Monday, April 16, 2012

What Happens When Your Neighbors Depart?

Despite what anti-urbanism gadfly Wendell Cox might think, loss of local population has rarely been a problem in California. Golden sunshine and easy access to miles of coastline and expanses of mountain wilderness will usually overcome concerns about governmental malfunction and inadequate shoulder room.

But population loss has been and will be a real concern in much of the world. It will likely touch California someday.

The causes can be many. Climatic catastrophe, such as Hurricane Katrina. Industrial changes, such as the current Rust Belt transformation in the Midwest or the decline of the New England mill towns of a century ago. Public health disasters, such as the outbreaks of the plague in Europe. Agricultural failures, such as the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. Or financial upheavals, such as our recent past.

The New York Times recently took a long look at how the Ninth Ward of New Orleans has dealt with the aftermath of Katrina. The writer describes the ongoing battle between the residents who would like to rebuild their neighborhood and the environment which is trying to return it to a Louisiana wilderness. The writer also includes the interesting history that New Orleans has been losing population for years before Katrina and that, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, a committee recommended abandoning the Ninth Ward, moving the remaining residents into other parts of New Orleans, and reducing the city’s “footprint”. The recommendation was politically unpopular and promptly ignored.

Atlantic Cities, a website that is owned by Atlantic magazine and covers urban issues, followed behind the New York Times article, suggesting that the Times writer had been overly pessimistic in his coverage of the Ninth Ward and that repopulation was slowly occurring. The article concludes with the suggestion that cities shouldn’t plan for shrinkage because the plans become self-fulfilling prophecies. The writer thereby made herself the Norman Vincent Peale of city planning.

Lastly, Atlantic Cities looked at abandoned housing developments in Ireland and the extralegal efforts of private citizens to plant trees in the developments, hastening their return to nature.

What do all three stories have in common? The subjects of all three are less dense drivable suburban developments. (Admittedly, the Irish photo makes the “ghost estates” look more like the fringes of walkable urban, but the text makes clear that the developments under discussion are far from urban cores.)

I won’t suggest that walkable urban is a panacea for community shrinkage. No matter how a community is organized, the loss of population is a blow that leaves gaping wounds and the possibility of further decline as businesses succumb to reduced trade. But it seems that a condominium with drawn blinds is less of a community detriment than a suburban estate with a driveway being reclaimed by weeds.

We needn't support urbanism because it leaves communities better equipped to handle the loss of population. The benefit is probably too minor to justify a planning strategy. But potential resiliency during time of population change is yet another reason not to argue against walkable urban development.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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