We don’t know the future. Rust Belt cities need to stop planning that there isn’t one.

It was an autumn day in Cleveland, 1965. Then-mayor Ralph Perk, a man whose hair would catch fire in a welding photo-op gone badly a few years later, had just officiated the city’s first “home burning ceremony”—a new tactic of blight remediation. Perk was convinced that a “controlled burn” strategy would reduce the costs of demolishing vacant homes and help spark a resurgence of Cleveland’s real estate market, which was then beginning to founder as manufacturing jobs fled the city. The first of four houses that burned did so in an hour, “aided by a stiff breeze and 20 gallons of kerosene,” the Cleveland Press reported.

“I’d never thought I’d stand by and watch a place burn,” the mayor marveled, “but this is a beautiful sight, isn’t it? It has such a cleansing effect.”

This idea of restoration-through-destruction remains with us today. In a recent Atlantic piece, Galen Newman, an urban planning professor from Texas A&M, talked about the tool he was developing to help Rust Belt burgs predict which neighborhoods would empty next. “We need to accept that some of these big cities need to die,” he said. But he didn’t articulate exactly which Rust Belt cities or what parts needed to die—Detroit? Half of Flint? Ohio, save Columbus?

In urban policy circles, the preferred terms for this process are “smart decline” or “managed decline.” Consider it palliative care for cities. The problem, of course, is that if you manage decline you are likely to get, well, decline.

In a new study titled “Demolition As Urban policy in the American Rust Belt,” planning professor Jason Hackworth of the University of Toronto found that “there are 269 neighborhoods in 49 cities that have lost more than 50 percent of their housing since 1970.” This wave of destruction has claimed more homes than urban renewal efforts have, but it has “not led to market rebound or a decrease in social marginality.” Put another way, those Rust Belt neighborhoods with the most disassembly since 1970 didn’t get better—they got worse.1

Demolition as urban policy in the American Rust Belt

Jason Hackworth, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

Environment and Planning A, Volume: 48 issue: 11, page(s): 2201-2222

Abstract: Demolition has long been a component of urban policy in the United States and elsewhere. Until recently, however, demolition was seen as a mere component of a wider policy—e.g. the first step to build an affordable housing complex, or a revived commercial strip. Recently some have suggested that demolition can have stand-alone regenerative effects—that is, if blighted housing is demolished, surrounding markets and neighborhoods will heal and regenerate without further intervention. This article challenges this logic by examining neighborhoods in the American Rust Belt where ad hoc demolition has been the predominant urban policy in the past 40 years. In total, there are 269 neighborhoods in 49 cities that have lost more than 50% of their housing since 1970. In aggregate, these activities have led to more housing loss, and affected more land area than even the urban renewal period, yet have not led to market rebound or a decrease in social marginality.

  • Article first published online: June 15, 2016;Issue published: November 1, 2016
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0308518X16654914