Planned shrinkage: The Do Not Resucitate approach to urban revitalization

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Steve Patterson of Urban Review - St. Louis posted an entry recently about that city's '70s plan to "deplete" much of the older sections of northern St. Louis. The idea was to write off parts of the city for lost, discourage new investment in those areas, and provide a minimum amount of services for those remaining, until they all die off or move away. A quote from the plan:

Efforts must be made to adjust services and public investments so as to provide for those who are remaining in these areas. Yet these efforts should be pursued without encouraging new investment until the City determined that Redevelopment can and should begin.

Steve links to this item on PubDef.net, which in turn links to this 2002 article: "Quiet Conspiracy: The Team Four Plan and the Plot to Kill North St. Louis". The Team Four Plan was an update to the City of St. Louis' comprehensive plan, and it recommended the demolition of 70,000 homes in the predominantly African-American part of the city.

The plan was drafted in response to a 1973 RAND Corporation study that predicting that the City of St. Louis would no longer be the commercial hub of the metro area and the city should accept its fate as just another municipality among many. The cause for this decline?

The report largely blamed federal government policies for the City’s fate. Very similar to what was happening at the same time in New York City, the report said that highway construction, federal home mortgage programs, and property tax incentives all encouraged the exodus of people and commerce from the City into suburban areas.

Any of this sound familiar yet, Tulsans? (A related side note: I was at a political event a few weeks ago and met Tom Kimball, the head of economic development for Owasso. He told me that right now, about half the population of the metro area lives within the City of Tulsa, and half without. He said that it's natural for the center city to become an even smaller proportion of the metro area, and pointed to St. Louis as an example. I thought, but didn't say, that Tulsa tripled its land area in 1966 precisely to avoid getting hemmed in by its suburbs. I forget the exact number he quoted me, but I believe he suggested that Tulsa shouldn't complain about ending up at around a quarter to a third of the metro area population.)

In an update, PubDef.net links to this 2004 story about city planner Rollin Stanley. A couple of points caught my eye. St. Louis' 1947 comprehensive plan called for demolishing "a large swath" of the most urban part of the city and rebuilding it with suburban-style homes. The other is the amount of distrust between the African-American community and City Hall because of plans that called for the neglect and demolition of their neighborhoods.

The idea of depleting parts of St. Louis was a popular urban "revitalization" strategy, even though it sounds more like death by exposure than healing and restoration. Another term for the idea is "planned shrinkage," described in this article by Gregory Heller, as applied to a neighborhood in New York City:

Like others in the South Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn, this district [Manhattan's Lower East Side] was generating very little tax revenue while costing the city great expenses for social services. These neighborhoods were an economic drain on the financially troubled city. Planned shrinkage, a policy conceived by Roger Starr in 1966 and officially implemented during his tenure as Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Abe Beame in 1976, was a way to expedite the "death" of these troubled neighborhoods to make way for their eventual redevelopment (Wallace and Wallace, 1998, p. 18-19, 24-25).

Insurance and mortgage company redlining, withdrawal of city services, cutting back on code enforcement and police patrols, no new investment in streets and public amenities -- all resulted in vacant buildings, followed by urban renewal condemnation and demolition of blight, followed by site assembly for new private developers. Heller says that Mayor Rudy Giuliani halted the city's collection of land for redevelopment and began to get the property back into the hands of the private sector.

(Again, I'm reminded of complaints by northside Tulsa leaders about the amount of land the city has accumulated and seems to be just sitting on.)

I don't have the time or energy right now to connect all the dots. The articles I've linked will give you a sense of some of the currents of thought in urban policy since World War II, currents that affected every major American city, and not in a good way. They'll also give you an understanding of the roots of the suspicion that many north Tulsa residents have about the substandard housing initiative and other revitalization plans. Food for thought.

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This Michael Bates "side note" carries more weight than you'd think: I was at a political event a few weeks ago and met Tom Kimball, the head of economic development... Read More

4 Comments

kyle said:

Just at first blush: That was an insanely stupid idea. I have no problem with the idea that the "center" of town might be allowed to shift, especially in a town like Tulsa which seems to have grown in only one or two directions. But attempting to deliberately kill off a city by reducing services only escalates the crime rate and other factors beyond belief. 3 hours with Sim City will teach you that.

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Good entry. Looks like its extremely easy to take plans from other locales, without studying the future impact of the plans and really do a lot of damage to a city. Reminds me of the old adage about insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

This is a very interesting article.

As one that has worked the North Side of Tulsa for several years, I find it hard to believe that the north side is any more blighted, than say, the east side or the west side, and even parts of the south side.

I believe that a neighborhood can remain only as "unblighted" as it's residents allow or don't allow. I suspect that it boils down to personal economics. If you have enough money, generally you will take pride in your property and keep it maintained. If you are poor, then generally vice versa.

This is not the case all the time, of course. I've seen dirt poor people maintain a very beautiful, if yet humble, home. These tend to be retirees, or older folks that are still working.

In any case, if it is the secret policy of Tulsa's leaders to confine one area of Tulsa and deny it services for the purpose of lining the pockets of developers at a later date, then not only should that be a crime, but it should also be punishable. One cannot neglect civil duty to become wealthy.

If this is true, then I am truly saddened.

Honestly "J" said:

This sure doesn't sound like it's constitutional to me. As a resident of District 6, I am deeply concerned about intentionally neglecting certain parts of a city all in the name of "redevelopment." It's truly amazing to see the documentation of just how many years this idea has been going on. What will we do in Tulsa to prevent this from happening here? I believe as citizens, we have to speak up and let our elected officials know we won't tolerate this. Furthermore, we have to question those who are running for office as to where they stand on this issue. If there is ANY doubt, we should ensure, with our votes, that they don't get elected. People must WISE UP about this and the issue of eminant domain for private use. Keep getting the word out, Michael. We can't ignore, or be in denial and think everything will just be ok, anymore. I've been glad to have voted for Councilor Mautino, and I will again. At least I know where his TRUE concerns are focused, unlike so many others, who only have their OWN interests lining their own pockets on the backs of others, especially the poor. Honestly "J"

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 14, 2006 11:42 PM.

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