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Zombie Cities: Urban Form and Population Loss

Working paper #753
Georgette Chapman Phillips

Zombie is a Haitian Creole term used to denote an animated corpse that is brought back to life by mystical means such as witchcraft. Zombie Cities, as I use the term here, are decimated urban cores that are brought back to life by mystical means such as public policy. The success of reviving and reanimating these Zombie Cities relies on the alchemy of initiatives—economic, social, legal—that create the conditions that facilitate re-animation. The legal piece of the puzzle turns on land use law and zoning codes that allow a city to reimagine itself in a form that is possibly quite different from the one currently codified in the zoning code. Land use law (and the policies that underpin such law) is deeply rooted in the concept of managing growth. At best the law treats the city as a static concept; at worst it imposes antiquated and unforgiving strictures that fail to allow organic and dynamic change. As cities lose population and increasingly contain hollow caverns of land caused by population shrinkage, local governments struggle to align the land use codes premised upon population growth with their new topographic reality.

In this paper I will examine population losses in large American cities. I specifically focus on the largest cities because they hold an iconic position in the American urban landscape. While there are certainly many smaller urban areas that suffer from population loss, the transmogrification of cities such as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit deals a blow to our national identity. Beer. Steel. Cars. All industries that not only employ millions but also serve as a unique moniker of a city’s public face. In this examination I will first set the stage by presenting census data demonstrating trends in population loss in major American cities. This numerical evidence will be supported by a review of the literature in urban economics that examines why the population shifts occurred through the lens of move away from cities being centers of production and towards cities being centers of consumption. As the growth of U.S. cities will rely increasing on a city’s consumption profile we must juxtapose current land use law against that trend. At its core Euclidian zoning is premised upon the city as a center of production. As such traditional zoning must be re-imagined to conform to the new economic reality of a city being the center of consumption.

The goal of this examination is to suggest that local governments should move in the direction of breaking the pattern of trying to recreate days of past glory based on their positions as centers of production. These attempts often rely on policies that reinforce economic realities that will not be coming back. City leaders must move towards visualizing their cities poised for viability in a new economic world order where cities satisfy the consumptive needs of the citizens. The leaders in what might be categorized as Zombie Cities will stand a better chance of re-animating the corpse by putting together forward-thinking plans based on re-imaging their city as a consumption center with a smaller population.

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