Declining Cities: Urban planning looks to flexibility, not growth

Fresno, California & Portland, Oregon; Winter-Spring 2012-13

by Molly Cooney-Mesker

In Fresno, California, a neighborhood of new stucco-walled houses is fenced off from an abandoned, run-down “parts” shop sitting in the middle of a dry grassy field. With worn board planks and unhinged doors, it looks like a prop on a Western ghost-town set. On the other side of the fence are shiny power-line towers leading to ghostly footprints of would-have-been stucco homes.

This scene in Fresno could just as easily describe any number of suburbs across the Sun Belt.

In the early 2000s, cities throughout the American South expanded as new residents were drawn to the warm climate and low-interest mortgages. Cities such as Phoenix, Tampa and Fresno flourished as cheap energy produced artificially pleasant indoor climates, and water from faraway rivers nourished green lawns. Acre upon acre of single-family homes spread over fields, deserts, farms and old country roads. Local governments encouraged the development by constructing schools and sewers to service the ribbons of new cul-de-sacs. As of 2011, Fresno had twice as many roads as San Jose, and half the number of people.

In August 2008, as the subprime mortgage crisis caused the housing bubble to pop, developers halted construction. Shadows of neighborhoods—streets paved, foundations poured—dotted the southern landscape. The city of roughly a half-million people is surrounded by San Joaquin Valley farmland in Central California, a region that has been called “the food basket of the world.” The stark contrast between Fresno’s suburban housing developments and productive farmland is striking.

“Fresno was one of the hardest hit in terms of the housing crash, and in the aftermath we are left with a jagged and uncoordinated fringe city boundary,” says Franklin Spees with Fresno’s sustainable planning division. “Additionally, there are about 12,000 lots that are sitting vacant as a result of the market.”

Abandoned neighborhoods and vacant lots are not new to American cities. We have all heard of Rust Belt downtowns in disrepair and the slow and steady population drain of small rural towns. These are familiar stories, although they often take a backseat to tales of success on the highway to America’s growth and greatness. Indeed, many of the hometowns of the U.S. industrial revolution continually declined through the last half of the 20th century. And small Western towns founded by gold prospectors and loggers have been devoured by dust and blackberry brambles.

Fresno and its warm-weather neighbors are a far cry from the Rust Belt cities of the Midwest and Eastern seaboard. These places share very little, but what they do share is large: decline.

Unlike the well-worn patterns of decline in the Rust Belt, Sun Belt cities’ residents have continued to grow in numbers while partially constructed houses fall apart and vacant land remains unsold. This unprecedented decline is unique to the recent recession and embodies a new paradigm of shrinking places.

Justin Hollander, a professor in the urban and environmental planning and policy department at Tufts University, in collaboration with the Lincoln Institute, used U.S. Postal Service records to uncover recent housing trends. When a residence stops receiving mail for 90 days, the Postal Service removes the property from the occupied housing list. Hollander found that more than one-third of the ZIP codes in his sample of 140 Sun Belt cities lost occupied homes between 2006 and 2009. The study revealed that decline was most prevalent in outer-ring suburbs while vacancies in central cities decreased. Developers and cities bet their bottom dollars on sustained suburban sprawl, and they lost. Big time.

Foreclosures and vacancies also took devastating tolls on inner-city neighborhoods, many of which are still recovering. However, 2008 gave rise, by and large, to a new type of American decline in which clusters of newly constructed homes sit empty a stone’s throw from grazing cows.

In the past several decades, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Youngstown, Ohio, have become poster cities for the end of American industry, with their infamous fields and forests sprouting up from the footprints of crumbling homes and factories. Writers, artists, planners, designers and young newcomers to these cities often romanticize the resurgence of flora and fauna, expressing a sense of hope in the resiliency of nature. They are excited by the opportunity to relive their parents’ back-to-the-land days, but this time with a little urban panache. For longtime residents facing joblessness, segregation, disappearing resources and fractured communities, the decay is not exactly a symbol of hope.

Northern cities were hand-built quickly on the foundation of a booming manufacturing industry. They shrank, as domestic manufacturing went overseas and post-World War II suburbs provided affordable houses, grassy lawns and quiet streets for many young veterans and their families. Sun Belt cities were machine-constructed even more quickly than their Northern predecessors, riding the wave of an exploding housing industry. A nationwide recession, the affiliated mortgage crisis and rising gas prices abruptly stopped and, in some cases, reversed Sun Belt growth.

