Large-scale destruction is well known in Detroit, but it is also underway in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo and others at a total cost of more than $250 million. Officials are tearing down tens of thousands of vacant buildings, many habitable, as they seek to stimulate economic growth, reduce crime and blight, and increase environmental sustainability.
A recent Brookings Institution study found that from 2000 to 2010 the number of vacant housing units nationally had increased by 4.5 million, or 44 percent. And a report by the University of California, Berkeley, determined that over the past 15 years, 130 cities, most with relatively small populations, have dissolved themselves, more than half the total ever recorded in the United States.
The continuing struggles of former manufacturing centers have fundamentally altered urban planning, traditionally a discipline based on growth and expansion.
Today, it is also about disinvestment patterns to help determine which depopulated neighborhoods are worth saving; what blocks should be torn down and rebuilt; and based on economic activity, transportation options, infrastructure and population density, where people might best be relocated. Some even focus on returning abandoned urban areas into forests and meadows.
“It’s like a whole new field,” said Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, who helped plan for a land bank in Detroit to oversee that city’s vacant properties.
In all, more than half of the nation’s 20 largest cities in 1950 have lost at least one-third of their populations. And since 2000, a number of cities, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Buffalo, have lost around 10 percent; Cleveland has lost more than 17 percent; and more than 25 percent of residents have left Detroit, whose bankruptcy declaration this summer has heightened anxiety in other postindustrial cities.
The result of this shrinkage, also called “ungrowth” and “right sizing,” has been compressed tax bases, increased crime and unemployment, tight municipal budgets and abandoned neighborhoods. The question is what to do with the urban ghost towns unlikely to be repopulated because of continued suburbanization and deindustrialization.