The New York Times’ Room for Debate blog posted a discussion last March about shrinking cities that I am somehow just encountering now.
Shrinking cities are on my mind a lot this week because, in addition to being an academic interest of mine, I’ve been looking into the design competition Pruitt Igoe Now, an ideas challenge wherein designers are invited to propose a use for the former site of the Pruitt Igoe housing towers, America’s most infamous social housing failure. The Room for Debate article featured some of America’s leading urbanists – Richard Florida, who we love to hate here at Ink & Compass; Toni Griffin, who was famously called in to be Detroit’s shrinkage czar; and a cadre of other bigwigs from think tanks and academia.
If this is the best we can do, its no wonder that cities continue to shrink.
Some of the opinion pieces were interesting; others just made me angry. Perhaps because of the hero worship I had for her when she was first appointed to work in Detroit, I found Toni Griffin’s response to be most disappointing. Her central thesis, “no city is disposable,” is something I absolutely agree with, but then she goes on to say,
“what we must do about the American shrinking city is finally admit — out loud — the failure of urban policies that have allowed regional sprawl to decentralize the urban core, leaving behind crumbling and excessive infrastructure, concentrations of generational poverty and weakened civic capacity.”
Is this supposed to be bold thinking? In my circle, this isn’t something to be admitted. It’s common knowledge. It’s the premise from which all our work begins, the thing that propelled most of us into planning. We all feel the weight of America’s historical failures on our shoulders – and while we like to think that we are approaching the problems with a greater degree of sensitivity than our forebears, the truth is, the urban renewal schemes of the past, however misguided, were carried out by people who were as earnest and eager as I am.
The situation is different today, of course, but the fear of Royally Screwing Up is real, and if history is any guide, that fear is warranted.
So what is to be done with all the vacant space in cities?
After her unimpressive beginnings, Toni Griffin does propose some solutions, and Michael Pagano offers some concrete ideas for using all that vacant space. In some places, side-lot conversions, pocket parks, community gardens and various other small-scale strategies are a viable means of reinvigorating neighborhoods. The Near North Side in Pittsburgh strikes me as a perfect example. New investment and beautiful old houses commingle with really sad, gutted out houses.
While the area isn’t in great shape, even a total planning neophyte (like my partner) can see the potential of the North Side. Its down at the heel, but is a few targeted investments away from becoming a place that a lot of people would really, really like to live. Of course, a resurrected Near North Side will have unintended consequences, even if it happens organically and from the bottom up. But that’s a discussion for another blog post.
The more pressing question, at least for this rant, is what is to be done with the neighborhoods in Detroit and St. Louis and other places where there are only two or three houses left on a block? Parks are expensive to maintain. Community gardens only thrive when there is a community. Building houses is only a logical thing to do when there are people who want to live in them. Lot annexations can work if a neighborhood is less than half vacant. The notion of “benign neglect” has already been tried and rejected. Certainly, there are federal policies that could be tweaked (or eliminated) to encourage people to reinvest. But the people left in these neighborhoods often don’t have the resources to maintain their homes, and the cities with empty neighborhoods cannot easily provide municipal services to residents who cannot pay taxes to justify the low density. The “solutions” that have been proposed – in the Times and elsewhere – are simply not applicable to neighborhoods where 90% of the peak population is gone.
When municipal governments have proposed re-configuring cities to account for shrinking populations, they have been met with fierce resistance. The most notable example of this is New Orleans and the ‘green dot’ map post-Katrina. And the US is full of examples of neighborhoods that looked hopeless forty years ago, often adjacent to neighborhoods that were disbanded (Boston’s impressively ugly City Hall is cheek-by-Central Artery with the North End, a massive tourist attraction and absolutely lovely neighborhood. Presumably, had the city opted not to level the West End to build City Hall, it too would be a thriving and dense urban neighborhood). Abandonment will solve nothing. But certainly, in the meantime, someone can come up with something a little more revolutionary than community gardens to bring a measure of vitality back?
It seems to me that it must be possible to merge the need for sensitivity with the need to radically re-think vacant neighborhoods. The radical change does not need to involve federal building or even major inputs of federal capital (although money never hurts). The change does need to involve a willingness to try a variety of context-sensitive, small-scale changes. Expecting any single solution to be a panacea is just stupid, but so is giving up. It seems unlikely to me that the mostly-vacant areas of Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Detroit – among others – will ever reach peak population again, but that doesn’t mean they can’t become some other, as-yet-unknown version of successful.