Briar Patch Research

March 11, 2010:  Own any urban property?  Surprise, surprise, surprise...

Recent headlines about Detroit razing up to a quarter of its 139 square miles and replacing ruins with agriculture reminded me of a “lurking bill”… It was referred to committee over a year ago, but, after a blog-delaying spate of research, think it still needs to be watched. 

Deindustrialization-driven population migration, and its rural counterpart, are well -established trends in the developed world, and "workable solutions" will spread rapidly within and between governments. Even if this set of bills dies a natural death I think we can expect ideas like it to keep popping up.

The Community Regeneration, Sustainability, and Innovation Act of 2009 (HR932 and S453)(CRSI) would establish up to 15 pilot programs to fund testing of what is termed "innovative vacant property reclamation and urban infrastructure renewal strategies."  This will include

  • Government-led seizure, deconstruction and recycling of blighted housing, civil infrastructure and commercial properties
  • Establishment of regional "land banks" in which the newly public properties would be assembled and managed by consortia of local governments or not-for-profit agencies.  These agencies will be used to establish of public control over vacant and abandoned property, stabilize neighborhoods and real estate markets, rationalize land use, and provide new public amenities, including open space and green infrastructure. 
  • Greening the properties, either by returning them to their natural condition, such as forest, prairie or wetland, with public access for recreation as appropriate, or adapted for environmentally sustainable activities, including urban agriculture and renewable energy production. 

The bills enjoy wide support, with 46 co-sponsors for the House Version.  Media coverage has been extremely light.

The legislation is designed to aid older industrial cities, suburbs of such cities, and metropolitan areas which have

  • lost more than 20% of their population between the Federal Censuses of 1970 and 2000,
  • experienced prolonged employment loss, especially "previously well-paying jobs" in basic industry and manufacturing
  • widespread and substantial levels of housing vacancy, especially  properties legally unoccupied for six months or longer,
  • property abandonment, demonstrated by failure to pay taxes or utility bills, mortgage default, or lack of care causing it to present a threat to public safety or public nuisance.

 A quick look at indicates that between 1970 and 2000 at least 40 US cities in 13 states lost more than 20% of their respective populations.  I cannot help but note many of those cities were, within the last 12,000 years, either covered by glaciers or partially underwater.  

Trivial details aside, I wonder how pessimistic the framers and backers of this bill must be, in that they see a fall-back to the Dark Ages, (complete with core- periphery networks of agricultural villages, market towns surrounding a central, presumable fortified, and almost economically independent cities) as a good thing.

At present, CRSI does not apply to areas with substantial population loss or real estate blight since 2000, the current real estate downturn and mortgage crisis.  The proposed legislations encourages other legislative efforts to "stabilize and improve neighborhoods not presently experiencing serve.
HR932, my current Dead Horse, projects a fascinating set of possible scenarios.  It goes far beyond the crack-house clearances and urban pioneering practiced by some cities, and gives ample evidence that few things are more dangerous than Good Intentions.  Imagine this picture, drawn from some readings in the New Urbanism underlying the bill:

Smaller, denser walkable cities with clearly defined and outwardly discernable neighborhoods, rarely more than a half-mile across, centered around public transportation nodes, small parks and civic or community buildings.  Houses are placed closed to the narrow, tree lined streets, with parking areas tucked away out of public sight. Personally owned vehicles are discouraged, with walking, bicycles and mass transit preferred. 
There is no need to leave the neighborhood to shop for most weekly goods, and most children can easily walk to an elementary school in their familiar neighborhood surroundings.  Many of the inhabitants would work in small workshops connected to their, or the business owner’s house, or in sheds at the rear of their property. Few workers are more than 500 yards from public transportation stops.
While Neighborhoods are in many ways self governing,  the city has well-thought and enforced development plans, tightly-controlled building codes, and environmentally sensitive businesses, with a high reliance on renewable power and fresh locally-grown organic food, all surrounded by vast, publically-controlled greenbelts, wetlands, and nature preserves.  Buildings and property are not permitted to deteriorate, and are recycled to other uses while maintaining their unique historic appearances.

This sounds quite nice in many ways, but as the particle said, a whole lot depends on your spin…

The small isolated city is comprised of tightly segregated, inward-looking communities, each with its own shopping, schools and churches.  Ethnic and social groups are largely self-policing, yet pay taxes into municipal coffers.
People tend to work, play and shop locally, and not mix with outsiders. There are few large businesses or employers.  Businesses are hidden away, unobtrusive, and hard to find by outside job seekers.
The city is dominated by a centralized elite with a high degree of control as to what gets done, where, and by who.  Power and food is seasonal, and largely limited to what can be produced and stored locally.  Property can be seized almost on a whim, with little recourse

It takes a very slight shift in emphasis to move from a modern utopia to a medieval dystopia... throw in a city wall (or force-shield) mercenary guards (human or not), and an Object of Easily Understandable Desire (your choice) and you have the setting of any number of “trash-fi” novels.  Most of these seem to end badly for all participants.


I encourage all my readers to read the full text of HR932. The Community Regeneration, Sustainability, and Innovation Act of 2009, and express their  views—no matter what they are--on it to their federal representatives.  This one needs full exposure to daylight.

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