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In Flint, Trying to Reinvent a Shrinking City

Yesterday on the Streetsblog Network, we looked at the concept of "resilient cities" -- an idea that some of our commenters on Streetsblog NY and Streetsblog LA sites frankly weren't buying.

Today, we have a post from Streetsblog Network member Smart Growth Around America about a city that is desperately searching for some definition of resiliency -- Flint, Michigan. The plight of Flint, which now has only half as many residents as it did at its peak of 200,000, was first brought to national attention in Michael Moore's 1989 film Roger & Me (although there was plenty of controversy over the way the movie blamed General Motors for the situation).

flint_200.jpgAn abandoned home in Flint, Michigan. Photo courtesy of NPR.

Things haven't gotten better -- and as NPR reported earlier this week, the city's government is trying to figure out how to reshape a landscape of empty lots and abandoned homes by using landbanking to create clean green space as well as by encouraging concentrations of denser population.

Smart Growth Around America writes:

“What we really need is a new map, literally a design of the city that looks at every block in every neighborhood, and then makes decisions about where it makes sense to either let nature take the land back or to create some intentional open green space,” Flint resident and Genesee County treasurer Dan Kildee said in the [NPR] story. “So that 100,000 people can live in a city that does not look half-empty.”

Using a process known as landbanking, the city is working with residents to reshape vacant properties into spaces that improve life for the citizens that choose and want to remain in Flint.…

Flint is also looking for ways to restore the population concentration found in the old neighborhoods -- not only because infrastructure and public services are more expensive to provide in sparsely-populated neighborhoods -- but because density helps support the restaurants, grocery stores, shops, and schools that neighborhood residents need for their daily lives.

Planetizen has an excellent article by John Kromer about the controversy over landbanking and the backlash against efforts like Flint's, led by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. He writes:

I can assure Mr. Limbaugh…and others that they need not fear either reforestation or large-scale convention center development on viable urban tracts.…

As head of the Genesee County Land Bank Authority, Daniel Kildee has found a way to generate revenue for the City of Flint while increasing the value of Flint’s real estate assets. At the start of each fiscal year, the Authority takes control of all tax-delinquent properties that would otherwise be sold at auction. The Land Bank Authority does not have to compete in bidding wars against speculators, and the City is paid all the taxes due on the properties taken by the Authority.

Then, in coordination with local government agencies and civic groups, the Land Bank Authority makes sensible, systematic decisions about the future of the properties it now controls. An empty house in move-in condition is assigned to a real estate broker, with net sales proceeds paid to the Land Bank Authority. A small vacant lot is sold to a neighboring homeowner for use as a side yard. In a typical year, 25 to 50 houses are rehabilitated for sale or rent. And some fire-damaged, structurally unsound, and severely dilapidated buildings are demolished in order to remove hazardous conditions and create cleared sites for new investment.

A growing number of local and regional leaders are exploring opportunities to replicate this model of successful reinvestment, and the Obama Administration is offering funding to governments that want to organize land banks of their own. The goal is neither reforestation nor wholesale razing of communities. Community preservation and the creation of new value are paramount.

Any of you out there have more examples of this type of initiative? Do you live in a city where it might be useful?

Elsewhere around the network: Kaid Benfield at NRDC Switchboard has a story of revitalization in Washington, DC. How We Drive looks at the evergreen question of roadside memorials and their potential to cause more crashes. And Worldchanging offers five smart new things to read about climate change.