From Brutal to Beautiful: Why Shrinking Cities is a Big Deal

We have been trained, and trained remarkably well. When opportunity strikes, we seek the larger prize, the extra foot, the additional territory – boundaries are plastic and in flux, because they must be pushed and expanded. Programmed. Conditioned. Call it what you may. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of real estate. Growth is the only item on the agenda for the traditional urban leader or thinker. New housing construction. New development deals. The definition of obsolescence is now just the conjuration of men and women acutely afraid they’ll regurgitate the wrong opinion, or that they’ll stray from their talking points. New is better. Growth is good.
This prevailing attitude of progress has only served us well as cosmetics applied to our urban and regional portrait – if you look beneath a couple of layers, the ugliness abounds. If the rhetoric of growth has gotten us to this unenviable place, then why continue to assert it as doctrine? What good has it done us? Beyond giving us a booming vinyl siding industry, it has fueled the greatest wasting of resources this planet has ever seen (thanks, Kunstler). The same mythology of growth has been used to initiate unsustainable development throughout urban cores, it would seem our critique of the suburbs is inconsistent with our actions in cities. Having already shrunk (or just beginning), it is time for cities and regions to be more deliberate about managing the outcomes and possibilities of shrinking.

We have been trained, and trained remarkably well. When opportunity strikes, we seek the larger prize, the extra foot, the additional territory – boundaries are plastic and in flux, because they must be pushed and expanded. Programmed. Conditioned. Call it what you may. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of real estate. Growth is the only item on the agenda for the traditional urban leader or thinker. New housing construction. New development deals. The definition of obsolescence is now just the conjuration of men and women acutely afraid they’ll regurgitate the wrong opinion, or that they’ll stray from their talking points. New is better. Growth is good.
This prevailing attitude of progress has only served us well as cosmetics applied to our urban and regional portrait – if you look beneath a couple of layers, the ugliness abounds. If the rhetoric of growth has gotten us to this unenviable place, then why continue to assert it as doctrine? What good has it done us? Beyond giving us a booming vinyl siding industry, it has fueled the greatest wasting of resources this planet has ever seen (thanks, Kunstler). The same mythology of growth has been used to initiate unsustainable development throughout urban cores, it would seem our critique of the suburbs is inconsistent with our actions in cities. Having already shrunk (or just beginning), it is time for cities and regions to be more deliberate about managing the outcomes and possibilities of shrinking.
Roberta Brandes Gratz, an urban critic and acolyte of Jacobs, is certainly accurate in her preference for denser and more vibrant neighborhoods; I cannot fault her for wanting every block to be an urbanist Eden. The constant exchange between small business owners and loyal patrons, multi-modal motor transit effortlessly integrated with bicyclists and pedestrians – a perfect street-level ecosystem. Names of neighbors remembered. Eyes on the street. There is equity in this image of the urban commons. Less the ownership society, more the sharing society. Yet, our fantasy of the importable-Greenwich Village ideal has diluted our capacity for difficult decisions. If that is the goal, then what of the journey? Waiting for this vision of urbanism to become real has made most cities irrelevant and unnecessarily top-heavy. Most are discomfited by the amount of pragmatism that must be introduced into this equation – for any incarnation of urban living to be realized, an intervention of enormous proportions is absolutely necessary.
Many dismiss large-scale intervention because it conjures images of public housing and land clearance. (I would normally footnote this, but I want to be clear: I am not a champion of the NorthSide Regeneration plan, the reasons are many – but central to my criticism is that it’s less a development plan than a farrago of accepted urban design principles.) Let me be one of the first to say, rightsizing is not equivalent to urban renewal. Urban renewal was couched in the assumption of growth, rightsizing is rooted in recognizing decline. The argument from the opposition is so empty of meaning, so first-glance and fictional that it must not be the product of intelligence, but of fear. Fear at losing territory. Fears of having power circulate away. Fear of confronting that most American of ideas: the right of agency. Rightsizing is about permitting the municipality the opportunity to continue existing, to allow it an option outside of hemorrhage. We must be far more strategic with our resources. We must make the difficult choices and accept the harsh reality of our decline.
