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Community Development

Shrinking Cities and Right Sizing in the Southeast

subdivisionShrinking cities are defined by the Shrinking Cities International Research Network (SCiRN) as "densely populated urban areas with a minimum population of 10,000 residents that have faced population losses in large parts for more than two years and are undergoing economic transformations with some symptoms of a structural crisis" (Pallagst, 2008). The problem exists worldwide, as well as throughout history, as apparent in the large-scale historical declines of Rome and Vienna. Despite this, population growth is often viewed as natural and necessary for the survival of U.S. cities. While shrinking cities are not a new phenomenon, the stalled economy has recently hastened the decline of many such areas and has initiated decline in formerly high-growth boom towns in Southeastern states. Therefore, it is timely and important to reflect on the problem and recommended responses.

Perceptions around shrinking cities include that shrinking cities are a "Rustbelt" rather than a "Sunbelt" problem. Between 1950 and 1980, U.S. population decline occurred most commonly in northern Rustbelt cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis and was associated with suburbanization and deindustrialization. However, Sunbelt cities, including those in the region, have challenged that perception, most notably in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans. Recent research has shown that population decline extends to old port cities like Mobile and Savannah (Campanella et al., 2004); to southern manufacturing hubs like Birmingham (Beauregard, 2001); to cities that experienced recent housing booms like Atlanta and St. Petersburg (Hollander and Németh, 2011); and to smaller, trade-oriented outposts in the lower Mississippi Delta like Alexandria, Louisiana (Popper and Popper, 2002). This decline is also apparent in suburban areas in the Southeast. For example, although only five Atlanta suburbs declined in population from 1990 to 2000, these neighborhoods had the third-highest average rate of decline (27.5 percent) among major U.S. metropolitan areas (Lucy and Phillips, 2001). Suburban areas of the Atlanta region also lost population from 2000 to 2010 (Atlanta Regional Commission, 2011).

There are many reasons why cities shrink. A fundamental reason is because of demographic shifts, such as lower birth rates and decreasing immigration. Structural reasons include outward suburban development, including "white flight" due to perceived or real crime and inadequate inner-city schools. Another cause is industrial restructuring, particularly the loss of manufacturing such as textile mills, auto plants, and the oil industry in the Southeast. Disturbances such as natural disasters, wars, and political upheaval have also led to depopulation. Finally, the changing fortunes of cities have been tied to trade and transportation, with population shifts coinciding with the arrival of canals, railroads, and highways.

Responses to shrinking cities were once characterized by large economic development projects, financed partially if not wholly with public funds. Examples include the many failed festival marketplaces of the 1970s and 1980s meant to spur downtown development. Today, strategies tend to include "right sizing" or "smart decline," which emphasize improving the quality of life for current residents rather than attracting new ones. Many such strategies have focused on returning land to green space (for example, Birmingham's Railroad Park and Green Up Pittsburgh). These solutions have the benefit of mitigating urban heat effects and facilitating storm water management, which may lead to cost savings for struggling local governments. Conversion to greenspace can be accomplished through public or nonprofit acquisition and land banking, for example. Another alternative use strategy is to allow temporary uses such as events (Portland's No Vacancy! project compiles many creative options) and art installations (for example, Detroit's LOTS of Art!) on a site. Loosening restrictive ordinances and providing support for local organizations can help encourage such uses. Other cities, including New Orleans and Savannah, have also focused on cleanup of blighted properties through periodic sweeps and demolitions. And the Pittsburgh neighborhood in Atlanta is creating community gardens in vacant lots. It may also be possible for local government to leverage relationships with universities, corporations, and other private entities that have an interest in maintaining healthy and safe neighborhoods, as has been demonstrated in West Philadelphia by the University of Pennsylvania and by the Savannah College of Art and Design.

The first step toward managing decline is changing attitudes of decision makers and gaining public support. Particularly in the Sunbelt, it has been politically unviable and even unimaginable for some to suggest that growth is reversing. In fact, many past failures are at risk of being repeated. In some shrinking cities, the public has driven change. For example, in New Orleans, blight and revitalization were priorities of the public during Mayor Landrieu's listening tour and plans have emerged from neighborhood-driven data and ideas. It is clear that there are many paths to managing population decline. However, the most successful examples arise from an empowered community, engaged and forward-looking leadership, and sound data.

By Ann Carpenter, research associate, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's community and economic development department.

Interview Sources (acknowledgments)
Jeffrey Hebert, executive director, New Orleans Redevelopment Authority
Tony O'Reilly, president, Small Business Assistance Corporation (Savannah)
Edward Chisolm, executive director, Youth Futures Authority (Savannah)
Ron Gilbert, executive director, Community Action Association of Alabama (Birmingham)

Atlanta Regional Commission (2011). Regional Snapshot, A Decade of Change in the Atlanta Region: A Closer Look at the 2010 Census. Beauregard, Robert A. (2001). Federal Policy and Postwar Urban Decline: A Case of Government Complicity? Housing Policy Debate, 12(1), 129–151.

Campanella, Richard, Daniel Etheridge, and Douglas J. Meffert (2004). Sustainability, Survivability, and the Paradox of New Orleans. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1023, 289–299.

Hollander, Justin B. and Jeremy Németh (2011). The Bounds of Smart Decline: A Foundational Theory for Planning Shrinking Cities. Housing Policy Debate 21(3), 349–367.

Lucy, William H. and David L. Phillips (2001). Suburbs and the Census: Patterns of Growth and Decline. The Brookings Institution Center on Urban & Metropolitan Policy Survey Series.

Pallagst, Karina (2008). Shrinking Cities: Planning Challenges from an International Perspective. In Cities Growing Smaller (Steve Rugare & Terry Schwarz, eds.). Kent State's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative: Cleveland, 7–16.

Popper, Deborah E., and Frank J. Popper (2002). Small Can Be Beautiful: Coming to Terms with Decline. Planning, 68(7), 20–23.