13 July 2009

Planning for loss

(Ed. note: As with my other post on demographics, this was inspired by a Sporcle quiz.)

Only two of the largest fifteen cities in Ohio have gained population between 1980 and 2007, and they are #1, Columbus, and #15, Mentor. All of the other cities in the state have lost.

Cincinnati lost the equivalent of the entire population of Springfield, Ohio, falling from 385,000 to 332,000. Toledo had less to lose and lost it anyway, dropping from 354,000 to 295,000.

Youngstown lost a third of its population, from 115,000 people in 1980 to just 74,000 in 2007.

And Cleveland? The City of Cleveland alone lost the equivalent of a city nearly the size of Dayton, 135,000 people, in falling from 573,000 to 438,000 in 17 years.

How do you apply urban planning principles when a city is shrinking? How do you still keep the streets plowed when you have 25% fewer people paying taxes? The surface areas that need plowing don't shrink by 25%, of course; it's not like a house where you can shut the door to the room of a kid who's moved out, tape up the vent and not heat it in the winter - you need to provide services. In Youngstown, one of every third person is gone. Think of that. When you are on your way to work tomorrow, count every third house and imagine it empty, and think how that would look, first of all, with houses unkempt, falling down, overgrown, vandalized.

And then think about how the neighbors who are left would feel.

And then think about that city trying to educate its children, or trying to fill its potholes, or trying to run a Parks and Rec department.

Flint has an idea for how to plan for loss - shrink. In a New York Times article and story on NPR, some city leaders, including Dan Kildee, a native and the Genesee County Treasurer, want to physically contract the footprint of the city to save it, as the City is simply stretched too thin to service.
Empty houses and vacant lots can be seen on block after block. The numbers tell the story of a dying city. At its peak, Flint was home to General Motors, with a growing population of some 200,000 people and 80,000 auto industry jobs. Today, the population is about half what it once was, and only a few thousand auto jobs remain. More than one-third of the homes in Flint have been abandoned.
Read that last line again, and then think of the lost revenue and additional outlays needed in that context - or of sitting in on that budget meeting.

It will be interesting to see if there's the political will to make this happen, and if other cities - and the list of dying cities isn't limited to Michigan and Ohio (hello, Birmingham [-60,000, or 19%] or Mobile [-9,000 or 5%] Alabama? Or Jackson [-29,000 or 14%] Mississippi?) - find this severe remedy the right one for their own circumstances. The reality is that something has to be done in shrinking cities - just as Tampa, Florida, couldn't pretend that it's population didn't grow by 30% and plan accordingly, Cincy and Toledo and Dayton all can't pretend that shrinking populations will come back, or that there aren't planning implications. There are no good solutions, but shrinking the footprint might be one that's less bad than others. Like the retired electrician-turned-community gardner says:

I look at it like this: Something has to be done with this abandoned land. So, I think, [in] every transition there are going to be negatives, but look at the positives. This was a junk pile, now people are eating from it. I know there are complaints, but we [Flint] do not have the 230,000 people [anymore].
And it never will again.

1 comment:

Bren in SoCal said...

From another reader, sent by email:
"Your blog entry is really great. the simple facts/stats are breathtaking when laid out in the regional context of Ohio and Michigan. Would be interesting to drill down a bit on where people are going/have gone. I suspect the metro area of Cleveland probably hasn't changed in population too dramatically over that timeframe. However, the concentration of people may have shifted outwards to the edges of Cuyahoga County and beyond into Portage, Geauga, Summit, etc... More infrastructure to maintain without any added choices in the modes of transportation/moving around. Portland, OR is my favorite case study when it comes to this stuff; what would happen if Ohio took a regional approach (virtually impossible because of home rule form of govt) like OR? Turning highways into greenspace, focusing on intermodal forms of transport like rail, bikes, etc and drawing a big circle around the city, outside of which no govt funds would subsidize development. Would be a completely different place."