Some Cities Shrink to Survive

Written by adam


I’ve written before about our urban future. The flip side of the increasing concentration of people in growing cities is that other areas have to shrink. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

This story about false fire alarms going off in the abandoned sprawl outside Phoenix, AZ has the eerie quality of that Ray Bradbury story about the slow death of an automated house after the end of civilization. It turns out firefighters aren’t allowed to enter homes if there’s no fire and the owners aren’t present, so there’s nothing for them to do but let the alarms wail for days until the batteries run out.

Somewhat more substantively, dozens of small American cities in economically depressed areas are considering ways to gracefully manage their decline. Flint, Michigan, for example, is bulldozing entire districts and letting the land return to nature. Such consolidation is necessary if the city is to maintain sufficient density to provide basic services.

> Flint’s recovery efforts have been helped by a new state law passed a few years ago which allowed local governments to buy up empty properties very cheaply.

> They could then knock them down or sell them on to owners who will occupy them. The city wants to specialise in health and education services, both areas which cannot easily be relocated abroad.

> The local authority has restored the city’s attractive but formerly deserted centre but has pulled down 1,100 abandoned homes in outlying areas.

> Mr Kildee estimated another 3,000 needed to be demolished, although the city boundaries will remain the same.

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

This isn’t a strictly American story. Japan has been facing a similar dynamic for years. Even as Japan’s economy grows overall, the hinterlands stagnate and young people flock to the more vibrant cities. Unsurprisingly, such dislocations lead to social unrest, as an older generation finds its way of life threatened.

Decline often evokes a viscerally negative reaction in people, even a sort of horror. But to the extent that such changes are inevitable, it makes sense to manage them as gracefully as possible. It certainly makes sense for the municipalities themselves. Hollowed out cities tend to be economically stagnant, and they often breed crime. Managed shrinkage can also make environmental sense, if the new town is denser and less reliant on cars.

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1 Comment

  1. James Oates

    To me, this makes perfect sense…manage the decline and change vice letting properties sit and rot over time. This evolution seems to be inevitable for some cities and it is prudent and smart.