What if a village population is aging, no new residents are arriving — and the villagers are completely okay with that?

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “The American Who Manages the Decline of a Japanese Hamlet” looks at the village of Tsuchikure, home to 24 residents who are an average of 77 years old. Tsuchikure was home to more than 100 residents in the 1950s, but some moved away in search of better employment, and new residents were scarce. Now, the remaining residents are aging, ailing, or dying. And they have decided that “rather than come up with ways to lure new residents and keep the town alive,” they are going to let it slowly extinguish.

An American, Jeffrey Irish, is the village chief; he tends to administrative issues. He also is there to help ensure that the villagers’ wish is carried out when the last villager dies. Irish has written a column about life in the fishing village, preserving bits of oral and cultural history from that corner of Japan. The column has been expanded into a book, “The Forgotten Japanese: Encounters With Rural Life and Folklore,” to be published next year.

While extreme, the experience in Tsuchikure presents one alternative to a city that is losing far more population than it gains. It takes courageous leadership to let something die with you. One of the reader comments on the article suggests that Detroit is likely to experience the same fate. While Detroit is trying to attract new residents, it is experiencing net population loss. What would the tipping point be to decide to throw in the towel? How can a city make such a choice? When the village consists of 24 residents, it is less difficult to reach a consensus. But in a city of several thousand people — or even tens of thousands of people — the question is exponentially harder.


The recession may have some unintended benefits for cities that have been losing population.

A new study from the Brookings Institution has found that fewer Americans relocated to new cities in 2007-08 than in any year since World War II. The study, “The Great American Migration Slowdown: Regional and Metropolitan Dimensions” reported that northern cities that had been losing residents began to retain them instead, in contrast to the long-term trend. The study, which uses data from three different Census programs as well as the IRS migration flow data, also found that urban cores had unexpected “windfall” gains of residents, and out-migration declined from many major metropolitan areas. As you might expect, the highest mobility is among people aged 20-29 years old, but that migration rate fell sharply in 2008-2009. Job opportunities that might have beckoned college graduates just a few years ago disappeared, so they stayed in the same place.

While migration may begin to rise back to historical norms with the national economic recovery, cities have a brief window in which they may be able to entice young, college-educated residents to put down roots.

The study looks at migration from several aspects. Migration was highest among those with at least a college degree — but migration among that cohort fell as well. When viewing by housing tenure, there was a sharp decline among renters.

The report examines net migration by state and city as well, with a dimension of whether the migration is domestic or international. This yields some interesting findings. For example, for the years 2000-2008:

Washington, D.C. had net positive migration. It gained 245,000 international residents but lost 121,000 domestic residents.

Chicago had net negative migration. It gained 386,000 international residents but lost 507,000 domestic residents.

The state of Michigan had net negative migration. It lost 470,000 domestic residents, but it gained 152,000 international residents. Ohio had a similar pattern.

These migration patterns may offer lessons for planners and leaders in shrinking cities. If a city is attractive to international immigrants, perhaps part of the city’s master plan and economic development strategy should seek to attract them in larger numbers. Outreach efforts to other countries (particularly if there are a few ethnicities with concentrations in a given city) may be useful. Business licensing and practices may need to be adapted to encourage small-scale entrepreneurship. The city may want to use its cultural diversity in marketing as well.

Is household mobility an asset or a problem for neighborhoods?

A new study from the Urban Institute, “Family Mobility and Neighborhood Change: New Evidence and Implications for Community Initiatives” offers some insight into how to interpret residential mobility. The study draws on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connections initiative, a 10-year effort examining neighborhoods in 10 U.S. cities.

On Tuesday, I attended a presentation at the Urban Institute on the study: “Who Moves, Who Stays, and the Resilience of Low-Income Communities.” (You can listen to the audio recording through a link on that page.) The panel included study authors, a representative from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and an official from HUD.

