Shrinking Cities Can Make Abandoned Homes an Asset

Last Updated: September 22, 2022

In the worst shrinking cities in the U.S., meaning cities losing population, some remaining residents just want a ticket out of town. They never expected to see coyotes and wild turkeys in their backyards. They didn't think they would have to fix their own roads or cart their own garbage around.

shrinking cities left

Photo credits:
Copyright Kevin Bauman

Nobody wants to admit that their own city is getting smaller, of course, but it's best to face up to reality when numbers tell you what is happening.

Many European cities also have endured periods of extended loss of population, wealth, and reputation, usually based on the decline of their major industry or the devastation of war. We think communist-era architecture and repression were very bad for cities also. But from Belfast to Belgrade, Europe offers some examples of great turnarounds.

Experience across the globe shows that a city in decline needs a serious reinvention program, with a realistic and focused economic strategy that creates something new. The simple truth is that unless a weak market for housing and commercial space becomes a stronger market, a city will continue to stagnate or spiral downward. Stronger markets are only possible with economic reinvention. Do not skip over this paragraph!

A few residents in cities such as Detroit, Youngstown, Cleveland, Buffalo, or St. Louis just decide to make the best of being the only house on the block. True, there are annoyances and inconveniences, but rural folk somehow survive with slow police response time, no functioning stop lights, reporting their own utility outages, and inconvenient animal species in the neighborhood.

For the leaders of shrinking cities, their counties, suburbs, and neighborhoods, however, this is a very serious matter indeed. The loss of property tax base due to scores of nearly worthless abandoned homes can be devastating. Fires, crime, drug dealing, rodents, and infrastructure failure actually increase, while revenue and population decline.

For decades leadership seemed to be in denial about population loss in major cities, rationalizing that people were moving to the suburbs or that the next big thing in terms of economic development was just around the corner. Now, perhaps helped along in the U.S. by what happened in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a few leaders are stepping up to find a new way to do business.

But speaking frankly, sometimes cities continue to shrink because of a lack of vision and skill on the part of its elected leadership. Dedicated leaders can learn, and in fact have many resources available to them to do so, beginning with the National League of Cities and professional organizations such as the American Planning Association. 

However, concerned citizens and businesses may decide that they cannot poke and prod their elected leaders into the degree of innovation, systems change, and economic reinvention that will be required.  In these situations, we believe that entities such as community development corporations have to reinvent themselves for this especially challenging role. We're encouraging our readers to check out this excellent article on CDCs in shrinking cities from Shelterforce magazine.

Four Priorities for Shrinking Cities

We think there are huge opportunities for these shrinking cities in four areas, which we describe below.

1. Consolidate occupied urban land uses, including homes, businesses, and institutions, into the remaining viable areas. Otherwise, you will continue to lose ground as more and more neighborhoods manifest city decline. In a country where people are accustomed to freedom of residence, this is extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

Tools might include incentives in the form of financial or logistical relocation assistance, a more flexible approach to zoning through form-based codes that allow compatible infill buildings, and withdrawal of city services or even de-annexation of certain areas.

An urban homesteading program could help residents of the only occupied house on the block become owners in a better neighborhood that is suffering from only a few abandoned homes.

The Center for Community Progress has even advocated a land banking strategy in which auctioned homes revert to a land bank and then are immediately destroyed, as a means of preventing the neighbors from having to put up with a deteriorating house for which there is no market. To be fair, the Center highlights many different options; where vacancy is a public policy issue, be sure to check out their extensive resources and case studies. If you are not familiar with the Center, start reading about them, as we find that they are the one place that really delves into how to handle vacant property.

A very public and fairly lengthy community engagement process not only will produce the best ideas, but also will help citizens deal with the emotional aspects of having to change. Often those who remain in declining cities are in fierce denial about actual conditions and prospects, so our experience is that you need to confront directly with how bad things are, while also presenting possible remedies and positive futures.

By all means, make sure that your zoning code does not allow new urban sprawl. It is tempting for people of some means to find the outskirts of the city and build new developments there, but that's the last thing you need if you want your shrinking cities to be sustainable at a new, lower population base.

You could make a greenbelt around the new perimeter of the city that you would like to establish, or even establish a variation of an urban growth boundary that showed where new construction would be allowed. Yes, we know that shrinking cities probably don't have the muscle in a regional planning agency to make something like this happen, but it may be an option for a few. (We can't resist the comment that some cities are in decline precisely because they don't have any effective regional planning and implementing organization.)

And make good transportation planning part of the mix. Make sure that the viable pockets and neighborhoods can still connect to one another, and if necessary, abandon minor collectors or arterials that are no longer serving much of a purpose. (These can become bicycle boulevards, where traffic is optimized for bicycles. See the bikeable community page.)

