What do shrinking cities like
Frank J. Popper is just the person to answer that question. The land-use expert from
Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times called it “the boldest idea in
In an interview with
What was the response to the Buffalo Commons idea?
It was extremely negative in the region. Everyone else from outside the region thought it was a great idea. There was a period in the early nineties when we were speaking in the plains five times a year and sooner or later it would emerge that they had hired private detectives to protect us. We had death threats at one meeting that eventually had to be cancelled. If you’re county is suggested as part of the Buffalo Commons, you’re not going to like it very much.
Have conditions in the
The basic conditions that we described in 1987 are either still there or have intensified. But late last year we picked up our first serious editorial endorsement. Two McClatchy papers in Kansas City and Wichita suggested that two counties in western Kansas should become the core of Buffalo Commons National Park, and that elicited a lot of letters from those two counties. But I think over time it will work and we will live to see it.
The emerging ideas about how to deal with shrinking cities like
It’s very clear that the industrial decline as it’s still unfolding is almost exactly parallel to the earlier rural decline in the
Why are cities and regions so reluctant to accept that they are getting smaller?
It’s part of American culture to believe were number one, we grow every year etc., etc. So all of this — whether its
I think the American way is to do nothing until it’s too late, then throw everything at it and improvise and hope everything works. And somehow, insofar as the country’s still here, it has worked. But the European or the Japanese way would involve much more thought, much more foresight, much more central planning, and much less improvising. They would implement a more, shall we say, sustained effort. The American way is different. Europeans have wondered for years and years why cities like
Do shrinking cities have any advantages over agricultural regions as they face declining populations?
The urban areas have this huge advantage over all these larger American regions that are going through this. They have actual governments with real jurisdiction. Corrupt as
Why wasn’t there a greater outcry as the agricultural economy and the industrial economy collapsed?
One reason for the rest of the country not to care is that there’s no shortage of the consumer goods that these places once produced. All this decline of agriculture doesn’t mean we’re running out of food. We’ve got food coming out of our ears. Likewise,
In some sense that’s the genius of capitalism — it’s heartless. But if you look at the local results and the cultural results and the environmental results you shake your head. But I don’t see
So is there any large-scale economic fallout from these monumental changes?
Probably not, and it hurts to say so. And the only way I can feel good about saying that is to immediately point to the non-economic losses, the cultural losses. The losses of ways of life. The notion of the factory worker working for his or her children. The notion of the farmer working to build up the country and supply the rest of the world with food. We’re losing distinctive ways of life. When we lose that we lose something important, but it’s not like The Wall Street Journal cares. And I feel uncomfortable saying that. From a purely economic point of view, it’s just the price of getting more efficient. It’s a classic example of Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which is no fun if you’re on the destruction end.
Does the decline of cities like
I think it’s more the decline of the lower-middle class in the
The basic premise of shrinking cities resonates with a lot of people, but there’s not a lot detail in the plan. Is this a concern?
The shrinking city approach is really the core of what’s needed to improve these places. I guess what I see is an emerging movement that’s improvising every step of the way, often under extreme political pressure. My sense is that it’s sort of like Boris Yeltsin in the ‘90s, making it up as he goes along because he has no other options. That’s not meant as a criticism at all. Cities like
What about the prospect of a single business or industry moving into a shrinking city and reviving it?
In none of these cities — including the Southern and European ones — is there any hope whatsoever of a serious new industry coming. I think I can say that categorically.
Will relocating residents to a more viable central urban core work?
When you’re talking about many of these neighborhoods, you’re talking about really poor people who are not likely to move. We’ve tried this at different times and different places in this country, and I don’t think any of them were shining points in American history. It evokes all that 1950s urban renewal stuff which didn’t work, but we keep trying to do anyway. More likely is that you’ll get this reversion to a more rural feel to parts of the city, maybe even a suburban feel. That could provide some form of stability for the city. It could even be a retirement option for some people.
Care to make a prediction of how this approach will play out in cities like
I think a few neighborhoods will benefit and things will turn around precisely because the upside of the shrinking city plan — the green economics, the growth of small retail — will work. But the really poor places, the worst neighborhoods, they’ve got real problems, as they always have. I would worry about the really poor ones. I don’t know what will happen to places like that, and I’m not of good conscience about it.