It takes but several days to turn a vacant building into rubbles, rubbles into leveled ground, and leveled ground into a green lawn that appears it has been there for years. Recently the media has brought the demolition strategy into mainstream debate. So how do citizens benefit from the strategy?

ABC aired its Nightline News: “Realty Check,” a story about strategic demolition in Flint, MI, a couple days ago. You know the story: GM left town, then went the jobs, then went the mortgage payments and owners—leaving about 10,000 homes vacant, dragging down surrounding properties’ value. Flint is having as many as 4 boarded-up vacant homes backhoed per day to address that and other problems. Several days later those vacant homes turned into lawns. Surrounding homeowners are supportive of the strategy for an obvious reason: when dilapidated structures go down, other properties’ value goes up. For declining cities like Flint, the story presents valid reasons of why the strategy is necessary.

Beside the potential to increase surrounding properties’ value, there is another point to be gained from the story. People will unlikely support something if they do not experience the benefits. People care first the impact on their dinner table. So what does this say about shrinking cities strategies that do not directly provide tangible, meaningful benefits to economically distressed families and communities? How long can strategies that focus on ecological sustainability be sustained if people do not experience the benefits and, as a result, do not provide adequate support to keep the programs going? This is not to say that ecological sustainability strategies are not important. Rather, those strategies also need to provide economic benefits to the people in distressed communities.


View ABC’s Nightline News: “Realty Check” 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.

I first got an inkling of how different people view nature a few years back, when I was running a small neighborhood non-profit.  We had a community garden that we ran on land owned by another non-profit, and teens in our program managed it as a job.  In addition, we had a number of volunteers who worked in the garden.  It is fairly accurate to say that most of our volunteers were European Americans between the ages of 21 and 35, mostly female.  Our youth employees were between the ages of 14 and 19, African American with some Latin American and Asian American youth, and mostly boys.

One day, as I was working on a task with one of the volunteers, she began talking about how much she loved the garden and what a great training opportunity it was for the kids.  As we were talking, two Latino men in their 20s walked by and yelled some encouragements over the fence at the kids.

Point of interest: people yelled at us a lot in the garden.  If we were behind the chain link fence, people would yell at us like red-headed step-children.  We could literally be standing 2 ft. apart on either side of the fence and people would be yelling at us like we were at the other end of the block — more so if they were complementing kids; maybe they thought it meant more if they “turned it up to 11.”  After a while the kids actually spoke more quietly to each other, sort of as an antidote.  Go figure.

Anyway, I took the yelled compliment in stride, with a smile.  I turned to the volunteer and she had this exasperated look on her face.  When asked why, she said it was such a shame we couldn’t get any of those guys to volunteer.  Couldn’t they see what a contribution they could make?   Now these two men were covered in mud to their waists, carrying hardhats and tools.  They had obviously spent a whole day doing hard physical labor.  But our volunteer couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t want to put in another hour or so working for free in the garden.  Didn’t they understand this was a ‘good thing to do?’

Clearly, she had a very different idea of what the garden was for than the two men walking by.  For her, the garden was a place for healthy exertion and ‘work-as-play.’  For the two men, it was a nice place to visit, but a lot like their 9-to-5.  Their views were so different that she heard them complimenting kids for a stewarship project and beautifying the neighborhood when it was more likely they were congratulating the youth on developing job skills and getting paid at an honest job.

The problem can be seen through a variety of lenses; one of them is how different people with different experiences construct and commodify “nature.”  The question is relevant in the discussion on shrinking cities because we are discussing, in declining cities throughout the Rust Belt, clearing hundreds, if not thousands, of derilect structures and implementing urban greening strategies.

These plans are informed by the experiences and biases of everyone involved.  The conflict arises from the cultures at play in these decision processes.  Populations of moderate and low-income residents from diverse backgrounds, in depopulating communities; and college-educated managers and consultants from upper-income homogeneous environments.  Whose conseption of “nature” gets reflected in the final scheme?  Do people stay in communities that don’t validate their experience of “nature?”

In the book Uncommon Ground, William Cronon essay on definitions of nature makes the point that the European nature concept is built around the idea that man and nature are separate and that Wilderness or Landscape are perfected places, separate from our day-to-day lives.  Even earlier, Denis Cosgrove wrote in Social Formation and the Landscape that “landscape” itself is primarily an idea, and one that arose in Europe with advent of an affluent class that did not spend their days working the land.  Land is only “landscape” if you have time to stand around and look at it, which was probably not the case for serfs and field hands.

The landscape and wilderness ideas are the basis for much of our current management practices and debate about the environment.  As an example, compare the village green and the neighborhood park.  The green was a domesticated landscape that hosted commerce, ritual and recreation.  The park is typically held apart from any sort of economic activity as a pure — alusion intended — recreational space.  This separation of recreation and commerce is ingrained in recreational management education and zoning laws.  This despite the fact that parks and recreation departments are almost always under-funded and forced to cut services and maintenance.

So why can’t park space generate revenue?  Some would say that making recreational space “free” promotes access by people at all levels.  But there are multiple ways to generate revenue in recreational space that don’t involve charging visitors.  Spaces as diverse as the National Mall and Disney World encourge some commerce on their grounds to provide minimal services to their guests.

So how does this connect to shrinking cities?  Large sections of these cities are slated to become parkland of some sort.  If commerce and recreation can’t be reconciled, decision-makers will be take big parts of poor communities essentially bar commerce from them forever — or at least ’til a single entity with mad cash shows up and buys the land.  I contend that, in economically struggling communities, we need to give residents as much room to make ends meet as possible, including room in parks.

It an open question whether many of these schemes will be implemented in whole or part.  Certainly, provision and programming of open spaces are one element among many.  But in the documents as diverse as the AIA report for Detroit and the EcoCity Plan for Alexandria, “nature” is a key element.  For the sake of the residents in cities such as Detriot, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, we can only hope that all parties can agree what “nature” needs to mean in these difficult circumstances.