Monday, May 23, 2011

How to Shrink a City

Neither of these examples come from cities losing population, but they do give concrete examples — literally, in the case of Portland — of the steps you can take to make a city more livable by removing some of the things people typically associate with thriving urban areas. Portland and NYC are doing this by choice. Cities like Flint and Detroit need to do it out of necessity.


  1. I vehemently disagree with removing I-475 and I-69 in Flint. Efficient personal transportation is needed to get to jobs both in and out of Flint and educational facilities in Flint (or out for that matter). People can't bike from Clarkston and Frankenmuth to Kettering and UM-Flint.

    We should only give up on Flint when the people of San Francisco, LA, NYC, and DC give up and all tear most of their cities down.

    Some of these ideas come from the same kind of people who support a 90% reduction in world population, and somehow think they are in the chosen 10% intelligensia picked to survive.

    Thinking of mankind as the world's problem rather than a more reasonable solution to problems is a kind of religion, though a sickening and dangerous one.

    Here's my advice to these dreamers-tear your city down first, and then we'll talk.

  2. I'm with you on the leaving the highways. Flint's already isolated economically, let's not make it worse. But as for the houses and a lot of the streets and parking lots, what else are you going to do with them? Flint's shrinking all by itself. We have to do more than just say "I wish people would come back and live here." Not going to happen in our lifetimes. LA NYC and DC would have to tear down stuff people actually want. Flint would be getting rid of stuff no one wants and that are dragging down the city. This situation sucks, but there's no wishing it away.

  3. I stayed in Grand Blanc on one of my recent trips to Flint and I-475 sure came in handy. Plus, it would be too expensive to get rid of it. And it's not like Flint needs more vacant real estate. (Although the highway does isolate downtown from the cultural district.) As for the vacant houses, what else can you do but tear them down? Maybe not all of them, but a lot of them. And Flint has got the market cornered on parking lots, that's for sure.

  4. Q. What does have Flint have that no one else can claim in the USA?

    A. The cheapest real estate.

    Q. What else does Flint have that few cities of its size, or even 10x its size have?

    A. A highway system designed to manage 200,000 people.

    It's a dream warehouse location for
    It's a dream warehouse location for Netflix
    It's a dream warehouse location for Zappos
    It's a dream warehouse location for ANY E-TAILER

    Shame no one seems to "get it."

  5. shawn, i agree. But Flint also has...

    1. a strong union tradition and many companies, right or wrong, view that as a huge negative.
    2. a horrible local school system and a low percentage of college grads, and most employers want a fairly well educated local workforce.
    3. it would be a tough place to lure workers if there weren't enough locals because of 2. above, plus the murder rate and the arson.
    4. once you get past the cheap housing, you get hit with higher home insurance, car insurance, and tuition at a private school...more unappealing factors for potential workers.
    5. because the U.S. economy is so bad, places all over america are practically giving away land, too. They may not have Flint's infrastructure, but they don't have all the negatives listed above.

    that's Flint's catch 22. It needs to stabalize before it can get jobs. And it needs jobs so it can stablize.

  6. We've actually been considering moving back down. Granted, it would be to Grand Blanc and not within Flint city limits. My boyfriend is from Flint, and my family is as well, although I've never lived there. Our reasons are the lower cost of living - my boyfriend is self-employed as a graphic web designer, and works from home, and I'm a line cook, the fact that we would be closer to our sons' cousins and three of their five grandparents, and the cheaper cost of school. I want to start college this winter, community college is the most feasible option (I was class of 2000 for high school), and Mott not only offers far more courses and degree options than our local CC, the tuition is markedly cheaper. Online universities aren't an option for me because I have a four year old and a two year old that wouldn't give me the requisite peace and quiet needed to follow the lectures, and to be honest, I miss being in a classroom setting.

    So, to finally get to my point, while there are a lot of people moving out of the city, there are some people moving back. We have a couple of friends who moved up here to northern Michigan, and then moved back down to Flint.