Rejecting rightsizing because it amputates neighborhoods and limits the so-called freedom of choice isn’t a platform, it’s a default response articulated in the absence of alternative solutions. The money to manage our cities will not appear in our coffers; in fact, the money that is available is regularly threatened by conservative fusillade. By rightsizing correctly, urban residents can have access to the kinds of services, resources, and amenities that allow cities to operate equitably. They can actually accumulate the benefits of urban living, not just its gaps and gulfs. The same can be said of suburban living – I’m not arguing for suburbs to be destroyed, I’m only stating that some real limits and sunsets need to be placed on dysfunctional municipalities.
We can’t continue funding convenient redevelopment projects as if money-producing flora is the only successful form of urban agriculture. We need better screens and better filters for directing investments and capital improvements; we need better criteria for deciding what ventures complement the future sustenance of our city. The hardest part, the part that requires our diligence and endurance, is realizing that cities find their virtue not in buildings, but in their people. The solution to our problem must consider the enhancement of quality of life – and if that must occur through spatial reorganization, then that is how our sense of urgency should be applied. Refusal to recognize the substantial decline affecting our cities and regions is more insidious than any considerations of rightsizing.
In failing to activate any intervention, this unintentional malediction of urban leaders and thinkers permits the auctioning of cities to high bidders with vapid or vacuous intentions, or leaving it to criminal activity that is the direct result of systemic joblessness, food insecurity, and under-education. As potentates take the easy route and become more concerned with saving the built environment (at any cost), they begin an exercise in brinksmanship that risks the quality of life of residents and threatens the accord between representative and constituents. (More pragmatic researchers and scholars have even proposed the wholesale dissolution of neighborhoods and wards, because these delineations obfuscate the scale of required redevelopment. In their perspective, scattered revitalization efforts do not confront the expansive failed submarkets emblematic of distressed areas and neighborhoods.)
We can give people something better. Gratz wants better neighborhoods, but she won’t begin to argue a process. It seems that she and thinkers of similar sophistry insist that some sacred combination of development dollars, government support, and community organizing will save us all. I will say it again, I think Gratz’s examination of the battle between Moses and Jacob is essential to understanding the revitalization of cities, I just wish she would put herself on the line and actually explore the practice of redevelopment – not just its values. For the most part, the difficult step in redistributing urban populations was accomplished by half a century of squandered resources and development malfeasance – the exodus continues in almost every Rust Belt city (and now it’s only started in St. Louis County). In a kind of urban rapture, whole stretches of cities are now empty. Either the intervention can assist in facilitating and managing this process, or it can wait out for the inevitable conclusion.
Except for what they’ve observed or read in Next American City, most urban planners and urban/regional leaders have absolutely zero competence with supervising graceful decline. Bureaucrats and their coteries are convinced that population attrition is an aberration. Even after 50 years of population loss, leaders in the City of St. Louis were jarred by an 8% decrease. In reality all they had to do was talk to a North City resident; an acquaintance of mine, when asked about the depopulation, said, “I’ve lived in St. Louis all my life, I’ve got 10 siblings and not one of them wants to stay in this city. Most of them are gone, so are most of my friends.” He went on to tell me that he’s asked his children to move away when they have the means.
To one of the previous points, it’s effectively impossible to establish any best practices for revitalizing neighborhoods. Many exhort the success of Dudley Square in Boston, a distressed area of that city that took authority over its destiny and even exercised eminent domain over the property of speculators and absentee landlords. This is the kind of narrative that community development scholars and social work intellectuals will herald as cause for celebration, they will happily feed you the romance of this revitalization. Never mind the details and nuance, the demographics, the presence of strong leaders, the macro economic conditions, the contributions of local institutions – those aren’t important, those are just the filler ingredients in this prize-winning recipe for success.
