Creative Shrinkage

The Dec 10th New York Times Magazine is a special annual issue on ideas. It has number of fun and interesting new ideas. One that fits with the idea of adaptive reorganization is Creative Shrinkage. The idea that cities with declining populations can re-organize for decline, to take advantage of its opportunities rather fighting against the inevitable. This idea is similar to some of the ideas in Homer-Dixon’s the Upside of Down. The NYTimes writes:

For decades, depopulated Rust Belt cities have tried to grow their way back to prosperity. Youngstown, Ohio, has a new approach: shrinking its way into a new identity.At its peak, Youngstown supported 170,000 residents. Now, with less than half that number living amid shuttered steel factories, the city and Youngstown State University are implementing a blueprint for a smaller town that retains the best features of the metropolis Youngstown used to be. Few communities of 80,000 boast a symphony orchestra, two respected art museums, a university, a generously laid-out downtown and an urban park larger than Central Park. “Other cities that were never the center of steel production don’t have these assets,” says Jay Williams, the city’s newly elected 35-year-old mayor, who advocated a downsized Youngstown when he ran for office.

Williams’s strategy calls for razing derelict buildings, eventually cutting off the sewage and electric services to fully abandoned tracts of the city and transforming vacant lots into pocket parks. The city and county are now turning abandoned lots over to neighboring landowners and excusing back taxes on the land, provided that they act as stewards of the open spaces. The city has also placed a moratorium on the (often haphazard) construction of new dwellings financed by low-income-housing tax credits and encouraged the rehabilitation of existing homes. Instead of trying to recapture its industrial past, Youngstown hopes to capitalize on its high vacancy rates and underused public spaces; it could become a culturally rich bedroom community serving Cleveland and Pittsburgh, both of which are 70 miles away.

Youngstown’s experiment has not gone unnoticed. Williams’s office has already fielded calls from officials in a few of the many American metropolitan areas that have experienced steep population drop-offs. When cities hit rock bottom, it seems, planners can find new solutions for urban decay — if they are willing to think small enough.

Article on Youngstown’s smart decline in Nov 2006 Governing magazine. The magazine interviews Hunter Morrison, Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University. They ask “what does it mean to shrink a city intelligently?”

Saying you’re a shrinking city is not saying you’re a dying city. Sometimes less is more, as Mies van der Rohe once said. Removing that compulsion to grow and translating it into a more realistic assessment helps you ration very limited funds and not just scatter them about. And it gets people focused on the idea that growth isn’t the only thing that matters. Quality matters. Do a few things well rather than do everything all over the place to rebuild what you once were.

The fact that you’re shrinking means you’re not compulsive about putting houses on every parcel. What happened before is tax-credit developers were coming in and buying lots and putting up houses on streets with nothing else on it. It’s happening in Cleveland now, where tax-credit housing is going up on streets where we’re saying why don’t you just deprogram all of that? If you try to rebuild the old neighborhood back to the way it once was you wind up making a whole bunch of mistakes.

In parts of Youngstown, where there’s large sections of vacant property on land that is hard to drain, what the plan suggests is that’s one area where you don’t sell off the land. You assemble it and–there are streets with one house on it, where you have water and sewer and electrical and you plow the street when it snows. Those are the streets where the policy ought to be to close it down and perhaps reassemble that property and look at ways in which property that is wet might be converted to formal wetlands.

The fact that you’re a shrinking means you have more land to work with. And you can create greater value in the land you do keep for redevelopment. But you don’t want to have an unrealistic goal of building back to what we once were. We have to be a more attractive right-sized, mid-size city. That means that in those neighborhoods where the market still exists, where the plots and platting patterns are still competitive, then work at it. But also understand that there’s large portions of working class cities built very quickly on very tight lots with very inexpensive mill housing that is extremely expensive to rebuild and to make desirable. And some of those properties might be used for something else.

Metropolis magazine also has an article on Youngstown, Incredible Shrinking City, in its April 2006 issue.

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