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Smart Decline in Post-Carbon Cities

CITIES: Smart Decline by Deborah Popper and Frank Popper


Cities have always gained or lost population because of economic shifts, immigration, war, and environmental blessings or disasters. Settlements can dwindle and even disappear, as American western (and eastern) ghost towns and archaeological sites the world over show. Yet the United States has typically considered long-term urban population decline unusual—an anomaly that, should it occur in one place, has less significance than growth there and elsewhere.

Many American cities—mostly in the Midwest and Northeast—have, however, seen serious continuing
shrinkage in recent decades and are now beginning to face up to it. A few have tentatively tried to craft measures that accept the persistence, even permanence, of their smaller size. As these cities search for answers, one of the few models they can turn to comes from, of all places, the buffalo country of the Great Plains states. There, communities that fought population decline for decades are now preparing for the realities of a smaller, but not necessarily worse, future. Through our work with these communities over many years, we believe that they have experience that can help guide shrinking cities in what we have called “smart decline.”


In 2002, after decades of trying to restart economic development like most other Rust Belt cities, Youngstown made a radical change in approach. The city began devising a transformative plan to encourage some neighborhoods to keep emptying and their vegetation to return. The plan, still early in its implementation as we write (March 2010), would raze underoccupied structures, streets, and alleys to form larger land parcels and home lots, more green space, and new parks.

At the heart of the plan is Youngstown’s acceptance of decline and attempt to use it to improve the remaining buildings, infrastructure, and services by strategically concentrating them. A perverse measure of the nation’s (and the environmental professions’) neglect of shrinkage possibilities showed up in the media reception of Youngstown’s 2005 plan. Accepting shrinkage seemed so unusual that within two years the city’s approach appeared on the front pages of USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, on the Voice of America, and on the New York Times Magazine’s list of 2006’s most interesting ideas.

The shrinkage policies of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a small town near Pittsburgh, won its mayor, John Fetterman, the cover of the November 2009 Atlantic’s “100 Brave Thinkers” issue. The town’s population losses—90 percent, according to the Atlantic—call for extreme approaches, and Fetterman has emphasized art, turning eyesores into murals and bidding for artists to relocate there.

About The Post Carbon Reader

Post Carbon Reader coverHow do population, water, energy, food, and climate issues impact one another? What can we do to address one problem without making the others worse? The Post Carbon Reader features essays by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the key issues shaping our new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and community resilience. This insightful collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandary and presents some of the most promising responses.

Contributors to The Post Carbon Reader are some of the world's leading sustainability thinkers, including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Wes Jackson, Erika Allen, Gloria Flora, and dozens more.

Editorial Notes: Full report in PDF (1.1 MB) Read other reports This one goes out to the people in Cleveland-Lorain. -BA

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