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Shrinking cities focus of MSU web series

By Mark Bashore, WKAR News


In the aftermath of the Great Recession, several of Michigan's most important cities have shrunk. In Detroit, Flint and elsewhere, companies have folded, population has declined and housing has become vacant. All now face the challenge of new ways to use land. WKAR's Mark Bashore takes a look an East Lansing event that offers insights into the resizing process.


Michigan's resizing challenges vary significantly. The ripples extend to less populated areas as well. The thread that connects them is local policy -- where to concentrate people and services and where to limit them.

Eight miles from downtown Lansing you'll find a spot where the suburbs meet the country. On McCue Road in Delhi Township, land use specialist Harmony Gmazel stands at the edge of a tidy, new subdivision.

"And just over McCue Road on the south side, you see successful working lands," she points out. "Looks like winter wheat. We've got treelines, a healthy drain corridor and a very active farming community."

Gmazel works for the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. She's just finished work on a plan that establishes a similar Urban Service Boundary' around the entire Lansing area. The idea is to offer municipal water and sewer service only within the boundary. Outside the line, the homeowner or developer is on the hook.

"By placing a boundary policy into the master plan and zoning ordinance, you can create spaces for residential, commercial and office, but also work to protect open space and farmland," she says.

Gmazel and other supporters of the idea say it will help mitigate the effects of open space in urban areas.

In the city of Lansing, there are different priorities. Planning Director Bob Johnson admits to challenges posed by foreclosed properties and shuttered auto plants. But he says a more diverse economy guarantees Lansing won't look like Flint or Detroit.

"In Lansing, you don't see that type of abandonment," he says. "Have we lost jobs? Yeah we have, but then we've gained jobs too. Being a state capital, we have a stable base of employment from that standpoint: health care, education. We take our hits, don't get me wrong, but we bounce back, I think, a little bit quicker."

65 miles away, Flint's top city executive envies challenges as modest as Johnson's. Flint's population has shrunk by half since the 1960s. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling sees bigger home lots returning to his city, incorporating newly vacant space.

"What 70 years ago would have been three or four houses is now one house with a nice garage and some room for the kids and grandkids to play," he claims.

Walling says it's critical to invest in spaces that are already built to stop sprawl. He says a major priority is fairness, which gets back to the theme of the webinar -- resizing "in a just and equitable manner."

"No one can deny that we've had population loss, that's a fact," he continues. "But the city of Flint, under my leadership, will continue to provide a high quality service across the entire city -- different kinds of investments, in different parts of the city, based on what those neighborhoods want to see."

Rex LaMore is director of Michigan State University's Center for Community and Economic Development, and organizer of the webinar series, "Re-sizing Michigan Communities in a Just and Equitable Manner." LaMore says resizing cities invites abusive dislocations that were part of America's expansion of the interstate highway system in the 1960s.

LaMore wonders, "Are we able to do this process of moving people from 'sending neighborhoods' to 'receiving neighborhoods,' where we might invest in those neighborhoods, in a way that has minimal disruption, both to the individuals and the families that are affected, as well as the enterprises that might be asked to relocate?"

Lansing planning director Bob Johnson is confident that city won't be taking the strategic resizing route anytime soon. But the experiences of his counterparts in other communities may serve as an insightful, cautionary tale.

The "Resizing Michigan Communities" webinar series wraps with a live convention June 7 at East Lansing's Hannah Center.

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