After a spate of news about Detroit, this edition of the news round-up focuses on three other cities: Cleveland, Rochester and Buffalo:

Cleveland Tops Census’ Shrinking List; Local Columnist Says City is Stabilizing
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released population estimates for 2009, showing Cleveland with the largest numerical decline of residents last year – followed by two Michigan cities, Detroit and Flint. According to the Census’ estimate, Cleveland lost 2,658 residents, or nearly 1 percent. But a local columnist at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer points out that the decline is actually about 0.6 percent, indicating that the city’s population may finally be stabilizing.

In New York, Rochester Embraces Downsizing, Buffalo Still Reluctant
Rochester has joined the ranks of fellow shrinking city Detroit, and embraced downsizing. The city has acknowledged its dramatic loss of population, and is now to committed to “consciously and intelligently shrink.” Over the next 20 years, the city will relocate residents to eliminate at least 40 residential blocks, and convert the land into parks, greenways, gardens, and farms. Buffalo – another shrinking city about 70 miles away – is still reluctant to embrace the notion of downsizing.


Two new reports have been added to the burgeoning literature on shrinking cities:

  • Growing a University in a Shrinking City – Dr. David Sweet, president of Youngstown University (Ohio), played a critical role in the development of the Youngstown 2010 plan. During the process, thousands of residents and community leaders participated in the visioning and execution of the city’s new master plan.  (To learn more about the planning process, read Austin’s post, Citizens and Shrinking Cities – Youngstown 2010). In this new report, Dr. Sweet shares his experiences in helping to revision the community, and emphasizes the importance of campus-community partnerships.
  • Texas Problem Properties Toolkit – For two years, the Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas Law School conducted research on the most effective strategies that cities in Texas, and around the country, are using to combat the problem of vacant and abandoned properties. The group’s research culminated in this toolkit, which outlines a number of strategies for Texas cities including, community engagement, vacant property registration, landbanking, and code enforcement.

Last week, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing spoke about his plan for downsizing the city during an interview with a local radio station, which sparked conversations about the practical and legal implications of downsizing Detroit.

Mayor Talks Downsizing: Mayor Bing announced that his plan will involve relocating residents from desolate neighborhoods to more stable areas of the city. This approach breaks from the city’s past practice of putting resources where the need is greatest, or evenly distributing funds across the city. He said,  “You can’t support every neighborhood …Those communities that are stable, we can’t allow them to go down the tubes.”

Community Group Weighs In: A few days later, the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) weighed in on downsizing. CDAD released its proposed framework for how the Mayor’s administration  should downsize the city. The report, Neighborhood Revitalization Strategic Framework, recommends creating eleven categories for development – ranging from traditional residential areas that preserve older single-family homes, to naturescape areas that convert vacant lots into low-maintenance greenspace, to urban homesteads with older houses on large lots where many city services would no longer be provided. CDAD envisions a Detroit that is more sustainable, with a focus on social equity, environmental integrity, and economic prosperity.

Local Attorney Discusses Legality of Downsizing: Mayor Bing’s downsizing plan will likely face legal challenges, namely the legality of cutting off city services to particular neighborhoods and the use of eminent domain. Yet local eminent domain attorney Alan Ackerman says the downsizing plan is constitutional – because it’s not an economic issue, but rather one of public safety.

Given a 2006 amendment to the state constitution, local governments looking to seize a property must prove that it is blighted and will be for public use. Ackerman believes that Detroit can convincingly make this argument. “Government is there to give basic services to the citizenry. Detroit cannot do that with the present plans of where buildings do and do not exist, he said. “Therefore, to properly apportion police and other public safety you have to remove that house because it blights the rest of the city.

Increasingly, ‘Shrinking Cities’ are making plans to retool themselves as “smaller, yet mightier places.” Many of these plans – in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Youngstown, etc. – incorporate urban greening to make their communities more sustainable.

Unfortunately, low-income and minority residents often don’t participate in these discussions on greening their communities. Van Jones, an environmental activist, spoke to this in an interview last year:

“Somehow [African-Americans] bought into the thought that [environmentalism] was a hippie thing.”

He also said:

“Caring about the Earth and future generations is very consistent with African indigenous values.”

“It was really our commitment to be good stewards of the Earth. Our great-grandmother’s values are coming into vogue. These are not White values. These are universal values.”

The line “Our great-grandmother’s values are coming into vogue,” stuck a chord with me. I’m immediately reminded of the summers I spent in Shreveport, Louisiana with my grandparents as a child. My grandfather and grandmother had ample means as a school principal and teacher, respectively, but lived their lives in a fashion that today would be deemed “eco-friendly.” My grandfather planted fruit and pecan trees in their back yard and tended a small vegetable garden. My grandmother melted down scraps of soap and wax to make new bars of soap and candles. She repurposed old clothes into quilts, napkins, and cleaning rags. And when she cooked, nothing went to waste – grits leftover from breakfast became “grit logs” for dinner. They wouldn’t have considered themselves environmentalists, but they lived their lives in a fairly sustainable manner and they instilled these values in their children and grandchildren.

