Saturday, July 21, 2007

Shrinking Cities

In yesterday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, A. Barton Hinkle wrote an OpEd suggesting that Richmond may want to follow the example of Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown, according to Hinkle is accepting the fact that it has a shrinking population. Rather than fighting this trend, the city has decided to downsize its operations and reduce the tax burden of its remaining residents. I replied to Hinkle on his blog ( For those who do not read Hinkle’s blog, here is my comment:

I know nothing about Youngstown. I don't know whether it is a shrinking city in the midst of a healthy metropolitan area as it Richmond. I still have the January 26, 2007, TD article "Ready to brag, Richmond?" It dealt with a study by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce that showed that Metro Richmond compared favorably with the Nashville, TN; Jacksonville, FL; Raleigh, NC; Birmingham, AL; and Charlotte, NC, metropolitan areas.

We don't have a problem in Metro Richmond; we have a problem in the city. The City of Richmond is losing its middle class and its population is dropping. At the same time the populations of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties are increasing.

So why are people leaving Richmond for the suburbs? I think the main reason is schools. There is a widespread perception that the Richmond Public Schools do not do as good a job educating children as do the school systems in the suburbs. In my neighborhood, Westover Hills, we have a perfectly good neighborhood school. However, nobody in my neighborhood sends their children to Westover Hills School. When children reach school age, my neighbors do one of three things: 1-they send their kids to private schools; 2-they home school their kids; or 3-they move to the suburbs. The result is a demographic bubble; there are hardly any families living in the neighborhood with school age children.

If we are going to stem Richmond's hemorrhaging population, we must first drastically improve our public schools. For Richmond to be a great city, it must have great public schools.

Second, we must stress the things that only a central city can do. The Sixth Street Marketplace was a disaster because we were trying to compete with the suburban shopping malls. There was no way we were going to lure suburbanites to shop in the city when they had big malls much closer to where they live. We've got to stress growth in the city that will keep our residents spending their money in the city and luring suburbanites into the city.

Of course, Richmond cannot solve its problems outside of a regional context. Today’s TD shows part of the problem; the fairfaxization of Chesterfield County. The citizens of Virginia spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build route 288, a road that began nowhere, went nowhere, and traveled through a mostly empty county. This road has single-handedly made many parts of Chesterfield County available for development. It has produced the long strip mall on Hull Street Road that continues westward for a considerable distance. Chesterfield County is adding thousands of homes, which will produce thousands of extra cars on our roads and tons of extra carbon in our atmosphere. We need to institute regional planning which discourages, rather than encourages, continued suburban sprawl. We need to stop subsidizing development that is economically and environmentally damaging.

Perhaps, as you suggest downsizing of the City of Richmond may be inevitable. However, I hope we don't decide to bury the patient while it is still breathing and has a decent chance for recovery.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said. But let's put a finer point on it.

I don't have any children, but it saddens me to the state of the Richmond City school buildings. Then I get really, really mad, seeing wasteful projects like the Convention Center and Arts Center get all of this money and attention.

Citizens need to demand better school buildings