Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Wed Jun 17th 2009 at 3:30pm UTC

Urban Shrinkage


Ed Glaeser has some very sensible things to say about the shrinking cities brouhaha. Despite the growing hype, there’s not a shred of evidence that the Obama administration is considering bull-dozering anything. Glaeser says it makes a heck of a lot more sense to favor people over places. Invest in human capital and encourage people to be mobile, Glaeser contends, promise much better long-term economic payoffs than undertaking expensive and dubious strategies to try to revive dying places.

It’s useful to put the current debate in historical context. “Planned shrinkage” was originally proposed in the 1970s by then NY housing commissioner Roger Starr. Even earlier, the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan advocated for the related idea of “benign neglect” as a pillar of urban policy. Both resulted in a slew of unintended and nasty outcomes – like increased arson and violent crime. And as the market for some central locations, like NYC, began to improve, a whole bunch of neighborhoods that were candidates for government-assisted “shrinkage” (read: slow demolition) once again became valuable – parts of Brooklyn, Queens, Hoboken, even Jersey City. Economics is a big part of their comeback. But this would not have happened if the building stock of those places had been allowed to completely decay or was demolished.

It’s abundantly clear that the contemporary shrinking cities movement in the U.S. and Europe is much more sensitive to urban conditions. These contemporary approaches recognize that globalization and market forces work against some older locations. They sensibly suggest that such places would be better served by proactively managing the process of economic transformation and adjustment. Flint and Youngstown provide useful models of how older communities can strategically adjust to the strong forces of economic concentration and spiky globalization. Pittsburgh’s economic transformation – feted by Newsweek’s Howard Fineman among others as a model for Detroit and other places – is a case study of how to shrink smart and strategically.

The most successful shrinking strategies, like Pittsburgh’s, are not top-down affairs driven by all-knowing governments, but organic, bottom-up, community-based efforts. While Pittsburgh government and business leadership pressed for large-scale urban renewal – stadium-building, convention centers, and more far-fetched schemes for local mag-lev trains – its real  turnaround was driven by organic, bottom-up initiatives. Community groups, local foundations, and non-profits – not city hall or business-led economic development groups -  were the driving forces behind neighborhood stabilization and redevelopment, university-based economic development, water-front revitalization, park improvements, and green building among others.  This kind of bottom-up process takes considerable time and perseverance. In Pittsburgh’s case, it took the better part of a generation to achieve stability and the potential for longer-term revival.

All of which brings us back to a big question: What about people versus place strategies? I agree with Glaeser: people must be the priority. Especially in tough economic times, public investment should flow toward people. Early childhood investments, as James Heckman has shown, are the most important, longest-running and highest-paying investments we make.

But places also matter. Sure, there are plenty of things that urban policy has done wrong – like large-scale, top-down urban renewal – things that we need to stay wary of and not repeat.  That does not mean public policy should ignore places.

The quality of the place we live is a key component of our happiness and subjective well-being. We now have solid empirical evidence about what people want and need from places: safety and security, good schools, economic opportunity, the ability to connect to other people, ethical and forward-looking leadership, opportunities for civic engagement, a place that gives everyone a go with abundant green space, a clean environment, and a strong sense of its own history, among other things.

There are plenty of small-scale, locally rooted investments that can and do make a difference – the kinds of things Jane Jacobs and others have long advocated – that don’t cost an arm and a leg and which provide broad public goods kinds of benefits: improving run-down buildings and community sore spots, encouraging community engagement in schools, upgrading parks and open space, planting trees and urban gardens, adding bike lanes, widening sidewalks to encourage both pedestrian use and outside activity, updating zoning and building codes to enable upgrading of commercial strips, live-work conversion and mixed-used development.

As with so many things in life, it’s the small stuff that can really make a difference – in this case not just to cities, shrinking and otherwise – but to the quality of life and happiness of the people who live in them.

20 Responses to “Urban Shrinkage”

  1. Buzzcut Says:

    Man, you are pie in the sky today.

    Please directly address Buffalo and Detroit. Each has upwards of 10k abandoned homes, more than 25% of all property in each city. It costs $20k to raze a home. It costs much more than that to renovate one.

    The people left on, say, the East Side of Buffalo, are not really going to be helped by the SWPL ideas you’ve got above (other than perhaps getting crime under control, which I would argue we’ve largely done, at least compared to the ’80s).

    So you’ve got a city that is all but bankrupt, no money to raze homes, certainly no money to renovate homes, and a population that is totally incapable of rebuilding, or even being self sufficient in many cases.

    What do you do?

