As older cities shrink, some reinvent themselves
Updated 12/27/2006 4:22 AM ET
By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY
RICHMOND, Va. — A triangular island at the intersection of 23rd and Q streets is paved with bricks and landscaped with dogwood and liriope. The carefully designed patch of green replaced an abandoned house. As modest as it is, the tiny Q Street Park is a powerful symbol of change in the blighted Church Hill neighborhood.
It's not simply a physical transformation but a dramatic switch in mindset. Richmond's population has lost 56,000 since its peak in 1970, when it had 250,000 residents, and the city is finally coming to terms with it. Green space is replacing boarded-up houses. Small single-family homes are rising where crowded cinderblock apartment buildings once stood. Singles and couples are moving into rehabilitated homes that once housed families of eight.
Slowly, old American cities that have been in a downward population spiral for a half-century or more are reinventing themselves as, well, smaller cities. They're starting to adopt — many, like Richmond, do it unknowingly — tenets of the burgeoning, European-born "Shrinking Cities" movement. The idea: If cities can grow in a smart way, they can also shrink smartly.
"Everybody's talking about smart growth, but nobody is talking about smart decline," says Terry Schwarz, senior planner at Kent State University's Urban Design Center of Northeast Ohio. The center runs the Shrinking Cities Institute in Cleveland, a city that has lost more than half its population since 1950. "There's nothing that says that a city that has fewer people in it has to be a bad place."
It's a startling admission in a nation that has always equated growth with success. Cities are downsizing by returning abandoned neighborhoods to nature and pulling the plug on expensive services to unpopulated areas. Some have stopped pumping water, running sewer lines and repaving roads in depopulated neighborhoods. They're turning decimated areas into parks, wildlife refuges or bike trails. They're tearing down homes no one is living in and concentrating development where people want to move.
Richmond's acclaimed Neighborhoods in Bloom program targets six areas. Public funds are pouring in and private money has started to follow. The city wants to grow, but it's not waiting for a population boom, says Greg Wingfield, president and CEO of Greater Richmond Partnership Inc., an economic development marketing group. "We don't as a region aspire to be the next Atlanta or the next Charlotte," he says. "It's about quality. It's not about growing for the sake of growing."
Boom misses many cities
The USA's population hit 300 million this year and is expected to keep booming, reaching 400 million in about 35 years. Despite this phenomenal growth, many of the nation's older cities have shrunk. More than half of the 100 most populous cities in 1950 have fewer residents today. About 6 million fewer people live in 16 of the 20 cities that were largest in 1950. Eleven of the 100 largest cities 50 years ago have fewer than 100,000 people today.
Suburbia may be the biggest reason for this downturn. The automobile and the lure of affordable homes with yards drew millions from urban centers. School desegregation sparked flight to new, all-white suburbs starting in the 1950s. In the 1970s, old, labor-intensive industries began to decline. Steel mills and auto plants closed, and Rust Belt cities, from Buffalo and Pittsburgh to Detroit and St. Louis, shrank.
Many such cities are starting to capitalize on what they still have rather than what they've lost — whether it's historic neighborhoods, cultural amenities or waterfronts. "Their aspirations should be to build on their strengths and to assume that they're not going to be as big," says Eugenie Birch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has documented the resurgence of downtowns.
"Cities that measure success by population growth have an outdated view of what success is all about," says Carol Coletta, head of CEOs for Cities, a non-profit alliance of mayors, executives and other urban leaders based in Chicago.
That group's research has shown that population growth doesn't always bring cities wealth. Bakersfield, Calif., grew 35% in the 1990s, the second-fastest gainer; per capita income, however, declined 7%. Las Vegas was No. 1 in population growth but 38th in income growth last decade.
When a city's growth is buoyed by a boom in construction and service jobs, many of its new residents are lower-income families including immigrants.
"Urban leaders are getting very clear-eyed about these things," Coletta says. "But they do it in the face of a world that judges them by population growth."
