To put it mildly for there to be winners in America there have to be losers. For some cities to have rapid growth, growth that is almost too quick, there are cities that have rapid decline. Many cities within the Rust Belt have been experiencing steady decline for more than 20 years. Cities like Youngstown, Flint, Rochester, and even Richmond have been exploring the notion that they will not be growing over the foreseeable future.
I had the pleasure of virtually sitting in on an open discussion with Rutgers Bloustein School professor Frank Popper as he discussed Smart Decline, a term he and his wife coined in an article in Planning Magazine in 2002. Smart Decline is still a new theory but it is beginning to pick up traction as some cities and regions realize they cannot continue to spend tax payer money and go into debt to promote growth and have been experiencing declining populations.
Derived from a German model of city management for dealing with the poorer more run down cities of the former Easter Bloc, Smart Decline deals with steps, both financial and physical, to deal with shrinking populations and tax bases. Many cities first try to reinvent themselves to become more competitive in the knowledge economy. But as mentioned in my post on Form Based Code, the knowledge economy will more than likely go where places are loved and beautiful. Unfortunately, it is looked on as admitting defeat if a city does not reinvent itself and looks to contracting its services and control but planning on decline and meeting it head on is brave and should be applauded.
Smart Decline can take three different forms, Rural, Suburban, and Urban. Rural Smart Decline can be seen by a return to either a natural state of land or a return to agriculture and livestock, especially native species. Agriculture still provides some jobs and a small tax base but utilizes nearly no services.
Urban Smart Decline is evident in places like Flint, Michigan which was planning on growing to 350,000 in 1965, but topped out at almost 200,000, and now sits at 112,000, down 9% from the 2000 census. In a city which has seen double digit decline for the past 40 years the city actually decided to help speed up the decline and get to a sustainable population. A new Michigan Law permits the counties and cities to take over abandoned, foreclosed, and delinquent properties. Flint’s solution is to concentrate any growth in a few neighborhoods and city centers and demolish and clear the properties in declining neighborhoods. It is a tough pill to swallow, as these vacant homes get converted into greenspace and turned over to the local conservation land bank, but the city can save thousands of dollars a lot on garbage pick up and code enforcement.
The Suburban model, which hasn’t been identified in practice yet, is one of the toughest to implement. The very nature of suburban sprawl has led most suburban cities and towns to rely on automobiles and when a place lacks a center but has decline everywhere where to you circle the wagons? This is something I’m going to have to contemplate on more, and if an example of a place that could use Smart Decline Planning emerges or a government starts to take certain steps I will be glad to pass it on.
Ultimately the idea behind Smart Decline is finding the happy break even point for cities that have experienced decline. Once that fiscally sustainable point is met a city can concentrate on where to go from there, but not until the bleeding has stopped, both fiscally and population. A city should also be quick to realize they are in decline or at least a holding pattern, but they shouldn’t rely on census data for that. Since the full count census only comes out every ten years decline could have been happening for five or more years prior. This is where planners and city officials that have a good measure on the pulse of their communities will be able to see the first signs of decline. From an increase in foreclosures, rental vacancies, and derelict properties a city should begin to do strategic planning for the health of the city. If a city plans for the worst, but the decline doesn’t come as expected no one is worse off, better safe than sorry. I believe Smart Decline is the marriage of proper strategic, contingency, and fiscal planning on the part of the community leaders and specific implementation tools and goals by planning departments.
As the United States continues into 2010 with a lingering recession many cities will either see decline increase or begin. Cities such as Rochester, Buffalo, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Detroit should carefully consider Smart Decline for the immediate future, get back on their feet, pick up the pieces, and in a sense hit reset. Likewise, cities such as Savannah, Atlanta, Nashville, Houston, Los Angeles and other Sun Belt cities should at least consider having a plan for decline just incase forecasts change and other unforeseen obstacles change the population shift in America. Just consider Smart Decline another tool in a planner’s toolbox.