Smart Decline and Planning Ideology

By Aaron McKeon

Last September, Time began a year of coverage of Detroit. Judging by the coverage in the September issue and subsequent installations online, the magazine’s angle is to present the nation’s eleventh largest city as all but a lost cause. Naturally, there is a lot of heart and guts in the city and plenty of determined people working for its survival, but Time seems to be asking the question, Aren’t they just rearranging the deck chairs?

The introduction to a year of stories on Detroit in the September issue includes a broad land use recommendation:

For its part, Detroit must address the fact that a 138-square-mile city that once accommodated 1.85 million people is way too large for the 912,000 who remain. The fire, police and sanitation departments couldn’t efficiently service the yawning stretches of barely inhabited areas even if the city could afford to maintain those operations at their former size. Detroit has to shrink its footprint, even if it means condemning decent houses in the gap-toothed areas and moving their occupants to compact neighborhoods where they might find a modicum of security and service. Build greenbelts, which are a lot cheaper to maintain than untraveled streets. Encourage urban farming. Let the barren areas revert to nature.

This article did not use the terminology “smart decline” or “planned shrinkage,” but that is the tradition being invoked. Like a lot of coverage of so-called “shrinking cities,” this framing of the situation uses the magnitude of the numbers to make the dismantling of the city seem like a fait accompli and the only logical way to proceed.

David Harvey, writing more than thirty years ago, warned of oscillations in planning ideology that would give this kind of thinking a great deal of appeal to planners. Harvey was writing at a time when New York City’s Housing and Development administrator, Roger Starr, was advocating the “planned shrinkage” of places that were thought to be too far gone, like the South Bronx.

The thinking was that some neighborhoods could not be “turned around” and that it was a misuse of public funds to keep health clinics, fire departments and other city services operating there. Inhumane as this sounds, Harvey suggests that this is not a completely crazy endpoint for a planning ideology whose central aim is to ensure that the built environment nurtures the “reproduction of the social order.” Harvey’s 1978 article On Planning the Ideology of Planning states:

If the problem lies in lack or excess of investment in the built environment then the planner must perforce set to work to stimulate investment or to manage and ‘rationalize’ devaluation with techniques of ‘planned shrinkage,’ urban renewal and even the production of ‘planning blight’ (which amounts to nothing more than earmarking certain areas for devaluation).

Harvey’s point is that when planning’s underlying objective is to make sure that a place is appealing to capital, anything can seem like a good idea. In cities like Detroit, Buffalo, Flint, Philadelphia and Youngstown, politicians and neighbors alike are clamoring for funds for the demolition and/or deconstruction of homes. Districts within these cities squabble over demolition funds. The new dream for these cities is that the neighborhoods most heavily pockmarked by vacancies and abandonment can revert to use for agriculture, stormwater retention, wetland creation or some other beneficial, quasi-greenfield function.

One of the ironic aspects of this trend is that its advocates toss around the word “sustainability” to justify it, when it represents a commitment to shifting away from dense, walkable land use patterns and sunk investments like roads and sewer systems. As the city is “greened,” commuters working in the central business district drive farther and farther to get to homes in the exurbs that break up natural habitat and disrupt agricultural activities.

The term “smart decline” was coined by Deborah and Frank Popper in their 2002 article in Planning entitled “Small Can Be Beautiful.” It was picked up by the City of Youngstown when planners there began thinking about the city’s 2010 plan. The Poppers suggest a paradigm shift—away from planning for growth and toward thinking about what a city with shrinking resources could safely jettison. In Youngstown, this has been rolled into a plan to tug people out of some neighborhoods using a combination of carrots and sticks. If you live in a “targeted” neighborhood, your home is not eligible for certain city home improvement grants and you are eligible for $50,000 to relocate into another neighborhood.

The Youngstown 2010 Plan was, by all accounts, done as well as it could be. The plan has a broad base of support. Residents and many activists are upbeat about possible benefits, including the deconstruction of homes rather than demolition, with building materials being salvaged and reused whenever possible. Finding and/or growing local construction crews that can do this kind of deconstruction work may be a new growth industry in cities like Youngstown. Similarly appealing is the prospect of teaching kids how to turn vacant acreage into commercially successful urban farms or woodlots.

Youngstown’s plan has hit snags though. People are not moving out of their neighborhoods voluntarily in large numbers. Demolitions are happening at a faster pace but tend to be fairly piecemeal, not creating large swaths of green space, as was intended.

Whether or not the plan is “successful” in terms of achieving its own stated goals and objectives, the Youngstown 2010 Plan has done two important things: it has signaled to local owners of capital that community resources will be used to subsidize their interests, not those of the worst off in the city, and it has set a precedent for the rest of the Rust Belt. The mayor of Flint, Michigan, was quoted last March as saying that he might support “shutting down quadrants of the city.”

What has not been seriously considered is a program to turn the “smart decline” idea around and use it to achieve real sustainability. Looked at regionally, it would be substantially more efficient, and a greater saving of public dollars, to target “smart decline” policies at the edge of development and provide vouchers for suburban residents to relocate within cities. If the goal were truly efficiency, rather than slum clearance, the demolition would be going on in the exurbs.

While it will be a long time before wholesale demolition of McMansions is politically palatable, an interesting variation on this paradigm is being tested in Syracuse, New York. There, a collaboration between Syracuse University, the Syracuse City School District and the Say Yes to Education Foundation has resulted in a program to give every graduate of the City school district free tuition at Syracuse University and a number of other colleges.

The Say Yes to Education Program amounts to a carrot of gigantic proportions (at least $120,000) to move into the school district and, per the terms of the program, keep a student there for the three years prior to graduation. Last fall, the city’s ailing district saw a nearly two percent increase in enrollment, while nearly all other nearby districts lost students.

The real problem with talking about population loss as a citywide problem is that it draws attention away from the fact that the issues related to population loss involve neighbors and neighborhoods. From city hall’s perspective, the first principle should be to prize every neighborhood in the same way that its residents do. A string of vacant homes on a block looks like a problem waiting for a solution to a planner conducting a windshield survey, but each home has its own history and its place within the neighborhood’s fabric.

At the same time, it would be foolish to suggest that every vacant home can be rehabilitated or that vacant buildings are not magnets for crime. Frequently it is neighbors who are clamoring for the demolition of what they consider to be nuisance properties. And, to the extent that residents within a neighborhood are pursuing the removal of some structures, there may be some value in thinking strategically about the long-term implications of these demolitions. But a neighborhood of gardens and stormwater retention ponds has its own issues in terms of the services and lifestyle it can offer its residents.

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