No mayor brags about his city shrinking. No council member wants to hear that her ward no longer exists. "For a lot of communities, it's more about denial than resistance," Schwarz says. "It's like admitting defeat, and who wants to do that?"
Denying it, however, costs money, says Karina Pallagst, program director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective Program at the University of California-Berkeley. "You have to deal with a huge water system that's serving less people. Same with buildings. You still have to supply them with power, water, sewage."
What occurred in U.S. cities over a half-century happened almost overnight in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Eastern Germany suffered a net loss of almost 1 million people to western Germany from 1991 to 2004, according to Pallagst, who is German. In 2002, more than 1 million housing units were vacant.
The rapid decline inspired Germany's Federal Cultural Foundation to launch the Shrinking Cities project. It analyzed Halle/Leipzig in Germany, Manchester/Liverpool in England, Ivanovo in Russia and Detroit. The goal was to develop strategies for eastern Germany, but it unleashed broad interest throughout Europe and parts of Asia, where fertility rates are dropping and populations aging. The discussion went global.
A Shrinking Cities exhibit shown in Europe now is on display in New York. It will head to Detroit in February. Pallagst's institute is hosting a symposium on the subject in February.
"Every sixth city in the world is shrinking," Pallagst says, from Australian mining towns to Korean industrial centers. "Even a city that's prospering today can be a shrinking city tomorrow."
"European cities are grappling with how you deal with shrinking cities more forthrightly than we are," says John Accordino, urban and regional planning professor at Virginia Commonwealth University here. "(U.S. cities) are still trying to figure out how do we get our piece of the metro growth."
Youngstown, Ohio, is an exception. It has fully embraced its shrinkage. The population, now about 83,000, is less than half what it was when the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s.
"You look at the facts and come up with solutions," chief planner Anthony Kobak says. "The first step the city has come to terms with is being a small city."
Youngstown approved a 2010 plan. The goal: "A safe, clean, enjoyable, sustainable, attractive city," Kobak says.
The city long was better known for gritty steel mills than green space. Now that the mills are gone, there is plenty of space. With the help of a grant, Youngstown preserved 260 acres. It's targeting neighborhoods and redesigning them with the help of residents who stayed.
The city may let homeowners buy abandoned lots next door to create gardens. It's considering relaxing zoning rules to allow small horse farms or apple orchards. It's offering incentives for people to move out of abandoned areas.
"If you had three or four square blocks that at one time had 40 homes per block and now have maybe five homes total, we could relocate those people across the street and convert the vacant area into a large city park," Kobak says.Residents would live be living across from a park rather than being surrounded by decrepit homes and lots overgrown with weeds.
"If we're looking to preserve an area for green space, we may offer that person relocation money rather than rehab money," Kobak says.
Other cities may be less enthusiastic about shrinking but they're adjusting, nevertheless:
• St. Louis is reviewing abandoned commercial areas to determine if they're still needed. "We had a lot more people here," says Rollin Stanley, director of St. Louis' planning and urban design agency. "We had a lot more need for commercial strips. That need isn't here today."
The historic Gaslight Square area once teemed with nightclubs, theaters, bistros and art galleries. It was abandoned for more than 20 years. The city recently converted some parts to row houses and single-family homes.
"We have to rethink where we house people," Stanley says.Converting declining commercial areas to trendy residential housing has helped. Family incomes citywide increased 13.7% from 2004 to 2005, he says."We're rethinking land use allocation to meet the needs of the population we're going to see," he says. We're not shrinking. We're rethinking."
• Detroit spreads across 139 square miles and has almost a million fewer people than it did in 1950. Until now, revitalization efforts have focused on the 3-square-mile downtown.
This month, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced an initiative in partnership with philanthropies, business, civic leaders and faith-based organizations that will target six neighborhoods that make up less than 10% of the city. "Some neighborhoods don't need to be addressed right away," says Matt Allen, the mayor's press secretary.
