I’ve slavishly documented the failings of our built environment and it’s starting to wear on some of my readers. People want solutions to the problems I observe. So here’s an option that could be replicated and scaled up to retrofit many of our declining communities. Reruralization. If adding infill development to suburban neighborhoods is untenable (and it absolutely is in most jurisdictions) then consciously devolving back to a rural framework is the better option, particularly as property values drop and populations contract. The goal is to get local tax revenues in line with the cost of local critical infrastructure and municipal services.
I’ll start with an office park in a prosperous part of California. It’s a standard faux farm village complex that’s occupied by a media company. The first time I saw this place I thought it might be a retirement home. It’s that kind of development out on the edge of town.
The owner of the property supports a local philanthropic organization that feeds people who have serious illnesses. A half acre of land behind the office building is provided for the cultivation of organic produce. Food is grown, cooked, and delivered to folks in need. Along the way young people are trained in agriculture and the culinary arts. What’s not to love? I use this example as an attractive template for culturally acceptable land use alternatives. But it does nothing for the town’s bottom line.
Here’s a defunct industrial site in Chicago where a slightly different version of the same thing is happening via the Growing Power organization. My guess is this property is awaiting redevelopment since the surrounding neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying. While the property awaits whatever retrofit the owner has in mind Growing Power is making good use of the space.
Soil in urban areas like this is too contaminated to grow healthy food. So crops are raised in composted soil, worm castings, and wood chips above the existing asphalt and concrete. Inexpensive plastic hoop houses extend the crowing season in Illinois’s cold climate. Young people are trained to grow, process, and market good food in conjunction with local community organizations. This is especially important in so-called food deserts in low income neighborhoods. When it’s time to move all the equipment can be transported to the next parking lot or dead warehouse space as needed.
Here’s an example of a church group that decided to turn vacant land in Detroit to food production for the members of the congregation. Contrary to the popular image of Detroit as a city of apartment towers 70% of the urban fabric is suburban style single family homes. Now that the population has contracted by more than half there’s a lot of space to grow whatever the locals need. Old buildings have even been repurposed as fish farms. People are taking the raw ingredients they have on hand and producing what they need for themselves on a very tight budget. Detroit has plenty of idle land and labor, but its people don’t always have access to healthy food. Since Detroit has already failed financially this kind of activity is a genuine economic improvement relative to the alternative – which is continued rot.
Take the spectrum of possibilities from the California, Chicago, and Detroit models and overlay them on top of these dead strip mall parking lots in Ohio. There’s an immense amount of space for highly productive market gardens. The old Goodyear tire shop is ready made for processing, adding value, storing, and selling produce. Empty adjacent storefronts could easily be farm oriented family restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, breweries… Agriculture and its associated enterprises are entirely appropriate uses of degraded suburban property. Nearby home owners would almost certainly reject proposals for dense mixed use transit oriented development in this location. It isn’t what people here want and there probably isn’t even market demand for such a thing to pencil out in this location anyway. But a farm? That’s not so scary. It might even be nice.
One of the reasons I spend so much of my time photographing these places is that I genuinely love the buildings. I appreciate the texture of the concrete blocks and the faded signs. These modest boxes are infinitely adaptable and affordable. They’re the perfect blank slate for all sorts of creative productive activities and they already conform perfectly to the existing suburban building codes. They just need to be activated with new people and uses.
But now we need to get down to financial reality. What towns desperately need is tax revenue to pay for all the accumulated burdens of aging infrastructure and personnel. Farms aren’t going to cut it. Neither are a few markets, cafes, or bakeries.
So as a town reruralizes it will need to get its municipal expenditures in line with its revenue. The simplest way to do that is through attrition. The least traveled roads (the dead end cul-de-sacs) don’t need to be paved. They can revert to gravel in keeping with a rural landscape. No one needs to drive more than fifteen miles an hour on a residential side street.
When it comes time to completely rebuilt the sewerage treatment plant for tens of millions of dollars, the town needs to run the numbers. It might be a lot cheaper to have individual septic systems installed instead. People in the country have septic systems and they work just fine. That’s the direction many contracting towns are headed for no matter what.
If the municipal water supply becomes too expensive to maintain it might be time to consider snipping the umbilical cord and switching to individual private wells or rainwater catchment systems. No? That seems ridiculous? Okay. Wait. Let an insolvent system defer upkeep and cut corners for a few decades. Flint, Michigan did that. What could go wrong?
Let’s say this proposal for a controlled descent back to country living with fewer government supplied services is rejected out of hand – as I’m sure it will be. What’s the business as usual plan? If you check out this parking lot on Google’s street view you’ll discover there was an active McDonald’s on this spot in 2011. It became vacant by 2014. And it’s since been scraped away. Such buildings are intentionally disposable. They depreciate in fifteen or twenty years and then they have no real value.
Directly across the street the same process unfolds with the retail pods in that parking lot. In 2007 there were the husks of empty buildings. In 2011 they were scraped clean. By 2015 there’s a shiny new chain restaurant. Officials will celebrate this as economic development. It isn’t. It’s desperation on a heavily subsidized treadmill. The town has too many dead properties making it look bad. So it hikes up its skirt, puts on lots of rouge, and a Wonder Bra and stands on the corner hoping for new construction. There’s a name for these kinds of transactions. And the authorities will need to do it all over again as these places run their course. I’m not being “negative.” I’m not “whining.” I’m simply describing reality.