THOMAS: Bulldozing American cities

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There are perhaps dozens of small towns and failing neighborhoods beginning to resemble ghost towns. We’ve all seen them if we have gotten off the interstate and driven down state or county roads and once-thriving Main Streets or into blighted neighborhoods.

The Obama administration reportedly is considering whether to broaden an experimental “shrink to survive” program in Flint, Mich., - one of the nation’s poorest cities. The proposal is to raze districts within some cities and towns while bulldozing others in their entirety. Land would be returned to its pre-construction state. Local politicians in Flint think the city must contract by as much as 40 percent. They want to focus on the population that remains and cut services to save money.

The man behind the plan is Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, Mich., which includes Flint. Mr. Kildee told President Obama about his vision during last year’s campaign. The government and a group of charities are asking Mr. Kildee to apply what he has learned in Flint to the rest of the country. According to a recent Daily Telegraph story, Mr. Kildee says he is looking at 50 cities recently identified by the Brookings Institution as potential candidates for shrinking because of their economic and population decline. “Most are former industrial cities in the ‘rust belt.’… They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis,” the Telegraph said.

“The obsession with growth,” Mr. Kildee says, “is sadly a very American thing. Across the U.S. there’s an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing, they are successful. If they’re shrinking, they’re failing.”

In reporting on this story, Tom Leonard, the Daily Telegraph’s American correspondent, said Detroit, whose economic struggles have been exacerbated by the turmoil in the automobile industry, might be “split into a collection of smaller urban centers separated from each other by countryside.” Mr. Kildee is quoted as saying, “The real question is not whether these cities shrink - we’re all shrinking - but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way. Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.”

This idea ought to have appeal across the political spectrum. Dividing up failing cities and towns into smaller entities and creating grasslands in between them also might reduce crime and urban sprawl while lessening pollution and gridlock. Downsizing cities and towns also could serve as a model for government. Smaller government would possibly mean less waste, fraud and abuse and more power for taxpayers.

If the federal government wishes to proceed with this proposal, it could greatly enhance its credibility by starting with itself. How about shrinking the size, cost and reach of the federal government because many of its components are out of date and in need of “bulldozing”?

Citizens Against Government Waste, one of the better organizations in Washington, monitors the ways our tax dollars are misspent. Speaking of Detroit, CAGW notes that the current budget allocates $3.8 million for the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy. How about bulldozing the $1.8 million set aside for swine-odor and manure-management research in Ames, Iowa? Now there’s a pork project! There’s $1.9 million for the Pleasure Beach water-taxi service in Connecticut. (The people near my home who use a water-taxi service pay for it themselves.)

The shrinking of American cities and towns that are not as vibrant as they once were is potentially a good idea. So is shrinking the size and cost of the federal government. If the bulldozing of outdated and unnecessary federal spending could be linked to the reduction of failing cities and towns, it would be a win-win for distressed taxpayers.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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