So it shouldn’t be as hard as one might think to get buy-in from minority and low-income residents on issues of urban greening, because sustainability isn’t a new concept. There is a legacy of sustainability within these communities; it just may be called it something else – self-sufficiency, frugality, cultural tradition, etc. The real challenge at hand is to connect the dots.

It turns out that one of my coworkers, Emily Rice – a recent graduate from the Urban and Regional Planning Program at Portland State University – has also studied strategies to address vacant and abandoned spaces in cities. As part of the LocusLab, she and three classmates partnered with the Central Eastside Industrial Council in Portland on the project No Vacancy! Exploring Temporary Use of Empty Space in the Central Eastside Industrial District. The project looked at how to enliven vacant spaces in the district with temporary activities and developments.

Their scope of temporary use includes the usual urban gardens and public art, but also includes some creative and innovative uses, such as: live performances, food carts, mobile marketing, new technology demonstrations, and micro-enterprise developments. Also interesting is their broad definition of “temporary” – it’s not constrained to just a few years, but even as short as a month or a few hours.

Emily said that, “the experience proved to be extremely telling with respect to community dynamics, business motivations, and misinterpretations of intentions.”  And that she “realized early on that any temporary projects that could even remotely be linked to negative impacts on the District were not going to be easily accepted.”

So to help make the Central Eastside Industrial District (CEID) more open to unconventional temporary uses, the group produced two publications. One is a No Vacancy! Guide that serves as a how-to manual for planning temporary projects in the CEID, and includes step-by-step checklists for property owners and space users to ensure proper planning. The other is a Final Report that explores the temporary use of vacant spaces and the applicability to the Central Eastside Industrial District. The report examines the benefits of temporary use, identifies examples of other projects around the world, considers the opportunities and barriers present in the CEID, and makes recommendations to the Central Eastside Industrial Council for implementing a program that supports a variety of temporary uses.

When the group presented their work to the Portland community, they chose the most fitting location – a vacant space in the historic Ford Building.

Numbers don’t do much for me. Which is why the news stories about Shrinking Cities I find most interesting are not about the aggregate numbers of blight, vacancy, job loss, and foreclosures, but the human stories (and photos).

Here are some interesting stories that I’ve come across:

These stories capture the struggles, perseverance, and opportunities in shrinking cities. And it’s this human element, not the statistics, that fuels my passion for planning.

What’s your favorite shrinking cities story?

For most Americans, April 15 is dreaded as the IRS tax deadline. But next year, many community officials will be more concerned about a day a few weeks earlier; April 1, 2010 is National Census Day.

The purpose of the decennial census is to count how many people reside in the United States and where they live. The count is then used to determine how federal funds (for infrastructure, schools, vital services, etc.) are distributed, and how many members each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives.

So there’s lot at stake — and given these tough economic times, communities are even more dependent on federal funds to supplement their dwindling tax bases. (According, the U.S. Census Bureau, a community receives about $1,400 per resident in annual federal funding.)

Officials in ‘Shrinking Cities’ are strategizing to make the most of this next census, and to minimize their population loss since the last count. There was a recent article in the Detroit Free Press about efforts in Detroit to encourage residents to be counted. While some suburban communities in the area are expecting significant increases over the 2000 census, the City of Detroit is anticipating a 13% decrease in population.

The 2010 Census presents big challenges for metro Detroit. Officials worry about finding displaced residents because of home foreclosures and skittish immigrants who have shied away from federal paper work since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks….Only 62% of Detroiters mailed back census forms in 2000, compared with 71% in the state, according to the U.S. Census. With the state’s highest foreclosure rate, Detroit will be undercounted without an aggressive campaign, city officials said.

Detroit Mayor David Bing has begun an aggressive campaign to encourage residents to participate in the census. He’s enlisted volunteers to reach out to traditionally undercounted populations: immigrants, faith-based groups, community leaders, seniors and college campuses.

A few states over, in West Virginia, local officials hope to alleviate population loss in Charleston. The city’s mayor and commissioners of Kanawha County are backing a proposal to create a unified administration – which would save millions through the consolidation of services and increase the state capital’s population to 200,000. Though faced with widespread opposition from local residents, the officials hope that voters would approve the consolidation before the 2010 Census, to preclude Charleston from sinking below its Class I status (granted to cities with a population of at least 50,000) in the next census.

Will these efforts in Michigan and West Virginia be successful? Only time (and the Census) will tell.