Planning on Shrinking

It’s time to understand that shrinkage is no longer somebody else’s problem.

Not every land reuse will result in a profit. Photo by Deborah Popper

Deserted places speak to us. They appeal to the photographer, the historian, the archaeologist, and the sociologist in all of us.

Images from the Plains that show its loss of population — the deserted barn or the screen door flapping in the endless wind — are iconic American images. The detritus in the buildings tends toward the nostalgic — the desks and primers of a one-room schoolhouse, the washboards or outdated washing machines, ancient farm tools, the creaky linoleum. They look like they belong in the local historical society. They spark empathy without asking much, since for the majority of Americans, the Plains doesn’t seem like an urgent contemporary problem. There aren’t many people in the region. And if you are one of them and don’t like the look or the feel of the place, many assume you should just go elsewhere, where things are happening.

We have these iconic images for urban decline too: a door bouncing in the wind, the shell of a building, the deserted structure, idle machines and factories, the vacant lot. Detroit, which has experienced the largest depopulation of an Industrial Age American city, looms large in our collective consciousness as an example of a shrinking city. Andrew Moore’s photographs in Detroit Disassembled (2010) show a deserted school and library with whole shelves still in place, not even worth pilfering. Hymnals get strewn about abandoned churches. On a tour last August of American shrinking cities, we found that the reality matched these images. The Motor City offers traffic-free streets, burnt-out skyscrapers, open-prairie neighborhoods, an ornate yet trashed former railroad station, and vast closed factories.

Once thought to be isolated in its effects, now many different kinds of places feel shrinkage’s effects profoundly. Shrinkage saps communities and people of income, housing, and a sense of security. It leaves them feeling discarded. The deserted buildings, whether clumps of 40-story, burnt-out skyscrapers or boarded-up, abandoned single-family houses with payment schedules to buy them posted out front, offer eerie reminders of how little we value what should still be important. These are places that have held people’s lives and still do, for despite decline, some remain, but with a sense of a future without possibilities.

It seems that the United States is waking up to shrinkage’s pervasiveness and grasping that decline is as American as growth. The New York Times greeted the first release of results from the 2010 Census with paired stories of losers and gainers, Detroit and Henderson, Nevada.

But even the story of gain was about shrinkage. Henderson is a large Las Vegas suburb where in 2006 banners advertised cut-rate deals on homes built on recent desert. A developer told The Times, “Prior to 2007, the underlying assumption was, build it and they will come.” Then the foreclosure mess hit and new developments like Vantage Lofts on Horizon Ridge Road lay abandoned in mid-construction. Wrote The Times, “A pile of exposed glass, plywood and cement, surrounded by chain-link fences, gave testimony to the hopes, and unfounded speculation, of developers. Indeed, many of the abandoned or underused housing, office and retail developments were built by speculators drawn by what once seemed the prospect of endless growth, the lure of Wild West development and the promise of an economic jackpot.”

Henderson, with its share of shuttered windows, mournful cul-de-sacs, and crumbling swimming pools, has no better clue than Detroit of what to do next, no more idea about how to reverse course or make itself a better community. The future may see dozens of Detroits and thousands of Hendersons. Shrinkage presents one of the century’s great settlement/housing issues.

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.

Making It Our Problem

As long as shrinkage seems other people’s problem, public policies are crafted with little regard to its impact. Instead, it is easier to persist with the usual economic development strategies — agricultural subsidies that maintain the same monoculture in rural areas, the same greenfield building plans behind sprawl, and little regional sensibility. That is, until the shrinking is next door. By then, however, it may be harder to pull together the resources to address the problem and to create a coherent regional plan that finds the links between places.

Widespread vulnerability to shrinkage presents two general questions for planners: (1) how best to understand a place’s value and (2) what to do with the materials no longer needed. Neither has an easy answer. By capturing value, we mean figuring out what could retain or attract people even during downturns, especially since most places seem likely to be affected in the future. Once Americans thought they could always move on to a new frontier and never worry about what they left behind. Frederick Jackson Turner convinced them in 1893 that the frontier was closed, and so there were no longer places beyond settlement. But that still left the model of settlement as the standard. Previous eras assumed catching the latest economic wave would allow long-term growth. This no longer seems reliable. The growth is as unsure as the frontier.

Each settlement type and each place has to determine its own comparative advantage, its residential, service, and transportation profile.

Shrinking rural areas now know (or should) that they have to capitalize on their small-town feel, their village atmosphere, and their aesthetics and environmental value. For the rural Great Plains, our Buffalo Commons proposals suggested ecological restoration was the best way to face the region’s demographic, economic, and environmental downward tugs. This could entail restoring native animal and plant species, mixing land preservation with economic development and tourism, and fostering the research that underlies healthy natural and economic systems. Setting ecological restoration as the development foundation has applicability to other rural areas too.

The small towns embedded in deep rural regions need to assess their best strategies for addressing their distance from other places and heavy mileage per capita usage and maintenance costs; it’s not enough to say that that added time and cost is balanced by lack of traffic and parking stress. Rural populations are often elderly. These communities need solutions for residents unable to transport themselves. They need to emphasize ease of entry for new businesses in terms of costs and support. They need strategic regional plans since not every town and village is likely to survive. Questions of which will and how services will be distributed across space need to be addressed.

Industrial era cities need to reinvigorate their urban qualities. They must be places that capitalize on the density and concentration of their services. They should scream walkability and public transit. Their residential streets should easily meet their commercial ones, lined with shops for necessities and amenities that draw people. City density should support investment in larger adventurous architecture. Their parks and community gardens also offer places to meet and mix, but these supplement rather than substitute for commercial space in city dynamism.

Similarly, the suburbanized and dispersed cities need to figure out their purpose. Once seen as environments that avoided the worst of the cities and countryside — congestion and remoteness — today they are challenged to overcome their own congestion and create or retain convenience and community. Their problems promise to accelerate if global warming and peak oil hit hard and alternatives to the current auto-dependent transportation system remain underdeveloped. The challenge is to link these dispersed communities in a way that allows for lots of different connecting paths.

But even if these comparative advantages are successfully identified and capitalized on to create stable, healthy settlements, they will not eradicate or reverse shrinkage. And so, a major challenge of shrinking places will still be what to do with structures no longer needed. This requires assessing which structures should be retained and which demolished. School zones seem likely areas for first attack and demolition. Buildings that were once sites of critical pieces of local history should be first on the list for creative reuse. Some buildings can serve as community centers fitted out with commercial kitchens as incubators for small businesses. Others could be salvage training workshops.

Planning for potential shrinkage also means using cradle-to-grave thinking. New projects should include what-if analyses — what if it fails. This includes analyzing materials and their potential for reuse in case of rapid project failure or ease and feasibility of disposal. It also includes examining structural adaptability to alternative uses from the original plans.

Rethinking Growth

The question of what to do about the newly pervasive American settlement shrinkage raises issues about our attitudes toward growth. The rural, urban, and now suburban declines in different ways result from real estate bubbles that have burst, albeit with the duration of their run highly variable. The bubbles spring from a relentlessly optimistic American concept of growth that is fast becoming outmoded. Not all new settlement — whether in Detroit, Henderson, or western Oklahoma — is automatically an economic asset. Not all land uses will necessarily yield a profit. We need to stop fooling ourselves that they will and plan as though they might collapse.

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