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.

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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.”

As the previous post on this blog pointed out, there is no one-size-fits-all model for right-sizing shrunken cities (I’m increasingly drawn to this term rather than the more conventional shrinking cities, as several of the places that we focus on appear to have finally stemmed their population loss in recent years). However, just as Baltimore can learn from the like of Cleveland and Philadelphia, there is little doubt it can also teach other cities a thing or two. In particular, I was impressed with Baltimore’s demolition and relocation programs:

  • Demolitions – Before I visited Baltimore, I had only considered the social implications of demolishing vacant structures, not the public safety aspect. While it is relatively straightforward to bulldoze the single-family detached dwellings that are commonplace in much of America, Baltimore’s vacant homes are typically row houses, making the process far more complicated and dangerous. Rosa Hart Burenstine, a resident of East Baltimore who helped write the Demolition Protocols, claimed they have been an unqualified success when it comes to dealing with hazards such as lead dust, making them “the only steps to take when demolition is involved.” Apparently her view is endorsed by experts from institutions including the EPA and the University of Pennsylvania. I am disinclined to agree with Rosa’s assertion that the Protocols should be adopted across the country, as she has apparently failed to appreciate the empowering nature of involving residents such as herself in the process, but there is no reason why they could not be used as a starting point for other cities dealing with similar issues.
  • Relocations – Whenever cities try to move people out of their homes, there are understandable tensions. The reason for the relocation might be anything from rising sea levels to building infrastructure to host the Olympic Games, but the one constant is that there are always people who react angrily to the decision. Baltimore’s current relocation program is based on two main objectives: demolishing whole rows of houses that are deemed surplus to requirements, and redeveloping houses that are in a poor state of repair. The East Baltimore Revitalization Initiative, led by East Baltimore Development Inc. (a non-profit largely funded by a TIF), has attempted to soften the blow of its relocation program by offering people a selection of houses and neighborhoods to choose from. While this choice always includes refurbished houses in their own communities, sometimes just a block away, most residents have moved to areas that have higher employment rates and that perform better against a whole host of quality-of-life indicators. Those whose previous homes are being redeveloped will also be given the chance to move back into them under a ‘first-right-to-return’ policy. Furthermore, there is ongoing support provided to people after their move to help them make a successful transition. Chris Shea, President of East Baltimore Development Inc. seemed rather disappointed that so few people (approximately 1.4%) had chosen to stay in their neighborhoods considering the high quality of the new housing stock. He shouldn’t be. Two independent surveys have shown that an overwhelming majority of those residents affected by the relocation program have a positive view of the experience. The amount of choice available, the quality of the houses on offer, and the post-relocation support are undoubtedly the main reasons for this unusually high level of satisfaction, and other cities would do well to learn from Baltimore in this regard. My main reservation is that there seems to be far more funding available for this relocation program than for other relocation programs I have heard about previously. If this is the case, it could prove difficult for Baltimore to maintain such high standards and for other cities to replicate them.

Those who have studied the history of the shrinking cities movement will know that many policy ideas emanated from the crisis that faced the former East Germany following reunification, as hundreds of thousands of people soon migrated to the prosperous cities of the West in search of a better life. The passage of time and the  increasingly innovative ideas that are on display in American cities such as Youngstown, Ohio have naturally meant that the German cities no longer command quite the attention that they once did, even though many of them continue to experience large-scale population loss and all of its attendant problems.

Fortunately, the city planners, academics and other interested stakeholders in these cities have apparently picked up the baton from the trailblazers that preceded them. They are once again demonstrating the kind of radical thinking that may yet succeed in changing the fortunes of such places, devising cutting-edge policies that are designed to turn adversity into opportunity. Among a host of initiatives in the city of Dessau-Rosslau, reported upon in Rainer Müller’s article for Der Spiegel (http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,688152,00.html), perhaps the most eye-catching is that of ‘city islands’. According to Heike Brückner, one of the city planners behind the concept, “buildings will be cut out and in the empty spaces we will insert countryside.”

