Flint, Mich.: Growing Stronger By Growing Smaller? As Rust Belt cities empty out, some locals want to shrink the cities to help save them, replacing abandoned houses and vacant lots with green spaces.
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Flint, Mich.: Growing Stronger By Growing Smaller?

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Flint, Mich.: Growing Stronger By Growing Smaller?

Flint, Mich.: Growing Stronger By Growing Smaller?

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Let's listen next to some of the debate over how to turn around the long, slow decline of Flint, Michigan. That city was once a prosperous place at the epicenter of the U.S. auto industry. Today, it's one of the poorest cities in the nation with a declining population and abandoned city blocks - whole blocks vacant.

Some local leaders say it's time to manage this decline by literally shrinking the overall city, bulldozing entire neighborhoods. They contend that a smaller city would be cheaper to run and would help pave the way for better times.

Anthony Brooks reports.

ANTHONY BROOKS: The concept of shrinking cities is not new, but these days in Flint it's the talk of the town, thanks to Dan Kildee. Kildee is the treasurer of Genesee County, and he's put Flint, Michigan, at the center of a national discussion about how to manage the long, slow decline of America's Rust Belt cities.

Mr. DAN KILDEE (Treasurer, Genesee County): There's an obsession with growth and expansion. I'm not against growth. But what we really have to do is recognize that the city has already shrunk, and because we're not growing does not mean we can't be a good city.

BROOKS: To show how Flint has already shrunk, Kildee drives his white Chevy Blazer through the city's old east side where he lived as a child.

Mr. KILDEE: That's the house where my father and uncles and aunts lived. That's where my grandmother lived for 60 years. And, of course, right next door another burned-out house followed by nine empty houses all in a row.

BROOKS: New Orleans really comes…

Mr. KILDEE: Right. It does. It looks like the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, sort of a slow-motion Katrina.

BROOKS: Empty houses and vacant lots block after block.

The numbers tells the story of a dying city. At its peak, Flint had a population of more than 200,000 people. It was a GM factory town with some 80,000 auto industry jobs. Today, the population is about half that. Only a few thousand auto jobs remain, and more than one-third of the homes in Flint have been abandoned.

Mr. KILDEE: It's an extreme example of what a lot of American cities have been dealing with.

BROOKS: Cities like Youngstown, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit - just 60 miles to the south. So, Kildee says it's time to face reality and shrink Flint. As the country treasurer, he heads the county land bank, which has been buying up thousands of abandoned and foreclosed properties. So, now Kildee has control of large portions of Flint, which gives him a powerful tool to reshape the city.

Mr. KILDEE: What we really need is a new map, literally a design of the city that looks at every block in every neighborhood and then makes decisions about where it makes sense to either let nature take the land back or to create some intentional open and green space so that 100,000 people can live in a city that does not look half empty.

BROOKS: Kildee says that would save money on city services like fire, police and sewer and focus limited city resources and investment in neighborhoods that are more viable. Kildee says as much as a quarter of the city could be bulldozed or transformed into green space. And, in fact, that has already begun.

Mr. HARRY RYAN (Retired Electrician): (Unintelligible), stay down there.

BROOKS: Harry Ryan is a retired electrician and realtor who lives here in Flint's old east side. Just across the street from his home where five houses used to stand, the land bank has helped him plant a sprawling community garden, which provides free fruits and vegetables to this part of the city.

Mr. RYAN: We have crowder peas, black eyed peas, purple hull, we have snap beans, yellow beans, green beans.

BROOKS: Ryan says this bounty is one of the benefits of a plan to shrink Flint.

Mr. RYAN: I look at it like this: Something has to be done with this abandoned land. So, I think at every transition you go through there, there are going to be some negative, but look at the positive. This was a junk pile. Now, people are eating from it. I know there are some complaints, but we do not have the 230,000 people no more.

BROOKS: And there are complaints, prompted by fears of just what Flint's leaders intend to do with which neighborhoods. Just last month, Flint's acting mayor, Michael Brown, stirred controversy when he spoke publicly about shutting down quadrants of the city. That stoked fears of forced relocations and alarmed lifelong residents, like Lotti Ferguson.

Ms. LOTTI FERGUSON (Flint Resident): The people that will be displaced, what happens to them? My husband and I bought this house six years ago. The house next door is empty. The house across the street sold for half of what we purchased our house for. I still would not to lose the home that we chose to raise our family in.

BROOKS: Dayne Walling, a candidate for mayor of Flint, says there are lots of people like Lotti Ferguson. He calls the whole shrinking city idea misguided and says it smacks of surrender.

Mr. DAYNE WALLING: There are certainly thousands of residential properties that need to be demolished. I mean, they are not fit for human habitation. But it doesn't follow that the other residents on that block want to move to some other place.

Mr. ALAN MALLACH (Urban Planner, Brookings Institution): I don't think any city has figured out how to do this yet.

BROOKS: That's Alan Mallach, an urban planner with the Brookings Institution. He says the debate in Flint is similar to debates in a number of other Rust Belt cities. And he argues that shrinking cities is politically fraught, but he says Flint and other cities like it may have no other choice.

Mr. MALLACH: If you have a city that has only so much investment opportunity, only so much in the way of resources, if you spread it out, you're basically undermining the whole city. Because the alternative is not re-growth. The alternative is sort of an across-the-board decline.

BROOKS: But Mallach says given the pain of urban renewal policies of the 1960s, which decimated many inner-city neighborhoods, it's understandable that residents would be suspicious of grand government schemes like this.

For his part, County Treasurer Dan Kildee says there is no official plan to shrink Flint yet — it's just an idea that makes sense. But he says that whatever happens, nobody would be forced to move.

Mr. KILDEE: If they choose to live where the population is essentially gone, we need to give them something green and beautiful that surrounds them. But give them the choice to relocate into a more high-density, higher-functioning neighborhood. That's really the point of all this. The people who live in these neighborhoods deserve better. And we have to think about what's in their interest.

BROOKS: Kildee believes that a smaller and greener Flint would be a stronger Flint - and he might be right - but there's the problem of how to pay for it and a broader political challenge. In a culture that has long embraced economic expansion and growth, proponents of shrinking cities must make the case that what they're arguing for isn't surrender. It's the idea that a smaller city might in fact be a better city.

For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks.

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