July 27, 2007
How do you "shrink" a city?
[Land Use Prof Blog, returning after some technical problems ...]
How do you "shrink" a city? For much of the United States, and the world, the issues of land use control concern controlling "growth." But in some places, especially the former industrial towns of the Midwest U.S., cities are struggling with what to do as they lose population. Perhaps the most famous example is Youngstown, Ohio, a former steel center, which has lost more than half of its population, along with most of its industry, in the past 50 years.
Unlike other cities, which desperately try to lure new migrants and businesses (remember the unintentionally hilarious and largely unsuccessful efforts of Flint, Mich., chronicled in Michael Moore's "Roger and Me"?), Youngstown is planning to be a smaller city in the 21st century. The city government is tearing down abandoned houses, turning once-residential areas into parks, and studying which parts of the city might eventually be "shut down."
One contentious issue is whether the city should plan to cut off services - roads, utilities, etc. - in certain areas in which only a few residents remain. This idea is complicated by class and race (many of the most depleted areas are largely poor and black). For now, the city says that it will not force anyone to leave and won't "condemn" any occupied and safe housing.
But depopulation raises some broader questions concerning government's duties (see here a story from the Wall Street Journal discussing studies done in Europe, where some cities are shrinking). On one hand, a homeowner holds a valid expectation that if government provides street maintenance, electricity, and telephone service today, it will do so tomorrow. But the opposing viewpoint also has some merit. In a culture in which rugged "property rights" are asserted so vigorously - people do not happily give up property rights for the public good - perhaps government holds the right to withdraw its benefits to citizens when there is a compelling public benefit to do so.