When it comes to the life of a city, “urban death” sounds like an oxymoron. We know cities have perished in the distant past. We know cities in conflict zones are blasted to rubble. But a city dying a slow deliberate death? That sounds like a story out of the Twilight Zone, not the local news.
According to Charlie Jane Anders at I09, “Cities grow, or they die.” And when you consider death in this context, it is more helpful to imagine how many streetlights are lightless than a mysterious ghost town.
“We’ve all seen the spectre of urban centers hollowing out from the inside,” Anders writes. “And “ruin porn” has become a whole category of photography, with a huge fanbase. There have been multiple books of photos of Detroit’s dilapidated theaters, railway stations and other formerly grand buildings. There’s just something insanely compelling about looking into a formerly vibrant city gone dead — and part of it is the fear that this could happen to your town, as well.”
So compelling, in fact, that Anders asked academics across the United States, “How can you tell if you’re city is actually in a death spiral, or in danger of going into one?”
1. The size of the population is going down
This is the big one, says Patrick Condon with University of British Columbia. “Sadly, many center cities are seeing that.” Many cities have lost 50 to 70 percent of their peak population — like Detroit, whose population has dropped 60 percent. “St. Louis has the worst population loss of any large city,” adds Brent Ryan, an Assistant Professor of Urban Design and Public Policy at MIT. Other cities with huge population loss: Cleveland and Baltimore, and other big cities.
2. The average local income is also going down
In other words, “people moving in have lower incomes than those moving out,” says Tom Bier, Senior Fellow with the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.
3. The population is overwhelmingly older
And as the city’s population gets older, smaller and poorer, the reverse is happening in the suburbs, says Condon: younger families, growing populations and increasing average income. Adds Condon, “Detroit is the classic nighmare where the center city was vacuum cleaned of its middle class by a GM-inspired highway building boom, devaluing center city lands and sucking all the life into far flung isolated cul de sacs.”
4. Residents are not paying taxes or mortgages
Bier says there are a number of classic signs that a city is in trouble:
- An increase in property tax delinquency.
- An increase in mortgage delinquency and foreclosure.
- An increase in rental of single-family homes.
- Property owners are unable to make needed repairs, because they don’t have enough money.
- Homes are being sold through “rent to own.”
- There’s an increase in property code violations — or if the city isn’t doing inspections, then that’s a huge red flag.
Says Bier, “The key to preventing decline is making — or keeping — the community attractive to the point where people who can readily afford to maintain property will choose to live there. Once real estate begins to show lack of maintenance, stronger incomes will go elsewhere, which results in more decline, which pushes more stronger incomes away — and on and on.”
5. Once monumental buildings are now “icons of decline”
Americans especially hate to see local “monumental buildings” standing vacant, because it makes their towns look bad, says Ryan, who’s the author of Design After Decline: How America rebuilds shrinking cities. Detroit has had several “spectacularly vacant” buildings for decades, which become “icons of decline,” says Ryan. These include the Packard Factory, the main local hotel, the train station — and even the baseball stadium for a while. When you see these huge vacant buildings around town, “that’s sort of the clearest indication.”
6. Land sits unused because there is nothing to use it for
In most cities, a parking lot is viewed as the absence of buildings — but in Detroit, even a parking lot is a welcome sign that the land is being used for something, says Ryan. If you can’t even build a parking lot on some vacant land, then it’s a sign that there’s absolutely no activity going on. “At least someone wants to use the land for something. They’re using it to park a car. It’s not nothing.”
7. Huge areas remain unrecovered while other areas flourish
On the surface, says Ryan, Philadelphia appears to be doing quite well — its population has been growing in recent years, and it has an image of being a vibrant, exciting city. But you can’t take a train through Philadelphia, you’ll go through North Philadelphia, “the heart of dead industrial Philadelphia.” Philly was once the greatest industrial city in the United States — and that’s all gone now. “The 30 percent of the city that was not industrial… is very active and vibrant. But you’ve got huge dead areas of the city,” says Ryan. The healthy areas of the city are masking the trouble spots.
In the end, a city’s life course is not like ours. Robert A. Beauregard, Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University, says a human being “is born, lives, and dies.” Cities, on the other hand, “are socio-technical systems, precariously integral, and capable of becoming smaller and fragmented and still functioning well.”
As places like Detroit struggle against the encroaching vines of urban decay - both metaphorically and literally, let this good fight be a testament to the dynamism of our landscapes.
I salute those who see decay and re-imagine local life in ways that put people first.