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Explained: Vacancies, Population Decline, and the Importance of Household Size

Jason Segedy has published a long, brutally frank look at blight and vacant properties, especially at the underappreciated culprit for the woes of so many shrinking cities around the Rust Belt: household decline.
November 11, 2014, 2pm PST | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Segedy begins the long article (originally published on Notes from the Underground and later picked up by Rustwire) by asking the question of  "why is widespread vacancy and a glut of abandoned property a relatively recent phenomenon, while population loss is not?"

The proliferation of vacancies and blight during the 21st century is the result of demographic trends taking place over 50 years independently from the planning decisions of many cities. In fact, Segedy suggests we "[forget], for a minute, the usual suspects in urban decline, such as “white flight”, larger suburban houses and yards, highway construction, increasing automobile usage, crime, declining schools, etc." and focus on demographic trends like rising divorce rates, rising age of first marriage, rising life expectancy, and declining birth rates, which occurred all at the same time.

Here's how Segedy then sums up the impact of shrinking household: "The role of shrinking household size in urban population loss may be the most under-reported story about urban decline of the entire 20th century."

And it follows: "Urban population decline in the 20th Century, was, in many ways, an unavoidable demographic reality that could only have been mitigated by rezoning and building at even higher densities – a housing trend that would have been running exactly counter to the prevailing market wisdom at the time."

Segedy goes on to provide a detailed and lengthy examination of the housing stock of many Rust Belt cities. Built at low quality between the 1920s and 1960 for industrial workers, the housing stock of cities like Youngstown, Ohio quickly became obsolete and hard to maintain. "All we really know for sure is that there was a lack of demand for most of the product currently on the urban housing market – namely older houses with high front-end renovation costs, significant ongoing maintenance and upkeep costs, and many obsolete features – not enough closets, not enough electrical outlets, small kitchens and bathrooms, no garage, etc.," writes Segedy.

The article concludes with a case study of these dynamics and concepts as applied to the example of Akron, Ohio, where the city tears down an average of 500 houses every year while building an average of ten. Segedy also makes policy remarks obviously directed toward cities like Buffalo and Detroit, which are focusing on things like new stadiums, casinos, or convention centers rather than the only real balm for their decline: new housing. 

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Published on Wednesday, November 5, 2014 in Notes from the Underground
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