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Roberta Brandes Gratz Headshot

Saving Shrinking Cities

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First came urban renewal, destroying more residential units than replaced by towers in the park.

Then came the highways through the cities, piggybacking on the massive clearance of urban renewal, this time demolishing whole neighborhoods. Thousands of industrial and small businesses and the jobs that came with them were lost, along with countless housing units.

Then came "planned shrinkage," the idea that cities should close down failing neighborhoods, shut off the infrastructure built to accommodate density and concentrate investment in neighborhoods still worthy of middle income investment. Places like the South Bronx were left to burn.

Then came the endless number of parking lots to accommodate all the cars driven by the commuters who fled the urban wreckage for the suburbs and were now driving on the highways that drew them out of the city. Countless recyclable buildings of all periods and architectural styles - not to mention historic structures - were lost.

Then came Hope VI which has destroyed more low-income public housing units than it has replaced, all in the name of creating economically integrated projects instead of warehouses for the poor. Invariably, however, a smaller number of low-income units replaced what was demolished. The displaced families not rehoused in the new units were sent with Section 8 vouchers to already marginal neighborhoods guaranteed to create the next blighted neighborhood worthy of "replacement."

Then came urban agriculture which -- although a good idea for backyards, empty lots and modest-scale community gardens -- suddenly scaled up to whole neighborhoods whose remnants are often old houses which even in their deteriorated condition are built more solidly than any of the flimsy new structures replacing them today.

Now comes the 'theory' that the salvation of distressed cities is to once again 'shrink,' as if shrinking had been tried before and succeeded somewhere but who knows where.

Can anyone point to one city, just one, where any of these 'renewal' schemes have worked to regenerate, rather than further erode, a city? Just one. No theory please; just real on the ground success.

When does a city become a "non-city," in fact a town or a village?

Conventional wisdom today clearly notes that a key to a successful city is density. New small businesses, old big businesses, innovative start-ups, street life, public transit, walkability, community connections, diversity and appealing indoor and outdoor entertainment attractions only emerge from or follow density.

Yet, the 'theory' that troubled cities need to face reality and 'plan' for 'shrinkage' proliferate.

The question is why.

Endless examples of success - not theory - of the opposite strategy DO exist, from the dollar houses Baltimore initiated in the '70s and the regeneration of the South Bronx by the community efforts that successfully fought 'planned shrinkage' to the current efforts from Buffalo to New Orleans to Houston to Portland. All these efforts represent innovative strategies to bring people back, to regenerate instead of shrink, to build on observable successes instead of following simplistic theory.

Reasonable sounding rhetoric seems to accompany the "creative shrinkage" (hard to know what is "creative" here) theorists. But let's look at some of the actual implementation differences between following the demolition path and the regeneration path. Clues to the real motives become apparent.

Demolition money is easy to come by, often CDBG money provided by the federal government. Demolition contracts are easy, often big and, of course, given to the familiar cast of eager characters who also often represent big political campaign contributors.

In contrast, money for stabilization and/or renovation has to be patched together from multiple sources. Lenders don't like the look of dilapidated old buildings, even if they are historic and architecturally beautiful. They do, however, understand demolition and formula building projects.

Bureaucrats have little or no experience handling such rescue and regeneration projects. Renovation doesn't easily conform to today's building codes and building inspectors don't have enough experience to understand how to deal with this. Money doesn't exist for just cleaning out, stabilizing, securing and landbanking worthy structures.

And, sadly, remaining residents are under the misunderstanding that demolition of the next door vacant nuisance solves crime, cleans up neighborhoods and improves the community.

Instead of improvement, the land lies fallow for ages and eventually, if suddenly the idea of "shrinking" is not being promoted, a developer comes along to build a very surburban-like community of garage-front, look-alike dwellings with a smaller number of occupants than could ever be characterized as urban. Without the density, no public transit is viable, no local stores and community-serving businesses develop, more car-dependant shopping malls and business centers perhaps get built and thus is created a non-urban enclave detached from the remaining city adding no strength to the existing urban fabric.

Despite the obstacles - and there are certainly many - - to regeneration, tried-and-true strategies for regeneration exist, sometimes in the same cities where shrinkage by demolition is occurring. But the successful efforts share a common characteristic. In each case, something positive is being added; nothing is being taken away. Even in the neighborhoods where vacant lots are offered to remaining resident next door for a garden, an extension or something else, something new gets added. In some community-led efforts where non-profits retrieve and renovate, or help a new occupant renovate, an abandoned structure, new investments small and large become visible.

Areas where artists are moving into cheap or free spaces seem to be the most noticed successes, where the positive is achieved instead of the negative. The addition instead of the subtraction.

If one looks at the history of some of our cities' most desirable neighborhoods today and recognizes what a staggering number of them were once miserable, deteriorated slums, then a truly "creative" path reveals itself. Clearance was never the key but rebirth was the result.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of the newly published
The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, Nation Books.