You want the reality? Development triumph in one city or neighborhood does not translate to success elsewhere, even someone fluent in the process will stumble over the action words. This is because people are dynamic, they are random and occasionally irrational – because on the development ladder, four hundred different correct steps must be made, and most interests are only prepared to take ten. A leader at Beyond Housing – an organization working throughout the region – once remarked that several St. Louis Aldermen were actively recruiting his organization and its still-emerging strategy. He disclosed, “We don’t even know if what we’re doing is going to work where we are, why would we go somewhere else?” The point is clear. There isn’t a revitalization roadmap; there is a beginning and some kind of poorly envisaged destination. Is it possible to expect our leadership to be remotely competent?
Youngstown and Detroit are beginning to experiment with a roadmap. They’re working with community members to develop relocation strategies, to facilitate the abatement of services, and to strengthen neighborhoods on the threshold. There is nothing wrong with creating neighborhoods of choice, and that is what the most innovative urban leaders have chosen as their responsibility. Yes, buildings will be demolished, streets will go without service, and schools and libraries will be closed. Businesses will need to relocate and property owners will need to be recompensed. However, many residents in these devastated neighborhoods have found their municipal governments to be willing partners in finding new homes and opportunities in other neighborhoods. For city government, population redensification and footprint shrinking means costs can be stabilized and quality of service can be sustained. Most of St. Louis lacks the density to be served by traditional public transit frequency, to open and maintain grocery stores, to keep the lights on at churches and schools. We have 28 Aldermanic mouths to feed, but barely enough to keep firehouses and police stations operating. Having failed to make difficult decisions about the state of our city, we’ve been placed in a situation where we have to make choices with incomprehensibly colossal ramifications.
How is St. Louis any different from Youngstown, Buffalo, Detroit, or Cleveland? We are deluded if we think we’re somehow better suited for transformation. If anything, Detroit appears to be the first among equals, they have experienced the emergence of leadership that is insulated against insults and isn’t afraid to confront controversy. To make matters better, they’ve sold themselves as a place of possibility and guts – where big ideas (what gets bigger than rightsizing?) can actually be realized. That kind of unique tone is what sets the city apart from its peers and rivals. Obviously, Mayor Bing and his allies are not without their detractors – and those detractors are not without their perfectly logical reasons – but the willingness of Bing to believe in a better Detroit through intervention has made him the subject of endless paeans. He and others have taken their share of heat – but heat is part of friction, and friction is the product of exchange, interaction, and collisions (yes, even positive ones). From my perspective, a city that sells its residents on a unifying idea has taken ingenious steps towards a kind of cerebral density. If you can get people to share ideas, you can get them to share space.
For the last 50 years, we’ve been impossibly poor at reconciling our values with the material of our actions. We want our cities to be better, to provide peerless quality of life and to match our needs with stable amenities and services. However, we’ve been mostly satisfied with utilizing a tourniquet in hopes that we’d just scab over – but the wound is just too deep. Urbanized areas sprawled through hyper-subsidization of highways and utilities; cities became nothing more than places of occasional service and consumption. Suburbs that were designed as bedroom communities for central city workforces have watched unrestricted development punch holes in their bathtubs. The Pierce Report of the mid-1990s argued that St. Louis City must become a laboratory for civic experimentation, there’s some unfortunate irony that every strain of suburbia has functioned as a mutagen for taxation and government. The City of Wildwood renders previous municipalities obsolete, only to have itself out-moded by the next generation of exurbs. If St. Louis neighborhoods need a serious examination of their sustainability, then most St. Louis suburbs need to consider the status of their incorporation and the benefits they offer residents. All the big and little fortresses of the last half-century are coming under fire.
Here’s the tough part. We won’t talk about this reality because we’ve lost the vocabulary to communicate on the true nature of things. We’ve become so passive aggressive, so quietly argumentative, that we’ve actually systematized the process for disrupting good ideas. Failure to have critical discourse on race and class and gender has maimed and mauled any opportunity we’ve had to make choices central to the continued existence of cities, regions, or their residents. When an innovative or transgressive idea is articulated, the substance of the concept is thoroughly laundered by every inept lawmaker and seedy public ideologue; the spirit of the thought is ineluctably sanitized of its purpose and made digestible for entrenched interests or popular tastes.
