More and more US cities favour the demolition of dilapidated vacant houses

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American cities seek to
discover their right size

By Tony Favro, US Editor

5 April 2010: Mayors in many American industrial cities are embracing urban revitalization through ‘rightsizing’, or shrinking their cities’ infrastructure to match shrinking populations. Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Youngstown lost half their population over the past 50 years and continue to lose residents. The cities’ built environment – buildings, streets, and utilities – far exceeds the needs of the current or projected population.

| First generation demolition | Green demolition | Rightsizing | Cities versus suburbs |

The vision of the mayors of these and other shrinking cities is to replace vacant properties with green space. Wide areas of derelict buildings would be demolished and converted to open space that could be used for parks, urban agriculture, community gardens, and renewable energy facilities. These vast green spaces would be connected by a network of pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly paths to dense, functional neighborhoods.

First generation demolition
Twenty years ago, vacant and abandoned residential buildings in American cities were rarely demolished for other than safety reasons. In the 1990s, mayors in cities that were losing population began taking down vacant houses in great numbers. Baltimore, Philadelphia, Flint, and other cities, large and small, demolished thousands of vacant units. Demolition was seen by policy makers and the public as a way of reducing crime and boosting property values. With the eyesores removed, the criminal activity that often took place there would disappear, neighbors would fix up their properties, and the vacant lots would attract builders of new homes.

The large-scale demolitions reduced blight, but, with few exceptions, failed to impact crime, attract new investment, or even reduce the rate of housing abandonment. Urban crime rates generally followed national trends tied more to demographics than to demolition. While some neighbors remodeled their homes, many more left inner city neighborhoods, creating even more vacancies.

There were bright spots. Federally-sponsored programs to demolish and replace monolithic, public, low-income housing projects with mixed-use, mixed-income developments stabilized many neighborhoods or parts of neighborhoods. And community gardens flourished on vacant lots.

Green demolition
Despite not fully meeting initial expectations, mass demolition continues to have wide public support. It is a key element of governing for such mayors as Cory Booker of Newark, Frank Jackson of Cleveland, and Kim Wolfe of Huntington, West Virginia. Mayor Richard Bucci of Binghamton, New York explains that demolition “can best be described as addition through subtraction. We are adding to the quality of our neighborhoods by subtracting eyesores and aging, dilapidated structures that surround them.”

When Youngstown, Ohio Mayor Jay Williams commissioned a plan to rightsize his city in 2006, it represented both a revelation and a revolution for American urban planning. For the first time, an American mayor openly acknowledged that his city wouldn’t reclaim its former prominence. Moreover, Youngstown suggested a comprehensive way to revitalize inner cities that didn’t depend on conventional methods of economic development that had failed urban neighborhoods. Demolition was still the centerpiece of urban regeneration, but progress was tied to the promise of the green movement. The emerging green movement seemed a perfect match for cities rich in waterways, universities, walkable neighborhoods, historic structures, and thousands of rooftops and walls that could come alive with vegetation.

At least 20 American cities are drafting formal rightsizing plans. Because of the costs to acquire property, demolish structures, decommission utilities, and sometimes relocate residents, only a few small-scale efforts have been implemented. In Cleveland and Baltimore, attractive new housing and parks are springing up on formerly forlorn inner city streets. Poverty, however, remains concentrated as most of the new development houses low-income residents.

The first generation of rightsizing plans all seem to be based on the demolition of vacant residential buildings. While important, this is likely not enough to revitalize cities. Strategies for attracting investment are rarely specific. For example, Rochester’s plan, Project Green: Growing Rochester in the Right Direction, calls for, in addition to demolition and zoning changes, “focused investment and strategic development in the city” – a leap of faith more than a plan.

Mayors in Rochester and other shrinking cities link neighborhood rightsizing plans to ongoing efforts to develop downtowns by building new stadiums, performing arts complexes, convention centers, and upscale housing. These mayors are attempting to leverage their cities’ assets, influence or control the direction of public education, and train residents for jobs. Such efforts have had mixed and uneven results, especially in small and mid-size cities. Chicago, an international city, and Providence, a state capital, have successfully revitalized; their success has not been replicated by other American cities.

Shrinking cities versus their suburbs
Nearly all of the shrinking cities in the United States have exceptional universities and relatively healthy suburbs. The suburbs are healthy because they draw people from the cities and high-tech jobs generated by the universities. The cities have outstanding museums, parks, restaurants, zoos, and night life that attract suburbanites for occasional visits. The number of middle-class Americans who want to live in central cities seems to be growing; however, it is far below the number of people still moving out of cities. Most Americans are willing to spend part of their disposable incomes in cities, but not pay property taxes to the city as homeowners.

The division between cities and suburbs in American metropolitan areas is based on competition for property tax revenues. Will rightsizing a city -- with green spaces, green corridors, green roofs, and green walls – help change this dynamic? When combined with other revitalization efforts, will rightsizing help cities attract enough investment and tax revenues to make them viable?

In response to requests from urban mayors, the Obama administration increased federal funding for demolitions. Several states similarly increased demolition aid. None of this support is contingent on lessening the most destructive elements of the competition between municipalities in the same region for property tax revenues.

Until rightsizing becomes a component of greater regional responsibility -- more planning, cooperation, and revenue sharing between cities and suburbs -- it’s difficult to understand how it and related heroic efforts by US mayors will revitalize shrinking cities.
© 2010 Tony Favro and City Mayors

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