Author Justin Hollander- Interview with Radio New Zealand (RNZ)

Planning for the decline of cities

By 2030 it’s expected 40 percent of New Zealanders will live in  Auckland. And many rural towns and cities are facing inevitable  population decline.

Some towns in provincial areas have launched campaigns to attract  more and younger people to move there promising affordable homes, a  relaxed lifestyle and less competition for jobs.

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Photo: The Wireless

But is this sensible? Justin Hollander from Tufts University in the  US has made a study of declining towns and how best to manage them, and  he’s not convinced offering incentives to companies and people to move  to them stacks up.

He’s written the book, Sunburnt Cities, about decline in the American South West and how it might be managed smarter.

He says cities and towns in much of world are facing to opposite problems to a city such as Auckland.

“We looked at areas in the American West and the Great Plains areas  that were projected to lose population and played on the riff of smart  growth by saying you should be able to do the same thing when somewhere  is depopulating.”

He looked at one city in the south west of the US where a programme of incentives was instigating to stem the outflow of people.

“They spent a ridiculous amount of money to subsidise a company to  re-locate there and I asked everyone who was involved whether it was  worth it and they all went ‘oh yes definitely worth it we’ve got all  these new jobs, all these people moved’. And then I asked them for some  of the details.

“Once I added up all of the dollar figures it ended up that it cost  the public a million dollars per employee that was recruited.”

He says instead of spending $1 million per employee those dollars  would be better used to try and increase the quality of life for the  people who are left behind.

“What urban planners forget is we typically see a boom-bust cycle in  population changes and property markets and those cycles vary - some  take 5 years, some take 100 years.” 

Prof Hollander says urban planners should take on board this reality and cites Detroit as an example.

“From the time that Columbus landed until 1900 Detroit had a tiny  population, then from 1900 to 1950 the population exploded and then from  1950 to the present it’s been in steady decline and in the last couple  of years they’re starting to see re-investment.”

He says any human settlement may grow or may shrink and urban  planners need to ensure when that happens cities don’t end up with the  problems for which Detroit is famous.

“Vacant buildings and vacant lots, all kinds of problems related to  feral cats and wild dogs, rats and different health problems.”

He says a possible policies to improve the quality of life in a shrinking place could include increasing green space. 

“When you start to think about the opportunities decline offer we can  have more amenities more parks, open space, forested land, wooded areas  and we know that’s a real boon for people’s mental health.”

And if people choose to leave a small town to move to a city like Auckland they are acting rationally, he says.

“People are really smart they know what they’re doing. So what smart  decline says is if a community no longer has the amenities and it  doesn’t attract people in the way it used to we don’t need to say that’s  a bad thing, see it as a failure.”

Justin B. Hollander is an Assistant Professor in the  Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University and a Research Scientist at the George Perkins Marsh  Institute at Clark University.

Works by Justin Hollander

  • Cognitive Architecture

    Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, 1st Edition

    By Ann Sussman, Justin B Hollander

    *Winner of the Environmental Design Research Association 2016 Place Research Award!* In Cognitive Architecture, the authors review new findings in psychology and neuroscience to help architects and planners better understand their clients as the sophisticated mammals they are, arriving in the world…

    Paperback – 2014-12-02

  • Sunburnt Cities

    The Great Recession, Depopulation and Urban Planning in the American Sunbelt, 1st Edition

    By Justin B. Hollander

    In recent years there has been a growing focus on urban and environmental studies, and the skills and techniques needed to address the wider challenges of how to create sustainable communities. Central to that demand is the increasing urgency of addressing the issue of urban decline, and the…

    Paperback – 2011-01-14

Justin Hollander

Justin Hollander 
Photo: Supplied/Tufts University