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.
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.
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.
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