Hoch Associates, a progressive architecture, engineering, urban and interior design firm with offices in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis is talking about the Flint Crisis in a series of blog posts over the next few days. While we understand our core of a company is architecture, we also believe in the importance of community and how it drives us. We believe that no matter where we are in location or in life, our responsibility is to create better, healthier, stronger and more vibrant communities. We are happy you decided to follow along over the next few days as we dive deeper than water in Flint Michigan to get to a bigger story on how we design and plan our cities IS our responsibility.
It’s important to note that we are not CNN, NBC or any of the major news outlets covering the actual water crisis. While the headline news is devastating and our hearts reach out, we are leaving that coverage and information to the national news outlets. You will see throughout our coverage of the Flint Crisis small inserts about the current situation, however the focus will be on the city itself and how urban design has played a roll in where Flint stands today.
THE FLINT CRISIS: IT’S IN THE NUMBERS
“A common issue” is the opening line in the 2016 FY Capital Improvement Plan. It continues “The city of Flint, like many municipalities in the United States, has been severely impacted by the recession. Many local governments in Michigan have witnessed a decrease in property tax and income tax revenues while seeing the level of state-shared revenue reduced. With less money coming in, younger communities with relatively new infrastructure have been able to cope with severe budget reductions by postponing planned infrastructure installation or expansion. In established communities like Flint, budget cuts have led to deferred maintenance on existing infrastructure. This has often resulted in deterioration that now requires significant expenses to just play catch up.” You can hear the plea within the improvement plan that years of financial mismanagement, lack of economic investment and poor leadership are essentially the cause of all problems facing Flint today.
Not often do you see in a capital improvement plan such lines that tout numbers of despair, but in Flint the story is different. It opens with the following needs for the current sized city:
* $1 Billion to replace and maintain water service lines (immediate need)
* Most city facilities are in urgent need of repair and/or replacement of critical components including roofs and electrical.
* City street system has deteriorated beyond repair in many areas and must see over $50 Million in mandatory upgrades and pavement rehabilitation.
* Sidewalks in Flint are considered unsatisfactory, causing safety hazards and accessibility issues and require $85 Million in repairs.
* City owned and operated dams that are critical to the water supply for the city must be removed and may cost up to $200 Million.
* Inflow and infiltration into the sanity sewer must be upgraded and replaced in many areas costing over $20 Million.
* City park system includes 67 facilities and 1,800 acres but suffers severe neglect and lack of maintenance. Repairs could total over $100 Million.
So with that in mind, the question is what’s next for Flint?
THE FLINT CRISIS: THE SHRINKING CITY
“What we really need is a new map, literally a design of the city that looks at every block in every neighborhoods and then makes decisions about where it makes sense to either let nature take the land back or to create some intentional open green space, so that 100,000 people can live in a city that doesn’t look half empty.” – Dan Kildee, U.S. Congress
Sometimes, expansion isn’t always the best outcome, as reality sets in everyday for the citizens of Flint Michigan, the thought of outward growth is the last thing on their mind. In fact, many residents have used the term “Shrinkage” since it was first stirred into the vocabulary by now U.S. Congressman Dan Kildee when he managed the Genessee County Land Bank. Not all the citizens or even urban designers around the globe agree with Kildee, and in fact many have said it’s radically un-american and embraces defeat and limited horizons in a city that needs vision. While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, so far Kildee has been the only leader in Flint to come up with a plan that is showing hope for a city in desperate need. During his tenure at the GCLB he was directly responsible for the demolition of over 1,000 abandoned structures but points out that nearly 1/3 of all buildings in Flint are abandoned and need to be demolished requiring nearly 7 times the work that’s already been done.
