Managing disturbance by planned city shrinkage

Managing collapse?

Creative urban shrinkage in Flint, Michigan from the New York Times  An Effort to Save Flint, Mich., by Shrinking It

“Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life,” said Dan Kildee, the Genesee County treasurer and chief spokesman for the movement to shrink Flint. “We need to control it instead of letting it control us.”

The recession in Flint, as in many old-line manufacturing cities, is quickly making a bad situation worse. Firefighters and police officers are being laid off as the city struggles with a $15 million budget deficit. Many public schools are likely to be closed.

“A lot of people remember the past, when we were a successful city that others looked to as a model, and they hope. But you can’t base government policy on hope,” said Jim Ananich, president of the Flint City Council. “We have to do something drastic.”

In searching for a way out, Flint is becoming a model for a different era.

Planned shrinkage became a workable concept in Michigan a few years ago, when the state changed its laws regarding properties foreclosed for delinquent taxes. Before, these buildings and land tended to become mired in legal limbo, contributing to blight. Now they quickly become the domain of county land banks, giving communities a powerful tool for change.

Indianapolis and Little Rock, Ark., have recently set up land banks, and other cities are in the process of doing so. “Shrinkage is moving from an idea to a fact,” said Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective Program at the University of California, Berkeley. “There’s finally the insight that some cities just don’t have a choice.”

A block adjacent to downtown has the potential for renewal; it would make sense to fill in the vacant lots there, since it is a few steps from a University of Michigan campus.

A short distance away, the scene is more problematic. Only a few houses remain on the street; the sidewalk is so tattered it barely exists. “When was the last time someone walked on that?” Mr. Kildee said. “Most rural communities don’t have sidewalks.”

But what about the people who do live here and might want their sidewalk fixed rather than removed?

“Not everyone’s going to win,” he said. “But now, everyone’s losing.”

“If it’s going to look abandoned, let it be clean and green,” he said. “Create the new Flint forest — something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure.”

Watching suspiciously from next door is Charlotte Kelly. Her house breaks the pattern: it is immaculate, all polished wood and fresh paint. When Ms. Kelly, a city worker, moved to the street in 2002, all the houses were occupied and the neighborhood seemed viable.

These days, crime is brazen: two men recently stripped the siding off Mr. Kildee’s old house, “laughing like they were going to a picnic,” Ms. Kelly said. Down the street are many more abandoned houses, as well as a huge hand-painted sign that proclaims, “No prostitution zone.”

Mr. Kildee makes his pitch. Would she be interested in moving if the city offered her an equivalent or better house in a more stable and safer neighborhood?

Despite her pride in her home, the calculation takes Ms. Kelly about a second. “Yes,” she said, “I would be willing.”

One thought on “Managing disturbance by planned city shrinkage”

  1. The public health impacts of previous ‘planned shrinkage’ programs have been profound and large scale, akin to any massive habitat disruptions affecting animal populations. See, for example,

    R. Wallace, 1990, Urban desertification, public health and public order: Planned shrinkage, violent death, substance abuse and AIDS in the Bronx, Social Science and Medicine, 37: 801-813.

    D. Wallace and R. Wallace, 1998, “A Plague on Your Houses…”, Verso, NY.

    The Wikipedia entry on ‘Planned shrinkage’.

    The first chapter of R. Wallace and M. Fullilove 2008, “Collective Consciousness and its Discontents”, Springer, New York is available on http://www.books.google.com and provides an overview. Chapter 5 gives more details on the impacts of New York City’s planned shrinkage program on tuberculosis. Section 5.1.7 takes a resilience perspective.

    Section 6.3 of the book “Farming Human Pathogens: Ecological resilience and evolutionary process” (Wallace et al., 2009, Springer, NY) examines the impact of planned shrinkage on the evolution and dispersal of multiple drug resistant HIV.

    Planned shrinkage is simply another means of clear cutting African American populations from an area so as to permit reinvestment under a persistent racial redlining regime dating back some 70 years or more.

    wallace@pi.cpmc.columbia.edu

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