The changing city landscape in the US

Every once in a while we need to have a reality check and right now it appears that we might be getting a big one when it comes to our cities. For much too long there has been this idea that bigger is better. Bigger cars, bigger stores, bigger factories and to house all this big business even bigger cities. It is a mindset that has been with us for generations, however it may be one that may see some drastic changes as we work our way through this current recession.

The idea of sprawling suburbia and all the interconnecting services required support that kind of land use is undergoing some serious reconsideration. As factories close and large sections of cities have turned into abandoned businesses and homes there is a growing thought that maybe the time has come to make our cities smaller.

One of the leading proponents of this idea is Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County which also includes the city of Flint Michigan. The civic leaders of Flint believe that in order for the city to survive it must contract its size by 40 percent. This means literally razing portions of the city to the ground and return it to a more natural condition.

In an interview with Tom Leonard, Mr. Kildee said

“The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we’re all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way,” said Mr Kildee. “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.”

The city of Flint, some 60 miles from Detroit, is the original home of General Motors who at its height employed some 79,000 people. The number now is probably closer to 8,000 along with an unemployment rte of 20 percent and a population of only around 110,000 people. Behind all this has been a steady exodus of young people as they look for new places to call home. Tie this is with the collapse of the housing market and you are seeing huge tracts of the city sitting empty.

Mr. Kildee points out thouogh that this downsizing of cities requires an incredible shift in social thinking as it goes against some of the core American ideas about growth.

“The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there’s an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they’re shrinking, they’re failing.”

But some Flint dustcarts are collecting just one rubbish bag a week, roads are decaying, police are very understaffed and there were simply too few people to pay for services, he said.

If the city didn’t downsize it will eventually go bankrupt, he added

The city has been lucky enough to revitalize the formerly abandon city center but at the same time thay have also torn down 1,100. That however is really just the beginning as far as Mr. Kildee is concerned as he see yet another 3,000 homes that need to make an appointment with the city bulldozers.

Already, some streets peter out into woods or meadows, no trace remaining of the homes that once stood there.

Choosing which areas to knock down will be delicate but many of them were already obvious, he said.

The city is buying up houses in more affluent areas to offer people in neighbourhoods it wants to demolish. Nobody will be forced to move, said Mr Kildee.

This idea of re-constituting a city by reassessing its land requirements is just being confined to Detroit and Flint. After the presidential election Kildee was approached by the Obama government to take what he has learnt with Flint and see what other cities in the United States could also benefit from this kind of idea.

Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes.

Most are former industrial cities in the “rust belt” of America’s Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

Whenever I read about this idea of smaller being better, even if it is out of survival, it reminds me of t he writings of E.F. Schumacher back in the 1970’s of which his most famous book is Small is Beautiful. It’s a shame we’ve had to go through so much heartache to realize that our drive for bigger is better might not be the right way to.

picture courtesy of The Telegraph Online