Planned shrinkage

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This article is about withdrawal of municipal services from areas. For the demolition of unpopulated areas, see shrink to survive.
The large number of fires in the South Bronx after the city slashed fire service there serves as a symbol of planned shrinkage to critics.

In urban planning in the United States, planned shrinkage is a controversial public policy of the deliberate withdrawal of city services to blighted neighborhoods as a means of coping with dwindling tax revenues.[1] This should not be confused with shrink to survive, which demolishes already empty neighborhoods to return them to rural use. Planned shrinkage involves decreasing city services such as police patrols, garbage removal, street repairs, and fire protection, from selected city neighborhoods suffering from urban decay, crime, and poverty. While it has been advocated as a way to concentrate city services for maximum effectiveness given serious budgetary constraints, it has been criticized as an attempt to "encourage the exodus of undesirable populations"[1] as well as to open up blighted neighborhoods for development by private interests. Planned shrinkage was mentioned as a development strategy for the South Bronx section of New York City in the 1970s, and more recently for another urban area in the United States, the city of New Orleans.[2][3] The term was first used in New York City in 1976 by Housing Commissioner Roger Starr.[4][5]


During the twentieth century, a boom in suburban growth caused in part by increased automobile use led to urban decline, particularly in the poorer sections of many large cities in the United States and elsewhere. A dwindling tax base depleted many municipal resources. A common view was that it was part of a "downward spiral" caused first by an absence of jobs, the creation of a permanent underclass, and a declining tax base hurting many city services, including schools. It was this interplay of factors which made change difficult.[6] New York City was described as "so broke" by the 1970s with neighborhoods which had become "so desperate and depleted" that municipal authorities wondered how to cope.[7] Some authorities felt the process of decline was inevitable, and instead of trying to fight it, searched for alternatives. According to one view, authorities searched for ways to have the greatest population loss in the areas with the poorest non-white populations.[5][8]

The RAND report[edit]

In the early 1970s, a RAND study examining the relation between city services and large city populations concluded that when services such as police and fire protection were withdrawn, the numbers of people in the neglected areas would decrease.[8] There had been questions about many fires that had been happening in the South Bronx during the 1970s. One account (including the RAND report) suggested that neighborhood fires were predominantly caused by arson, while a contrasting report suggested that arson was not a major cause.[9] If arson had been a primary cause according to the RAND viewpoint, then it did not make sense financially for the city to try to invest further funds to improve fire protection, according to this view. The RAND report allegedly influenced then Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who used the report's findings to make recommendations for urban policy.[8] In Moynihan's view, arson was one of many social pathologies caused by large cities, and suggested that a policy of benign neglect would be appropriate as a response.[8]

Shrinkage in particular cities[edit]

New York City[edit]

The Grand Concourse in the Bronx near 165th Street in 2008

Partly in response to the RAND report, and in an effort to address New York's declining population, New York's housing commissioner, Roger Starr, proposed a policy which he termed planned shrinkage to reduce the impoverished population and better preserve the tax base.[10] According to the "politically toxic"[10] proposal, the city would stop investing in troubled neighborhoods and divert funds to communities "that could still be saved."[10] He suggested that the city should "accelerate the drainage" in what he called the worst parts of the South Bronx through a policy of planned shrinkage by closing subway stations, firehouses and schools. Starr felt these actions were the best way to save money.[11] Starr's arguments soon became predominant in urban planning thinking nationwide.[5] The people who lived in the communities where his policies were applied protested vigorously; without adequate fire service and police protection, the residents faced waves of crime and fires that left much of the South Bronx and Harlem devastated.[8] A report in 2011 in the New York Times suggested that the planned shrinkage approach was "short-lived".[12] Under the planned shrinkage program, for example, an abandoned 100-unit development on one piece of land could be cleared by a real estate developer, and such an outcome would have been preferable to ten separate neighborhood-based efforts to produce 100 housing units each, according to advocates of planned shrinkage.[5] According to this view, a planned shrinkage approach would encourage so-called "monolithic development", resulting in new urban growth but at much lower population densities than the neighborhoods which had existed previously.[5] The remark by Starr caused a political firestorm: then mayor Abraham Beame disavowed the idea while City Council members called it "inhuman," "racist" and "genocidal."[4]

According to one report, the high inflation during the 1970s combined with the restrictive rent control policies in the city meant that buildings were worth more dead for the insurance money than alive as sources of rental income; as investments, they had limited ability to provide a solid stream of rental income. Accordingly, there was an economic incentive on the part of building owners, according to this view, to simply let the buildings burn. An alternative view was that the fires were a result of the city's municipal policies. While there are differing views about whether planned shrinkage caused fire outbreaks in the 1970s, or was a result of such fires, there is agreement that the fires in the South Bronx during these years were extensive.