  7. The folks who identify badly engineered urban highways and offer them as exemplars of why all urban highways should be torn out, seem uniformly to think that all that cities need is vehicular capacity for the in-city residents' personal movement needs.

    You're a suburbanite, and you want to drive to a job with a mega-employer that's been convinced to locate downtown? Too bad, you're part of the problem.

    You have a business that needs to move supplies and products economically and swiftly by truck? Ummm, well, sorry, you'll have to figure it out.

    You're a trucker that needs to make one of those deliveries using a semi rig, and it won't physically fit and can't be operated safely through the grid of picturesque neighborhood-scale boulevards? Oops, we didn't think of that.

    Ideas like "let's get rid of the highways!" are great if your local economy is based on software engineering, and the biggest business needing to move supplies is a coffee shop. They simply don't work if you're in a place where a lot of the jobs are associated with physical manufacturing.

  8. But don't people dressed up as human jackhammers singing off key generate revenue?!

  9. Not an expatriate--have two graduate degrees and live in Flint, near almost 12,000 college students (Kettering +UM). Shawn Chittle has some excellent ideas. Many educated people like myself love old houses, come from a non-city-hating urban background, and are trying to live here. The unions and the bad school system are irrelevant. Most families who care send their kids to tuition-free charters. The biggest obstacle to our attempts to bring our middle class values and skills to Flint is that the mayor is letting the thug children of welfare moms break into our homes with impunity. There is absolutely no respect for the few police that remain on the street. And that, really, is the only problem.

  10. Shawn, I agree so much with your transportation view. But more than "manage 200,000 people". The mast transportation system flint has (rail, water included) was ideally planned to move manufactured products, i.e. lumber and eventually cars. Mainly, in the 20th century, cars. That is one of our stronger selling attributes to bring people, companies here still). Good points you made.

  11. The damage to neighborhoods cannot be reversed. The construction of I-475 and I-69 was also part of "Urban Revewal" and was tacitly designed to remove mainly older and blighted homes. This was also done in other cities. High rise projects designed to house displaced people in such areas in places like Chicago were disasters and have since been demolished.

    Some envision more public transportation, but that is also inadequate, crime ridden, and a financial disaster nearly everywhere it is tried. Picture riding 20 miles standing and/or grabbing a strap while an obese naked guy sits reading a newspaper like in a Seinfeld episode, as Art imitates life.

  12. Hate to sound like a broken record, but I think we're underestimating how desperate other parts of the country are to lure jobs to their communities. They'll do just about anything in terms of incentives, just like Flint, but they don't have Flint's baggage. They don't have a famous documentary about how messed up the place is, and that's not a dig at Michael More, it's just reality. They don't have the crime or the visible blight. Shawn is right; Flint would be a good place for a lot of the things he mentioned. But so would a lot of other places, and they don't have the negatives, perceived or real. While Flint fights to attract these businesses, we really need new ideas about growing what we have because odds are we won't land any new businesses that can have a significant impact. I thought the college town idea was nuts at first, but I've changed my mind a little. It's not a cure all, but it's something. And right now there's not much else.

  13. I think it's worth pointing out, as JWhilly has in the past, that the scenario is much brighter when we look at this from a regional standpoint. If you just look at Flint proper, it's pretty dire. Include the entire county, and it's not as bad.

  14. Flint. Coming soon to a city near you. That should be the next message on the Hammerberg Rd. Rock.

    This link talks about New York, both city and upstate. It reiterates what many have been saying here. This is not just a Flint problem. And the population growth in other places is often illegal immigrants with the perception that jobs will be available in the places they go to. Flint and other cities have the reputation of not having many jobs available, so the illegal immigrants don't come, thus the population declines. The non-immigrant population in many other cities is also declining.

    The only solution as many see it is a return to value added manufacturing. Services are being computerized and outsourced whereever possible. That has to stop.

