infuse the city with new investment and more people, the alternative - continuing unmanaged decline - can only lead to total collapse as the city squanders its remaining wealth trying to hold its far-flung, depopulated, disinvested, and ultralow density neighbourhoods together.

If citizens can be persuaded to buy into this - if the city really can figure out how to let residents being displaced trade their old house in a neighbourhood slated for demolition for an equivalent or better house in a neighbourhood to be saved - the result may be a smaller, more affordable, more coherent, and more viable community.

Benefits to Retrenchment

The increased density would mean that the productivity of city infrastructure - roads, water, sewer, transit - would go up with more users in a given area, cutting the city's per capita operating costs.

Done right, with care taken to encourage mixed-use development, this would also make walking, cycling and transit more viable and hence make transportation in general more affordable.

Neighbourhood businesses would benefit from higher mass of local customers to stay in business, producing growth in jobs for Flint's many unemployed and underemployed residents.

On the other hand, residents might conclude from such a desperate measure demonstrates that Flint is just too far gone to save. An unexpected side effect could be a mass exodus from even those neighbourhoods that are still viable today.

At the same time, many residents have already drawn this conclusion. The status quo is enough to motivate an ongoing exodus in slow motion. If the city is headed to collapse anyway, perhaps it has nothing to lose.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted April 23, 2009 at 15:55:10

Next time someone complains about how 'rundown' Hamilton's downtown core is (btw I live downtown and love it), remember that it could be A LOT worse. Detroit, Flint, Buffalo - these cities are DYING. Hamilton has it's problems but we're not a dying city.

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By O_o (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2009 at 16:16:08

Be interesting to see how they get around the Shylock Problem... it's hard to cut out a pound of flesh without spilling any blood.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 23, 2009 at 16:31:44

They're leveling entire neighbourhoods in Youngstown OH, and Cleveland as well, although I don't think they're relocating people as they are in Flint.

Richard Florida had an interesting article in last month's Atlantic about how this recession is going to change the landscape of NA. He predicts that the rustbelt and sunbelt cities will never recover, but we will see a rise in mega regions - corridors clustered around the larger urban centres. Our saving grace will be our proximity to Toronto.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 23, 2009 at 16:42:33

right on nobrainer... highwater, I think our urban amenities and quality of life will be what saves us. Not TO.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 10:12:39

Jason, I wish that was true but it's been my observation that those qualities are grossly underappreciated by our own population. Most people live here because they were born here, because it's cheap, or because they're going to school here and can't wait to go back to Oakville and live with their parents. The few who 'get it' are those who appreciate urban form. If the majority did we wouldn't see things like Tim Horton's drive thrus in inner city neighbourhoods.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 10:27:09

Jonathan, you're observations are correct, however I've noticed a huge trend over the past several years of people moving here from Toronto's urban neighbourhoods in search of a more laid back, affordable, yet still vibrant urban lifestyle. I'm constantly amazed at how many people I meet in my neighbourhood have moved from TO and fall all over themselves gushing about all that exists within a 10 minute walk of Victoria Park (where I usually meet people. Lol).

you're right though - a large portion of the population is exactly as you describe, but I really think word is slowly spreading about the downtown Hamilton lifestyle.
I know people who have come here from Australia, Western Canada, the US and Britain and have fallen in love with downtown Hamilton and regularly 'sell Hamilton' in their conversations with family, friends and even locals.

Eventually the balance of power will shift, and we'll see these new residents become the norm in Hamilton. Whenever someone complains to me about how sucky Hamilton is, I always remind them that they can move and save money in the process by heading to St Catharines or Brantford or Kitchener or Buffalo or London etc...... Rarely do I try to convince such people that Hamilton is grand. They've already made up their mind and the best thing I can do is point them to somewhere else. For both their sake, and ours. haha.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2009 at 11:30:41

Sorry to say this but, having moved to the Hammer for 6 years and then retreated back to Toronto I cringe whenever I hear of another transplanted Torontonian.

The reaction of, 'I can't believe what I can get for my money!' and the inevitable move to the downtown or the east end is exactly what happened to me and my family. While people's personal neighbourhood likes and dislikes and tolerance levels are different I worry that these folks will have many of the same negative experiences I did. After all - not much appears to have changed since I left.

While there were many wonderful aspects to living in Hamilton in the end it just wasn't viable for me in the long-term. I could not find a decent paying job nearby. The transit system was woeful (I once waited an hour for a bus into town from Dundas, on a Saturday night!). My neighbourhood - near Gage Park - was beautiful and well kept but way too quiet (this was not really a Hamilton problem, more of a suburban problem). The roads were great to drive on, terrible to walk across. And the downtown was clearly decades away from a resurgence.

Stuck with a 3 hour a day commute and a car-centric pedestrian free neighbourhood I found I was hardly ever home and unable to set down roots.

