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Some shrinking U.S. cities find splendor in green

WASHINGTON/DETROIT, July 16 (Reuters) - For some U.S. Rust Belt cities, the future will be smaller and greener.

As communities from Buffalo to Milwaukee struggle with shuttered factories and vacant neighborhoods, some have turned abandoned properties into parks, gardens and other open space, even going so far as to plow under entire neighborhoods.

A recognition that the glory days of factory-powered prosperity will not return any time soon, this "shrinking cities" strategy aims to consolidate what remains into denser neighborhoods and more vibrant downtowns.

In Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors, a pioneering program that allows local government to capture profits from tax foreclosures has generated funds to demolish over 1,000 abandoned homes in the past five years.

"There's a gravitational pull that we're a part of and it's toward a smaller city," said Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County surrounding Flint. "This is not a plan to shrink Flint, it's an acknowledgment that we've lost half our population."

Flint's fortunes -- like those of GM -- have been on the decline for decades. In the late 1970s, there were more than 80,000 GM workers in Flint centered on a sprawling industrial complex known as Buick City.

GM's city-within-a-city covered 235 acres (951,000 square meters) and employed more than 25,000 people. Foremen had to ride bicycles to cover the distances between production areas.

But GM had cut over 90 percent of its jobs in Flint even before it filed for bankruptcy in June. All that remains of Buick City is a bulldozed and fenced-in field and almost a third of the surrounding neighborhoods are abandoned.

The solution Kildee is promoting is a county "land bank" that sells off more valuable foreclosed properties in the surrounding suburbs to generate cash to pay for demolition and create inner-city gardens and parks.

THE WAY FORWARD

A tour of one of the hardest-hit Flint neighborhoods just north of downtown shows the depth of the problem: The only occupied house on the block has a spray-painted warning to stay off the yard. Across the street, patches of grass are waist high and strewn with empty liquor bottles and broken glass.

"It's really personal to me," Kildee said. "This is the neighborhood where my grandmother lived for 60 years."

Other land bank funds, supported by grants from charities including the Mott Foundation, have underwritten an effort to reclaim and restore buildings in Flint's once largely abandoned downtown.

"It's hard for political leaders to acknowledge that maybe we're just not going to grow," Kildee said. "This is a radical experiment in that it's accepting that it's okay to be smaller -- and to be better."

Urban planners say Kildee has shown the way forward for other struggling cities.

"He's really forced folks in Flint to really make some hard decisions and accept some difficult realities," said Charles Smith, a planner with the Michigan-based firm Wade Trim.

But this smaller-city approach risks a backlash from voters who may see it as an admission of defeat, planners say.

"Nobody wants to admit that -- it's in part tied up with this American ideology of growth being good," said Jess Zimbabwe, director of the Mayors' Institute on City Design.

The concept was pioneered in former East German cities like Leipzig that emptied out when the Berlin Wall fell. Development efforts were concentrated on downtown areas, waterfronts and other pedestrian-friendly sites to foster a sense of vibrancy and density for those who remained, said Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

In the United States' older industrial areas, several cities are starting to take a similar approach:

* Youngstown, Ohio, the poorest mid-size city in the United States, plans to knock down 2,000 abandoned buildings by next year as part of a citywide rezoning effort that aims to concentrate redevelopment on viable neighborhoods and commercial districts.

* Cleveland is encouraging neighborhood-level experiments to turn vacant lots into parks, commercial vegetable gardens, orchards and other useful open space. The city does not plan to raze entire neighborhoods, even those where 80 percent of the housing stock is abandoned. "We're not at that point yet," said Bobbi Reichtel of the nonprofit group Neighborhood Progress, which has been directing federal money to these experiments.

* Highland Park, just north of downtown Detroit, has applied for federal money to demolish several largely abandoned neighborhoods and let them lie fallow until a new use can be found. Home to Henry Ford's first assembly line, the city has experienced a drop in population to a third of its 1940 level. Unemployment is at 22 percent.

* Philadelphia has cleaned up 11 million square feet (1.02 million square meters) of vacant land since 2003 and plans to convert some lots into parks or community gardens.

