In addition to being eyesores, vacant and abandoned properties also threaten public safety. These properties can become breeding grounds for criminal activity and arson, placing strain on the city’s resources and police and fire departments – as evidenced by these recent news stories from Detroit:

  • Early Morning Arson Claims Vacant Properties
    Arson investigators are continuing their investigation of eight fires set early last Tuesday morning, all of which were vacant buildings.

  • Police Officer Killed in Shootout at Vacant Duplex
    Earlier this month, one officer was killed and four others wounded while responding to a report of gunshots at a vacant property. According to neighbors, drugs were being sold out of the building.

  • City Leaders Plan Demolitions to Cut Crime
    Buoyed by the police shootings, the Detroit City Council is working with Mayor David Bing to expedite a new city ordinance to hold property owners more accountable for their properties. The Mayor’s office is also using data to examine the correlation between crime and vacancies, which will inform the demolition of 3,000 rundown homes this year that will “cut crime and improve quality of life.”

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.

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.

As economic and population declines continue to plague shrinking cities, a number of them are adopting greening plans to combat the vacant land and blight problems.  Two of those plans are Rochester’s Project Green: From Blight to Bright (soon to be made public) and Detroit’s Leaner, Greener Detroit (Nov. 2008).  They all stress greening strategies, but what are some of the plans’ strengths and weaknesses?  And, perhaps more importantly, what can other shrinking cities take from these plans when they craft theirs?


Rochester’s Project Green examines different housing and demolition scenarios to tackle its housing crisis, provides vacant land strategies, and proposes green corridors that reflect the historic streetcar routes.  Beside the brief mentions of parks, land banking, land leasing for various uses, and energy generation as vacant land strategies, the plan devotes much attention to community gardens.  The green corridors would connect neighborhoods and downtown, enhance recreation opportunities, provide wildlife habitats, and manage stormwater.


Leaner, Greener Detroit emphasizes urban form, sustainable transportation, economic development strategies, urban agriculture, and sustainable energy.  The proposed urban form involves enhancing the urban core and reconfiguring the use of land to promote high-density, mix-use and mix-income developments.  Sustainable transportation, which includes transit, bicycle, and pedestrian modes, would link neighborhoods and land uses.  The economic development section lays out a framework for a 10-year economic development plan into three phases that capitalize on human capital, existing and future assets.  The Detroit plan wants to bring to scale urban agriculture so it can provide economic and workforce development, on top of localized food production.  The plan also establishes phases to achieve the urban agriculture goals.


It appears the Rochester plan functions like a traditional greening plan, where as the Detroit plan functions more like a comprehensive plan.  That major difference is what separates a narrow-focused traditional plan that addresses last century’s problems from a more comprehensive, integrated plan that tackles 21st Century challenges of sustainability that all cities will invariably face.  Greening plans should not limit their focus to parks, community gardens, corridor beautification, and single-purpose vacant land strategies.  Food, urban form, transportation, economic development, environmental sustainability, energy, and social issues are critical challenges of the 21st Century and beyond.  Further, those issues form an intricate web within which any one issue relates with all others.  A more comprehensive greening plan not only tackles the challenges, but it also allows planners and decision makers to see before them the relationships between the challenges and facilitates more integrated planning.


Let’s look at some elements of the Rochester plan.  Project Green advocates for community gardens, but it stops short on taking the idea further.  There is no reason why there shouldn’t be a more detailed, longer-term plan on scaling the idea into urban agriculture that serves as part of an economic and workforce development strategy, in addition to localized food production.  The plan does a good job on proposing the historic streetcar lines as future green corridors, but it fails to advance the full potential of the idea.  Future commitments for major green corridors are toward bicycle and pedestrian facilities, aesthetics, and stormwater management, and those are good commitments.  But how do the future urban form and the mix of land uses relate to those corridors?  Should density be clustered around those corridors to maximize the use and investments?  As for economic development, there is not a section that speaks at length about the goals and separates potential strategies into manageable phases.


The Rochester plan notes, “It is…an occasion to lay the foundation for the next 175 years.”  There is not much of a foundation with such a conservative, narrow-focused plan that aims not for the stars but for the hills.


If we are going to plan for the future, then let it be more comprehensive, integrated, and meaningful planning to tackle the core issues of the 21st Century and beyond.





Read about Leaner, Greener Detroit at  The Rochester plan, once it has been made public, will have a link from here.

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.

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