Instead of talking about what rightsizing is, most want to talk about what it is not. We’ve collectively consigned so many good ideas to the ashcan of controversy that even the really poor ideas won’t fit in anymore. Every matter is reduced to its most disposable atom – we have accepted that every effort will be loaded with troubles, so we’d rather deal without any obstacles and let false comfort be our compass. No one wants to deal with being called a racist, so no one wants to deal with race. No one wants to incite class warfare, so no one wants to deal with class. Maybe it’s time we start accepting that leaders don’t want anything to function, so they won’t have to deal with the city and region.
For many whites, the claim is that revitalization is not about race; for many blacks, the claim is that revitalization is only about race. Both arguments are incomplete and people are mostly missing the point. This is our fault (I don’t say this as an educated white male, I say this representing concerned human beings everywhere). Elected leadership has languished and slouched onward because most of us have permitted them to manufacture the zeitgeist – South City residents claim North City is a backward crime-saturated abomination, North City residents claim South City is a duplicitous sibling that was structurally spoiled into neglecting its brethren. (These positions are fungible with County and City.) No one wins. The divisions between these parts of our city (and region) are so inimical to progress that demiurges of development have retreated from the polemic and now insist that spending money on Downtown is the dragon worth chasing. Little evidence suggests that Downtown St. Louis is of any greater importance than surrounding neighborhoods.
If as regional thinkers we understand that MSAs are more than their central cities, then as urban thinkers we must understand that cities are more than their downtowns. Downtown development has been made an acceptable course of action because leaders have made surrounding race and class issues invisible – it’s a place that ‘requires’ intervention, so everything else gets brushed under the rug. Making it the priority allowed the process to become hyper-streamlined, any obstruction or criticism is now deemed anti-St. Louis. Do downtowns attract a continuous flood of outsiders looking for new homes? Not really. Additionally, we are supposed to ignore that many of the creative, innovative, curious, and pioneering people that Downtown wants to cater to are more than happy in their present neighborhoods. We should be asking ourselves: Do downtowns still matter? (I only pose this question because so much money and subsidization has gone to support these projects.)
For this to work, we must accept that all residents of cities are seeking and pursuing the same advantages of urban living. Safe streets. Good schools. Access to food. Proximity to jobs. Robust transit. While the semantics may shift, these and others remain the foundation principles of our cities. Municipal governments are designed to provide or assign providers of these services – in the event that it fails to do such, the municipality becomes obsolete in its stated form. The St. Louis that was fabricated on the backs of laborers and the ledgers of corporate barons no longer exists. The Detroit that was built by and for the automobile will never rise again. These are radically different places than they were 100 years ago, but they have failed to offer radically different ways of operating.
In fact, a new Alderman asserted that his responsibility was to raise the population of St. Louis by 140,000 persons – while an honorable pursuit, shouldn’t an increase in population be the result of intervention, instead of the actual intervention? Short of outlawing contraception or initiating annexation, increasing population has no direct legislative prerequisite; it is a plausible outcome of innovative government, competent officials, and informed policy. Very few of our Aldermen exhibit the kind of forward thinking that even suggests that population increase is a possibility. We can extend this same criticism to County leaders and suburban apparatchiks of the development doxa – they who argue that wiping out and replacing 1950s housing stock will make their little hamlet desirable, or that the next floodplain development will finally help them turn the corner. Good luck with that.
Many still want to blame Team Four for the current state of affairs in the City of St. Louis. Most recently, I came across a series of quotes from one of our esteemed federal-level representatives; they were both troubling and instructive. Holding the plan accountable for the contemporary distress of North City is to ignore the duress of North County, the instability of swathes of South City, and the devastated stretches of Metro East (or any other American city). However, more incriminating are the unfounded assertions that have made the plan the primary excuse – the underlying reason for present mistakes and lapses. Instead of holding federal policy, deindustrialization, shortsighted developers, and poor leaders accountable, we’d rather wrangle some ghosts and flagellate them publicly. Accusing Team Four of racism is the equivalent of someone claiming you have animus for the energy provider when you turn the furnace off for summer.
