Monday, February 19, 2007

It's Not The Size That Matters...

Its what you do with it.

Slowly, old American cities that have been in a downward population spiral for a half-century or more are reinventing themselves as, well, smaller cities. They're starting to adopt — many, like Richmond, do it unknowingly — tenets of the burgeoning, European-born "Shrinking Cities" movement. The idea: If cities can grow in a smart way, they can also shrink smartly.

"Everybody's talking about smart growth, but nobody is talking about smart decline," says Terry Schwarz, senior planner at Kent State University's Urban Design Center of Northeast Ohio. The center runs the Shrinking Cities Institute in Cleveland, a city that has lost more than half its population since 1950. "There's nothing that says that a city that has fewer people in it has to be a bad place."

New Orleans has been in a steady population decline for the past 30 plus years. This decline was instantaneously accelerated on August 29, 2005. Hopefully, Katrina will also speed up the process planning for the decline as others cities have done. Now that everyone is in agreement of what has happened, we need to look forward and decide on where we go from hear. Others cities offer insight into how this can be not only managed, but can improve the city.

It's a startling admission in a nation that has always equated growth with success. Cities are downsizing by returning abandoned neighborhoods to nature and pulling the plug on expensive services to unpopulated areas. Some have stopped pumping water, running sewer lines and repaving roads in depopulated neighborhoods. They're turning decimated areas into parks, wildlife refuges or bike trails. They're tearing down homes no one is living in and concentrating development where people want to move.

Richmond's acclaimed Neighborhoods in Bloom program targets six areas. Public funds are pouring in and private money has started to follow. The city wants to grow, but it's not waiting for a population boom, says Greg Wingfield, president and CEO of Greater Richmond Partnership Inc., an economic development marketing group. "We don't as a region aspire to be the next Atlanta or the next Charlotte," he says. "It's about quality. It's not about growing for the sake of growing."

As I've stated in an earlier post, the City of New Orleans needs to look into unincorporating the city east of the Industrial Canal (with the exception of the Lower Ninth Ward and Holy Cross) among other things.

  1. New Orleans should simply unincorporate most or all of New Orleans East. Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge has no business being inside the city limits. Those living in New Orleans East will not like being unincorporated at first, but it simply means that the parish will take over those services that the city currently provide. In other words, be more like Jefferson Parish.
  2. If you want to convert neighborhoods back to wetland, don't be impatient about deciding where they should be. Recovery will be long term so let's plan long term. City officials certainly can wait to see which area make a substantial recovery. We may find some areas with few residents. If those residents decide they don't like living in "ghosts towns", the government coud offer to buy them out. Homeowners might be happy with this arrangement. If the government tried to force people out of their homes, they will be asking for nothing but trouble.
  3. Some City Council members will not take kindly to having their district being eliminated and will likely put up a fight to maintain the status quo. A city-parish form of government might be a good comprise to get some council members on board.
This approach might be described as "slash-and-burn" but the reality is that if a city is to shrink, it needs to shrink. Fortunately, other cities have managed this in a softer manner.

"European cities are grappling with how you deal with shrinking cities more forthrightly than we are," says John Accordino, urban and regional planning professor at Virginia Commonwealth University here. "(U.S. cities) are still trying to figure out how do we get our piece of the metro growth."

Youngstown, Ohio, is an exception. It has fully embraced its shrinkage. The population, now about 83,000, is less than half what it was when the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s.

"You look at the facts and come up with solutions," chief planner Anthony Kobak says. "The first step the city has come to terms with is being a small city."

Youngstown approved a 2010 plan. The goal: "A safe, clean, enjoyable, sustainable, attractive city," Kobak says.

The city long was better known for gritty steel mills than green space. Now that the mills are gone, there is plenty of space. With the help of a grant, Youngstown preserved 260 acres. It's targeting neighborhoods and redesigning them with the help of residents who stayed.

The city may let homeowners buy abandoned lots next door to create gardens. It's considering relaxing zoning rules to allow small horse farms or apple orchards. It's offering incentives for people to move out of abandoned areas.

"If you had three or four square blocks that at one time had 40 homes per block and now have maybe five homes total, we could relocate those people across the street and convert the vacant area into a large city park," Kobak says.Residents would live be living across from a park rather than being surrounded by decrepit homes and lots overgrown with weeds.

"If we're looking to preserve an area for green space, we may offer that person relocation money rather than rehab money," Kobak says.

Other cities may be less enthusiastic about shrinking but they're adjusting, nevertheless:

• St. Louis is reviewing abandoned commercial areas to determine if they're still needed. "We had a lot more people here," says Rollin Stanley, director of St. Louis' planning and urban design agency. "We had a lot more need for commercial strips. That need isn't here today."

The historic Gaslight Square area once teemed with nightclubs, theaters, bistros and art galleries. It was abandoned for more than 20 years. The city recently converted some parts to row houses and single-family homes.

"We have to rethink where we house people," Stanley says.Converting declining commercial areas to trendy residential housing has helped. Family incomes citywide increased 13.7% from 2004 to 2005, he says."We're rethinking land use allocation to meet the needs of the population we're going to see," he says. We're not shrinking. We're rethinking."

• Detroit spreads across 139 square miles and has almost a million fewer people than it did in 1950. Until now, revitalization efforts have focused on the 3-square-mile downtown.

This month, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced an initiative in partnership with philanthropies, business, civic leaders and faith-based organizations that will target six neighborhoods that make up less than 10% of the city. "Some neighborhoods don't need to be addressed right away," says Matt Allen, the mayor's press secretary.

In February, the city will focus on parks and recreational facilities, most of them developed from 1920 to 1958, when the city boomed. When people left, many facilities were barely used. "People don't walk five miles to go swim in an 80-year-old pool," Allen says. "It costs a heck of a lot of money to run an 80-year-old boiler."

The city already has closed 14 recreational facilities and built state-of-the-art centers in the northeast, where there is the highest concentration of families with children, and in the southwest, where the Hispanic population exploded.

So far, city leaders have refused to address this issue. It may be that they are reluctant to move forward on this this issue due to the uncertaincy of the rate of repopulation. It's hard to plan for the future when you don't have any idea of what the future will be. Much of the cause of that is due to lack of leadership in Baton Rouge where the Governor Kathleen Blanco Road Home Program is handing out checks like molases in January and no one wants to address the insurance crisis.

However, others have addressed this issue and hopefully a public dialog can begin soon. With or without the politicians.


Ray said...

Interesting, but--and this is a bit but--how can New Orleans create more green space or parkland when no money is even available for the rehabilitation of City Park. Who provides the funds to tear up the roads at the edge of New Orleans East, etc.? Smart shrinking sounds nice, but it costs money, which was always a problem with the ULI/BNOB proposal (which hasn't appeared to me to be as dramatic as reporters continue to suggest--the closing off of entire swaths of NOLA was never proposed).

Ray said...

And what would constitute New Orleans Parish's tax base? NO East? Couldn't that be disastrous?

Kinch said...

Sure, NO will loose some of its tax base, but so will it loose some of its need for providing services. Having a large part of the city with the population density of a rural area is not an efficient way to deliver services. Better to have a rural form of government provide government services for rural areas.