Plumb Lines

April 22, 2009

Shrinking a City

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 6:16 am

Michigan is currently in a bit of a rough spot. Actually, it’s caught in a gigantic economic maelstrom of apocalyptic proportions. The once slow-and-steady, now rapid, decline of the American automobile industry since the oil crisis of the 1970s has bled the state dry. It has the highest unemployment of any state in the Union. In Detroit, one of the most violent cities in America with a recently indicted mayor, the average home price has fallen from $66,000 to $5,000, causing even elected officials to walk away from their mortgages. The state has threatened to take over some cities with leaders who have shown an inability to govern them.

Flint, MI has become a sort of poster child for Michigan’s decline thanks to Michael Moore’s 1989 film Roger & Me. Even hipster/NPR-listener idol Sufjan Stevens dedicated a song to the city and its “unemployed and underpaid” as part of his Michigan-themed album. So it is no surprise that the city is considering taking extreme measures to save itself. Yesterday the New York Times reported that Flint’s mayor may be open to an idea that has been kicking around for awhile: shrinking the city. Flint is a city of only 110,000 yet it is spread out over 34 square miles. Vacant homes are a common sight in many of its 75 neighborhoods, and maintaining areas with low population density is a great financial burden for the city.

I am not sure how I feel about the forced relocation of residents to a select group of “chosen” neighborhoods. It is shocking that it has come to this, though. I believe  Flint serves as a fairly good example of why sprawl is detrimental to cities in general, and it begs the question of at what point is a city simply no longer viable. Michigan may simply never be able to sustain the population it had before,  which  was spread out in small cities. What is to be done, then, with those decaying towns like Flint and Pontiac?

-Michael E. van Landingham


  1. […] Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:31 am Flint, Michigan, is thinking of demolishing whole blocks to contain some of the ill effects of urban decline. While I’d be opposed to […]

    Pingback by Strategic Demolition of Urban Neighborhoods « Plumb Lines — April 22, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  2. Wasn’t this the plot of Robocop 3?

    Comment by Michael Fragoso — April 22, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  3. As Omar would say, “Indeed.”

    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — April 22, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  4. Baltimore had a similar problem with a glut of abandoned houses in the city center in the ’70s (still a problem, but not nearly so bad). I learned today that the city sold a bunch of the houses in Canton/Fells Point area for only $1 if the purchaser agreed to put a certain amount of money into rehabbing it. Within the past 40 or so years those areas went from decaying ports to sweet neighborhoods filled with grad students and immigrants with only a few contemporary murders and prostitute sightings. People always praise the Inner Harbor (similar past but currently a business/tourism center) for it’s incredible turn around, too. I wonder if any of the schemes that worked in Baltimore, the “Greatest City in America” according to its benches, would work for such post-industrial cities in Michigan? Or maybe they lack other ingredients that Baltimore possesses, like proximity to the nation’s capitol?

    Comment by Suzanne W — April 22, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

  5. Part of this is just pure numbers. In 1965, the last time Flint revised the master plan, it had about 200,000 people. Projections show it won’t be long before Flint has less than 100,000 people.

    There’s simply an over-abundance of housing in a city that’s geographically too large to service, especially when 1/3 of the population lives in poverty so tax revenues are very low.

    The problem with taking out the worst abandoned houses randomly throughout the city is that you end up servicing “neigbhorhoods” with only a few houses left. It makes more sense to systematically downsize, if that’s the word. Then you can concentrate resources on the remaining neighborhoods and rehab the remaining houses.

    Comment by Flint Expats — April 25, 2009 @ 10:35 am

  6. I should add that Flint wasn’t exactly what you’d call a sprawling city in its heyday, not by the standards of today’s exhurbs. It was a fairly dense city with relatively small yards. It just had a lot more people when the auto industry was booming.

    Comment by Flint Expats — April 25, 2009 @ 10:38 am

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