    I don’t claim to have any answers, but even if Obama had a plan to “‘doze, ‘doze, ‘doze”, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. The magnitude of the problem is simply overwhelming.

    I do think that your bullet points will work (are working?) for certain Buffalo neighborhoods. Maybe you buldoze some areas and SWPLfy others. With two state universities in town, plus Canisius, that’s not a bad base to start from. There’s a decent medical corridor as well.

  2. Buzzcut Says:

    Oh, and how about “home recycling” instead of bulldozing and landfilling? Buffalo and Detroit might make a little mini-industry in home recylcing.

  3. Michael Wells Says:

    Yeah, the planned shrinkage idea of NYC in the 1970’s. I lived in what’s now called the East Village at 8th & Ave B in the early/mid 1960’s. The Lower East Side (which included that area in those days) still had an Eastern European community, lots of Puerto Ricans and a growing number of Hippies. It was a thriving and mixed community.

    By the late ’70’s the block I had lived on was almost entirely burned out shells, arson by junkies and by landlords wanting insurance. The entire neighborhood was a disaster zone. NYC was being written off in the anti-urban rhetoric of the times.

    We were in NY a few years ago and walked through my old neighborhood, which had been redeveloped into million dollar condos (probably somewhat less now). Who know what it will be like in 10 or 20 years, but doing a straight-line projection based on last month’s news certainly isn’t going to tell you.

    The last time we were in Manhattan we went through the Tenement Museum in what’s now Chinatown and it was really eye-opening, especially learning that as late as the 1920’s 80% of New Yorkers lived in tenements. And in the ’60’s Chinatown was tiny and largely Puerto Rican, now it’s sizable.

    The only constant in cities is change. Of course, Buffalo and Detroit aren’t Manhattan either. They need different solutions, but Richard’s small scale suggestions are eminently practical and are in fact the only thing that will work is for local communities to take charge of themselves.

    A good example is the Harlem Children’s Zone, which now includes 100 city blocks and serves 10,000 people including an incredibly successful charter school. In a Newsweek interview, founder Geoffrey Canada talks about how it started.
    “It actually started in a building. In 1989 we saw families leaving their apartments and going back into the homeless shelters. And so someone said, “I wonder why.” We actually moved our office into one of the buildings and found [dealers] were selling drugs around the clock. It was a dangerous place—any parent who cared about their child would never leave their child in an environment like that. So we realized this was not about social services, this was about fixing that building. We fixed the locks on the doors; we repaired the lights. We made sure those drug dealers could not do business in that building. Now, when we did that, the drug dealers moved three doors down, so it was great for our building, but lousy for the building three doors away. So we said, “You know what? Let’s do a block.” And we did the block. Of course they just went two blocks away. So we decided to do a neighborhood, and that led to the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone.”

  4. hayden fisher Says:

    Two useful strategies:

    (1) bulldoze run-down suburban buildings and houses poorly built in the first instance and lacking historical significance when shrinking is necessary; and create public green spaces in their wakes when it makes sense to do so.

    (2) in areas that need rejuvenation, incentivize entrepreneurs by holding talent competitions and funding the best projects meeting the overall development goals with low-interest financing– hang the fruit low and the entrepreneurs will come feast on it… and transform communities in the process.

    Too many community planners get it wrong. When they’re not wasting money on silver-bullet mega projects, they do nothing at all other than hold endless meetings, conferences and public forum discussions about what should be planned for various communities. But there’s a huge disconnect, the lending infrastructure will not take the risk and ride with entrepreneurs who would otherwise be on the pioneering forefront, bringing the visions of urban development plans to fruition. Coming up with a comprehensive urban development plan is only the first step, the second is to provide the seed money to fund it. Cities should be investing in their futures and planting the seeds of economic development in the gardens that will yield fruit in the short and long terms.

  5. Buzzcut Says:

    Hayden, reagarding #2, check this out.

    One of the biggest impediments to rust belt revival is the mentality of the people running the place. With all the taxes, permits, etc. it is NOT a very entrepreneur friendly place.

    Moreover, the population that is left is not entrepreneurial. The entreprenurial folks have left for Charlotte and other greener pastures (that’s what I did). It is waaaaaay easier to move than to fight for change.

    Regarding #1, in both Buffalo and Detroit, it is the urban core that is often poorly built, perhaps as poorly built as the cheapest 1950s housing. Buffalo is mostly wood frame housing. Not a good thing for a hundred year old home that’s been neglected for 50 years.

    That may be the biggest difference between Micheal’s example on the lower east side of Manhattan and Buffalo. A brick building can be neglected for a number of years and still come back. A wood framed home cannot.

