April 24, 2009

Dealing with Shrinking Cities

The Washington Independent had an interesting series of posts this week on how the city of Flint, Michigan has been grappling with a shrinking population and the blight that that has been leaving in its wake. To some controversy, the city has been cordoning off abandoned areas and even actively tearing down decaying properties, letting nature come back in. It's a good example, I suppose, of making a virtue of necessity: Amid the devastation brought about the decline of manufacturing in Michigan -- exacerbated by the current recession -- the city is reconciling itself to its fate, and trying to do so in a controlled manner.

What interested me about this was the way it's being done, through the use of a land bank, or "a community development corporation on steroids," as Dan Kildee, chair of the Gensee County Land Bank in Flint, put it. Basically, a land bank is able to quickly acquire foreclosed or abandoned properties so that they can either be refurbished or razed, while avoiding legal hassles. This is the kind of innovation that I think will be useful when the economy recovers and oil demand comes roaring back: the viability of suburban and exurban housing took a major, and possibly fatal, hit from the combined force of the oil price boom and the collapse of the housing bubble. If we want to avoid the specter of suburban slums, then, state and local authorities will need some way to efficiently pull back development to sustainable levels. It seems the main obstacle to expanding the use of land banks, besides the process of setting them up, is financing: The municipalities most likely to need a land bank are the least likely to have the money to establish one. A federal land bank will probably be the best way to reach the communities most in need.

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