Flint, Michigan. Image from the New York Times.
Across the rust belt, shrinking cities are asking themselves what to do about abandoned properties and the rapid rise of vacant lots, crime, neglect, and the high cost of providing infrastructure, both social and physical. Some cities are pursuing what they call “right-sizing,” acquiring and tearing down the empties, relocating the few remaining residents to neighborhoods that can be sustained at capacity, and turning the vacant lots into useable green space, urban gardens, and forests and parks.
Detroit. Image by Alex MacLean.
The poster child for this movement is probably Flint, Michigan, which has lost about half its population in the last 45 years. But similar programs are underway in Detroit, Youngstown, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Baltimore and many other places. Cities you know well, like our own – Rochester. Let’s have a little talk about this.
Last week I was fortunate to get an invitation to attend a half-day charrette at City Hall here. It turns out that three University of Rochester graduate students had a bright idea, and got the city to help them organize a gathering of 50 or so community leaders, and sustainability and urbanism types, to consider what is needed to create a greener Rochester. The students are currently transcribing the comments and suggestions (almost anything you can think of would help here – we’re not exactly on the leading edge of the next urbanism). But before the charrette began in earnest, there were presentations.
One of the presenters was a knowledgeable and thoughtful city planner named Chuck Thomas. He is leading an initiative here for the City called Project Green. Sounds good – we need some kind of Project Green here really desperately.
But it turns out that Project Green is Rochester’s tear-down program. This city has about 96,000 household units, and about 9,200 are vacant. The goal is to tear down about 3,000 of the vacant units over the next 20 years, at a cost of about $70 million. The target, we were told, is a vacancy rate of about 5%, instead of the current 10%.
While Project Green is a demolition plan, it’s called Project Green because the idea is to make all the vacant lots green – as in parks and gardens. We don’t have the oceans of abandonment that cities like Detroit and Flint are struggling with, but we do have locations that have had teardowns, and various places in the city currently have plenty of vacant housing units. Here’s a look at the proposed demo on Wilkins, between Hudson and Joseph, in the northeast quadrant of Rochester.
Wilkins is the very long block in the center of this image. Green colored lots are already vacant, and black colored buildings are the demo targets. This block, almost half a mile long (!! – maybe a factor?), will lose about two-thirds of the buildings once sited there. Here’s a better view.
There are a few other blocks like this one in the city, but most are blocks with only one or two empties scheduled for razing.
The rationale for all this, Chuck told us, is that market conditions and continuing sprawl in the region, combined with a stable regional population and declining city population, suggest no future demand for these abandoned places. Said another way, we have the same number of people here in the region, just more and more spread out – ergo sprawl and a swooning city.
Fair enough – we face the same dilemmas that trouble other older cities plagued with sprawl, and economic and social segregation. The neighbors who remain in many of these neighborhoods face a host of ills – crime, drugs, fires, health and safety issues, and others, and they need several kinds of help. But I wonder if demolition is the right approach.
Market conditions – that phrase troubles me. If we are basing our assessment of the need to reduce the housing count on current market conditions, we should probably just tear down the city. Rochester has sky-high taxes, depressed home values, dwindling services – all the usual contemporary urban ailments. Real estate does eventually sell here, but it usually takes quite a while. And think of how happy our suburban neighbors would be – tearing down the city would free up a lot of cash for even more sprawl.
But what if market conditions change?
Like what happens if, for example, gas goes to a much higher price? Or say, to a somewhat higher price. Which seems highly likely soon, and inevitable in the long run. Will this inspire folks to move into the city, to be closer to work and play? Will this fact alter existing patterns of retail, away from the malls and toward neighborhood options?
What we have here is greening by lowering density – tearing down the city to meet supposed market conditions while wrecking valuable existing assets. Isn’t this just plain wasteful, and a bit dim?
Maybe I am whistling in the dark here, but I do know that greening by demolition lowers density, and makes providing transit options even more problematic, as Ron Kilcoyne, CEO of Greater Bridgeport Transit, said recently. And not just transit.
Greening by lowering density makes providing all kinds of social and physical infrastructure more difficult. Fewer homes means less taxes, and less tax revenue means fewer cops and firemen and libraries and teachers and…. It’s a long list.
So what if we didn’t and couldn’t sprawl anymore? What if we realized that we absolutely cannot sustain the region’s sprawl – economically, environmentally, you pick? What if we realized that we can no longer pay to maintain and operate what we have, much less allow even higher taxes caused by the cost of increased sprawl? What if the market told us we needed to move away from a world shaped and driven (so to speak) by cars? What if only half of the dire predictions scientist’s offer for our environment come true? What if we really finally understood that our contemporary patterns of urban and regional living are absolutely and completely obsolete?
What if we realized that living in a dense urban setting actually begins to solve some of our problems? Would we begin to wonder why we started tearing down the city?