In the South Bronx, the average number of people per [fire] engine is over 44,000. In Staten Island, it's 17,000. There is no standard for manning areas of multiple dwellings as opposed to one- and two-family residences.

— A New York City battalion chief from the New York City Fire Department interviewed in the BBC-TV special "The Bronx is Burning," in 1976.[8]
H.U.D. Secretary Patricia Harris, Jimmy Carter and New York Mayor Abraham Beame tour the South Bronx in 1977.

By the mid-1970s, The Bronx had 120,000 fires per year, for an average of 30 fires every 2 hours. 40 percent of the housing in the area was destroyed. The response time for fires also increased, as the firefighters did not have the resources to keep responding promptly to numerous service calls. A report in The New York Post suggested that the cause of the fires was not arson but resulted from decisions by bureaucrats to abandon sections of the city.[9] According to one report, of the 289 census tracts within the borough of the Bronx, seven census tracts lost more than 97% of their buildings, and 44 tracts lost more than 50% of their buildings, to fire and abandonment.[9]

There have been claims that planned shrinkage impacted public health negatively. According to one source, public shrinkage programs targeted to undermine populations of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans in the South Bronx and Harlem had an effect on the geographic pattern of the AIDS outbreak. According to this view, municipal abandonment was interrelated with health issues and helped to cause a phenomenon termed "urban desertification".[13]

The populations in the South Bronx, Lower East Side, and Harlem plummeted during the two decades after 1970. Only after two decades did the city begin to invest in these areas again.

New Orleans[edit]

New Orleans differed from other cities in that the cause of decline was not based on economic or political shifts but rather a destructive flood caused by a hurricane. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, planned shrinkage was proposed as a means to create a "more compact, more efficient and less flood-prone city".[3] Areas of the city which were most damaged by the flooding - and thus, most likely to be flooded again - would not be rebuilt and would become green space.[3] These areas were frequently less desirable, lower-income areas which had lower property values precisely because of the risk of flooding.[3] Some residents rejected a "top-down" approach of planned shrinkage of municipal planners and attempted to rebuild in flood-prone areas.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b NATHAN LEE (July 5, 2006). "'Urbanscapes,' a Documentary on the Decaying of Neighborhoods (movie review)". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  2. ^ a b ROBERTA BRANDES GRATZ (September 28, 2010). "It Takes a Neighborhood". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  3. ^ a b c d Kenneth M. Reardon (Spring 2006). "The Shifting Landscape of New Orleans". National Housing Institute. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  4. ^ a b BRUCE LAMBERT (September 11, 2001). "Roger Starr, New York Planning Official, Author and Editorial Writer, Is Dead at 83". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  5. ^ a b c d e The Living City by Roberta Brandes Gratz. Simon and Schuster 1989. ISBN 0-671-63337-6
  6. ^ RACHEL NOLAN (interviewer), Jonathan Mahler (interviewee) (December 19, 2011). "Behind the Cover Story: Jonathan Mahler on Benton Harbor". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  7. ^ JONATHAN MAHLER (March 12, 2009). "After the Bubble". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled By Deborah Wallace, Rodrick Wallace. 2001. (Note: fire chief interviewed in the BBC-TV special "The Bronx is Burning," in 1976.) ISBN 1-85984-253-4
  9. ^ a b c Joe Flood (May 16, 2010). "Why the Bronx burned Blame statisticians, not arson. And New York City could be making the same mistake all over again.". The New York Post. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  10. ^ a b c SAM ROBERTS (March 30, 2007). "Podcast: Baby Boom Revisited". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  11. ^ Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx By Heidi B. Neumark
  12. ^ SAM ROBERTS (February 19, 2006). "By 2025, Planners See a Million New Stories in the Crowded City". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-02. 
  13. ^ R. Wallace, "Urban desertification, public health and public order: 'planned shrinkage', violent death, substance abuse and AIDS in the Bronx." Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 37, No. 7 (1990) pp. 801-813 - abstract retrieved on July 5, 2008 from PubMed

Further reading[edit]

  • The City Journal: Roger Starr 1918–2001 by Myron Magnet; Roger Starr had been editor of City Journal
  • In the South Bronx of America by Mel Rosenthal, Martha Rosler and Barry Phillips
  • South Bronx Rising: The Rise, fall and resurrection of an American city by Jill Jones

External links[edit]