Kildee recognizes that Flint Michigan may never grow again, but he is willing to bet that the city will slow the bleeding. In a report from Governing Magazine, Kildee was quoted in saying “it is near-mathematically impossible for shrinking cities like Flint to ever grow again, without building new housing.” One of the top goals behind the GCLB was to provide adequate land for potential new development and while the numbers aren’t there yet, having the available land for new houses is better than the alternative. Just in the last two years along, Flint has only given out a dozen or so construction permits, making it one of the lowest in the country for a city its size. The article in Governing continues to say that while shrinkage is reality for cities like Flint, they must figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down and Kildee agrees. Cities must learn how to rebuild everything, not just commercial and industrial areas where they have mostly concentrated in for the last several decades. It will require significant investment in neighborhoods and consolidation of city streets and services in neighborhoods that have a chance for survival. Sprawling neighborhoods around the city have lost the core residential identity with loss of homes and residents. A city that has nearly lost half its population base is expected to continue the downward spiral til neighborhoods are re-imagined.
While the thought of shrinkage may scare some in the urban design community, it’s really the only result that has been proven to work in recent years for Flint officials. As the city continues to invest in the land-bank and bulldozing neighborhoods to right size the city, it’s also facing a financial crossroads that will rear its ugly head soon. Flint, like many other rust-belt cities are in a no-win situation where they could spend money they don’t have to reshape the city, raise taxes and drive more businesses and residents away or ignore the problem altogether and allow for large vacancies in vast neighborhoods. While homes are still coming down in Flint, the money is drying up and what is left is not the plan that Kildee had in mind. So the question isn’t just for Flint, but the entire region and even country. Will Flint and other cities in similar situations continue to die a slow, agonizing death, and literally disappear, or will they continue on in a shadow-form, serving as a cautionary tale, and inhabiting some type of uniquely American, urban equivalent of purgatory? We all would love to see Flint, Youngstown, Gary and others restored, but to what extent…and when.
THE FLINT CRISIS: PLAN B
While many applaud Kildee’s plan to tear down and rebuild, the unfortunate truth for Flint is that finances are just not available for such a large project. In addition to lack of resources, the water crisis and bad image have really put the city in a bind and one that is hard to come out from. Some of the statistics that are holding the city hostage include: 2nd most violent city in America, highest aggravated assault rate in America, 40% of people live in poverty (and that number is rising), core industry only providing 5,000 jobs, tax base has been eliminated with general fund dollars dropping nearly 50% since 2002, 35% of the population is under 18, and for over a decade the city was under the rule of an emergency manager. The question remains, what must be done to rebuild Flint if the money and interest doesn’t exist? Statistics aside, another issue now facing the city is the future generations that will inhabit the homes. There will be neurological effects for the children when drinking the water for the past two years that could impair their growth and intelligence. In addition, the media has taught this next generation that the government itself failed them, the same people that were elected to protect them did not intervene, that their health and wellness was all diminished for the saving of a few million dollars.
Flint has a lot of public relations problems that are directly tied into the design of the city, and that’s why urban design matters. With houses disappearing at a notch because of blight removal programs, one would think the abundance of land would be open for development, and to an extent, it is. With the outcry from residents now taking the national stage in both the media and presidential elections, who would want to relocate to Flint? If you had $100,000 in investment dollars, would you spend that in Flint Michigan (a city that’s trying to find it’s way out of a depressing slump, but resilient and grit will eventually prop it up albeit smaller), or Indianapolis (a city that has it all figured out, at least on the surface. The biggest worry is if they will reduce a lane for new a new bike path and build another roundabout). Most investors would direct you to Indianapolis, and the same directive is exactly what banks are now facing when talking to their customers. Flint is a risk, and for many too big to swallow. Not only will it be hard to build in Flint based on economic statistics, the pure fact that the media has brought the problems of this city to the forefront has now given banks the opinion that Flint might as well be a third world country.
With millions of dollars and thousands of residents on the line, what is the Plan B for the residents. Unfortunately with the recent water crisis, the tear down and rebuild mode has been put on indefinite hold until the pipes are replaced. Even the thought of replacing lead pipes will cost the city over $1 Billion in funds which it doesn’t have. State and Federal officials have all kicked in several million dollars, but none of this is close to the number needed to make significant repairs to the city’s aging infrastructure. City hall has leaking ceiling tiles, school building lay strewn about the city with no windows and doors making it a vagrants paradise. City services have been cut so closely to the bone that simple things like sidewalk repair, trash collection and other items we take for granted are now being reduced to dust in Flint. Plan B can align with the work done in the great shrink, but to what extent and at what cost.