15 June 2009

Managing decline

Though we North Americans tend to think of cities as permanent and expanding features on our landscape, it is a fact of life that, like everything else in the world, they wax and wane and may even die. Timbuktu was once a great centre of culture and learning, but is now a shadow of what it was half a millennium ago. There is no reason to think that our own cities are exempt from this process.

Indeed there are a number of American cities that have not fared well with the shift from an industrial to a service economy. The one with which I am most familiar is just over the border: Detroit. Now there is a co-operative effort by more than one level of government to manage the decline of such urban centres: US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive. Given my deep familial roots in southeastern Michigan, I am saddened at the decline of urban life in the region.

Yet all periods of mourning must end, and life must go on. For the city of Flint, Michigan, 60 miles north of Detroit, this means effectively abandoning up to 40 percent of the city's built-up land in a necessary downsizing effort.

Flint, sixty miles north of Detroit, was the original home of General Motors. The car giant once employed 79,000 local people but that figure has shrunk to around 8,000. Unemployment is now approaching 20 per cent and the total population has almost halved to 110,000. The exodus – particularly of young people – coupled with the consequent collapse in property prices, has left street after street in sections of the city almost entirely abandoned.

Durant Hotel, Flint, Michigan
Durant Hotel

In the city centre, the once grand Durant Hotel – named after William Durant, GM's founder – is a symbol of the city's decline, said Mr [Dan] Kildee [Genesee County Treasurer]. The large building has been empty since 1973, roughly when Flint's decline began. Regarded as a model city in the motor industry's boom years, Flint may once again be emulated, though for very different reasons.

But Mr Kildee, who has lived there nearly all his life, said he had first to overcome a deeply ingrained American cultural mindset that "big is good" and that cities should sprawl – Flint covers 34 square miles. . . . 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 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.

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. "Much of the land will be given back to nature. People will enjoy living near a forest or meadow," he said.

Mr Kildee acknowledged that some fellow Americans considered his solution "defeatist" but he insisted it was "no more defeatist than pruning an overgrown tree so it can bear fruit again".

Given that growth and decline are facts of life, and given that political authorities are under a divine mandate to do public justice, how do they manage decline in a just fashion? It is easy to distribute the pieces of an ever-expanding pie, but what happens when the pie is contracting? The corporate private sector has had to face these sorts of issues for decades, but now municipal governments are having to make similar tough decisions. Are there equitable ways to do so?

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