Some shrinking U.S. cities find splendor in green
WASHINGTON/DETROIT - For some U.S. Rust Belt cities, the future will be smaller and greener.
As communities from Buffalo to Milwaukee struggle with shuttered factories and vacant neighborhoods, some have turned abandoned properties into parks, gardens and other open space, even going so far as to plow under entire neighborhoods.
A recognition that the glory days of factory-powered prosperity will not return any time soon, this "shrinking cities" strategy aims to consolidate what remains into denser neighborhoods and more vibrant downtowns.
In Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors, a pioneering program that allows local government to capture profits from tax foreclosures has generated funds to demolish over 1,000 abandoned homes in the past five years.
"There's a gravitational pull that we're a part of and it's toward a smaller city," said Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County surrounding Flint. "This is not a plan to shrink Flint, it's an acknowledgment that we've lost half our population."
Flint's fortunes -- like those of GM -- have been on the decline for decades. In the late 1970s, there were more than 80,000 GM workers in Flint centered on a sprawling industrial complex known as Buick City.
GM's city-within-a-city covered 235 acres (951,000 square meters) and employed more than 25,000 people. Foremen had to ride bicycles to cover the distances between production areas.
But GM had cut over 90 percent of its jobs in Flint even before it filed for bankruptcy in June. All that remains of Buick City is a bulldozed and fenced-in field and almost a third of the surrounding neighborhoods are abandoned.
The solution Kildee is promoting is a county "land bank" that sells off more valuable foreclosed properties in the surrounding suburbs to generate cash to pay for demolition and create inner-city gardens and parks.
THE WAY FORWARD
A tour of one of the hardest-hit Flint neighborhoods just north of downtown shows the depth of the problem: The only occupied house on the block has a spray-painted warning to stay off the yard. Across the street, patches of grass are waist high and strewn with empty liquor bottles and broken glass.
"It's really personal to me," Kildee said. "This is the neighborhood where my grandmother lived for 60 years."
Other land bank funds, supported by grants from charities including the Mott Foundation, have underwritten an effort to reclaim and restore buildings in Flint's once largely abandoned downtown.
"It's hard for political leaders to acknowledge that maybe we're just not going to grow," Kildee said. "This is a radical experiment in that it's accepting that it's okay to be smaller -- and to be better."
Urban planners say Kildee has shown the way forward for other struggling cities.
"He's really forced folks in Flint to really make some hard decisions and accept some difficult realities," said Charles Smith, a planner with the Michigan-based firm Wade Trim.
But this smaller-city approach risks a backlash from voters who may see it as an admission of defeat, planners say.
"Nobody wants to admit that -- it's in part tied up with this American ideology of growth being good," said Jess Zimbabwe, executive director at the Urban Land Institute Rose Center, a nonprofit focused on sustainable land use.
The concept was pioneered in former East German cities like Leipzig that emptied out when the Berlin Wall fell. Development efforts were concentrated on downtown areas, waterfronts and other pedestrian-friendly sites to foster a sense of vibrancy and density for those who remained, said Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.
In the United States' older industrial areas, several cities are starting to take a similar approach:
* Youngstown, Ohio, the poorest mid-size city in the United States, plans to knock down 2,000 abandoned buildings by next year as part of a citywide rezoning effort that aims to concentrate redevelopment on viable neighborhoods and commercial districts.
* Cleveland is encouraging neighborhood-level experiments to turn vacant lots into parks, commercial vegetable gardens, orchards and other useful open space. The city does not plan to raze entire neighborhoods, even those where 80 percent of the housing stock is abandoned. "We're not at that point yet," said Bobbi Reichtel of the nonprofit group Neighborhood Progress, which has been directing federal money to these experiments.
* Highland Park, just north of downtown Detroit, has applied for federal money to demolish several largely abandoned neighborhoods and let them lie fallow until a new use can be found. Home to Henry Ford's first assembly line, the city has experienced a drop in population to a third of its 1940 level. Unemployment is at 22 percent.
* Philadelphia has cleaned up 11 million square feet (1.02 million square meters) of vacant land since 2003 and plans to convert some lots into parks or community gardens.
AVOIDING THE PROBLEM
Other cities, however, have avoided tackling the problem.
Planners say Detroit could reinvent itself as a network of vibrant neighborhoods connected by parks or agricultural space, but scandal has racked the city's leadership and surrounding suburbs have no inclination to help fund the effort.
New Orleans likewise rejected a proposal to raze some neighborhoods that Hurricane Katrina devastated in 2005. Now the city struggles to deliver services to sparsely populated "jack o'lantern" neighborhoods, so named because only a few rebuilt houses on some blocks light up at night.
States and the U.S. government can help. Michigan has passed "land bank" legislation that makes it easier for cities like Flint to take control of abandoned property and consolidate it into larger parcels.
Instead of spending federal highway funds to encourage suburban sprawl, states could use that money to knock down underused freeways that carve barriers through cities such as Syracuse, New York, Katz said.
The recession and the foreclosure crisis have forced many cities to take a second look at a policy they may have initially rejected, Katz said.
"I think we're on the verge of something very different in many of these places," said Katz, who has urged other Ohio cities to follow Youngstown's lead. "I see a much greater openness to this than I did even five years ago."
(Editing by Howard Goller and James Dalgleish)
Copyright 2009 Reuters.