Many leaders of Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Dayton, Ohio, know they’re losing residents, and are looking at ways to repopulate neighborhoods and bring jobs back. They’re deploying strategies such as constructing urban gardens and luring businesses with tax breaks, which have produced moderate successes, at least in slowing the population decline.
But for most mid-sized post-industrial cities in the Midwest, the chance of growing within the next 20 years is slim, says Galen Newman, an assistant professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M. He and a colleague, Justin Hollander of Tufts University, are doing some of the only research on “smart decline”—a term that refers to the ways in which cities can plan around population loss and find ways to manage it (and maybe grow again one day).
I recently wrote about attempts in Youngstown, Ohio, to implement a “smart shrinkage” plan, and Newman and Hollander are developing a tool that will help cities like Youngstown predict which city blocks and neighborhoods will lose the most people in coming years, based on variables such as land value, proximity to railroads, and demographics. Galen recently talked to me about how cities can manage decreasing population numbers and why parts of the Midwest need to embrace their decline. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Alexia Fernández Campbell: Smart decline is not a popular concept in the U.S. Why do you think that is?
Galen Newman: I think mainly it's due to the fact that you have to accept the fact that perhaps your city isn't going to economically grow that fast. You've heard of smart growth—we're kind of thinking the opposite way. The intent is you have to begin to accept the fact that maybe your city needs to be smaller, and it can't necessarily chase hefty growth incentives, and you have to try to utilize what you have, and manage what you have left in a proper manner. Hopefully, in the future, maybe in 25, 50 years, you set yourself up to grow again. That's the intent. It's not like, "let's build a bunch of stuff and hope people come to it." It's more like, "alright, we understand that we are in a tough spot right now, and we're depopulating a lot." Really the idea is, you concentrate in nodal growth, so there are parts of the city that still do merit some growth. You concentrate on those. Typically you start in the downtown area, and then those become kind of anchor nodes for tangential development through time, in the future. And so I think a lot of it is just accepting this fate of your city. You may not be the next New York City in the next 10 years.
Campbell: Why do you think that it's so hard for cities to accept that?
Newman: Well, many of these cities, especially in the Midwest, in the '60s, '70s, they were kind of in their heyday. So, they were growing, their population was growing, their industry was growing, their economies were growing because of all that. And once they begin to deindustrialize, the fallout began. Once you've been to the top, it's kind of tough to accept you're—I won't say in a poverty-stricken state, but a lower state than what you're used to.
Campbell: So you don’t think that seeking investors and businesses is the solution for shrinking cities?
Newman: Well, I would say it depends on the severity of your shrinkage to some degree. If you're losing like Dayton, Ohio, which I think has lost 46 percent of its population since 1960 or something, I don't know that businesses are going to be beating down the door to be getting into Dayton, because there's not a lot of people there spending money in the local economy.* We did some forecasting, and what we found is that they're going to be gaining about 5 percent more vacant land every five years. That's according to the predictions we made, and we haven't published that stuff yet.
Campbell: Can you describe a bit more about how your research works?
Newman: We've developed a model to basically predict vacant land. There’s the GIS, the Geographic Information System, that spatially displays data. Now, people use one of its tools to predict vacant land, or predict land uses. So we looked and were like, "why aren't people using it to predict vacant land in all these shrinking cities?" So we developed a model. We used indicators of decreasing land value: low land value, proximity to railroad, proximity to major highways, rate of industry, rate of second industry, ethnicity, demographics.
Campbell: So what are you hoping that you'll do with the information that you're finding?
Newman: The point is, if you know which land has a higher probability of becoming vacant, then you can make a more proactive policy decision to manage it. In other words, let's say that your city is doing some land banking, where the city buys these abandoned properties and then they'll sell it back to whoever may have stayed in the neighborhood, and they'll sell it back for a dollar an acre or something.
But if you know, or at least if you have an assumption with high probability, that there are going to be 10 parcels around this one property that are going to be abandoned, you can either go ahead and think of policies to help deter it, or you can go ahead and put things in place that you know need to be managed because they're about to be vacant and you want to deter the increased crime rate and things that come along with all these abandoned properties. Because the bottom line is, if you can regulate it better proactively, you're going to be able to regulate the epidemic.
Campbell: So you're going to help cities predict which areas are going to become abandoned?
Newman: That's right. And so, if you're looking at the smart decline concept, the notion is really a twofold set of growth or ungrowth. You concentrate nodal development in those areas, in clusters or high-density nodes. In those areas that are predicted to decline, you basically land bank them or somehow find a way to keep them managed. Typically that's going to be temporary land uses, or green infrastructure, or selling the lots to the people that remain around those lots, and it becomes their yard.
Campbell: If you focus development on certain neighborhoods, what happens to the people who remain in the other neighborhoods? Youngstown was criticized for abandoning its poorest residents.
Newman: Yeah, one of the main things you're going to run into is that if you're trying to concentrate development, that means you're going to have to restructure. There are people who remain in the city, people who actually stay and live there. But you're going to have to relocate those people that stay if you're going to try to grow like that. So there's a lot of people fussing that they don't want to be relocated, but cities are going to have to say, “we are only going to provide services to these certain areas, so if you want these services, you're going to have to relocate into these areas.” And you're going to get a lot of blowback on that.
Campbell: Have you come across anything that's surprised you in your research?
Newman: I think the most surprising thing is that most cities are taking the land-bank approach, which is kind of amazing, because it seems that someone like Donald Trump, or someone with a lot of money, can literally come in and buy 500,000 acres of a city for $500,000 and then just sit on it for 50 years. Then what can you do? We don't know the ramifications of these things in the long run.
To some degree, a lot of cities are just frantically trying to handle the conditions using methods that we don't know much about, or haven't thought about the ramifications in the long run. And then, if in 25, 50 years, the city starts to regrow, then you have a huge stakeholder in the city who doesn't live there and can really manipulate the way the city grows, just because they own so much land.
We don't really know the ramifications of what we're doing yet, and I'm interested to see the long-run impacts of these really quick ways of trying to handle the situation before it gets out of hand. And I understand that they've got to do something, right? A lot of it is experimentation to some degree.
Campbell: How do you envision the future of the Rust Belt?
Newman: What I think is going to happen is that a lot of these old, large cities are going to die out. I don't think they're going to officially die, but I think we're going to have to let some of them go, while these other newer cities are going to sprout up and take off with modern-age industries. It will probably be a pendulum swing. I don't know if it will happen before I die, but at some point these older cities aren't going to be able to sustain economies because of the way industry grows now and technology changes so fast. And so the pendulum's going to swing back and forth, but all of these smaller cities are going to grow larger and all of their suburban belts are going to overlap. So we're going to be really looking at regional-based growth rather than city-based growth to some degree. We need to accept that some of these big cities need to die, pieces of the city need to die off, not the whole city, to make way for future growth. That's what I think, but people don't want to hear that because we’re talking about their homes, that's where they live. They shouldn't have to hear that.
* The strategic communications director for the Dayton Development Coalition points out that Site Selection magazine ranks Dayton No. 2 in the country, for metro areas its size, in corporate development projects. The magazine, which focuses on corporate real estate and development, ranks cities based on the number of new and expanded corporate facilities.