24 Oct 2016

Planning for the decline of cities

From Labour Day, 8:45 am on 24 October 2016

By 2030 it’s expected 40 percent of New Zealanders will live in Auckland. And many rural towns and cities are facing inevitable population decline.

Some towns in provincial areas have launched campaigns to attract more and younger people to move there promising affordable homes, a relaxed lifestyle and less competition for jobs.

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Photo: The Wireless

But is this sensible? Justin Hollander from Tufts University in the US has made a study of declining towns and how best to manage them, and he’s not convinced offering incentives to companies and people to move to them stacks up.

He’s written the book, Sunburnt Cities, about decline in the American South West and how it might be managed smarter.

He says cities and towns in much of world are facing to opposite problems to a city such as Auckland.

“We looked at areas in the American West and the Great Plains areas that were projected to lose population and played on the riff of smart growth by saying you should be able to do the same thing when somewhere is depopulating.”

He looked at one city in the south west of the US where a programme of incentives was instigating to stem the outflow of people.

“They spent a ridiculous amount of money to subsidise a company to re-locate there and I asked everyone who was involved whether it was worth it and they all went ‘oh yes definitely worth it we’ve got all these new jobs, all these people moved’. And then I asked them for some of the details.

“Once I added up all of the dollar figures it ended up that it cost the public a million dollars per employee that was recruited.”

He says instead of spending $1 million per employee those dollars would be better used to try and increase the quality of life for the people who are left behind.

“What urban planners forget is we typically see a boom-bust cycle in population changes and property markets and those cycles vary - some take 5 years, some take 100 years.”

Justin Hollander

Justin Hollander Photo: Supplied/Tufts University

Prof Hollander says urban planners should take on board this reality and cites Detroit as an example.

“From the time that Columbus landed until 1900 Detroit had a tiny population, then from 1900 to 1950 the population exploded and then from 1950 to the present it’s been in steady decline and in the last couple of years they’re starting to see re-investment.”

He says any human settlement may grow or may shrink and urban planners need to ensure when that happens cities don’t end up with the problems for which Detroit is famous.

“Vacant buildings and vacant lots, all kinds of problems related to feral cats and wild dogs, rats and different health problems.”

He says a possible policies to improve the quality of life in a shrinking place could include increasing green space.  

“When you start to think about the opportunities decline offer we can have more amenities more parks, open space, forested land, wooded areas and we know that’s a real boon for people’s mental health.”

And if people choose to leave a small town to move to a city like Auckland they are acting rationally, he says.

“People are really smart they know what they’re doing. So what smart decline says is if a community no longer has the amenities and it doesn’t attract people in the way it used to we don’t need to say that’s a bad thing, see it as a failure.”

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