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.

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.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on a news article about neighbors in Flint, Michigan who transformed a parcel of vacant lots into a vegetable garden and fruit orchard.

Such neighborhood gardens are a popular strategy for improving vacant lots in ‘Shrinking Cities.’ Though in most distressed areas, these are perceived as temporary uses. For instance in this Flint story, the Genesee County Land Bank gave permission for this garden and orchard to be planted, but did not allocate this land for permanent community agriculture use. Because, conceivably, in few years, there will be interest to redevelop the land, and these neighbors will have to hang up their gardening gloves.

Yet there’s a burgeoning consensus that growing food within city limits is always a good thing – in shrinking and growing cities alike – for a number of reasons. In her article Small, Green and Good, Catherine Tumber synthesizes these arguments for local food production. She writes,

As Michael Pollan demonstrates in his best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, agribusiness puts down an enormous carbon footprint. Sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry not only produce more nutritious food and less cruelty to animals, they are also far less dependent on petroleum for long-distance transportation, fertilizer, and neurotoxic pesticides (not to mention antibiotics). Building on the work of organic farmers and environmental activists since the ’70s, Pollan’s call for relocalizing agriculture coincides with rising alarm about the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign oil. Even the United Nations, which has long embraced agribusiness as the key to famine prevention, is beginning to recognize the role of sustainable, localized practices in food security.

So I think this Flint neighborhood has the right idea – pairing the garden and orchard. The garden is a great short-term greening tool and has helped to bring community together. And the fruit orchard is a more lasting approach to urban greening. If planted around the perimeter of these lots or in small clusters, these trees (or at least most of them) can remain even if the lot is redeveloped.

Mature fruit trees add character, provide healthy food and shade, and are relatively easy to maintain. Communities around the country are realizing the benefits of urban fruit trees. In Berkeley, California “urban gleaners” (or fruit philanthropists) pick fruit from neighbors’ yards to donate to local food banks. And around the country, community fruit exchanges are being established where neighbors can share their figs, lemons, and persimmons with each other.

I hope that the pairing of a garden and orchard becomes an increasingly popular strategy for dealing with vacant properties in other ‘Shrinking Cities.’ So even in instances where the garden is seen as a temporary use, the trees can feed and shade the community for many years to come.

Tyree Guyton decided to change things. In 1986, Mr. Guyton and several family members decided to save their neighborhood through art. His work integrated abandoned buildings, green space and the streetscape into what became known as the Heidelberg Project. Despite winning a number of awards parts of the project were demolished twice by the city of Detroit. This has not diminished the energy of the work; the Heidelberg Project has gone on to form a 501c3 and offer children’s programs, lectures and other community benefits.
The work is not without its critics, including some residents of Tyree Guyton’s neighborhood. The Heidelberg Project would probably not have been possible in a city with more development pressure. It was fundamentally inspired and made possible by the ongoing abandonment of a Detroit neighborhood. Whatever your take on its appropriateness, it is a wholly original approach to art in community. Check them out at

There was a great story in The New York Times last week about neighbors in Flint, Michigan who transformed vacant lots into a vegetable garden and fruit orchard. And in turn, this garden has inspired them to revive their community.

The article touches upon several themes related to a ‘Shrinking City.’

Loss of manufacturing jobs – Flint suffered the loss of 70,000 jobs at General Motors; presently the city’s unemployment rate is about 25%.

Landbanking – the Genesee County Land Bank acquires foreclosed properties in Flint and throughout the rest of the county, then coordinates the reuse of abandoned buildings and vacant lots. In 2005, the Land Bank gave permission for this garden to be planted.

Returning land to productive use – neighbors removed litter and debris, and cleared the land to make way for the garden. According to the article, “The [garden] is really 10 contiguous lots where a row of houses once stood.”

Sustainability – The garden has improved the food security of this neighborhood by providing fresh, locally grown produce. Those who tend the garden reap the harvest, and they often also give food to neighbors in need. And now, Harry Ryan – who spearheaded the garden effort – is looking to further green the neighborhood by building a power-generating windmill in the garden.

Patchwork of decline and growth – Like many shrinking cities, some areas of Flint are thriving. Downtown Flint – just five miles away – has regained its vitality with several new commercial and residential developments.

All-in-all, it’s a heart-warming story about how a garden is helping to reverse the cycle of decline this neighborhood. The garden has rekindled a sense of community pride; neighbors have since pitched in to mow unkempt lawns and unearth sidewalks, because as one resident put it, “It needs to be done.”

Read the full story here, and also check out the related slide show.

While in Cleveland last weekend, with fellow classmates from the Shrinking Cities Studio, I relied on the Erie Island Coffee Co. for my morning cup of coffee. And printed on the cup sleeve at Erie is this quote, “Don’t Give Up the Ship. – Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1813).” In my opinion, this rallying cry sums up the visit to Cleveland quite nicely.

The purpose of the trip was to see a ‘Shrinking City’ first-hand, and learn about the efforts underway to proactively address Cleveland’s problems with home foreclosures and blighted and vacant properties.

On Friday, we met with people in the planning, community development, and legal fields – all of whom are well versed in the dynamics and needs of a Shrinking City, and are committed to improving the plight of Cleveland.

But I wondered if this understanding and commitment exists beyond this circle of practitioners? I found an answer, the very next morning, in the local newspaper.

There was an article in Saturday’s (10/17) edition of The Plain Dealer about the installation of Ronald Berkman, the sixth president of Cleveland State University (CSU is located in a central Cleveland neighborhood, close to downtown). According to the article, in his address Berkman vowed to not only transform the university but also the surrounding neighborhood. Specifically he said:

“Cleveland State is in and of this city, and the connection and bonds between the two of them must be strengthened…I envision a day soon when faculty and staff will come to live in this neighborhood, send their children to school here and together build a new, vibrant, neighborhood in the city of Cleveland.”

Though I can’t presume that Berkman’s remarks are representative of all local leaders, it’s a promising declaration from one of the city’s anchor institutions. I hope he sticks to it, and that others follow suit. Each statement like this bolsters the work of the folks we met with last weekend, and it says to larger community, “Clevelanders, Don’t Give Up the Ship!”

How do you deal with a shrinking community in a growing city?  How important is retaining existing residents to maintaining culture?  NPR corrospondent Steve Inskeep interviews state representative Garnet Coleman about his efforts to avoid “displacement by price, because their incomes are historically lower because they’re African American.”

Houston is set to add 1 million people this decade, and is generally considered a good example of an integrated urban community.  However, the residents of the Third Ward are still predominantly African American, low-income persons who rent their homes.

Representative Coleman’s comments speak directly to the validity of gentrification as redevelopment. It begs the question, do new residents with no connection to the previous history of the city redevelop a neighborhood, or are they actually creating a new neighborhood as an overlay/displacement of the existing community?