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Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part V: Sunburnt Cities

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

In Sunburnt Cities, author Justin Hollander examines shrinking cities beyond the Rust Belt. After seeing the destabilization of neighborhoods in the Sunbelt brought on by the foreclosure crisis and Great Recession, Hollander argues that cities that have experienced nearly continual growth should acknowledge and plan for the possibility of decline. Hollander considers how deeply a reliance on growth is embedded in these cities – including economies that are dependent in part on the real estate business – but argues that the Great Recession has proven that this growth is not always reliable. Hollander acknowledges that declining populations and destabilized neighborhoods may be more of a blip for these cities than for their counterparts in the Midwest and Northeast, but encourages cities to at least shift their growth-only orientation to acknowledge the potential for shrinkage and adopt “smart decline” techniques that are similar to smart growth principles already embraced in some of these cities.

Cities in the Rust Belt typically have worked to combat decline with growth. But Hollander makes the case about why this focus on growth is often counterproductive to these cities. Hollander cites literature that shows that economic development policies promoting growth in shrinking cities have rarely been effective in changing population or employment levels. A growing population is not always a sign of a healthy community, and at times economic development efforts have come at the expense of working to improve quality of life for remaining residents. With this in mind, Hollander suggests a different way forward for these cities – smart decline. Specifically, he explores two tools, Relaxed Zoning – which allows noncomforming uses in a high vacancy neighborhood for some period of time – and the identification of “Decline Nodes” through statistical modelling which can help identify areas that are likely to lose population in the future. In general, these tools challenge the commonly-held notion that communities must fight decline by rebuilding markets at the cost of producing more affordable housing or rebuilding quality of life for residents.

Nearly the remainder of the book looks at specific neighborhoods in Flint, MI and three Sunbelt cities to examine how shrinking populations have affected those places. Hollander uses Flint as a point of contrast to show how decline affects the physical and social fabric of neighborhoods differently. In comparing three neighborhoods in Flint, he argues that population decline does not always have to translate into lower quality of life for residents. In each of the Flint neighborhoods, and in the case study neighborhoods in the Sunbelt cities, he tracks changes in the density of occupied housing units as a way of quantifying physical changes in the neighborhood as population leaves. Yet he showed that different responses to decline and other factors in the neighborhood had bearing on changes in quality of life even given substantial population loss.

From here, Hollander explores each of the case study cities – Fresno, Phoenix, and Orlando – and neighborhoods that experienced population loss within them. All three cities had adopted some kind of smart growth policies in recent years, including significant regional growth plans in Fresno and Phoenix. As such, the population declines and neighborhood destabilization caused by the Recession came as a shock to these cities, who were largely unprepared to deal with the challenges. Fresno is the exception here, because the city had previously experienced population loss and had developed some tools, including an abandoned building registry and aggressive code enforcement, to help deal with vacant properties. In Phoenix, on the other hand, planners argued that decline was just momentary, and did little to leverage the federal funding provided by the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to plan for potential further decline. The city of Orlando had embraced New Urbanist principles earlier on, which may have helped the city to weather the crisis with more ease than in the other cities that experienced more out-of-control sprawl. Still, local planners did not see value in confronting the potential for decline – NSP money was not even handled by the planning department, who instead continued to plan for future growth in the city.

Hollander concludes by encouraging cities, even those that have been able to rely on the growth orientation in recent decades, to at least consider potential for future decline by embracing what he calls “strategic flexibility”. Essentially, cities should be ready to manage change of all types, including a no-growth future. Cities have little true control over their future growth or decline, as outside factors like federal policy do more to impact that. But they still can choose to set themselves up for success in case of future shrinkage. In order to do that, Hollander suggests ten strategies and policy recommendations that local officials should adopt to plan for decline. They are:

  1. Create barriers to new residential construction in high vacancy neighborhoods
  2. Compel property owners (or mortgage holders) to maintain vacant buildings
  3. Use land banks to facilitate quick transfer of tax delinquent properties to public ownership
  4. Promote programs that allow neighbors to buy adjacent tax delinquent properties at low cost
  5. Move quickly to demolish or rehab vacant buildings that are publicly controlled
  6. Subsidize rehabilitation or demolition of privately-owned vacant buildings
  7. Maintain publicly-owned vacant lots
  8. Provide incentives for owners in high vacancy areas to convert their properties into parkland or agricultural land.
  9. Implement Relaxed Zoning codes that allows for nonconforming uses in high-vacancy neighborhoods
  10. Help residents who want to relocate to move to areas with better employment prospects.

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.