The Amazing Shrinking City Can Smart Decline Improve Urban Life?

Smart Decline © Reimagining Cleveland

In the heart of Cleveland, Ohio, residents are prying up concrete and planting trees as part of a broad endeavor to reclaim open space in their neighborhoods. The effort, called Reimagining Cleveland, may sound like an average Earth Day celebration, but it’s also something more: a test case for a controversial new school of urban planning known as “smart decline.”Reimagining Cleveland began in 2009 with an open invitation to individuals and community organizations to propose new uses for the city’s 3,300 acres of vacant land. Fifty-six pilot projects will be completed in 2011. Explains program coordinator Lilah Zautner: “Half are gardens: market gardens, community gardens, vineyards and orchards. The other half includes ‘greening’ projects: pocket parks, native planting areas, side-yard expansions and rain gardens.”

Over the long term, local leaders hope these small projects will help spur investment and redevelopment in the inner city. Until those resources materialize, however, they plan to let the projects run their course. If the community groups maintain their projects for four years, they may take ownership of the land—meaning pockets of Cleveland might look more like park than city.

That may sound like a modest proposal. But smart decline is radical. Until now, virtually every approach to economic and community development has depended on generating growth. Want to create jobs? Reduce poverty? Fight crime? The answer has always been to grow.But what if a city can’t grow? Many cities, like Cleveland, have seen their populations plummet due to the loss of industrial jobs, suburbanization and natural disasters (New Orleans, for one). Earth’s population may be growing, but it’s not staying put. According to a 2006 study, one out of every four cities with a population over 100,000 is shrinking—and that was before the subprime mortgage meltdown cast countless families from their homes. The result: vacant houses, shuttered businesses and overgrown lots.In growing cities, open space comes at a premium. Yet it’s one of the few resources that shrinking cities have in abundance. Why not use it to “re-naturalize” the city? As one planner, Justin Hollander, a professor at Tufts University wrote: “Can we convert those entire blocks into community gardens, into an urban forestry project, into a baseball field, into a human-made lake? The options are as unlimited as the imaginations of local residents.” If cities can concentrate the decline in certain areas, the logic goes, they might be able to remake themselves as more attractive, more sustainable places to live.

The concept of smart decline is so new that no one knows if it actually works. Will it improve the quality of life for residents? We won’t find out until cities try it, says Hollander—who points out that, for many folks, growth-centric strategies have not been particularly successful, either. Growth, for instance, has not eliminated crime or created excellent public schools, to name just two pressing urban needs. Growth also has environmental downsides insofar as it generates more consumption and pollution.

It will come as no surprise that people in Rust Belt burghs like Cleveland and Rochester, New York, which have been losing residents for 50 years, would adopt such an approach. But the concept of smart decline is also taking root in Sunbelt cities that for decades were hotbeds of growth. The Great Recession emptied once-booming neighborhoods in Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California. In a new book, Sunburnt Cities (Routledge), Hollander documents the case of Fresno, California, where community residents have undertaken reclamation projects like Cleveland’s on their own, “adopting” the lawns of empty houses and converting disused swimming pools into skate parks.

Critics argue against the “de-densification” wrought by smart decline. We don’t need suburbs in the heart of the city, they say. Instead, inner-city neighborhoods should be as dense as possible to cut down on carbon-spewing traffic. Rather than tearing down old houses, these critics contend that local governments should spend their scarce resources fighting sprawl.

There are other reasons that cities are reluctant to try smart decline. In the grow-or-die world of capitalism, em-bracing shrinking as a strategy seems like admitting defeat. Moreover, many low-income and minority neighborhoods don’t want to be downsized; they want to be rebuilt and reinvigorated—even when local government cannot afford such investment. To long-time residents, smart decline can look and feel a bit like the “slum clearance” programs of the 1950s and ’60s that gutted minority neighborhoods.

But some urban neighborhoods may be too rundown to rescue. “In many places, there’s not a viable community to save,” explains economist Michael Hicks. “But that’s not a politically correct thing to say.”

Hicks teaches at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. For decades, Muncie manufactured auto parts to supply Detroit, but its plants have closed and its population has shrunk by 20%. Not only has the auto industry decamped, but whole neighborhoods around the former plants are outdated, too. “These homes have not aged well,” says Hicks. “They don’t have the amenities people want today. The best thing to do might be to draw a big blue circle around these neighborhoods, buy the houses, tear them down and turn the place into a park.”

If Muncie and other cities do as Hicks suggests, inner cities may come, ironically, to resemble the suburbs, with larger lawns, more trees, less traffic and plenty of space between houses. If so, the remaining homeowners may ultimately embrace their new green spaces—and for reasons that are more than aesthetic. Studies have shown that a new park can raise the value of houses within a quarter mile by 10%.

But is clearing buildings an effective way to revitalize cities? Does creating open space lead to new investment? The debate is sure to continue in the city halls of shrinking communities from coast to coast. Meanwhile, Reimagining Cleveland is rolling out an ambitious second phase of its reclamation program, which will tackle much larger swaths of vacant land.

CONTACT: Reimagining Cleveland.