  15. > If you just look at Flint proper, it's pretty dire. Include the entire county, and it's not as bad. <

    Of course, "not as bad" applies to business locations, too. The cost of land for a major distribution facility is negligible across most of the country relative to such a facility's revenue, excluding a few dense metro areas. So why locate in a blighted core city, when there are plenty of peripheral locations that are adjacent to an expressway, almost as cheap, in locales with hardly any crime or blight, and surrounded by much nicer and still relatively cheap housing?

    Mostly, the kinds of businesses a blighted core city can effectively attract are those that would be unwelcome in the suburbs because they're illegal, dangerous, dirty, etc.; those that are big enough to be subject to political pressure; those that for one reason or another are desirable enough that government bribes them via tax breaks, subsidies, etc.; and those that locate on the basis of the owner's irrational allegiance to the place.

  16. On a visit to Flint a few years back, I was struck by the vistas that had materialized as an unintended consequence of the vast areas of land that had been cleared over the years. The hilltop prominence of the Hurley Medical Center was never more visually apparent than it has become since so many of the surrounding blocks have evolved into an expansive podium of lawn and trees. Even more surprising, was the view of the stately columns and pediment of the MSD Faye Hall, as clearly seen from the distant Kettering campus. They appear in the distance as apparition-like symbols of the community’s cultural and institutional strength, stubbornly surviving through turmoil and neglect.

    Out of the wasteland resulting from a hundred thousand missing persons, there may be some unique, extremely visionary urban design opportunities that even the most attractive cities out there could never attain owing to the density and value of their built environment. The first might be the construction of grand boulevards visually connecting these places of prominence noted above, vis-a-vis the manner in which L’Enfant used the monuments, Capitol building, and White House in his plan for Washington DC. New development would be encouraged to locate along these new public esplanades in the hope of creating a series of vibrant and leafy urban links that would start, stop, and transition at the best areas the city has to offer, using abandoned lands that today sit idle.

    The second idea consists of the construction of several millpond sized dams that would transform some of the worst portions of the urban wasteland into waterfront property. The creation of in-town lakes, supplemented by strategically planned parkways and the creation of inspired vistas, could be what it takes to attract the kind of urban dweller that can contribute to the vibrancy of the reinvented city.

    Impractical pipedreams? You bet. But alas, with the right vision, inspiration, coordination, cooperation, (and star alignment), pipedreams sometimes can come to fruition. I once dreamed that the Durant Hotel would one day be restored and live on as an enduring monument to the great and colorful history of this ultra-challenged town. A funny thing happened on the way to oblivion, an impossible dream came true.

  17. > The second idea consists of the construction of several millpond sized dams that would transform some of the worst portions of the urban wasteland into waterfront property. <

    Anyone have a pointer to a current fine-resolution topographic map of greater Flint, with small natural watercourses and storm sewers, that can be overlaid on Google Earth?

  18. Somehow, I don't envision a "Genesee Valley Authority" being set up to authorize the flooding of Woodcroft Estates. And that is a good thing. Ideas like this just won't work in practice. Flint is not isotropic. Each part has to be considered separately.

  19. Suppose, though, the Land Bank gained ownership of an entire tract that happened to be topographically consistent with ponding?

    A lot of Flint north and west of the river is nearly flat, at least away from the central north-south ridge and about as far west as the city limit. The west side used to have more topography, but that was mostly bulldozed during subdivision development. Now the middle west side drains only because the storm sewer system was engineered to have cascading grades toward the river. It wouldn't take a lot of terraforming to build a stable ten foot deep pond in a number of areas on the middle west side.

    In addition to the cost for the terraforming, another issue would be rethinking broad areas of storm sewer that presently capture water at lower heights than the desired pond water level. Civil engineering like that can be expensive.

    Last but not least, it might be difficult to achieve enough volume and regularity of water flow to prevent such a pond from filling with rushes and duckweed. A ten foot depth would be practical if property acquisition and the contour lines fortuitously matched up, but ten feet will still grow bottom weeds. Twenty feet won't choke with weeds if there's flow, but twenty feet would require massive terraforming in most parts of town.


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