Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding

Timothy Williams, New York Times, November 12, 2013

Shivihah Smith’s East Baltimore neighborhood, where he lives with his mother and grandmother, is disappearing. The block one over is gone. A dozen rowhouses on an adjacent block were removed one afternoon last year. And on the corner a few weeks ago, a pair of houses that were damaged by fire collapsed. The city bulldozed those and two others, leaving scavengers to pick through the debris for bits of metal and copper wire.

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For the Smiths, the bulldozing of city blocks is a source of anguish. But for Baltimore, as for a number of American cities in the Northeast and Midwest that have lost big chunks of their population, it is increasingly regarded as a path to salvation. Because despite the well-publicized embrace by young professionals of once-struggling city centers in New York, Seattle and Los Angeles, for many cities urban planning has often become a form of creative destruction.

“It is not the house itself that has value, it is the land the house stands on,” said Sandra Pianalto, the president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “This led us to the counterintuitive concept that the best policy to stabilize neighborhoods may not always be rehabilitation. It may be demolition.”

Large-scale destruction is well known in Detroit, but it is also underway in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo and others at a total cost of more than $250 million. Officials are tearing down tens of thousands of vacant buildings, many habitable, as they seek to stimulate economic growth, reduce crime and blight, and increase environmental sustainability.

A recent Brookings Institution study found that from 2000 to 2010 the number of vacant housing units nationally had increased by 4.5 million, or 44 percent. And a report by the University of California, Berkeley, determined that over the past 15 years, 130 cities, most with relatively small populations, have dissolved themselves, more than half the total ever recorded in the United States.

The continuing struggles of former manufacturing centers have fundamentally altered urban planning, traditionally a discipline based on growth and expansion.

Today, it is also about disinvestment patterns to help determine which depopulated neighborhoods are worth saving; what blocks should be torn down and rebuilt; and based on economic activity, transportation options, infrastructure and population density, where people might best be relocated. Some even focus on returning abandoned urban areas into forests and meadows.

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In all, more than half of the nation’s 20 largest cities in 1950 have lost at least one-third of their populations. And since 2000, a number of cities, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Buffalo, have lost around 10 percent; Cleveland has lost more than 17 percent; and more than 25 percent of residents have left Detroit, whose bankruptcy declaration this summer has heightened anxiety in other postindustrial cities.

The result of this shrinkage, also called “ungrowth” and “right sizing,” has been compressed tax bases, increased crime and unemployment, tight municipal budgets and abandoned neighborhoods. {snip}

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Philadelphia, which has 40,000 vacant lots, has promoted the benefits of lower-density living by allowing people in largely vacant neighborhoods to spread out to the lot next door—where a neighbor’s home once was. The city has been studying a plan to sell $500 leases to urban farmers. One such farm, Greensgrow, which was built on a former Superfund site, sold $1 million in produce in 2012.

Baltimore has begun to turn over vacant lots to groups of amateur farmers. Boone Street Farm, boxed in by abandoned rowhouses on an eighth of an acre, is completing its third season of growing tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes and other fruits and vegetables in the city’s Midway neighborhood. It sells produce to restaurants, has a table at a local farmers market and delivers $10 boxes of produce weekly to members of its community-supported agriculture program.

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