It's hardly helpful to a bankrupt Detroit to say "I told you so," but I did tell you so. In the October 1995 issue of the Atlantic, I suggested that large Rust Belt cities such as Detroit, whose populations had declined drastically during the postwar era, needed to consider planned shrinkage. This may sound like a declaration of defeat. Yet as I wrote, "Downsizing has affected private institutions, public agencies, and the military, as well as businesses. Why not cities?"
When a city loses population, it loses residents, but keeps the same amount of infrastructure. The same streets must be policed and maintained, the same streetlights repaired, the same water and sewer systems operated, the same transit systems run. It is like an (impoverished) elderly couple having to keep up a large house after all the kids have grown up and moved out.
This imbalance has several deleterious effects. Because the city has fewer taxpayers, the quality of its municipal services goes down. For example, police response time to 911 calls in Detroit is currently said to be 58 minutes. It expends scarce resources on nonproductive uses; Philadelphia pays $20 million a year just to maintain 40,000 vacant properties. Moreover, because urban vitality depends on density, without an adequate concentration of people, corner stores close, streets become empty — and dangerous — and abandoned buildings become haunts for criminal activities. According to a 1973 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the tipping point in a community occurs when only 3 percent to 6 percent of properties are blighted; many neighborhoods of shrinking cities passed that point decades ago.
A few cities such as New York and Washington have reversed their earlier population losses. Others, such as Boston, are smaller than they used to be but have developed a solid economic base. Cities that are unlikely to get bigger or richer have two options. The first is consolidation. Residents of underpopulated areas are encouraged to relocate to other parts of the city, these neighborhoods are reinforced, and the abandoned areas are essentially mothballed, with all municipal services cut off.
The second option, even more drastic, is divestiture. Historically, cities have grown by annexing neighboring communities. They could shrink by doing the opposite: selling off land in large tracts to private developers who would be responsible for providing their own municipal services (as they do in the suburbs) without the burden of city taxes and bureaucracy. Cities wouldn't gain taxpayers, but they would divest themselves of unproductive land, and at the same time, people and economic activities would be attracted back into the urban vicinity.
Although no cities have attempted divestiture — the political, social and legal obstacles are simply too great — in the last decade some cities have begun to consider planned shrinkage. Flint, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio, have adopted strategies to encourage downsizing. In 2010, Detroit's Mayor Dave Bing announced an ambitious consolidation plan that would raze or recycle about a third of the city. Residents of depopulated neighborhoods would be encouraged — not forced — to move so that streets and buildings could be demolished and services disconnected.
Consolidation is not a smooth process. It attracts many opponents, not only the residents affected but also historic preservationists, local politicians and minority spokesmen. In Youngstown, as the New York Times reported, a program to demolish vacant houses foundered. "Ordinances were passed, but they fell victim to political infighting and legal action. Code enforcement was difficult because the city's planning department, which employed 28 people in the 1970s, had dwindled to 3, including the secretary." In Detroit, popular resistance to the consolidation plan didn't take long to materialize. Because depopulated neighborhoods tend to be in low-income areas, the stage is set for a David and Goliath confrontation, often fueled by bathetic stories in the news media.
Now that Detroit has declared bankruptcy, consolidation will probably be put on the back burner. That would be a mistake. The need for downsizing is, if anything, more urgent, else the depopulated third of the city act as a millstone, hobbling efforts at recovery.
The best outcome in Detroit would be if the shock of bankruptcy brought the various interests in the city together. Consolidation could be a part of the court-mandated restructuring process. Experience has shown that voluntary displacement of residents is unlikely to succeed, and some version of eminent domain with regard to nonviable neighborhoods is required.
"Does this sound heartless?" I asked 18 years ago. "Surely it is less so than the current Polyannaish pretense of providing services to many poor and depopulated neighborhoods, which are occasionally half revived with community development projects and then left on their own to decay even further." Shrinkage is a lot tougher than growth, and Detroit has no other realistic option.
Witold Rybczynski is an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His forthcoming book is "How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit."