In an era when smart growth is the norm, Youngstown, Ohio, is embracing shrinkage. Officials are downsizing the city that lost half its population between 1960 and 2000 by tearing down abandoned buildings and buying out residents of sparsely populated neighborhoods to cut back on city services.

The city is not alone, says Justin Hollander, assistant professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University. “Last spring at a national planning conference, eight people showed up for a workshop on smart decline,” Hollander says. “This year, more than 100 people turned out.”

While the concept is not for every city, it is gaining a foothold in areas that have lost population because of natural disaster or economic downturns, says Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective Program at the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Global Metropolitan Studies. “Youngstown is among the first in the United States to work with a realistic vision of smart decline,” Pallagst says.

As a result, it has become the national model, attracting officials from Flint, Mich.; Wheeling, W.Va.; and Dayton, Ohio, to see the concept in action. The concept is simple. “Smart decline is making more of what you have now,” Hollander says. “Growth is not always great and may not meet the goals of a community.”

In Youngstown, smart decline is a citywide planning project dubbed Youngstown 2010, which aims to redefine the city's economy to that of a smaller community. It was originally funded with $300,000 in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) in 2001, and $20,000 of annual CDBG help the city advance the plan throughout neighborhoods. The plan breaks the city into districts, taking an honest appraisal of each neighborhood's current condition and offering a vision for improvement. “We are not going to be a population of 100,000 or 150,000 soon, or maybe ever again,” says Mayor Jay Williams. “But we can be a smaller, more nimble city.”

For 40 years, Youngstown was the nation's third largest steel producer. In the 1950s, city planners added streets, water, sewer and utilities to the outskirts, preparing for a population of 250,000. Then Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. closed, taking 5,000 jobs with it. As a result, houses were stripped and college graduates fled, and officials chased after manufacturing and defense jobs that never materialized.

Communities that have lost major employers and residents can take the chance to reinvent, reposition and rethink, says Hunter Morrison, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University. “Compete with the market today, because the fact is, we will not go back,” Morrison says. “Steel is gone, but there are other assets to work with.”

Youngstown uses enterprise zones, tax and fee abatements, city façade renovation loans and other programs to help attract and retain businesses in the city. In 2007, $5.3 million was spent on business development, nearly twice the amount spent in 2006. The town also spent $1.3 million tearing down more than 1,000 abandoned buildings. New businesses have moved in, and CDBG funds have sponsored neighborhood improvements, including landscaping in public areas. Three Clean Ohio Brownfield grants, totaling $1 million, helped clean up polluted sites in industrial areas.

The work has not been without challenges. Some residents have turned down $50,000 cash to move to busier parts of the city. “We are not forcing anybody to relocate,” Williams says. “Taking homes by eminent domain is not an option.”

Also, historic preservationists do not like tearing down Youngstown's past. “I am a preservationist,” Morrison says. “But you have to be realistic. Decide what places are worth fighting for, and let the historic fabric that remains be the asset you build on.”
Liz Boardman is a Wakefield, R.I.-based freelance writer.