Equally important to regional land use planning to address sprawl, is the efforts of urban centers to develop plans and mechanisms designed to maximize the quality of life given the massive population loss that many larger Michigan cities have witnessed over the past half century. Cities like Detroit and Flint have populations 40% of their peak populations and significant population growth is unlikely in the near future. Over the past decade an emerging acknowledgment of the importance of these “Legacy Cities” and the need to develop plans, public policies, and systems for their current size has moved from concept to reality.
In the early 2000’s, then Youngstown Community Development Director Jay Williams worked with planners at Youngstown State University, national experts, and thousands of residents to craft “Youngstown 2010”, a vision to “right-size” the city to its current population by planning for additional green space, stronger code enforcement, and more targeted investment. Jay Williams went on to be elected as Mayor of Youngstown in 2005 as its youngest and first African-American to ever hold that office.
Whether one utilizes the term “right-sizing”, “re-imagining”, or the more commonly European term “shrinking city,” the notion that Michigan’s legacy cities need to develop plans, visions, and policies around their future that are based upon the realities of their population is clear. Rather than focusing on the largely futile process of seeking to build the next big thing that will spark their rebirth, these plans must include strong civic engagement, clear communication, and focus on improving the quality of life by addressing the infrastructure and service constraints imposed in a city with aging infrastructure designed a half century ago for a population more than twice the current size.