Uncovering JAPA

When It’s Right to Rightsize

Flint, Michigan, now has cleaner water, but no one has forgotten that the city's water crisis never should have happened. Six years later, the shrinking city continues to update its water infrastructure, perhaps serving as a warning to others about the importance of rightsizing.

In "Flint (MI) Missed an Opportunity to ‘Right Size' With Its Water Crisis," a Viewpoint in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 3), author Victoria Morckel proposes that Flint's water crisis resulted from the city government's financial distress.

While the city was replacing its pipes on a one-for-one basis, there was another option.

By reducing its water infrastructure — or rightsizing — the city could have had the ability to reinvest its limited capital over a smaller area.

In addition, rightsized infrastructure is less prone to public health crises because water is less likely to sit stagnant.

Rightsizing Infrastructure Boosts Community Resilience

The author proposes that hydraulic modeling, combined with community participation, might have systematically determined where and how best to deliver water resources given the distribution of Flint's population, contributing to rightsizing efforts.

Morckel also suggests that Flint might have had an easier time rightsizing than other cities because its vacancies are not concentrated in the central part of its water system. Moreover, its decision to rightsize would have had little detrimental effect on neighboring municipalities given that a majority of the city's waterlines are self-contained.

By prioritizing rightsizing, Morckel submits that Flint might have followed a more strategic land use planning approach to best adapt to its shrinking population. Under Flint's current strategy, low-density areas are designated "green land uses." Yet these areas may not align with those where removing infrastructure or decreasing services is feasible. Instead, the city might have first identified these areas, refocusing development as a result.

Flint's Rightsizing: Lessons Learned

Rightsizing might have offered positive benefits to the city. Why wasn't it done, especially when rightsizing city infrastructure was listed as a priority among Flint residents in the city's 2013 master plan?

The author suggests this stems from a mentality shared by many planners that shrinking cities have the potential to grow again, and to the same size as in their heyday. For many cities, this simply is not true.

While the time to rightsize Flint was undoubtedly before its 2014 water crisis, other cities can use this experience to better serve their residents. Rightsizing may not be possible politically and technically. Social equity considerations may be complex given the specific circumstances.

Rightsizing may, however, provide the financial capital to address some of the current challenges that shrinking cities face — large amounts of city-owned property, and stressed public transportation systems — while also providing the resources to confront challenges they will face in the future, such as climate change and defunded public schools. Maybe it is time for planners to realize it might be right to rightsize.

Top image: Flint, Michigan, water tower in October 2019. Photo by Flickr user Sean Marshall (CC BY-NC 2.0).

About the Author
Kyle Miller is a joint Master in Urban Planning and Master of Public Health candidate at Harvard University.

October 8, 2020

By Kyle Miller