Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fallout of urban decline

Economix has an interesting post about what happens when cities shrink.  It dovetails nicely with the discussion we had last night in my Real Estate Finance class about the current dislocation between supply and demand nationally.  My professor mentioned the idea of simply bulldozing houses to help reduce supply.

The third, and most extreme, approach is to bulldoze buildings and turn them over to some alternative use, like parks or agriculture. Razing empty, dilapidated, hazardous structures is fairly uncontroversial, but more questions must be raised if the mayor is going to forcibly move significant amounts of people in order to physically reshape large land areas.
If the residents of largely empty areas aren’t willing to sell and move, then we are back in the same quandary that always faces large public changes in urban land use, like the construction of G.M.’s Poletown plant.  To what extent should a city put perceived citywide interests ahead of the wishes of individual property-owners?
If removing a largely vacant neighborhood really generates significant gains, then some sizable fraction of those gains can be given to the citizens who will have to give up their homes.   If generous payments, rather than eminent domain, are used to move the remaining residents, then right-sizing can be win-win.
In Atlanta, the areas that have been in decline still have people - they are just extremely poor and neglected.  Think English Avenue.  In Detroit, these areas are just empty. This is a fairly random Google Streetview image of Detroit - I went to Google Maps and zoomed in on residential neighborhood sort of near Downtown.  This is what you get:

There has been a ton written on the decline of Detroit, but I'm not sure we in Atlanta can appreciate what is going on there.  Go on Google Maps and just scroll around the satellite images - you'll see areas with half the lots just empty.  This is what happens when the economic base of a region collapses in slow motion for thirty years.  

So, as negative as I've been about the economic prospects for Atlanta - hey, at least we aren't Detroit!


  1. Detroit is such an extreme example (as is Flint) - like New Orleans, anything they do there is going to be such a dramatic, unique strategy that shouldn't necessarily be replicated elsewhere. Cities like St. Louis, Philly, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo probably have more to offer cities that aren't shrinking but suffer from large areas of decline, neglect, and vacancy. These cities have also done a better job of controlling the message - Pittsburgh, for example, must have an EXCELLENT PR team, because I feel like I'm always reading about initiatives and successes there. These are the cities Atlanta can learn from as it faces a crashing commercial real estate market and widespread vacancies in lower-income neighborhoods.

  2. I don't know about Pittsburgh "controlling the message." Message or not it's a cool place that doesn't smell any more.

  3. I mean that they don't let "shrinking city" become a stigma and they make sure the national press is covering the good things they are doing.

  4. Just to be clear, I wasn't suggesting Atlanta look to copy Detroit. (and Christa, I still don't know why the open ID doesn't show your name, even thought it links to your blog.)

  5. But I was suggesting Atlanta look to copy some other cities.

    My point was that Detroit is an extreme example of a phenomenon that poses some interesting implications and models that could be adapted to growing cities. Some of those cities have been able to stave off brain drain, rapidly aging populations, declining professional sector, the problems of vacant properties, etc. and any city can learn from that.

    - Christa

  6. For a great look at the current condition of Detroit, I'd urge you to check out the "Detroit" postings on Sweet Juniper's blog:

    Fantastic and compelling stuff there!


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