Sunday, May 9, 2010

An Interveiw with Urban Planner Terry Schwarz about Shrinking Cites, House Flippers and the Future of Flint

Urban planning has traditionally been all about growth. As cities grew ever larger, planners figured out ways to manage increasingly complicated streetscapes, infrastructures and housing grids. But the shrinking city phenomena has changed everything. What happens when a place like Flint or Detroit or Cleveland has too many houses and not enough people or jobs? How do you gracefully and humanely downsize a city? Terry Schwarz, interim Director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University and creator of the Shrinking Cities Institute, has been grappling with those questions for most of her career. In a wide ranging interview with Flint Expatriates, she discusses the death of cities, house flippers, the Genesee County Land Bank and more.

Why does Europe seem to have a head start in dealing with shrinking cities?

In Eastern Europe, they experienced a dramatic population exodus and shift in demographic and economic strength, but they experienced it in about ten years whereas throughout the post-industrial midwest and northeast in the U.S. these trends have been in place since the 1960s. The speed with which the population shift took hold in Germany after reunification [in 1990] made the trend rise to the forefront as an urgent priority. If the population is dwindling away over a long period of time you don’t notice it in such an acute way.

Are other regions looking at the problem?

Right now in Japan there’s actually this whole growing field of study around shrinking cities as well. It’s for population loss that hasn’t exactly happened yet. Demographically they’re looking at trends that show a very low birthrate combined with strict immigration policies. They see their population sliding off the edge of a cliff in the next 30 years.

How is the shrinking city situation in the U.S. unique?

In Europe and Japan, you’ve got shrinking cities and shrinking countries. While here in the United States you’ve got shrinking cities and a growing country. The U.S. population is expected to grow at a really rapid clip. So the dynamic we’re working with is fundamentally different. And it’s spatially different because a lot of American cities — especially Cleveland and Detroit — were lower density to begin with. You really notice the physical ramifications of population loss very immediately here. The cities just feel very different.

Do smaller cities like Flint and Youngstown face longer odds as they try to reinvent themselves compared to bigger cities?

Here in Cleveland, we still have one operating steel mill, but compared to what it was a hundred years ago there’s virtually no steel production. On the other hand, from a biomedical standpoint, the Cleveland Clinic is ascendant. So even though sometimes it feels like the downs outweigh the ups, the city has multiple things moving up and down at the same time. I don’t want to say it but in a city like Youngstown or Flint, where you’ve got less to work with from the get go, it may not be possible to begin to put a more restorative process in place. And there are examples of cities nationally and globally that just sort of stopped and ceased to exist. I think it’s rare though.

What role does eliminating or repurposing vacant properties play in the overall recovery of a city?

This is one tiny little element of helping cities recover. Locally and nationally when people look at the shrinking cities concept it seems logical. A smaller city. Smaller infrastructure. Reduce the city’s footprint. Green this place up. But if you push on any of those things very much, you realize it’s just very complicated.

Let me guess. It all starts with the economy.

Job loss is what’s hurting these cities. People are not going to move to a city just because it has a good green space system. It’s an amenity and it will affect the decision, but you go to a place where you can work in a way that generates enough income that you can support yourself and your family. That’s why people choose a city. So we can make Cleveland heaven on earth with urban design strategies, but if there’s not something for people to do here, if there’s not a functioning economy, it’s all for nothing.

How do you differentiate between a city that is having temporary economic problems and one that is fundamentally shrinking?

There are cities that experience dramatic ups and downs in response to the micro economies that impact them. Then there are cities that have had this long, slow meltdown. I met Robert Beauregard — one of the pioneers in the ways cities decline and respond to population loss — a few years ago. He used this phrase that years later still smarts. He called a few cities the perennial losers. He didn’t mean to be insulting. He was just pointing out that sometimes even as the economy of the nation grows, certain cities shrink. No matter what’s happening at the national and international level, there are cities that have persistently lost population and lost economic activity and become increasingly distressed. St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia…the cities of pain.