2. Suspend problem thinking for a day or two at a time and indulge in some asset-based community development thinking about how you will reinvent your economy. A surplus of abandoned homes means a ready supply of buildings for new businesses. Maybe an abandoned block could become a business incubator, with one of the houses serving as the center for encouraging entrepreneurs.

Abandoned homes are a less expensive rehab than large industrial buildings, and that's why we think that this approach is better than setting up two or three large incubators. Another advantage is that any existing resident can remain in place and co-exist with new small businesses as neighbors.

Build a new specialty in helping people come up with new business ideas and bring them into being. Small businesses, and in severe recession new businesses in particular, are the source of your jobs, and jobs in turn attract and retain population if you wish to stabilize at your new lower number.

If you're determined to re-grow your economy, start immediately with innovation clubs and labs. A club doesn't require any money or infrastructure, just a meeting space. Your shrinking city has meeting space all over. When you have people talking about innovation and generating excitement, read Economic Revitalization: Cases and Strategies for City and Suburb so you're not just whistling in the dark.

3. Kick any existing programs to encourage people to think creatively, enhance their true education (as opposed to training), and teach innovation into high gear. Institutionalize entrepreneurship support right in city government or in your local chamber of commerce, since it doesn't have as many members to service as it used to.

Incidentally, if the quality of public education is a severe problem, as it is in many U.S. declining cities, the public or private sector must come up with new ideas and programs for turning around the education system too. Unfortunately the education profession seems to be stuck, so help them think differently if you expect different results. 

4. Start a community garden and explore more sophisticated forms of urban agriculture such as hydroponics, vertical gardens, urban orchards, and the like. If you are determined that your population may return (perhaps because of your success in building entrepreneurs?), community gardens can let you preserve the street grid and some semblance of order rather than vegetation that city dwellers perceive as weeds.

Our experience in working with neighborhoods is that this isn't as easy as it sounds either, and the prescription sometimes is given too glibly. Urban folks often didn't grow up valuing or knowing much about gardening, and even if they did because of relatives living elsewhere, they did not think of vegetable gardening as a prudent use of urban space in shrinking cities. So there's a learning curve, and there may be unsuitable or contaminated soils to deal with. A city tractor lending library and a soil amendment expert could be a big help!

By the way, often people who initially think community gardening is a really stupid idea end up liking the socializing, being outdoors, and physical work. Many of the people left in the shrinking cities are accustomed to manual labor, so they can learn new skills if the city will support the infrastructure if there is no existing non-profit to fill the gap.

If you don't have enough gardeners who are willing to gather weekly or so for an efficient marketplace, you may want to teach citizens to revert more purposefully to the native landscape of your ecosystem—be that prairie, woodlands, or sub-tropical.

This is really as work-intensive as gardening, as it often involves removal of invasive species that were brought in from elsewhere. And it also signals that you don't think the city is coming back any time soon. The personal preference of the authors of this website would be to go with the gardening. It's only a one-season commitment. But you have to decide.

Some portion of your shrinking city can become a new native landscape park for the remaining population. A long meandering park (called "linear park") along a newly exposed creek, called daylighting a creek to the professionals, would be an attractive feature that might bring back some people who aren't dependent on geography for their jobs or livelihoods.

Regenerating Depopulated Cities

Taking a broad historical perspective, yes, it's possible for the declining city to regenerate again.

Around the world, the shrinking cities discussion in the U.S. may seem odd indeed. After all, human history contains nomadic existences and a substantial period of "slash and burn" agricultural practice in which moving on when land was depleted was the way lives were conducted. And in world history cities have died completely and then been rebuilt many times.

So it isn't foolish to take the long view and the optimistic perspective, if and only if you have a serious plan about how to rebuild your economic base and you're willing to stick to it. Yes, Detroit can dream about the next generation of manufacturing, and perhaps succeed if it is willing to engage in rigorous economic analysis much more frequently than just sheer hope.

Let's face it. Population loss comes from mostly loss of economic base but also possibly from poor community attachment. So huddling together and getting to know neighbors isn't all a bad thing. Social opportunities are the number one ingredient in an emotional attachment to place. Young people want cool clubs, bars, and restaurants, and older folks need places to hang out too. But everyone needs to feel like there's a reason to come out of their homes to meet other people. Don't forget to work on community meeting places.

And surely an emotional attachment is all that's keeping most people in these shrinking cities.

For more information and help, you will need a landscape architect or a city planning consultant

If Your Neighborhood Is Abandoned, Here's What to Do:

  1. Making and Keeping a Good Community
  2.  >
  3. Community Challenges, Common Topics & Concepts
  4.  >
  5. Redevelopment > Shrinking Cities

Join GOOD COMMUNITY PLUS, which provides you monthly with short features or tips about timely topics for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, and rural or small town environments. Unsubscribe any time. Give it a try.