In February, the city will focus on parks and recreational facilities, most of them developed from 1920 to 1958, when the city boomed. When people left, many facilities were barely used. "People don't walk five miles to go swim in an 80-year-old pool," Allen says. "It costs a heck of a lot of money to run an 80-year-old boiler."
The city already has closed 14 recreational facilities and built state-of-the-art centers in the northeast, where there is the highest concentration of families with children, and in the southwest, where the Hispanic population exploded.
Reviving old Richmond
Only faint traces remain of the old glamour of Richmond's Jackson Ward district. The marquee is fading on the Hippodrome Theater, where Bill "Bojangles" Robinson danced, Ella Fitzgerald sang and Duke Ellington played. There are few businesses in the 40-square-block neighborhood once called the Wall Street of Black America because of its many banks.
Today, however, there are signs of a rebound. Historic row houses have been refurbished. Restaurants are opening. New homes are going up near a statue of "Bojangles." Shells of Greek and Georgian Revival, Queen Anne and Italianate houses, many adorned with elaborate ironwork and cast-iron porches, could be had for $30,000 to $40,000 10 years ago. They're selling for more than $250,000 today.
Ronald Stallings, a native, is a star player in the revival. His father amassed 140 pieces of real estate before the area declined. His company, Walker Row Partnership Inc., is converting an old insurance company building into lofts, building homes and rehabilitating historic structures. He has renovated 47 properties. Jackson Ward's population jumped 70% in less than five years, he says. One of his most ambitious goals: Bring the Hippodrome back as an entertainment venue.
"Either older people or younger people are choosing a lifestyle other than cutting grass every Friday evening," he says. "There are way more housing units. Your population is going down but units are going up. Dual income, no kids isn't a bad thing."
Similar revitalization efforts are playing out on Richmond's Tobacco Row. Old warehouses and factories now house sound studios and lofts. Warehouses on the banks of the James River have been turned into modern apartments. The River Lofts still have old brick walls, arched windows and wooden beams. Fountainhead Development, formed by a New York lawyer and an architect, is turning the Manchester industrial area into an arts and design district. Sound studios have moved in. About 150 artists now are based in a two-city block area. High rises may be next.
"We were the ugly stepchild, now we're the next Chelsea," says Bill Chapman, Fountainhead president, referring to Manhattan's artsy neighborhood.
Much of the revival has been fueled by tax credits and abatements. Mayor Douglas Wilder, a former Virginia governor, is betting on the region's economic boom to attract private investment. Richmond is well positioned as the state capital and the home of Virginia Commonwealth University, which just opened a biotech research park. Philip Morris is building a research and technology center. MeadWestvaco Corp., a paper company, is moving from Stamford, Conn., to new headquarters here.
Another plus for Richmond: It's about 100 miles from the thriving Washington, D.C. Fear of terrorist attacks on the nation's capital is are encouraging companies to set up some sensitive operations well 100 miles outside the city. Richmond could benefit.
How does Richmond get people to live in the city? "You make things look better. You stop blight," Wilder says. The city is reviewing which of 3,200 vacant properties to tear down or convert. Some vacant land could become open space.
The Better Housing Coalition, a non-profit group, builds affordable housing to revive neighborhoods. It built about 75 houses in Church Hill. Through grants and various incentives, working-class families can afford to own them.
Mary Thompson grew up in a family of eight and moved here as a teenager 54 years ago. She raised five children and thought about moving many times as family homes around her became drug houses and bordellos. "One day you look up and there's a lot of blight," Thompson says. "It can happen overnight."
She hung in there. Now, the dilapidated eyesore at the intersection is gone, the quaint Q Street Park in its place. That prompted the homeowner across the street to repaint his house. Teachers and police officers are moving into the neighborhood. There are more singles and one-child families.
The new look in some Richmond neighborhoods is a sign that the city may be finding its niche. "We just pray that we get good families," says Augustine Carter, 78, a retired hospital worker who lives here.