The Shrinking City Asset and Opportunity

A couple months ago, I wrote a post about some of the interesting aspects of the Detroit Future City plan, which generously incorporated elements of the discipline of landscape urbanism into the planning fabric.  I wanted to follow up on that.
Without a doubt, one of the most vexing dilemmas for shrinking cities is exactly what to do with the abundance of vacant and abandoned land.  As most anyone who’s paid attention to cities can attest, the problem has been growing for the last 70 years as the flight to the suburbs emerged, but our ability to assess, evaluate and analyze the problem of urban vacant land lags far behind similar understanding at the suburban periphery.  A a detailed study of Detroit’s nearly 350,000 residential parcels in 2009 underscores the problem there and in other shrinking cities – 27 percent of all residential parcels in Detroit were vacant and and/or abandoned in 2009.  Of course, Detroit is not alone in this problem.  Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago are cities that likely share some similarities with Detroit in terms of vacant land.
Perhaps what’s been just as troubling as the slow procession of abandonment of the city has been the local ineffective local responses to it over the decades.  Two strategies have predominated as vacant land inventories have grown.  Local elected officials have generally adopted the approach of waiting for the economic tide to turn once again in their favor, arguing that affordability and proximity will make the land viable once again.  Local leaders’ priority is often to return property to tax-producing status.  This can take place passively, as elected officials try to market available properties, or aggressively, as they offer incentives for the purchase and development of land.  That often happens at the micro scale, resulting in urban revitalization that can be characterized as gentrification, but rarely happens at a scale large enough to transform an entire major city burdened with vacant land. 
The other approach has largely been adopted by activists and groups like community development corporations (CDCs).  Largely funded by the philanthropic community, there’s a general sense among grassroots activists that the local economy has failed, and that local nonprofit investment can serve as a catalyst until the private market picks up.  This approach also seeks to return property to tax-producing status, but introduces a moral imperative to the effort.  A definite positive of this strategy is that it does create a greater sense of empowerment among local residents and draws considerable attention to previously overlooked communities.
Unfortunately, both strategies are limited in their approach.  Neither is equipped to deal with the larger structural economic forces that create vacant land to begin with.  Neither fully addresses the fact that vacant and abandoned land are symptoms of far bigger problems, beyond the scope of local leadership – a failed local economy, which can’t find a way to use the land, or an imbalanced one, which pulls resources toward other areas. 
Today, it’s not uncommon to find inner city neighborhoods with a quarter, a third, or even half of its land vacant.  Part of it is due, quite frankly, to obsolescence – improvements in housing construction and amenities mean fewer people want to live in frame homes on small lots.  Part of it is also due to locational factors, driven by shifts in the broader economy.  Thousands of homes were built adjacent to manufacturing complexes in our big cities, but once the factories left the homes quite often lost their reason for being.  Furthermore, the next economic wave that could touch off the regeneration of such communities is far from their shores.
For shrinking cities, a delicate balance needs to be struck.  First, there must be a recognition that all areas will not come back to the fully-built-out pattern they once exhibited.  However, there must also be a way to make that land useful once again, and to make other land available for future regeneration – for current and future residents.  Out of necessity, some land can no longer be considered to be part of the development mix, and that can be a hard pill for some people to swallow.
But who, exactly, is trying to navigate that balance?  What cities are at the forefront of looking at different ways of incorporating vacant land into a new and different urban fabric?  Well, Detroit entered the fray with its newly-released Detroit Future City Plan.  A one-hour drive north of Detroit is Flint, which is the home of the Genesee County Land Bank, perhaps one of the most extensive land banks in America.  In Philadelphia, a report commissioned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in 2010 led to an updated vacant land policy that was put in place last year.  Cleveland took the unique approach of working with Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and local nonprofits to develop a vacant land pattern book, offering dozens of ways to integrate vacant land into the life of neighborhoods.  New Orleans took a similar design approach when it partnered with Tulane University to explore design options for vacant land as well.
Which brings me to the emerging discipline of landscape urbanism.
Landscape urbanism has been developing as a distinct discipline for the last two decades.  At its heart, it is a discipline whose goal is to utilize the natural environment as the organizing influence on human development, rather than support the imposition of human development desires on the landscape.  In theory it sounds simple but can result in radically different urban design patterns. 
Landscape urbanism appears to have emerged in the late 1980s as a landscape architecture response to deal with conventional urban and suburban development.   Academics from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard initially led the early theoretical development of landscape urbanism, with landscape architect James Corner developing five general ideas for the field (taken from Wikipedia):
1) Horizontality – The use of horizontal alignment in landscaping, rather than relying on vertical structuring.
2) Infrastructures – placing less of an emphasis on urban infrastructures that have been traditionally used, such as roads and airports, and instead relying on a more organic use of infrastructure.
 3) Forms of Process – the idea that structures should come from more than just their physical shape and form.
4) Techniques – those who practice the idea of landscape urbanism should be able to adapt their techniques to the environment that they are in.
5) Ecology – the idea that our lives intertwine with the environment around us, and we should therefore respect this when creating an urban environment.
It’s important to note that landscape urbanism developed not only as a response to the suburban sprawl development patterns that dominated American development after World War II, but also as a counter to the Modernist/Brutalist movement that saw its heyday during this country’s Urban Renewal phase of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and the New Urbanist and Smart Growth movements that sprouted in the 1980s that emphasized walkable and human-scaled built environments.  The formation of the theory and the practice of the discipline have had virtually nothing to do with the ravaged vacant landscapes of America’s shrinking cities.
Landscape urbanism’s future does not lie in retrofitting the suburban landscape.  Landscape urbanism’s future lies in the transformation of the shrinking city landscape.
Environmental sustainability has become an increasing focus of communities nationwide.  But if there is one area where the sustainability message has failed to gain significant traction, it’s in inner city communities.  And that’s a tragedy, since environmental considerations are another reason why such communities struggle to regenerate.  Landscape urbanism can provide some answers to questions that currently vex elected officials and community activists alike:
·         How can we effectively clean up the toxic brownfields of the inner city industrial heyday?
·         How can we develop low-cost and sustainable alternatives to stormwater and sewage treatment in urban areas?
·         How can we provide more open space opportunities in urban environments?
·         How can we better prepare vacant land for future development?
·         How can we create more vitality within our existing inner city environments?
There is a natural partnership to be formed between landscape urbanism academics, local elected officials and grassroots activists.  If academics can work with local activists, they may find more willing implementers of the discipline than they’ve previously encountered.  If local officials can embrace the principles of sustainability, they can find possible solutions to inner city regeneration.  Similarly, if grassroots activists can embrace sustainability principles, they can add substance to the moral appeal of their regeneration arguments.
But a significant obstacle must be crossed if this partnership is to work.  Local elected officials and grassroots activists must acknowledge that their communities will never – NEVER – return to the full-built out glory of days past.  All too often the desire of locals is to restore each community to a stage that it never truly occupied, and today is unachievable.  Reducing the supply of available land, through creative means, can increase the demand for productive land.
Can local leaders and grassroots people agree to that kind of tradeoff?  I’d like to help them see the value of it.

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