Until recently, decline has been a toxic word in the American lexicon. Politicians will not touch it with an eight-mile pole. Cities experiencing decline are often closeted, sometimes even in denial. They plan for growth as if it were right around the corner—just one new factory or subdivision away. Karina Pallagst, an expert of urban decline at University of California Berkeley, writes that even smart growth, an urban design approach exalted for its sustainability, acknowledges growth as the only option.

In the last half of the 20th century, American cities largely grew by adding land to their boundaries, spreading farther and more thinly rather than filling in and building up. Consequently, as people move in and out of neighborhoods, the areas losing residents feel empty and abandoned. There is a perceptible difference between having 10 empty apartments and 10 empty houses on one block. Vacant houses change the dynamic of a neighborhood. Empty neighborhoods change a city. These declining cities may transform the way we build and inhabit cities altogether.

“Highly populated areas are now adjacent to largely vacant areas, which may be surrounded on all sides by various density levels,” says Leah M. Hollstein, a landscape architect and Ph.D. candidate in student, community and regional planning at the University of Texas. “What now exists in many of these shrinking cities is inner-city suburbanism and vast amounts of vacant spaces.” Currently, the amount of vacant land in Detroit is roughly the size of San Francisco or Boston. The city of Detroit is in the process of cutting back public services in neighborhoods where few of the homes are occupied. In areas like Fresno, land value for agriculture is surpassing land value for development. Other Rust Belt cities are reimagining their vacant land. The city of Cleveland established an urban agriculture innovation zone to integrate agriculture into the neighborhoods. The Philadelphia landscape plan analyzed various types of vacant property in West Philadelphia. The plan identified how these spaces aligned with the social and natural systems in the city and how they could be reclaimed.

Shrinking cities are shifting definitions of urban and rural, natural and constructed. These cities are changing what we know to be possible in urban areas. New Suburbanism, a play on the popular New Urbanism movement, encourages residents to expand into neighboring abandoned lots. In 2005, a random sampling of tax-reverted properties in Detroit found that around one-quarter of the sampled properties were sold to adjacent homeowners. Hollander notes two prevalent patterns of shrinkage universally observed and, in some cases, planned for: de-densification and urban islands. De-densification, seen in places like Detroit and Philadelphia, encourages use of vacant properties to decrease de-densification throughout the city. In the urban island model, development happens in key nodes within a city, creating areas of concentration that are considered most livable. Although there are many benefits to small areas of density, urban islands can exasperate existing social and economic disparities as nodes compete for resources and residents.

A more commonly used and palatable approach to shrinking communities is green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is typically developed in large scales beyond city borders, taking the shape of wetlands, trails and nature preserves, or in small scales on urban streets with bioswales. Declining neighborhoods can use innovative approaches to green infrastructure to create networks of small pocket parks through formerly dense neighborhoods, phytoremediation projects to clean up old industrial sites, and urban gardens to provide food for residents. These approaches may help to make declining cities some of the most sustainable communities in the country in the coming decade.

It is estimated that more than half the world’s population is now urbanized. Most cities are growing, not shrinking. However, declining cities are evidence that resource-intensive, rapid growth is short-lived. The lessons learned from Detroit, Fresno and Cleveland, among other shrinking cities, may redefine cities in this age of urbanization. Hollstein believes there are fundamental insights to be gained from the experiences of shrinking cities in the United States. “Growth is not inevitable,” she says. “While this has been the trajectory of the majority of our cities for the past 200 years, it is not unavoidable. Sometimes growth stalls, sometimes it is reversed.”

Alternative models to growth are surfacing. Smart decline offers an alternative to smart growth, with vacancies offering an opportunity for large-scale changes in land-use patterns. It provides permission to shrink in a way that is equitable and healthy for people and the land. Resilience is a framework being popularized by groups like Ecotrust and National Resource Defense Council, which provide an approach to sustainable development that considers ecological realities. It is not predicated on growth or decline but flexibility.

In Fresno, the need for a new way of planning hit home. The city of Fresno has shifted toward “a new consciousness of fiscal and environmental realities,” says Spees. “It became clear that we now had to plan differently.”