Honey, I Shrunk the Metropolis

“Smart decline” is a new approach for Sunbelt cities hard hit by recession

A neighborhood affected by foreclosures

If Americans can be described by one slogan, it could very well be “bigger is better.” It is not in our national character to embrace, or even accept, decline.

But a Tufts urban planning specialist is suggesting that some cities do just that. For decades, places like Phoenix, Orlando and Fresno assumed economic growth and physical expansion was a way of life. Then the economy did an about-face, and many Sunbelt cities not only stopped growing, they actually started shrinking, beset by foreclosures, bankruptcies and unemployment.

Justin Hollander, an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy and planning in the School of Arts and Sciences, has been examining the problems facing what he’s dubbed “sunburnt cities”—formerly thriving locales in the Sunbelt that have been hardest hit by the recession and foreclosure crisis.

To survive this change of fortune, Hollander says, these municipalities need to buck conventional wisdom. Rather than trying to jump-start growth and development, he says, they should re-make themselves as smaller, more economically viable entities.

“We need to step back and see how our communities can thrive in a state of no growth, or a state of decline,” he says. In his most recent book, Sunburnt Cities: The Great Recession, Depopulation and Urban Planning in the American Sunbelt (Routledge, 2011), Hollander offers suggestions for shrinking Sunbelt cities, especially given the supposition that the wider economic problems plaguing them will not disappear any time soon.

“What we don’t do enough of in the urban planning world, and in general, is look at what happens when there is depopulation and figure out how to reconfigure places so that there is a high quality of life for those left behind, people who are generally poorer and have fewer options than those who were able to leave,” Hollander says.

“If smart decline does a better job than smart growth, it’s good politics,” says Justin Hollander. Photo: Alonso Nichols“If smart decline does a better job than smart growth, it’s good politics,” says Justin Hollander. Photo: Alonso Nichols
Hollander’s innovative thinking about contemporary planning issues was illustrated in his earlier book, Polluted and Dangerous: America’s Worst Abandoned Properties and What Can be Done About Them (University of Vermont Press, 2009), in which he examined alternative ways for cities to deal with abandoned industrial properties (see “Blight to Boon”). His mentor at Rutgers University, where he received his Ph.D.—Frank Popper, who wrote the introduction to Sunburnt Cities—gained notoriety in the late 1980s with a proposal to convert sparsely populated areas of the Great Plains into a “Buffalo Commons” preserve of wildlife and open space. It was an idea that at first unsettled some people who saw it as the “undoing” of progress, but many policymakers now support it.

Hollander and other planners talk about the value of “smart decline,” which may seem like an oxymoron in our growth-oriented society. But when residents and resources dwindle and cities find themselves with whole neighborhoods of abandoned homes or vacant businesses, the best step toward progress may be to demolish the empty buildings, scale back the infrastructure and turn the land toward other uses, such as parks or open space. And as a city grows smaller, sustainability becomes more attainable.

“Fewer people can mean less congestion; it can mean more open space and recreation,” says Hollander. It can also mean “lower student-teacher ratios in the classroom and faster response times from the police and fire departments. A smaller population has a smaller environmental footprint…fewer factories mean less pollution and better water quality.”

Managed Decline

Two obstacles to this course, Hollander says, are the emphasis among professional planners on restoring growth in economically challenged areas and the bias of the planning field toward real estate development.

“For decades, the planning profession, as a branch of social science, has been about dealing with the causes of decline,” he says. “The problem is we are not good enough at dealing with the causes. There has been lots of money invested in turning declining places around. In some cases it works; in most cases it doesn’t.”

The answer is to deal with the demographic reality and manage the decline, Hollander says. “If we do a good job, some day it may turn around. But let’s not try to turn it around through force of public policy.”

The bias toward growth among planners stems from the field’s long history of collaborating with the real estate industry, Hollander says. Real estate interests have “hijacked” the planning profession, he says, and then pauses. “Well, it’s not fair to say ‘hijacked,’ because they really created the planning profession. But the profession has grown enough so that we can step back and ask, ‘Why are we so fixated as a profession on growth?’ ”

Another challenge is that there needs to be political will to make smart decline a community goal. Only a few U.S. cities have embraced this kind of thinking, none of them in the Sunbelt. The most notable example is the former steel-mill stronghold of Youngstown, Ohio, where managed decline has become official planning policy.

“Yes, politically, it may seem unpalatable, but Mayor Jay Williams of Youngstown was able to make it work,” Hollander says. Eventually, Hollander believes more city leaders will recognize that smart decline can be a good strategic move. “Bottom line, politicians want to serve their constituents,” he says. “If smart decline does a better job than smart growth, it’s good politics.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.


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