Is all urban space worth saving?

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

The transition of Detroit's income taxes. Source: The Daily Beast
On my visits to various neighborhoods, some strike me as too far gone to save. It’s painful to think and to share this message, but back-to-nature seems to be a smart option for many parts of outlying neighborhoods given that the population growth we are seeing citywide is still too modest. Will enough people move to Pittsburgh in time to save vacant houses that are falling apart right now?  And that question presumes that newcomers would choose to move into (and save) them.
While riding around Wilkinsburg recently, where entire blocks of houses are empty -- or one or two households shy of being empty -- it struck me and my tour guide that local costs will continue to drastically outgrow local populations, and as they do, so will blight.
Why not draw circles around areas that have almost no occupants and inform the remaining people that they live in a zone that will be released to nature? They can stay, but they will get minimal service and no improvements, and when they move or die, that area will no longer be the responsibility of the municipality to maintain except as a habitat for wildlife.
The hue and cry would be piteous. People are tied to their places. But, as Megan McArdle points out in an article in The Daily Beast, “when a business runs into this sort of problem, we know what to do: liquidate and sell off the non-performing assets.”
Her article “Saving Detroit: When a Big City Stops Being Big,” is well worth reading.
Like Pittsburgh, Detroit has lost 60 percent of its population since its peak years. Our good news is that we are growing... a little. How do we plan for the continued growth we anticipate? How should we plan?
Here are some excerpts from her report: 
“The problem is that the old infrastructure is still there, and still needs to be maintained.  Detroit might have the makings of a nice 50 square mile city within its population.  But it has to maintain 139 square miles of water and sewer, electric, police and fire coverage, transportation, and so forth.  It also needs to maintain legacy pension costs that were incurred when the city was more prosperous.  For the last five or six years, Detroit has made up the mismatch between taxes and spending by borrowing money and deferring its pension contributions.  But this only means bigger bills in the future, when Detroit may be even less able to pay.  
Radical action is needed.  But what sort of radical action is feasible?  You can imagine a sensible plan that would essentially condemn all the houses in the outer rings of Detroit, arranging land swaps to bigger and nicer houses closer in, in order to compress the city into a manageable size.  But you can’t actually imagine it being implemented. The politicians whose districts would go away would freak out.  So would many of the home and business owners.  The downsized public service departments would also be none too pleased.”
Can anyone within the sound of my voice imagine enough Pittsburgh and Allegheny County politicians manning up to even have a discussion about bringing the functioning assets of the city in closer to the core and abandoning the rest? It's hard enough to get people in an auditorium to cluster near the speaker. But it may be important to the financial survival of cities like Pittsburgh.

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