    I do agree that solutions would be best coming from within the community. I just think that most of the people in these communities are incapable of doing what you advise. At least in the worst case communities, like the east side of Buffalo.

    After all, Michael, how many of the people that you were trying to help during your days in Manhattan are still there? Yes, the neighborhood came back, but those people are long gone.

  6. Morgan Says:

    It really bugs me when people conflate “planned shrinkage” in the 70’s with “planned shrinkage” in Youngstown. Youngstown is a small city and a lot of stakeholders came to the table before they decided to bulldoze. Of course, it wasn’t a perfect process and the solution could have been more creative (I like the idea of a competition or “recycling”), but come on. Getting rid of the rotting, arson-prone, collapsed-ass houses is hands-down a great idea. No one has the capital to rehab on that scale. There’s no ulterior motive; these cities aren’t Manhattan. Also agree w/ Hayden and Buzzcut on most other points so won’t restate them here.

  7. Buzzcut Says:

    Here’s another roadblock that Buffalo government is putting in front of progress.

    Urban farming isn’t a land use envisioned by city zoning, and it is technically illegal. One urban farm has gotten permision to start up as a trial.

  8. Michael Wells Says:


    You give me too much credit. I wasn’t trying to help anyone on the Lower East Side, I just lived there. And 40-some years later, I would expect most of the people would be gone. Neighborhoods change, which is the point. That one changed more than most because of the low point with the arson and crime, then the escalation of housing prices.

    What I was meaning to point out is just as people were saying New York was doomed in the bankruptcy days of the ’70’s, they’re now saying that because it’s too expensive now it’s doomed to decline. Both are taking the short-term view that however things are now, that’s how they’ll always be. People and cities don’t work that way.

    The same with other cities. Obviously Buffalo & Detroit need to make many changes. Knowing very little about either one, I don’t have opinions on what they should do. But I don’t expect either one, or Youngstown to stay static and be the same in 20 years as it is now.

  9. Michael Wells Says:

    Buzzzcut (I owed you a “z”),

    The trial urban farm is a great start. Zoning isn’t always bad, but it needs to change with the times. The change is often in response to neighborhood pressure or “facts on the ground”.

    Before I moved to the Lower East Side I lived for several months in a sublet loft at Chambers and West Broadway. The area was zoned light industrial and loft living was illegal — more than technically, you could get evicted and fined. We took a freight elevator to the fourth floor and had to sneak our garbage into city trash cans. But an increasing number of artists and sculptors moved in, industry had moved out to land that fit its changing needs, and the city changed the zoning. The neighborhood is now called SoHo.

  10. Buzzcut Says:

    I don’t think that zoning is always bad. Houston has many fine qualities, but beauty isn’t one of them, and that’s largely because there is no zoning whatsoever.

    So there needs to be a middle ground.

    I’ve given you a few links there indicating that the City of Buffalo is pretty bad, bureacracy wise. The problems of the City are largely self inflicted, despite what you may have been led to believe. These problems are totally fixable, but will never be fixed because of the Democrat machine that runs the city, county, and state. And, surprisingly, Republicans are only slightly less beholden to public employee unions in New York, so you can’t even turn to them for relief.

  11. Buzzcut Says:

    Michael, my consistant point when I call Richard’s ideas “SWPL-fication” is that his ideas rely on a certain type of person being present. Generally white, open minded, educated, etc. That is a very small minority of people in this country.

    Could Manhattan have improved had the population living there not turned white? Can the East Side of Buffalo change for the better without SWPLs, and with the population that currently lives there?

    For all Richard’s assertions that diversity is a strength, the fact is that his examples of cities that are improving themselves are ones with lower than average African American populations (i.e. San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Pittsburg, etc.).

    Even in Buffalo, there are neighborhoods that have improved themselves, following Richard’s ideas. And they have been SWPL-fied.

    How do you achieve economic growth with the people you have already? That’s something that Richard can’t answer.

    And speaking for myself, I’m not a SWPL and I don’t particularly like SWPLs, so SWPL-fying a place is not very attractive to me.

  12. Michael Wells Says:

    Here’s a story about shrinking cities in East Germany.

  13. Michael Wells Says:


    I’m not sure that I follow your logic, but it borders on being racist and offensive. Are you saying that Portland wouldn’t have attracted high tech industry, built streetcars, developed a DIY music scene, and the other “Creative Class” attributes if we had a higher percentage of Black people? If that’s not what you’re saying, then what is the significance of your comments on whites and African Americans? Charlotte which you mention is about 1/3 African American, and Boston and NYC are both about 25%. Austin is about 10% Black but also about 33% Latino.