The authors caution against using poverty rates and mobility alone as indicators of a neighborhood’s quality. Instead, the study develops a typology that can be useful for future research on neighborhood initiatives. Residents over time can be characterized as movers, newcomers or stayers. Within each of those three categories, there are subcategories of residents. Movers may be churning movers, nearby attached movers or up-and-out movers. Newcomers may be dissatisfied renters, low-income retired or positive newcomers (in middle child-rearing years). Stayers may be dissatisfied stayers, long-term older stayers, or positive stayers who are optimistic about their neighborhood.

Then, by examining the makeup of a neighborhood’s residents, the neighborhoods were divided into five different typologies:

  • Incubator neighborhoods have low mobility, and tend to be improving. Many newcomers are positive and the stayers are attached to the neighborhood.
  • Launch pad neighborhoods have high mobility, and many movers are up and out. People new to and rooted in the neighborhood have high affection for it.
  • Neighborhood of choice has high mobility but with churning movers. New residents and long-time residents are both engaged in the neighborhood.
  • Comfort zone neighborhood has low mobility, but may have neutral or worsening conditions overall. People are comfortable in and attached to their neighborhood.
  • An isolating neighborhood has moderate mobility with worsening conditions. Many families are churning movers, and the long-time residents and newcomers both are renters with a degree of dissatisfaction.

The panel emphasized that mobility means different things to different neighborhoods. Overall, a neighborhood that loses more residents than it gains may be in distress, and mobility may be a problem. But what of neighborhoods that continually churn residents? Is that an indicator of trouble, or something else? It depends on the neighborhood — and it may be an asset for the neighborhood. In some neighborhoods, a high volume of churn indicated that the neighborhood was actually an incubator for future success — that is, residents there developed skills and networks that enabled them to improve their employment and financial situation, and then they moved out. When they did, they tended to retain ties to the original neighborhood.

One example of this discussed is Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW), a CDC in Lawrence, Massachusetts. [Lawrence is not a part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation study.] LCW views neighborhoods and communities as networks. It trains people as “weavers” to help people navigate the network. These weavers are educated on job opportunities, social services, education centers and other available options to help residents. LCW integrates these weavers and the network of services to popular community events, such as a local school’s back-to-school night. By co-locating these events in places where community members will be in attendance, it increases the chance for connections throughout the network with little extra effort on the part of the residents.

For a city struggling with declining population, both the neighborhood typology and the community network approach offer possible ways of approaching residential connections and mobility.

After people leave a city, what should happen to the physical reminders of their presence? The treasurer of Genessee County, Michigan – which includes the city of Flint – advocates bulldozing abandoned properties, and reframing the built environment around the residents who remain.

In a post in Good.Is Magazine, Treasurer Dan Kildee offers up a refreshing thesis: that a city should be judged on the quality of life for the people who live there, not compared against itself in another point in time. Through the Flint Land Bank, the city has already reclaimed about 9,000 abandoned properties – 14 percent of the land in Flint. Some of those properties have been bulldozed, and some await developers to be remade into something new. Others have been annexed by existing parcels, expanding side yards or city parks.

Kildee advocates framing a strategy of a vibrant city with diverse land uses, and a land bank is one tactic through which that can be achieved. Bulldozing is another. By adopting a dual-pronged strategy of clearing some land and redeveloping other parcels, Kildee argues, it not only helps to right-size the city, but it also gives residents a choice as to where they want to live.

Currently, many Flint residents are in close proximity to abandoned properties and blight, relics of the urban past. Under a new scheme, residents could choose whether they wanted to be in a dense neighborhood or in a more typical suburban (even, perhaps, rural) environment with larger lot sizes.

In a related post, Mayor Dayne Walling says the horizon for change is 2020. The Flint strategy is a thoughtful extension of simply bulldozing vacant properties (covered in many places, including this article in Inhabit). Flint has recognized that the 90,000 residents who’ve left may never come back. But instead of mourning their departure, the city is pushing ahead to make life great for the ones who remain.

What do you think? Can a city use bulldozers as an agent of change for improving quality of life?