“Significant Shrinkage!”

I don’t know if they were in the pool or not, but the City of Youngstown, Ohio, has some nifty ideas about dealing with population decline:

In Youngstown these days, an ambitious planning process has come to a haltingly honest conclusion: The city is shrinking. If that point seems obvious enough — population is now down to about 82,000 — it’s one that leaders of other declining cities stubbornly refuse to admit to themselves. Cincinnati, Detroit and St. Louis all have focused on reversing population losses in an attempt to reclaim bygone glory. By contrast, Youngstown’s “2010 Plan” begins by acknowledging that Youngstown is a small city now, burdened by the overly ambitious infrastructure of its past. The plan likens Youngstown to “a size-40 man wearing a size-60 suit.”

If Youngstown has made peace with its smaller self, however, its policy makers are still grappling with the key question: What does it mean to manage shrinkage in an intelligent way? Volumes have been written about how to implement “smart growth.” But what about smart decline? Youngstown may emerge as something of a national laboratory for ideas on how to cope with urban contraction. It’s not that the town’s civic leaders want to be in that position — they simply see little choice. “We’re on our way to accepting some obvious things about what the city is and isn’t going to be,” says Jay Williams, Youngstown’s 35-year-old mayor. “It was unrealistic to think we’ll be a 100,000 person city. But why not be an attractive city of 80,000 or 85,000 that offers a quality of life that competes with other cities across the state and across the country?”

Or, as Hunter Morrison puts it, “saying you’re a shrinking city is not saying you’re a dying city.”

“[A] size-40 man wearing a size-60 suit.” Bill Simmons, in a completely unrelated article, offers another analogy:

Remember when Britney and Christina Aguilera ushered in the Let’s Dress Like Hookers Era, and attractive women across America stopped wearing bras — and eventually, underwear — followed by every married guy over 30 kicking themselves that they sowed their oats in the Let’s Wear Baggy Sweaters, Eat & Be Scared of AIDS Era? Well, like with all great eras, there’s been a massive backlash. Now women of all shapes and sizes wear clothes they shouldn’t be wearing, which means you’re about 100,000 times more likely to see saggy butt cheeks, exposed pot bellies, flabby arms and love handles than you were in 2001. It’s legitimately, unequivocally horrifying — a full-fledged onslaught against every man’s libido.

Now, the results aren’t the same – shrinking cities aren’t bursting out of their limits. But the problem is – shrinking cities are making themselves unattractive by trying to be something they are not.

If none of this sounds familiar yet, or if that line about other cities “stubbornly refusing to admit to themselves” that they are no longer big cities doesn’t bring B’ham to mind, how about this:

Instead of accepting decline and trying to manage it in a deliberate way, mayors tend to gravitate toward revitalization plans that involve building convention centers and sports arenas and subsidizing hotels and shopping malls. They also get into desperate fights with the Census Bureau over population estimates and counting methodology.

Read our local papers lately? I’ve argued in a prior post that B’ham ought to give up on becoming Atlanta and instead become good at what it is: A mid-sized minor league town. Here’s some of what Youngstown has done:

One example is the city’s program for helping low-income people fix up their homes. Until recently, that aid has been distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, going right down a waiting list, regardless of the condition of the neighborhood. Now, the Community Development Agency skips homes in far-gone areas. It’s also looking at dangling rehab dollars as a carrot for people to move into more stable neighborhoods. “Does it make sense to invest $40,000 or $50,000 in a home that is on a street where more than half of the other homes have to be demolished?” Williams says. “Can we afford to keep investing that money on a randomly chosen basis and think that we’re affecting sustainable positive change?” . . .

If there is a guiding principle in all this, it is that Youngstown can afford to be generous with its land. That notion implies that stewardship is more important than the plat lines on Youngstown’s maps. Looking at a row of empty lots tangled with vegetation, you don’t have to squint too hard to see wild prairie or woodlands — or even a wetland. There’s environmental value here, but there’s also economic value — developers are under obligation to create a new wetland when they destroy one somewhere else. Youngstown has commissioned a survey of potential wetlands-in-waiting. Developers may come to value Youngstown land not because they want to build on it but because they don’t want to build on it.

My suggestions for B’ham? Start by using all the money that would have gone to the Dome/BJCC expansion for Red Mountain Park.

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2 Comments on ““Significant Shrinkage!””

  1. Dystopos Says:

    I wonder if its harder to use bond funds to develop a park because its harder for the creditors to repossess a park…

  2. sailer Says:

    With fuel prices high a lot of people would move back from the burbs if the city was made more liveable. When we moved to Bham my wife and I looked at the urban living potential and decided that we couldn’t afford the nice places and didn’t want to live in the not nice places. So we drive in and out everyday. That brings up mass transit. Bham needs mass transit. On a recent trip to Boston,MA we were very happy with their subway system. For a $1 or 2 you can get almost anyplace in the city. If you want you can get out of town too. We went to a party 20 miles out of town and then road back in to near the Harvard campus..no DUI’s . Just a short walk from the subway station to the apartment. Also we liked their electric powered buses for downtown. Looking at the big clouds of black smoke from Bham’s buses makes me think that the buses can’t be good for the environment or my lungs. Going out 280 the other night I was thinking that there must be a better way. 1000’s of people sitting in idling cars breathing each others exhaust can’t be good. Around Harvard everyone walks or rides the subway. It was nice walking to a restaurant and their were many with a 1/2 mile walk. The cescret to urban living is to give people viable options to their car’s. A kid in downtown Bham should be able to mass transit to Oak Mountain State Park. I am not saying that Bham should be like Boaton..we can be much better.

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