Into the Woods

Our store is located in the historic downtown area of our city; our house is a scant kilometre away, in an older neighbourhood of large brick homes shaded by enormous maple trees. Both as business people and as homeowners, we have a vested interest in maintaining the health and viability of our city centre.

Even though we are neither urban planners nor property developers, we are fascinated by the concepts of city land-use, of density, and of sprawl. Anyone with an interest in history knows that civilizations — and their cities — grow during their ascendancies only to fall back, or even disappear, when their influence wanes. This is, in part, what has happened over the past quarter-century within many smaller centres to the traditional downtowns, as their economic strength was reduced by the influx of mass merchants and big box stores located on the cities’ outer rims.

It should come as no surprise to any of us to see the same hallmarks of decline in those North American neighbourhoods — even entire communities — that have been devastated by the double whammy of systemic job loss and a falling real estate market: empty houses, boarded up and inviting vandalism and arson, causing the value of adjoining properties to decline more and faster in a race to the bottom.

And so, I was intrigued to read an article in the New York Times about radical surgery for dying cities. A case in point is Flint, Michigan — a city whose population has fallen from roughly 200,000 to about half that, and whose unemployment rate was estimated to be 15% in 2007 — whose city and county governments are exploring the idea of buying and tearing down derelict houses and neighbourhoods, essentially returning the legal title of the properties to a county land bank. The net result of this would be to shrink the city: to condense houses and the services they require into fewer and more viable areas. Less asphalt, more green space. Greater efficiency for collection of garbage, for policing, and for fire services.

Dan Kildee, Genesee County treasurer and a prime mover behind the plan, perhaps says it most simply and persuasively: “If it’s going to look abandoned, let it be clean and green,” he said. “Create the new Flint forest — something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure.”


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