The one positive aspect of so many Torontonians coming into town is that they may aid the charge towards urbanizing Hamilton. As we've argued many times on RTH, there are many relatively straightforward decisions which could be made to make the Hammer a much more desirable place to live. But for now, I can only bring to mind the old adage, 'you get what you pay for'.

House prices are cheap for a reason. Sadly for me they stayed cheap and I barely scraped out ahead. It's up to Hamiltonians to make these investments pay off by continuing to encourage the kind of positive changes the town so desperately needs.

Cheers

Ben

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 11:34:22

ahem, Ben I need to correct one statement - "The reaction of, 'I can't believe what I can get for my money!' and the inevitable move to the downtown or the east end is exactly what happened to me and my family."

You moved to the east end. Not downtown. Big difference based on the folks I've talked to. I've yet to meet a person living in a downtown neighbourhood who is itching to get out and back to TO.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2009 at 12:03:31

You may have a point there Mr Jason. I always wondered if things would have been different if I'd moved downtown (I liked the look of the Corktown neighbourhood in particular).

For what it's worth - my main beef with the downtown wasn't the slow resurgence of the core - as you have frequently pointed out, there are many many hidden gems to find downtown. It's the buffetting of those Vic Park houses by Main at one end and York Boulevard at the other. The first house we looked at was just east of Vic Park (Napier St I think). Beautiful house, nice streets but man - The freeways at either end were not a selling point! In fact we found the roads were a major distraction for many of the neighbourhoods we looked at (we also fell in love with Inchbury Street, next to Dundurn 'Castle' but again - York Boulevard scared us away)

If Hamilton could turn their downtown freeways into nice residential streets it would be a much more pleasant place to live (and I might still be there - a-ha!)

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 12:18:59

I think our urban amenities and quality of life will be what saves us. Not TO.

I think Florida's point is that you can have all the urban amenities and quality of life, but if, like Cleveland, you're not part of a mega region clustered around a larger centre like Chicago or Toronto, you're screwed. Hamilton is extremely fortunate to be a part of the Toronto mega region. This doesn't mean we can't maintain our own character and culture.

Ben, I have yet to meet a disgruntled ex-Torontonian. Everyone I've spoken to may have moved here initially for the real estate, but has quickly grown to love their new home, warts and all. In fact, one ex-Torontonian I know who still commutes, has taken to Hamilton so strongly that he is very seriously considering running for council. I'm an ex-Torontonian myself (although I do have family roots here, and I did a stint in St. Catharines that made Hamilton seem like NYC), but I can't think of a better place to raise a family.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 12:19:02

you're absolutely right. Thankfully, those freeways are pretty much the only huge negative about living downtown. You'd have made a bundle if you bought on Inchbury. Awesome street. Kinnel St, just north of York might be my favourite street in the entire city.

From Napier, it's actually easy to get around by foot and avoid the freeways. Locke South is the only destination that requires you to cross both King and Main. Sometimes I feel like I'm on the Amazing Race when trying to walk to Locke.

Downtown/Hess/Market etc... are all easy to get to from Napier while avoiding Main/King/York.

I dream of the day when LRT glides by on King/Main and wider sidewalks and trees help to create a sense of place again.

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2009 at 14:09:11

I too am an advocate of getting "new" people with apparantly more civic values to locate in Hamilton. If we want to have a music scene, arts, activism, and all the things that make city life the best life, it's crucial to have more people living downtown.

But it's important to remember that the "new" residents and the "old" residents are just different sectors of the working class. Having this in mind can be the difference between communication that's divisive and communication that's unifying. We all deserve the use-values that soundly designed neighbourhoods provide.

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By Good Article! (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 14:44:43

Good insight into a Torontonians mind, Rusty. Thanks! I have only heard of Torontonians who find Hamilton a much more people-friendly place, but I also know one person who moved from Parkdale ('downtown' TO) to the Centre Mall area of Hamilton.

She is disgusted by the new Centre Mall, and wishes she had known more about it's future when she purchased her super, super cheap house a couple years ago.
She now keeps telling me how she hates her neighbourhood and wishes she had chosen somewhere more south, closer to the escarpment. She, sadly, doesn't even like Ottawa Street (maybe she doesn't sew?).

But when the 'leadership' we're stuck with at City Hall -which is stuck themselves in a outdated, unhealthy, rediculously environmentally UNfriendly manner of political process- then what does one expect?

We need some progressive free-thinkers, with influence, who aren't afraid of Squelchers bringing down their 'Approval Rating'.

Any ideas on tap? Ryan? ;);)

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 15:11:21

Ryan would be a horrible politician in the east end! He doesn't yell and scream and get nothing done (granted, nothing would be better than crap Centre Maul).

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 02, 2009 at 09:22:37

Interesting recent article about this in the Telegraph (UK):

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/finan...

Looks like the US federal government is planning to give the Flint treatment to some 50 desperate rustbelt cities.

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