Public Policy Forum Blog

Embracing decline

It can be exhausting talking about growth all the time. Growth is in every speech, every report, every sound-bite, every strategic plan. I'm guilty as charged - grow the economy, grow the tax base, grow jobs, grow income, etc., etc., etc. Naturally, growth can be a good thing because it can have the effect of easing the tax burden and increasing personal wealth.

With all the talk of growth, can we equipped ourselves to embrace decline in our culture?

The idea that smaller is better is gaining traction within some communities in the long-decaying rust belt region of the upper Midwest. After all, say supporters of the nascent shrinking cities movement, why pay for expensive municipal services to support a 1950's population of 170,000, when currently only 82,000 live in the community (Youngstown, OH was used for this example). An example of "embracing decline" is to permanently cut off services to areas of a city that are largely vacant and no longer viable and then turn those tracks of land into low-maintenance prairie.

If you are interested in the subject of urban decay, I would recommend the DetroitYes website as a required layover when surfing the web for decline information. The site has an astonishing collection of photo's from modern-day Detroit in all it's crumbling glory. The above photo, from the DetroitYes collection, is of the now-vacant Michigan Central Railroad Station. According to the website, every effort to breath life into the gem has failed. Today it remains one of the country's foremost monument's to urban decline.

Lesson's for Milwaukee? At this point, following the smart decline or shrinking cities model seems to be better suited for cities where the entire region is in decline (Youngstown, etc.). The Milwaukee region, after all, is still growing on the edges. The model that Milwaukee is following is not to give up on the city but to "fill in" the city with development - Park East, the Valley, 30th Street Industrial Corridor, Pabst Brewery, etc. But what does Milwaukee do about the high cost of maintaining a crumbling infrastructure? After all, what once was a city of 741,324 in 1960, is now a city of 578,887 (as of 2005). Sure, household size has decreased which has the effect of filling up more homes, but it's still not hard to find abandoned factories, empty storefronts and vacant homes. Should Milwaukee continue to beat the drum of growth, or should we embrace our shrinking city status by instead focusing on making this the best city possible for the 578,887 that remain?

In the end, a little bit of growth AND a little bit of "right-sizing" might be required to sustain the quality of life that every city resident is entitled. Regardless of what you think of these ideas, add smart decline and shrinking cities to your urban lexicon.