AVOIDING THE PROBLEM

Other cities, however, have avoided tackling the problem.

Planners say Detroit could reinvent itself as a network of vibrant neighborhoods connected by parks or agricultural space, but scandal has racked the city's leadership and surrounding suburbs have no inclination to help fund the effort.

New Orleans likewise rejected a proposal to raze some neighborhoods that Hurricane Katrina devastated in 2005. Now the city struggles to deliver services to sparsely populated "jack o'lantern" neighborhoods, so named because only a few rebuilt houses on some blocks light up at night.

States and the U.S. government can help. Michigan has passed "land bank" legislation that makes it easier for cities like Flint to take control of abandoned property and consolidate it into larger parcels.

Instead of spending federal highway funds to encourage suburban sprawl, states could use that money to knock down underused freeways that carve barriers through cities such as Syracuse, New York, Katz said.

The recession and the foreclosure crisis have forced many cities to take a second look at a policy they may have initially rejected, Katz said.

"I think we're on the verge of something very different in many of these places," said Katz, who has urged other Ohio cities to follow Youngstown's lead. "I see a much greater openness to this than I did even five years ago."
 

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Although we've seen a million articles about this already...

I'm surprised they put Milwaukee on the list. It really hasn't "fallen" anywhere near the other cities with serious problems, and is actually growing in population. Even at its worst its population fell by less than 20% from its peak.
 

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That's because Milwaukee annexed a ton of land after it had reached its peak. While Milwaukee has the densest and most stable urban neighborhoods in the Midwest outside of Chicago, it too has had to deal with the problems faced by every "rust belt" city.
 

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Although we've seen a million articles about this already...

I'm surprised they put Milwaukee on the list. It really hasn't "fallen" anywhere near the other cities with serious problems, and is actually growing in population. Even at its worst its population fell by less than 20% from its peak.
Yea, Philadelphia & Milwaukee seem to be turning the corner.

The Flints & Youngstowns may be a lost cause.

Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, & Buffalo lie in between.
 

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Flint isn't a lost cause. Crime is falling, the downtown is improving, and through the early 2000's the population began to somewhat stabalize. While this recession and GM's recent problems have put a damper on that, the city will eventually turn around.

I'm not that familiar with Youngstown, but it also appears to be doing many of the same things that Flint is doing to improve itself. Both cities do have a relatively large university near their downtowns that will be an asset in the future.
 

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Although we've seen a million articles about this already...

I'm surprised they put Milwaukee on the list. It really hasn't "fallen" anywhere near the other cities with serious problems, and is actually growing in population. Even at its worst its population fell by less than 20% from its peak.
I think it was somewhat of a confusing reference because it implies that Milwaukee is in the same situation as harder hit Rust Belt cities like Flint. Cities where they are talking about demolishing houses and entire neighborhoods. That really isn't much of a concern here. There are of course shuttered factories and vacant lots---however, they are more optimistic about redeveloping them as housing/industrial rather than parkland (which we have more than enough of).
 

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I think it was somewhat of a confusing reference because it implies that Milwaukee is in the same situation as harder hit Rust Belt cities like Flint. Cities where they are talking about demolishing houses and entire neighborhoods. That really isn't much of a concern here. There are of course shuttered factories and vacant lots---however, they are more optimistic about redeveloping them as housing/industrial rather than parkland (which we have more than enough of).
Very true!

Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley, now that used to be bustling with industry, factories, foundries, tanneries, breweries, etc!

Preserving significant amount of space for industry & manufacturing, that really needs to become part of the the Smart Growth agenda.

Getting back to producing more stuff in US cities, that's a key part of any sustainable urban future!
 

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Very true!

Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley, now that used to be bustling with industry, factories, foundries, tanneries, breweries, etc!

Preserving significant amount of space for industry & manufacturing, that really needs to become part of the the Smart Growth agenda.

Getting back to producing more stuff in US cities, that's a key part of any sustainable urban future!
Completely agree. Not to mention that industry and manufacturing are things people can be proud of in their cities. Its a big part of the identity in cities like Milwaukee or other Rust Belt cities like Detroit.
 
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