We’ve never thought of criticizing a tax credit structure designed to respond to distress that instead let developers basically freebase historically significant buildings and turn them into loft apartments, or deposit them into the hands of low-income tenants without ever providing access to jobs, education, and social supports that would actually facilitate the transition. This has been a failing on so many fronts that it is desultory to accuse a single offender. (Note: Perhaps the restructuring of some tax credits will force developers to actually program the buildings they’ve rehabilitated – imagine development with an agenda, the creation of spaces with revenue generating purpose.)
The answer is not simply to make the city a smaller place. The answer is radically reconfiguring the city and region so that it actually achieves its prime objective – to provide high quality services and amenities to the most people while minimizing expenditures. While it is very sexy for hipster urbanists to qualify everything as a battle of and for density, the dialogue must have a trajectory arcing towards serious analysis of sustainability. Suburbs that rely on the pooling of sales tax and big box TIF developments are doomed to a slow writhing death. Many suburbs have entered into a kind of Post-Municipal era, where the Walmarts and Home Depots of the world dictate policy prescriptions – these suburban appetites to attract the next acre-eater development will only accelerate suburban decline. Many urban neighborhoods have tumbled from the Post-Industrialism of the latter half of the preceding century into the Post-Institutionalism of this still-inchoate century – no schools, libraries, banks, hospitals, or churches. The remaining institutions are government presence, parks and people.
Yet, with every census, the populations of many neighborhoods dwindle to 10% of their peaks, leaving behind stretches (in both North, South, and County) where home after home is empty. (While not as severe, one of the reasons why parts of South City don’t look like North City is because brick rustlers and copper thieves are only now getting used to the ‘southern’ climate. I’m actually quite serious, copper theft has started in South City.) Figure in the fact that there is now precedence for state emergency takeover of municipal governments (thank you, Benton Harbor, MI), and you’re risking neighborhoods where the only institution left is the park. Even more dramatic is the recent clarion call in St. George to dissolve their city and recede to unincorporated St. Louis County – they will certainly not be the last in our region to pursue a new governmental status.
Back in St. Louis, the battle over local control is, at its heart, not about relocating authority over local law enforcement, it is actually a powerful attempt to rebuke the emerging narrative of helpless cities (some would argue it IS just about cops, but it certainly seems to be the inverse of what is occurring elsewhere). While I believe our city must manage its own police force, we also need to start managing our own Aldermen, our own streets, our own schools, our own trash, and our own development. Enough with the buck-passing and blame throwing. Skepticism in Jefferson City is unfortunate, but it is warranted. I realize there are issues of principle that confound opponents of local control (one being that most interesting of traditional ideas, the right to self-determination), and yet they are steadfast in their rejection of the proposition – the fight for local control may be a losing proposition, or it will at least spark more internecine warfare. The City does need local control, but it also doesn’t need some melange of quick fixes as evidence that leadership is making headway. While real problems exist in our region, we will probably be forced to endure the bloodbath battle for US Representative between the current mantle-bearers of two fading political dynasties. If we are lucky, a legitimate outsider will enter the race, at least providing some level of mediation and an alternative.
*Additionally, while the notion of a reconciliation between City and County is admirable and not without its sex appeal, the initiative to re-enter or merge is still wrapped up in the rhetoric of growth and expansion. St. Louis is NOT a world-class city, but it has some world-class amenities. The difference: a city is a system and amenities are programs. We can leverage programs for better policy and leadership, but, as I said before, it won’t matter if we continue to frame difficult query as unctuous and disposable. While I appreciate the participation and contribution of all to the narrative of revitalization, as both a street-level community advocate and urban scholar, I am troubled that population increase (or access to new population bases) is considered an intervention. More on that in a later exegesis.