How do real estate investors and speculators play into this equation?

They buy the property thinking they can’t lose when it only costs $500. Then they discover that they’re going to have to spend $10,000 to demolish it or $20,0000 to rehab it, so they walk away and then it gets foreclosed again. So there are all these properties across cities that are in total limbo and every time a property changes hands somebody makes money. And it’s not the right somebody. I’m not against the private sector making a profit, but flippers are predators. They’re trying to bleed whatever value is there and take it away from a place like Flint rather than investing in it.

Dan Kildee has attempted to break this pattern with the Genesee County Land Bank by using the tax foreclosure process to acquire property. What role do land banks play in helping shrinking cities?

Dan’s model is nothing short of a regional land use strategy, even though they never call it that. Dan’s found a way to get this chaotic real estate turmoil under control and in the process managed to develop a revenue stream that would slowly and incrementally and progressively begin shifting resources to where they are most needed. With Dan’s model, whatever value is left in the properties stays in Genesee county, instead of letting those properties waste away into private hands. So Dan has inserted the public good into this equation and the value that comes from properties changing hands gets put back into the property.

In a lot of discussions about shrinking cities, the idea of relocating residents to a more viable central core is the ultimate goal. How feasible is this concept?

There’s a huge amount of uncertainty. The American Institute of Architects did a study in Detroit, and they made these diagrams that made it all look so clean and neat. You push these people over here, and then you push those people over there and then decommission all the infrastructure. Well, it’s not so easy. We don’t know for sure which neighborhoods are going to stabilize and which ones may tip one way or the other. The complexity of it is stunning.

Along with relocation is the idea that cities will save money by removing unnecessary infrastructure. It seems like a logical idea.

But you have to spend capital dollars now to remove infrastructure with the hope of an aspriational savings sometime down the line, maybe 20 years later. I defy you to find the public service director who would be willing to make that bet. If you weren’t 100 percent sure, or pretty close, that the neighborhood is not going to need that power line, water main, sewer line anytime, ever, you wouldn’t take it away because then if market demand starts to bubble up around that spot again you have to put it back in. And that’s really expensive. And with powerlines, my gosh, there are easements and once you give up the easement you don’t get it back. So you have to be sure, and I’ll tell you that very few people are sure about anything in terms of the changing urban morphology of declining cities. That’s my soap box about infrastructure.

One of the appealing aspects of the shrinking city plan for may people is that it seems to provide a bold, easy-to-grasp master plan for dealing with decay. But once you get past the obvious need to eliminate vacant properties, the process gets very complicated.

It comes back to city planning traditions. Not to blame my people, but we feel like we have to make these big moves. But the work I’ve been advocating for here in Cleveland is more parcel based. You develop a citywide or regional strategy for the repurposing of vacant lots and then you implement it as those properties become available and we have this great luxury in Cleveland of the city land bank and the county land bank. These are tools we can use to get some control. We’re never going to — at least in the near term — have these giant, several hundred acre parcels of land to work with where we can put a big thing in place. Instead of erasing parts of the city and moving people around, what we’re really trying to do is implement a vacant land strategy that integrates and sort of insinuates itself around anything viable that remains.


  1. Thank you for pointing out that the shrinking city model is not a job-creation plan. Unless every unemployed resident happens to leave the city, Flint won't fundamentally change regardless of how many houses we tear down or rehab.

  2. Thank you for posting that. She is totally right. It would be a lot better to selectivly clean up the city. Lot by lot. Ward by ward. But wait, that sort of sounds like a fairly simple and logical approach. Simplified, tear down all the abandonded homes in "limbo". Or, burn them down. Who ever gets to it first.

  3. Some of this is really great. The rest is absolute crap. Hope folks are keen enough to sort it out.

    Good work, though. Wish we'd see the media around here doing some leg work on the issue.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at