Bulldoze the 'burbs?

A screenshot of a YouTube video of new homes in Victorville, Calif., being demolished. The bank that acquired the development in a foreclosure decided that the homes were cheaper to demolish than to sell.

A story last week in the Telegraph, a British paper, describes how the city of Flint, Mich., a former industrial powerhouse now facing depopulation and plummeting home values, is dealing with vacant housing.

The solution? Bulldoze entire districts, returning the land to nature, and concentrate the population in the urban core.

The Telegraph's Tom Leonard reports that the idea is the brainchild of Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint.

He said: "The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there's an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they're shrinking, they're failing."
But some Flint dustcarts are collecting just one rubbish bag a week, roads are decaying, police are very understaffed and there were simply too few people to pay for services, he said.
If the city didn't downsize it will eventually go bankrupt, he added.

The article reports that the city has already demolished 1,100 abandoned homes, and that Mr. Kildee estimates that another 3,000 will need to come down. Overall, local officials believe that the city will need to contract its area

Additionally, the city is buying up homes in upscale neighborhoods, which it will offer to people living in areas that it wants to demolish. But nobody will be forced to move, according to Kildee.

Kildee met with Barack Obama during his presidential campaign, and has been approached by the government to look into applying his strategy to other Rust Belt cities (prompting the Drudge Report to link to the story with the headline, "OBAMA ERA: BULLDOZE SHRINKING CITIES?")

Razing declining neighborhoods doesn't seem to be a priority right now for the Obama administration, but Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser thinks it should be. Writing in the New York Times's Economix blog, Professor Glaeser argues that some cities just aren't going to come back.

These cities, he writes, would do well to focus their investment on people, not on infrastructure:

After all, the job of government is to enrich and empower the lives of its citizens, not to chase the chimera of population growth targets. Just once, I want to hear a Rust Belt mayor say with pride “my city lost 200,000 people during my term, but we’ve given them the education they need to find a better life elsewhere.”

Glaeser points out that the distribution of America's population was very different a century ago. In 1900, the 20 largest US cities were on waterways. But the advent of the automobile made it possible to travel over land cheaply, and people migrated in droves to the wide open of the Sun Belt. (The rise of air conditioning probably helped, too.)

But now there's another shift underway, as migration to America's southern tier is slowing and as more Americans are moving back into city centers, a trend that predates, but was accelerated by, the subprime mortgage crisis. As urban strategist Christopher B. Leinberger wrote in the Atlantic in March 2008, the growing number of vacant and abandoned malls, office parks, and McMansions threaten to turn suburbia into the next slum.

Many sustainability experts have noted that urbanites use far less energy than their suburban counterparts. New Yorker writer David Owen observed in 2004 that, if New York City were granted statehood it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use, thanks in part to public transit and other shared resources, but mostly because its compactness forces people to be energy efficient. No matter what your politics are, when you don't need to get in a car just to go pick up a quart of milk, you're living a greener lifestyle.

In the meantime, at least one perfectly good suburban housing development has already been demolished, not by the government, but by a profit-seeking enterprise.

In May, a video surfaced on YouTube of new houses in Victorville, Calif., being knocked down by a backhoe. Apparently, Guaranty Bank of Austin, Texas, which acquired the 16 properties through a foreclosure sale, believed it was cheaper to destroy the homes than to sell them.

Maura Judkis, the eco-blogger at US News, reported that the appliances were removed from the homes before they were wrecked, and some of the wood was sent to be reused for construction projects in Mexico, while the rest to be ground up for mulch.

Still, it all seems such a waste. Given how hard it is to predict future migration patterns, perhaps we should build new homes – such as prefabricated houses – that can be easily disassembled and rebuilt elsewhere.

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