Youngstown, Ohio is shrinking:
Last year Youngstown 2010--a partnership between the city's planning department and Youngstown State University--unveiled a comprehensive plan to reduce nonessential infrastructure, attract new businesses, and rehab deteriorated and abandoned spaces. In fact Youngstown is the first city in the United States to adopt this disarming approach to the problems of population decline. "It's politically and professionally uncomfortable to face the shrinkage of a city or region, even though it may be staring you in the face," says Frank Popper, an urban-planning professor at Rutgers and Princeton universities. "I think it's enormously brave and creative and innovative of Youngstown to be taking on this task."
Brave? Maybe. But Youngstown has little choice: once a city of more than 170,000, it counts roughly 80,000 residents today. The town had to recast itself as a smaller place.
Much like many other cities around the globe, Youngstown's industry and much of its population has migrated elsewhere. Youngstown finds itself a victim of globalism; its location close to the mines that fed its steel mills, no longer important.
The magnitude of shifts in places like Youngstown requires designers and planners--people who are generally hard-wired to think about accommodating and encouraging growth--to think differently about how such a town can reimagine itself. Architects and planners are trained to respond to laundry lists of wants and needs; what if there simply aren't any anymore?
Shrinkage is a new problem requiring new solutions, according to Schwarz, so in mapping out their designs the students had to depart from the New Urbanist strategy of replacing empty lots with infill developments. "In Youngstown there's zero demand for new residential development and very little demand for retail uses," she says. "So the things we usually do--mixed-use housing with green space and such--didn't have any relevance here because it simply would never happen."
How does one get a handle on a place's changing relevance, its sudden lack of a raison d'etre? Is "decline" necessarily bad or wasteful? What planner feels good about planning for a place's eventual disappearance?