At first glance, this may not seem like such a novel idea; post-industrial American cities such as Cleveland certainly have their fair share of de facto city islands. But therein lies the difference. In American cities, as well as those facing similar problems in my home country of Britain, we still tend to allow our cities to arrive in such a state by accident rather than by design. The economic growth imperative means that it is nearly always politically unfeasible to admit the population that had been lost cannot one day be recovered, so we uncover every stone in search of a financing mechanism that will enable us to attempt another risky infill regeneration project.

In German cities, or at least in Dessau-Rosslau, the acceptance of the permanence of the shrunken city has allowed the policy-makers to create a bold vision for the future. The means of achieving it may not to be everyone’s liking – the approach to demolitions sounds unusually aggressive, for starters – and there is no denying the report’s assertion that the German vision is ‘not exactly sexy’. However, there is also no denying that the German vision is a good deal more realistic than the rose-tinted versions that continue to prevail elsewhere. German cities may no longer command the attention that they once did among those who concern themselves with the fortunes of shrinking cities, but that does not mean that we should cease to look to them for inspiration. Dessau-Rosslau is admittedly an extreme case, having lost a third of its population in the last two decades, but other city-leaders might do well to consider if they could benefit their citizens by giving up the search for silver bullets and focusing on finding silver linings instead.

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.

In his article for Citiwire (http://citiwire.net/post/1432/), Neal Peirce of the Washington Post Writers Group calls for American cities struggling with the decline of their traditional manufacturing bases to look to Barcelona for inspiration. Where American policy-makers would, according to Peirce, bulldoze the abandoned relics of a city’s industrial past to build a new business park, Barcelona’s politicians instead considered how to transition the former hub of its cotton industry into a knowledge-based economy fit for the 21st century. Recognizing that their ability to attract the kind of talent needed to effect such a transition depended upon the creation of a suitably attractive environment, leaders from both sides of the political divide came together to develop an imaginative array of policies designed to achieve this. They split the city into 100-square meter blocks where decisions required the agreement of 60 per cent of landowners, and offered these landowners the chance to build at a higher density than was normally permitted if they released 30 per cent of their holding for public investment. The publicly-held land could then be used to help create what Peirce describes as ‘a lively urban environment… shaped to include attractive green spaces, restaurants and entertainment, bike lanes, and plentiful public transit’. Such an environment was thought to be preferable to the staid, detached ‘corporate campuses’ and thus far, at least, the Barcelona model appears to be working. Josep Pique is the CEO of 22@Barcelona, the entity created to manage the district, and he is keen to point out that the economic success they aspired for has not come at the cost of social responsibility. According to Pique, social housing and internships for local students are just two of the initiatives that are helping to ensure that those residents who lived in the district before its overhaul will reap the benefits of the regeneration strategy. Peirce certainly seems impressed, as he notes that ‘the physical result is an amazingly eclectic neighborhood’, where the old and new sit ‘cheek by jowl’. So what can America learn from Barcelona? Well, there is no doubt that America is on board with the idea of the knowledge-based economy. Silicon Valley is but the most famous example of the myriad districts around the nation that epitomize the term, and the means to attract the requisite talent are at the very center of Richard Florida’s ‘Creative Class’ theory.  Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that there are not places in America where leaders share similar aspirations to create an attractive, mixed-use environment, often incentivizing developers to help achieve this. For those of us that have learned about planning in the Washington DC area, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington County might be the foremost manifestation of such practices. However, such places are the exceptions that prove the rule, and even the most progressive American politicians would surely balk at the prospect of asking developers to give up almost a third of their land holdings in the name of the common good. Peirce sees the American obsession with property rights as a major stumbling block, especially as property owners are also required to pay 50 per cent of street infrastructure improvements. He also questions whether American cities could ever reach the broad political consensus that is required to enact such a bold strategy. On the other hand, he asserts that ‘we Americans can’t keep saying “no” and “can’t” forever’. So, America, maybe it is time that a prominent politician – perhaps one who is au fait with the seminal work of Jane Jacobs, for example – finally had the courage to say “yes, we can” for a change. If such a politician were to be voted into a position of real power, we might really begin to see some progress.