City Shrinkage

The pseudonymous “Henry Clay” writes about the problems of Flint, Michigan where the population has shrunk to just above half its 1965 size, putting large burdens on a city government to provide services to semi-populated areas:

Flint is composed of 75 neighborhoods encompassing 34 square miles. The cost to the city of policing, removing refuse, and maintaining streets and public land in vast and often empty neighborhoods is substantial, siphoning off precious tax revenue that could go toward more productive ends.

No doubt, abandoned neighborhoods in parts of Wilmington, Newark, Detroit, Rochester, Cleveland, New Haven, Hartford, and Baltimore are a similar drain on resources.

He proposes that we need better policies to manage city shrinkage. As far as Flint is concerned, I think that’s correct. We could use some way to move people around, so that the population is re-compacted and the outskirts of the city put to some other use (urban agriculture?) instead of having lots of people live on blocks that are half-full of vacant buildings.

But we should be careful about generalizing this too much. Baltimore is a troubled city in many ways. And its population has shrunk considerably from off its peak. But Baltimore is embedded in a very different geographic context. Maryland is a wealthy state, and the Baltimore metropolitan area has been growing at a decent clip. The city is close to other large cities such as Washington and Philadelphia, and it’s located in the densely populated northeast corridor.

Which is to say that if conditions were better in Baltimore—if the crime rate were lower, or the school system produced better results—that people would probably gladly occupy the vacant space. Plenty of people live near Baltimore and, recession aside, there are plenty of jobs in the general vicinity of Baltimore. Indeed, over the past few years population in Baltimore has already been ticking up. Flint, by contrast, is embedded in a state and a broader region that are plagued with economic problems. It’s very likely that in the short term the whole state of Michigan will be losing population and that many of the state’s jobs will vanish. So even if you did make conditions in Flint better, you probably couldn’t see much in the way of net population growth.

To me, those different circumstances imply very different policies. Flint needs help executing a plan of managed shrinkage to turn it from a city of 200,000 to a city of 100,000 thousand without being full of rotting, vacant structures. Baltimore needs help executing a plan to build better transportation links between Baltimore neighborhoods and the rest of the region, and to improving policing and schools, so as to rebuild its population to something closer to its historical levels.