Likewise, as we are on the subject of urban intervention and redevelopment of the metropolis, I think it is essential that I briefly evaluate Mr. Florida and his proposition of the creative class. In earnest, I certainly believe that creative individuals have a responsibility to find merit in locales that others have disposed of – that should be the credo of the innovative mind. However, it seems that Florida and his milieu have very blatantly (although, not deliberately) neglected to consider the creative potential vaporized or misdirected by failing urban school districts – this is a general concern of mine in relation to brain drain and retention. Similarly, their kind of preferred transformative creative personality seems to be rather absolute, the graphic artist in Austin very clearly wins favor over the hip-hop artist in East St. Louis.
Finally, I am worried about the long-term sustainability of the creative class; as an educated demographic they are without comparison, but as a workforce they continue to wade in mediocrity. Underemployment for those with 4-year degrees (or more) continues to rise in Portland, Chicago, Austin, and Denver. These cities are making a serious gamble on a generation of artists, writers, and performers – it has been a boon (or stabilizing factor) for their population numbers, but if widespread underemployment continues as this generation ages, many of these so-called ‘cool’ cities will be composed of residents struggling to get by on part-time work and federal assistance. The creative class must deliver on the assumption of their entrepreneurialism. If not, is this sustainable? Should we be expanding the definition of creative class to include carpenters, welders, plumbers, and mechanics? If these creative capitals are at all forward-thinking they will study and analyze the contemporary interventions of industrial cities.
A very gifted leader of a large local community organization once told me, “Poor people aren’t stupid, they’re just poor.” There is more truth to his statement than perhaps he himself could imagine, and it should inform a parallel doctrine, “Suburban people aren’t stupid, they’re just suburban.” Instead of shying away from the real issues, instead of coddling people with information and dollars and promises of progress – only to assign blame when accords go unrealized – maybe our work as advocates, analysts, activists, artists, neighbors, residents, leaders, allies, and thinkers should be concerned with communicating the truth. We can eschew the legacy of our predecessors and have the difficult discussions that produce results. We can stop allowing the planning process to end without implementation. What can this city and region look like and what can it provide? This current iteration of St. Louis belongs to residents, not to the past and not to the atavistic fearmongerers that claim every action is loaded with prejudice or is a violation of agency. We are, ultimately, in this together.
Some neighborhoods will not make it. Some cities will not make it. Some suburbs will not make it. Those are the facts. If we continue to neglect the reality of our situation, if we practice patience for the messianic pulse of some pioneering developer, we will have not only dismissed the value of present residents, we will have doomed future residents by continuing to overdraft on the premise of promises. Shrinking the city boundaries will be loaded and difficult and it will alienate and ostracize countless individuals for whom home has always been this or that block. Dissolving municipal boundaries and merging suburbs will be loaded and difficult and it will alienate and ostracize countless individuals for whom home has been this or that cul-de-sac.
However, if we can tell the story differently – if we are upfront about the seriousness of our situation – we can begin to bend that arc towards sustainability. Shrinking is a big deal because it requires our entire American paradigm to be reexamined; it asks us to either stay the course of wasted potential or to choose a common enterprise for both people and community. Having chosen previously not to intervene, we are confronted with the exigency to intervene on a grand scale. This activity will require better leaders and better policy, it will require residents to communicate with each other and dispose of the accusations and allegations. It will mean we will need to begin speaking the same language of survival. This should be heartening, for at the root of our efforts, we all desire and need the same things.
In any case, welcome to the era of difficult decisions, welcome to the Great Pragmatism.

Addendum: I want to point out that much of this logic can also be applied to nonprofits working in distressed neighborhoods (or really, wherever). When municipal governments expend resources without a clear notion of sustainability or deliverables, nonprofit organizations often emerge or are recognized to fill a service need in the community. If the development is doomed to fail, then the nonprofit – which will surely compete with other similar organizations in the city or region – is also doomed to impotence. However, for whatever reason, inept nonprofits are permitted to hang on and chase resources even if they’re ineffective. Building scatter-site housing or providing poorly managed services are not enough reasons for an organization to continue competing for grants. For information on the future of CDCs in this kind of shrinking city climate, please refer to this piece by Alan Mallach.

This essay was originally posted on RJ Koscielniak's blog, City Frontier.


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