In Flint, Trying to Reinvent a Shrinking City

Yesterday on the Streetsblog Network, we looked at the concept of "resilient cities" — an idea that some of our commenters on Streetsblog NY and Streetsblog LA sites frankly weren’t buying.

Today, we have a post from Streetsblog Network member Smart Growth Around America about a city that is desperately searching for some definition of resiliency — Flint, Michigan. The plight of Flint, which now has only half as many residents as it did at its peak of 200,000, was first brought to national attention in Michael Moore’s 1989 film Roger & Me (although there was plenty of controversy over the way the movie blamed General Motors for the situation).

flint_200.jpgAn abandoned home in Flint, Michigan. Photo courtesy of NPR.

Things haven’t gotten better — and as NPR reported earlier this week, the city’s government is trying to figure out how to reshape a landscape of empty lots and abandoned homes by using landbanking to create clean green space as well as by encouraging concentrations of denser population.

Smart Growth Around America writes:

“What we really need is a new map, literally a design of the city that looks at every block in every neighborhood, and then makes decisions about where it makes sense to either let nature take the land back or to create some intentional open green space,” Flint resident and Genesee County treasurer Dan Kildee said in the [NPR] story. “So that 100,000 people can live in a city that does not look half-empty.”

Using a process known as landbanking, the city is working with residents to reshape vacant properties into spaces that improve life for the citizens that choose and want to remain in Flint.…

Flint is also looking for ways to restore the population concentration found in the old neighborhoods — not only because infrastructure and public services are more expensive to provide in
sparsely-populated neighborhoods — but because density helps support the restaurants, grocery stores, shops, and schools that neighborhood residents need for their daily lives.

Planetizen has an excellent article by John Kromer about the controversy over landbanking and the backlash against efforts like Flint’s, led by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. He writes:

I can assure Mr. Limbaugh…and others that they need not fear either reforestation or large-scale convention center development on viable urban tracts.…

As head of the Genesee County Land Bank Authority, Daniel Kildee has found a way to generate revenue for the City of Flint while increasing the value of Flint’s real estate assets. At the start of each fiscal year, the Authority takes control of all tax-delinquent properties that would otherwise be sold at auction. The Land Bank Authority does not have to compete in bidding wars against speculators, and the City is paid all the taxes due on the properties taken by the Authority.

Then, in coordination with local government agencies and civic groups, the Land Bank Authority makes sensible, systematic decisions about the future of the properties it now controls. An empty house in move-in condition is assigned to a real estate broker, with net sales proceeds paid to the Land Bank Authority. A small vacant lot is sold to a neighboring homeowner for use as a side yard. In a typical year, 25 to 50 houses are rehabilitated for sale or rent. And some fire-damaged, structurally unsound, and severely dilapidated buildings are demolished in order to remove hazardous conditions and create cleared sites for new investment.

A growing number of local and regional leaders are exploring opportunities to replicate this model of successful reinvestment, and the Obama Administration is offering funding to governments that want to organize land banks of their own. The goal is neither reforestation nor wholesale razing of communities. Community preservation and the creation of new value are paramount.

Any of you out there have more examples of this type of initiative? Do you live in a city where it might be useful?

Elsewhere around the network: Kaid Benfield at NRDC Switchboard has a story of revitalization in Washington, DC. How We Drive looks at the evergreen question of roadside memorials and their potential to cause more crashes. And Worldchanging offers five smart new things to read about climate change.

  • When oil prices ratchet back up, and the next chapter of the peak oil scenario begins, the process begun in places like Flint will accelerate and spread to many other parts of the country. No doubt it will make some people sad to see once inhabitable and prosperous areas abandoned. But making the landscape more rational — and making the sustainable parts more functional, more humane, more suitable for post-peak living — is reason for optimism.

  • What happens if all the cities residents move to the outlying communities where the services and schools are better leaving only the poorest of the poor in the cities?

  • What happens when the city residents move to the outlying areas of the county where the services and the schools are better and only
    the poorest of the poor are left inside the city limits?

  • What happens when the city residents move to the outlying areas of the county where the schools and services are much better and only the poorest of
    the poor are left inside the city?

  • Cora,
    The reality is that these outlying areas depend on a vast road network that is supported by taxes, as fewer people reside in Flint the government has 3 choices – (1) increase taxes to support the infrastructure, (2) reduce services throughout the city and continue flints downward slide, as residents flee a decaying city, and as property values continue to fall, thus reducing revenues further, (3) let enough of the city return to “wilderness” that the remainder can receive services and maintainance at high level of service. Hopefully attracting younger residents to stay – and thus enlivening the economy – and attracting new residents. I would hope that the city has the presence of mind to build a vast network of parks or a “greenbelt” around itself. Encouraging farms on the outskirts wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “All we know is the current economy can’t ‘recover’ because it can’t go back to where it was before the crash. So instead of asking when the recovery will start, we should be asking when and how the new economy will begin.”

    Second smartest thing the man ever said.

  • rex

    Even though it took decades of decline, you have to give the Flint leaders a little credit for speaking a few truths about being in survival mode. Hopefully our federal government won’t take that long to realize where we are.

    Landbanking is scary to a lot of folks. Conservatives and Libertarians hate to see resources going to government (especially as revenue generating scheme.) Neo-cons and progressives fear the idea that the land may not be end up going to corporations. Heaven forbid if the people of Flint actually owned the resources to make a living with out feeding the machine.

  • Benny Lava

    Cora Thrall,

    Is that a rhetorical question? Such a scenario already happened to Flint and its larger cousin Detroit. The answer is what you see when you look here:

  • Benny Lava

    This whole issue is amusing to me, in some ways. Flint hasn’t had a city masterplan since the 1970s. During the golden age of the America city, every city had a masterplan which planned the city’s growth. It was updated periodically. It worked quite well. Once cities stopped growing, they stopped planning. Flint should have mapped a masterplan during the 1980’s that sought to manage its population decline and mitigate the declining tax base. The fact that some conservatives are against this raises a number of questions. Do they really oppose cities trying to save money? Are they really against this issue on rational grounds?


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