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the sidebar » Blog Archive » The Shrinking City, Part I
The Shrinking City, Part I
By Michael Seman
Wednesday, September 30th, 2009


Growth in American cities is often just an assumed fact. For many urban regions, the most pressing question of the last several decades has been how does one handle a growing megalopolis? However, the recent economic turbulence gripping the nation has helped shed light on a slow, simmering problem in a number of former manufacturing-based cities in the Rust Belt of the Midwest and Northeast. What happens when a city shrinks?

Several factors — some dating back to the 1950’s and before — have contributed to the ongoing woes of Rust Belt cities. Manufacturing’s steadily decline as a dominant industry in America, federal policy favoring suburban migration, and the Sun Belt’s rise as a center for both industry and population are just a few of the reasons why many Rust Belt cities struggle with the hollowing-out of their cores. For example, according to the U.S. Census, from 1990 to 2008 Detroit alone lost more than 100,000 residents. The Detroit News reported that in 2008 over 3,000 homes were torn down in the city. The problem is only exacerbated by the recent mortgage crisis. RealtyTrac calculates that the number of bank owned homes and those in pre-foreclosure in Detroit currently exceeds 10,000. The result is a large amount of vacant properties or empty space throughout the city.

Detroit is not the only place facing this problem. Other cities in Michigan as well as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York (among others) are dealing with this same situation.  Some cities in the Sun Belt are also suffering due to the mortgage crisis and a recent over-reliance on the construction industry to fuel growth. One solution some are offering to counteract this crisis is to embrace and facilitate the “shrinking” of the cities in question.

To a great extent, this makes sense. Poorly maintained vacant buildings are a burden to many and can be havens for crime, environmental distress, and a general blight on existing neighborhoods. But, before one brings in the bulldozers, it would be good to think in a holistic, sustainable manner. Is it any better to simply have vast expanses of empty land, or worse, partially cleared tracts of rubble? What might be done with these new empty spaces?

Many have offered suggestions that revolve around greening the urban areas. Perhaps the former vacant blight could be reclaimed as green space while the thriving parts of the cities morph into nodes connected by light rail, rapid bus systems, and bike trails. Zoning could be changed in the existing, successful nodes to permit more infill development allowing for growth in the future while the new green space throughout the city remains untouched. Along with development as parks, some of the green space might also work well as vast urban gardens. Thinking in terms of holistic solutions, preserving clusters of structures may be a good idea. Could some of the residences be saved and offered to charitable organizations? Could creative new public/private/non-profit alignments be forged to the benefit of local government, businesses, and residents? Habitat for Humanity has already seized this opportunity in some neighborhoods.

And what about the arts?

Could artists and musicians be a part of the solution? Many cities already look to the arts as a tool for economic development and to a lesser extent, community development. Economists have noted that a crucial element in the development of successful arts communities is a lower cost-of-living. If artist-friendly public policy initiatives leveraging existing vacant housing stock were to be  greenlit in Detroit, could the city become home to a network of thriving arts districts in the next decade? What types of initiatives might be considered?

The second installment of this admittedly brief commentary will look at a successful arts-based urban redevelopment plan in a formerly blighted neighborhood. Until then, take an afternoon and examine your neighborhood, town, or city. Are there new opportunities for change? Although the Joni Mitchell song claims that you “don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone,” this time around, if we take some time to plan and be involved, we might know what we can have because it’s gone.

Michael is a doctoral student in urban planning and public policy at the University of Texas at Arlington. You can follow him on Twitter here, visit his website here, and listen to his band here.

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2 Responses to “The Shrinking City, Part I”

  1. kerrygaydos Says:

    I agree with your encouragement for turning blighted urban places into landscapes of growth. I feel as though i have many different levels of insight into this opportunity.

    I was raised outside the Detroit area, and since then spent most of my time in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania attending art school. I lived and worked for a time just east of Pittsburgh in Braddock, another blighted town that had a population of around 20,000 in the 1960’s that dropped to just under 3,000 by 2000. The mayor there, John Fetterman, along with a crew of dedicated residents and artists, have been working to bring Braddock back.
    I also got to know and help the staff and volunteers of Grow Pittsburgh with their urban gardens in Braddock that supply food to local residents as well as farmers markets, the local co-op, and local restaurants. I have spent the last year working on several different farms around the states, and have learned much about growing organic produce and believe it can be applied to cities all through the rust belt and beyond.

    The point of all this, though, is what happens after all this positive change occurs. After the artists come in and make beautiful change that they are expected to do for little or no monetary compensation, after the experienced farmers come and and teach people how to help sustain themselves, again with little or no compensation, what comes next? I have seen it in Lawrenceville and along Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh. Once blighted areas, artists come and make the area more livable, they make their studios, paint murals, start community art spaces, etc. Then the businesses come in with their money, buy up property, raise prices, push out the people who grew the area by making it unaffordable for artists and residents (because they did the work without receiving the kind of currency you pay rent with). How can the cycle of mass migration then regrown then gentrification and raising the cost of living so the wealthy can profit and take away the communities that other’s hearts were poured into?

    As an artists I am often expected to take less, if any, compensation for my time time and effort and skills than another college educated working professional would. As a farmer I am treated as though my knowledge of growing good real food is not a ‘real’ job and I should be doing something that makes more money. As a resident of low income areas, as I am an artist and farmer I can barely afford those, I look at my surroundings and see many avenues for improvement, but I have this fear in the back of my mind that whatever I do will be taken away from those who it is intended to help to make profit for some individual. When we fix up Detroit and Braddock and the rest of the Rust belt, who will stop the urban developers from taking it from the residents?

  2. Michael Seman Says:


    Thank you for your insightful comments. You are absolutely correct. Many times artists help to revitalize a neighborhood only to be forced out by gentrification forces spawned by their actions. Many have looked at this situation and a growing body of written work is being produced analyzing the process.

    Books by Sharon Zukin and Neil Smith examine New York City and document how artists were able to create thriving communities in neighborhoods that ultimately succumbed to gentrification due to those community-building efforts. Notable is Neil Smith’s discussion of artists being used as pawns by landlords in New York City’s East Village. He comments that it is widely speculated landlords kept rents artificially low in the neighborhood in order to entice artists to move there and develop a vibrant community – making the seemingly uninhabitable attractive to those that would normally eschew such neighborhoods. Robert Cole looked at the process as it moved into New Jersey and found many of the same forces at work. He points out that it was also not uncommon for artists themselves to become landlords and property developers in their neighborhoods. And that is the key to the future Part II of this Sidebar post… and hopefully, an answer to your question.

    The best way for artists to escape marginalization when participating in urban redevelopment is to participate in a way that grants them equity in the communities they are helping to build. As I mentioned in Part I, there needs to be “creative alignments.” There are organizations like Artspace that fill the need in a developer-oriented manner as well as policy driven programs like the artist relocation projects that are appearing across the country. I realize this isn’t always an easy goal to achieve, but the time is now to get involved with local government policy and planning and push for cultural-led urban redevelopment programs to be artist led and not simply artist fed.

    Again, thank you for your response and furthering this dialogue. I have listed below the sources I mentioned in case you or anyone else is interested in exploring them. And, as always, I am more than happy to discuss matters of the arts and redevelopment via e-mail.


    Further Reading:

    David B. Cole “Artists and Urban Redevelopment” in Geographical Review, Volume 77, Issue 4, 1987

    Neil Smith: The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City

    Sharon Zukin: Loft Living

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