Some Lessons From Shrinking Cities

It’s amazing the attention the town of Youngstown, Ohio has been getting recently, for what seems to me to nothing more than taking a common sense approach to it’s current reality. Pittsburgh never fell as hard as Youngstown, and has an array of assets that bode well for a revival of growth. However, the current situation is that the region is both shrinking in population and consuming more land, infrastructure and resources at the same time. It seems to be politically unable to face change of any kind.

I found what seems to be one of the best laid out essays on Youngstown,few of the others go into as much detail.

“How to implement it is the difficult question. The long-term vision is to target the city’s efforts and resources to bringing back a dense, vibrant urban core and to eventually return some of the emptiest areas of the city to green space. In the short term, it means hard choices. For example, the city used to offer housing rehab grants to low-income residents on a first-come-first-served basis. But now they have decided not to approve them for the most devastated areas, targeting their limited resources to areas where they are more likely to have a bigger effect. For Youngstown and other shrinking cities, these hard choices are putting a new twist on the challenge of balancing the needs of places and people.”

To do that one has to face down decades of government policies that pump in new homes regardless of an areas prospects.”Trying to revitalize a city that has contracted this far can be a daunting task. Joe Schilling, of the National Vacant Property Campaign, recounts how community developers in Cleveland came to see that they were bringing 200 to 300 new housing units on line every year, but losing about 1,000 to foreclosure and abandonment. Property values in the most depopulated areas have often dropped so far that remaining owner-occupants are trapped.”

“In some neighborhoods, you could channel public dollars into those neighborhoods from now into the future and not have the kind of impact you were hoping to see,” says Schwarz. Building new low-income housing in these areas may only serve to trap people in areas of concentrated poverty.”

A big part of the concept has to do with setting aside property for park or other limited uses until actual demand for development shows up.”Youngstown, too, recognizes that it can be generous with its land. It is even looking into offering land to companies that need to create new wetlands to mitigate development elsewhere. “Maybe 10 or 15 years from now, as a neighborhood heals and the land heals, there might be an opportunity to transfer some of this green infrastructure back to housing or neighborhood commercial,” says Schilling.

A lot of this means making very hard choices about providing infrastructure to failed and isolated neighborhoods. History often shows that just trying to to deny that failure is a lot more cruel. Saying for example that, a small number of isolated houses in a fairly remote area will get the same police protection as central, populated places is either a lie or a promise that’s not realistic to keep.

The amazing and sad story in Pittsburgh is that it has policies that destroy development prospects in the core areas of the city like the Lower Hill and North Side and consign them to be little more than parking lots.

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