    However, you’re right that for various reasons African Americans are underrepresented in the Creative Class occupations, while Whites and Asians are overrepresented. Richard addresses this in Rise, and it is a cause for concern. As more middle class Black people graduate from college I expect it will change as the economy changes and diversifies.

  14. Buzzcut Says:

    you’re right that for various reasons African Americans are underrepresented in the Creative Class occupations, while Whites and Asians are overrepresented. Richard addresses this in Rise, and it is a cause for concern. As more middle class Black people graduate from college I expect it will change as the economy changes and diversifies.

    Right. That’s a fact, African Americans are not well represented in the creative class. They’ve got lower levels of education, are more represented in the welfare class, etc.

    Those are facts, Michael. And it shouldn’t be racist to say so.

    Now, I happen to agree with you that, over time, African Americans as a group will get more education and come more in line with the rest of America. But what’s the timeline for that to happen? Decades? Buffalo is already in its sixtieth year of decline! How long do people need to wait?!?

    Are you saying that Portland wouldn’t have attracted high tech industry, built streetcars, developed a DIY music scene, and the other “Creative Class” attributes if we had a higher percentage of Black people?

    That’s exactly what I’m saying. Things like public transportation and suburban development limits are accepted when the SWPLs don’t have to live next to African Americans. I think Portland and San Fran are the best examples of that, but even Boston and New York only really took off gentrification wise when crime was brought under control and a certian level of white population (re-population?) was achieved.

    Look, you can write this off as racist, but as Eric Holder would say, that would be cowardly. The challenge stands: how do you redevelop an area like the east side of Buffalo with the population that you already have?

    Thanks for the reply, by the way. I appreciate what you’ve said, especially your tales of ’70s New York. Too bad you didn’t buy in then and stay, huh? You’d be filthy rich!

  15. david j Says:

    You might find the work being done in Northeast Ohio by the Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) interesting. Their Shrinking Cities Institute explores alternative approaches for dealing with depopulation:

    Some of the strategies initiated by the CUDC include the Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland reports: and the Pop Up City initiative:

  16. KIRSTI Says:

    Depopulation sounds scary as does planned shrinkage…. I wonder more about the connection between people and places = as some posters point out, there are just some places which are designed and built for and by particular people which exclude others. I am blogging from one right now…. are spaces, like our technologies are cultural artifacts = and they have politics….as the posters here discuss….it would be interesting to watch a community over time and its changes as well as corresponding changes in ideology, people in charge and of course, demographics…. then we might see some revealing facts about cultural dimensions of people and places and the relationship between them….

  17. Cheryl Says:

    Perhaps you need a certain personality to be an urban homesteader no matter what your race. Perhaps middle class or college educated African Americans are not moving back to to cities because they want good public schools, green space, and relative quiet.

  18. hayden fisher Says:

    On the African-American issue, the bulldozing of concentration-style housing projects designed to house lower-echelon African-Americans –many of them single mothers– that had been left to be open drug markets and crime clusters has had more to do with the re-development of urban centers than the population of white people living there. The response to Brown v Board of Education was to build-out suburbia with covenants that did not allow African-Americans to live there; create another separate but unequal public education system revolving around the urban vs. suburban geographic county school systems paradigm; and refuse to police the housing projects. These projects have been largely bulldozed over the last 10 years and their inhabitants matriculated back into society and out of these de facto prisons. So diversity is king. Mixing persons of different races, creeds, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and the like in high-density mixed-use neighborhoods and communities has led to an explosion of tolerance and appreciate therefore. Portland’s success has nothing to do with racial composition, New York, DC, Atlanta, Chicago and other creative class cities with high African-American populations have faired just fine as well. But the elimination of these concentration camps has been key in each case.

  19. Buzzcut Says:

    Hayden, my point is that everything that you have written in that post, while conventional wisdom, is total BS. That is NOT what has happened (well, the projects have been systematically torn down in Chicago, but pretty much nowhere else. NYC projects are still going strong).

    Chicago is an excellent example. It is has always been a segregated city. At the point right before gentrification started (say, 1985 or so), working class whites held the north side for the most part, AA’s the south.

    Over time, the north side has gentrified strongly. The south side, with arguably the better architecture and neighborhoods, has not gentrified, despite most of the high rise housing units going under the wrecking ball.

    There is a lot of gentirfication opportunity on Chicago’s South Side. It’s not happening, and it’s because the SWPLs won’t come in to a neighborhood that is supermajority African American.

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