Planning on Shrinking
Shrinkage: Rural and Urban
We began studying shrinkage a generation ago by tracing rural depopulation and losses in fading towns and counties that urbanites saw as yesterday places. We mostly focused on the Great Plains, the American region that repeatedly, across the censuses, lost the largest share of its people since the 1930s. The Plains’s small towns, semi-aridity, flat physical and social landscapes, farm economies based on low-value crops, and overall lack of economic prospects meant that its most rural portions drew few newcomers, lost many of their younger people, and became disproportionately aged. The region shows clear signs of its once-larger numbers: old homesteads, deserted in a quick getaway during the Dust Bowl or earlier troubled times, still stand empty in many fields owned by the larger, more successful survivors. The main and side streets of small towns feature empty buildings, once stores or homes. Local services and their providers—the public library, local clinic, clergy, bankers—have limited hours because they often rotate through all the nearby towns, which can be dozens of miles off in a long-winter climate.
Shrinkage always signals economic adjustment. The late 19th- and early 20th-century agricultural economy became more efficient, used bigger-scale technology (like barb wire or tractors), and sloughed off workers to urban industry. In the 20th century people increasingly left rural Michigan, Ohio, or Mississippi for places like Detroit; Mott, North Dakota; Wallace County, Kansas; Minneapolis; or Kansas City. We still grow plenty of wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle, and sugar beets—far more than when more people lived in the Plains, in truth far more than the nation needs (hence farm surpluses and food foreign aid), but we do it with fewer workers.
As the wheel of history turned in the late 20th century, urban industry became more efficient, produced more with fewer people, and eventually exported its jobs to lower-wage countries or created the beginning of a suburban information-age economy. Mott, Wallace County, and Detroit faded while Henderson, Nevada, and half of central Florida rose.
The growth and then decline of places like Henderson amounts to the most recent economic shift. Often amenity-driven, it is suburbanization on a national scale. The attractions may be real, but for several reasons one relocation is likely to lead to another. America has always been a nation of movers, yet much of the population influx into places like Henderson has tied the new residents only loosely to the local economy. Even for the employed, the work and skills tends to be less place-based. The services and construction that fueled growth is weakly rooted. At the same time, the communities have grown by attracting people, through economies of churning—a sort of Ponzi scheme with home values dependent on the sale of more homes.
Henderson’s and Florida’s (and much of suburban California’s) situations—both in their newness and in our lack of knowledge of what to do about them—suggest how volatile this stage could become.
Hyper-promotion, speculation, and real estate bubbles go back to the colonial era, when everywhere from New England to the Carolinas was described as land of such easy abundance that any and all could fill their bellies and coffers in short order. Much American history represents a long string of real estate schemes, and many of them failed. After the Revolution, smart New York money, represented by people like Alexander Hamilton and William Duer, crashed in the new water-powered mills of Paterson, New Jersey, and the Scioto Company’s speculation in Ohio. Florida swampland and Arizona desert subdivisions classically found buyers. But many of the early speculative ventures were small, and others never took off at all. They left little evidence of their ambition on the landscape.
Today’s projects differ in scale, which changes their impact. The relative ease of production, once approved and financed, biases construction toward larger projects and the biggest builders whose specialized staffs can attend to issues of approvals and compliance. Oddly, cities like Las Vegas and its surrounding areas have found new subdivisions rising while nearby recent construction sits empty. Places deemed desirable for the moment, those with today’s amenities, get the growth, the new ratables. They are written up as the “it” places. But they are speculative investments. The movers they attract may wholeheartedly wish to stay, but they have little deep-seated place-attachment, and so if the economic climate shifts against yesterday’s it place, they may have little reason to remain and many reasons to leave.
Deborah Popper is a professor of geography at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center/CUNY and Princeton.
Frank Popper is a professor of planning and public policy at Princeton and Rutgers.
- Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City, by John Gallagher. Wayne State University Press, 2010
- New England and the Subtracted City," by Deborah E. Popper and Frank J. Popper, Communities & Banking, Spring 2011