Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cleaning up urban decay … a good move.

The Telegraph (UK) ran a story about a plan by the federal government to raze major portions of declining cities to make them more viable. It was a feature headline on Drudge and elicited hundreds of responses, most highly critical.

The government looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint, one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and returning the land to nature.
Local politicians believe the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the dwindling population and local services into a more viable area. The radical experiment is the brainchild of Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint. Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country. Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes.

 I disagree with the naysayers. If you haven’t been around a city the likes of Detroit, it’s hard to comprehend the devastating influence of urban blight. It’s like living in Berlin, Dresden or Hiroshima in 1946, but with nothing being done to improve things. No self respecting business will consider moving next to crumbling buildings, and most existing ones find little reason to stay. Only massive financial inducements can attract the big guns, as they have with Compuware who moved from their sylvan setting in tony Farmington Hills to a redeveloped area of Detroit seven years ago. As it did with the GM’s Poletown plant built in the mid 1980s. Ditto for building new stadiums for the Lions and Tigers. Tons of money brought the desired results.

But beyond the high profile companies, attracting smaller business must be on the merits, there isn’t enough money to go around. There is no great constituency for tearing down buildings and bulldozing lots. They aren’t showy pieces like a bridge to Canada or a new casino, and that’s where the money goes. Vacant lots don’t get politicians reelected, especially when money is tight.

But in Detroit there is another perverse factor hindering blight abatement. It is the eternal hope the city’s glory days will return. Buildings given up by their owners are kept around in crumbling condition, such as Hudson’s massive and once vibrant downtown store, in the vain hope other retailers will move in. It is a mindset not much different from the cargo cultists of New Guinea, who long after WW2 cleared the forest to simulate airfields and built dummy planes hoping to lure in the high flying planes overhead and bring back the prosperity of the war years. Mercifully, the Hudson’s building was imploded in 1997 and ended one example of what some thought of as hope, but in reality was a highly visible symbol of urban decay.

As in other targeted cities, Detroit’s population is half what it was in 1950, down from 1.85 million to around 900,000. The costs of roads, street lighting, sewers and all the infrastructure designed for almost 2 million affluent city dwellers now has to be borne by less than half, most of whom are at the bottom of the economic ladder. If Detroit and other cities are ever to attract the urban pioneers and small industrial companies, it must clean itself up. And that means more than just structures. It also means cleaning up the corruption at all levels of its city government. The two go hand in hand. If the latter is ignored, we are wasting our money and there will be no progress.
(Photos from the NY Times)

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