The Incredible Shrinking American City

What Dan Kildee wants America to learn from the sorry tale of Flint, Mich.

Click here for a slideshow of one abandoned block in Flint, Mich.

Dan Kildee is driving with his knees and talking with his hands as his rental car pushes 80 mph on a stretch of Interstate 69 near East Lansing, Mich. But that’s not what scares me. What really gets me nervous is how he insists on eye contact as he discusses his plan for saving the rest of America from the sorry fate suffered by our shared hometown of Flint. “It really comes down to getting people to stop assuming that expansion is always desirable,” Kildee says. “The important thing is how people feel about their city when they stand on their front porch in the morning, not how many people actually live in the city. It’s just irrational to simply pursue growth.”

Dan Kildee

As we swerve around a familiar Michigan tableau—a dead deer on the side of the highway—Kildee previews the speech he is scheduled to deliver that afternoon on a familiar Michigan imponderable: “The Future of Michigan Cities.” For Kildee, the talk is yet another chance to trumpet what he sees as a common-sense approach to urban planning in an age of decline. Others view it as a radically un-American idea that embraces defeat and limited horizons.

First, he says, shrinking cities must accept that they’re not going to regain their lost populations anytime soon. Abandoned houses and buildings should be leveled and replaced with parks, urban gardens, and green space. Eventually, incentives can be used to lure residents into higher density neighborhoods that have been reinvigorated with infill housing and rehab projects. While there are no hard numbers, local governments could save money by reducing infrastructure costs, and the housing market would stabilize, if not improve.

For many years, Kildee had no real way of making this vision—Utopian or not—a reality. As the treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint, he oversaw a tax foreclosure process that often took seven years to complete, and private speculators always had first dibs at public auctions. Kildee simply couldn’t get his hands on very many abandoned houses. So he helped craft legislation in Michigan in the ‘90s that enabled public “land banks” to quickly gain control of delinquent property—and the revenue it often generates. Once it acquires a property, the land bank can sell it, rent it, or demolish it. It also collects interest penalties and principal from property owners behind on their taxes, rather than selling off the debt at a reduced rate to private investors, as many municipalities do.

Kildee brought an evangelical zeal and a knack for attracting an audience when he took over the local land bank in 2002. He has appeared on Al Jazeera and in the pages of the New York Times. He has lectured at Harvard. With a shrug, he mentions that his pal Michael Moore put him in Capitalism: A Love Story (albeit only as a DVD extra).

Earlier this year, Kildee stepped down from his county posts and co-founded the Center for Community Progress, a well-funded if blandly named nonprofit based in Flint and Washington and dedicated to helping distressed cities. Kildee now splits time between a suburban home just outside Flint and a D.C. condo. He’s working with state and local officials to try his approach in cities like Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; Little Rock, Ark.; and New Orleans. He met with President Obama on the campaign trail to talk urban policy and meets often with administration officials. He sees his work expanding to the West and the Sun Belt as once-booming cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas deal with rampant foreclosures and declining populations.

As Kildee points out, more cities in the developed world shrank than grew in the last three decades. More than 40 of those cities were in the United States, according to City Mayors, an urban affairs think tank (slogan: “Running the World’s Cities”). Germany is credited with pioneering many of the ideas Kildee espouses. After reunification, nearly 2 million Germans abandoned the former Communist East for the more prosperous West. Declining birthrates and employment trends also have created shrinking cities throughout the rest of Europe. In Japan, an aging population and strict immigration rules have emptied out many cities and towns.

Flint is an obvious laboratory for Kildee’s approach, if not the ultimate shrinking-city proving ground. Immortalized in the film Roger & Me, Flint has lost nearly 80,000 GM jobs in the last half century and suffered through the ensuing demographic fallout. Flint’s population dipped to just over 111,000 in 2009 from a peak of nearly 200,000 in 1960. Last year, it lost a bigger percentage of its population than any other large city in the country.

Kildee managed to tear down more than 1,000 houses before leaving the land bank. But roughly one-third of all parcels in Flint, including about 6,000 homes, remain abandoned. If all the empty structures and vacant lots were consolidated, there would be 10 square miles of abandonment in the city. Demolition costs about $9,000 per house, and there’s just not enough money to cull Flint’s blighted housing stock completely.

But Kildee insists demolitions are just part of the plan. He says the “genius” of his approach is that it implements a regional land use strategy that redistributes real-estate wealth. The land bank often gains control of property in Flint’s more prosperous suburbs that can be sold or rented. (A single such sale last year netted $323,000.) The money can then be used to raze or rehab property in the urban core. “The city of Flint built Genesee County by importing cash and exporting products around the world for decades,” he tells the panel audience, to enthusiastic applause. “The shoe is now on the other foot. The economic model we’ve developed takes some of that money back to restore the city. And by doing that the entire region improves.”

That’s the kind of rhetoric that fuels Rush Limbaugh’s ire—Kildee was targeted in a memorable rant in 2009—and rankles national property rights advocates. For others, the plan simply runs counter to America’s can-do spirit, its reputation for boundless optimism. “Politically, it’s hard for mayors to stand up and say ‘Well, I think we ought to be smaller. I think we ought to lower our expectations,’ ” says Robert Beauregard, director of the Urban Planning Program at Columbia University. “That’s not a speech many politicians want to deliver.”

Kildee also has critics closer to home. In Flint, many blighted neighborhoods are predominantly African-American, and the plan triggers memories of failed urban-renewal projects that displaced black residents in the 1960s and ‘70s. Kildee admits he hasn’t successfully countered the misconceptions surrounding his work. For example, he has never advocated forcing residents to leave their homes or cutting city services to compel relocation, as Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has hinted. Kildee also says he doesn’t want to bulldoze entire neighborhoods, instead favoring a block-by-block approach.

And then there are the more mundane issues. The land bank now owns 10 percent of all the parcels in Flint, and it struggles to board up the empty houses and mow the vacant lots. “I don’t blame the residents for complaining,” Kildee says. “But popularity doesn’t equal good policy. The land bank’s first obligation should not be property maintenance. It should be focused on transformative, catalytic policies.”

Think of it as a kind of manifest-destiny-in-reverse for urban areas. “We have a 35-year history of letting so-called market forces deal with the problem of abandonment in cities, and we all know how well that worked out,” Kildee says. As a fellow Flint native—one whose childhood neighborhood is now dominated by abandoned houses—I don’t need him to elucidate.Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.