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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Crisis of Abandonment

A recent article published on Preservation Online entitled "Winging It in Buffalo" provokes thoughts about the nature of widespread urban abandonment. In the article, writer Stephanie Smith discusses the situation of Buffalo, New York, where city leaders have started a "Five by Five" program to bring its vacant building rate closer to five percent within five years by demolishing 1,000 buildings a year. City planners there estimate that 10,000 buildings should be demolished.

This campaign to "right size" the city makes sensible historic preservation planning next to impossible. The Buffalo preservation board has to consider 1,000 applications a year. There is no way that preservation board members can even begin to make sense of what comes across their desks. At the same time, city leaders at least pay lip service to the idea that massive clearance is ultimately detrimental to neighborhoods.

The larger issue here is relevant to St. Louis and other cities: widespread abandonment creates public safety and land use crises of unprecedented scale. Natural time dooms many historic buildings, while political time expedites that process. Economic time brings solutions slowly, and may not move fast enough for the comfort of residents who remain in areas where abandonment is rampant. While the federal government has spent billions of dollars on supposed crises in nations like Iraq, we have failed to direct it to play a meaningful role to resolve our urban crises. Local problems rely on local solutions -- and severely limited local budgets. How and when do we break from this cycle?

(Thanks to my colleague Lindsey Derrington for the link.)

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