Urban Downsizing and Reinvention

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A friend directed me to this article about urban blight in the New York Times. I was fascinated at what’s happening in this country due to the economy! After a little research, I found that urban centers in other parts of the world are going through big changes, too. The common thread is that they are dealing with loss of jobs, foreclosures, and residents moving away to find work and start over. The result is thousands of vacant homes and multi-family buildings, as well as reduced tax bases. Urban populations are getting smaller, some as much as 25% over the past decade or so.

How are city governments handling it? Urban planning is based on growth and expansion, not shrinkage. Buildings are being razed, but what’s done with the open land varies from city to city.

New York City Urban Renewal 1

In New York City, this walkway (The High Line) was created from the remnants of an old railway line.

Image: CristinaMuraca / Shutterstock.com

Some municipalities are embracing this new phenomenon. They would like to concentrate residents in neighborhoods that are most livable, near conveniences and with stable infrastructure. Others would like to rebuild their cities to attract and accommodate a new demographic. Baltimore, for instance, wants to appeal to same sex couples, since they can now be legally married in Maryland.

New Growth

I see this as an opportunity for cities to redefine themselves and become environmentally sustainable and people-friendly. By razing empty buildings, green space can be created. Aside from improving the quality of life of the residents, plants take in CO2 and convert it to oxygen, reducing air pollution. Parks and recreation areas can house education facilities to teach children (and adults!) about the local ecosystems, plants, animals, soil, water and resource conservation.

Empty lots can be turned into urban farms or community gardens. Fresh food in cities has traditionally been hard to come by. Residents would be able to grow their own food, especially if they have specific cultural needs. They can meet others in the community, and maybe sell their surplus for some extra spending money.

Reducing the size of the city’s footprint results in a higher density population. That means a more walkable and bike friendly city as homes, schools, stores and jobs are all close by. Less need for fossil fuel-based transportation equals fewer sources for CO2 emissions.

Saving Money

Smaller cities also cost less to run and maintain. There would be less infrastructure and fewer roads to repair, property taxes would be lower, police and firefighters would have a smaller area to cover, and money previously spent on abandoned neighborhoods could be used to revitalize the most livable areas.

Crime would go down while employment and property values would go up. With statistics like that, new residents would be drawn back to the city.

Since it’s cheaper to raze a building than maintain it, city governments should take advantage of this new situation of the 21st century. Create smaller, eco-friendly cities that are more amenable to its residents. The argument that cities that are expanding are thriving seems outdated to me.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.