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‘A Shrinking City’

March 15, 2011

Thanks to my friend and erstwhile MA colleague Doreen at The Ardent Exile for posting this story on Facebook.

It’s about a town in Ohio which has given up the idea of trying to replace the steel industry which used to be the mainstay of the economy. They couldn’t find a viable alternative and people were moving away in large numbers, so the city government has abandoned ‘the dream of growth’, which underpins all city and development planning and is working instead to reshape Youngstown as a smaller city.

I find this fascinating for many reasons. Firstly, it is really unusual to hear people (and particularly people in government) questioning the ideal of growth. This is physical growth rather than economic growth, but there are obvious connections – cities grew in size through industrial expansion, and the idea of perpetual growth underpins the economy as surely as it does city planning. It is equally unthinkable to challenge it. Yet the collapse of heavy industries throughout the developed world has often led to urban stagnation and deprivation and if those industries aren’t coming back then the cities will inevitably have to adapt, economically, socially and spatially. I have been wrestling with this for my dissertation which explores (among other things!) relocalisation and community-based alternatives to perpetual growth and the idea that ‘bigger is better’, through the lens of food movements and urban agriculture, and while I am working with groups that are doing this pre-emptively I have read several examples of places where the response has been force by circumstances, such as in Youngstown. Industry declines or moves away, the entrepreneurs move on somewhere else, unemployment is massive, the loss of tax revenue from corporations and citizens causes public services to suffer and sometimes fail outright, crime rises, and things get tougher and tougher for those who can’t or don’t want to leave and go somewhere else. This is the first example I have come across of local government managing ‘degrowth’ proactively, though of course there are probably others – usually it seems that people are left to fend for themselves.

It would have been nice to hear what kind of potential the city planners envisaged for Youngstown as a smaller town. The tone of the article was still very negative. While I don’t want to glamourise urban poverty and post-industrial deprivation, in a lot of the other cases people have stepped into the void with amazing resourcefulness and creativity – growing food, creating art, talking to your neighbours. (There was a great BBC documentary about Detroit which showed this last year, which actually showed a project where people went round and demolished abandoned buildings because there were frequent instances of men taking women there and raping them, and other horrific things. As the buildings were destroyed, the physical city shrank along with its economy, yet this was less depressing than leaving them there as some sort of ghostly reminder of what had once been.) The comments pick up on this much more, with some commenters giving positive suggestions (if you, erm, ignore the person who apparently missed the entire point of ‘The Stepford Wives’ and calls it the ‘perfect community’) and frequent references to how nice it would be to have more green space and for urban dwellers to have more access to land.

I don’t know enough about the specific context – whose communities are being torn down? whose get to stay? who are the council trying to induce to move elsewhere in the city? how were people consulted? – to come out unequivocally in support of this particular case, but I am pleased that municipalities are moving away from constantly striving for growth and this opens up an exciting space to talk about what we want our future to be like. The community responses in similar situations and grassroots movements like Transition show that people are able and willing to think creatively about alternatives. What could we achieve if these visions were supported by forward-thinking governments?

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