Shrink Rap

On a sunny afternoon in Pittsburgh several weeks ago, a few dozen civic leaders from declining industrial cities met on the 31st floor of a downtown skyscraper.
November 2007
Christopher Swope
By Christopher Swope  |  Former Editor
Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.

On a sunny afternoon in Pittsburgh several weeks ago, a few dozen civic leaders from declining industrial cities met on the 31st floor of a downtown skyscraper. They'd come from Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Rochester to talk openly about a subject that remains taboo at home: the good chance that these cities will continue to lose population before ever growing bigger again.

The event was billed as a "charette," the fashionable term urban planners use nowadays to describe their meetings. But at times, it felt like group therapy for the weak-market set. "It's not very popular to stand up and say 'I want to shrink my city,'" said Joe Schilling, a Virginia Tech professor and one of the gathering's organizers. "So one of the goals of this charette is to provide a safe place to talk about these things."

Schilling noted that only one U.S. city--Youngstown, Ohio--had ever embarked on an acknowledged course of planned contraction. So he and Terry Schwarz of Kent State University devised a clever device to get a frank conversation going. Rather than forcing people to reckon with what it would mean to "downsize" their own hometowns, the two invented the mythical polis of Smallville. It was a composite place--one man nicknamed it "Clevealo"--with familiar troubles: factories gone bust, a vast amount of abandoned housing and slim odds of attracting big new employers. Smallville's population had peaked in the 1960s at 333,000. But now it was half that, and its new leader, "Mayor Millie," was intent on reducing the city's footprint and making Smallville the best little city it could be.

Participants pored over made-up maps and aerial photos of this imaginary place, as well as a market analysis of the Smallville metro area. They talked about turning large swaths of vacant properties into urban parks, watersheds and farms for producing locally grown food. They discussed "de-densification" strategies, such as relaxing the intense residential zoning requirements of inner-city neighborhoods. And they argued a lot over how to handle the last remaining residents of otherwise empty city blocks. Could local government force them to relocate so that it could save money by decommissioning roads, sewers and streetlights? Should local government do that?

Schilling and Schwarz have discussed taking this exercise on the road--if only to get more conversations such as this going, especially in depressed parts of the Rust Belt. For now, though, they're still making sense of what they heard in Pittsburgh. Some participants saw Smallville as a liberating place, unencumbered by political realities and false hopes. Others got frustrated with making difficult choices in a fake place. They yearned for a more detailed picture of what was happening on the ground in Smallville's neighborhoods than Schilling and Schwarz were able to fabricate.

If there was one clear lesson from the Smallville exercise, it's that the nascent shrinking-cities movement, which is stronger in Germany than it is here, needs a new vocabulary. A few days after the charette, some participants from Cleveland invited Schwarz to join them on a visit to an advertising agency. They talked about describing these ideas in a way elected officials would find appealing. "To engage cities in this dialogue, we can't use words like 'shrinking,' 'decline' or about 20 other words on a never-say list," Schwarz says. "But it's important to talk about this in an authentic way and not a euphemistic way. Even 'rightsizing' doesn't quite do it. We need to find words that accurately reflect what's going on but don't immediately put up barriers."