Uncovering JAPA

Pros and Cons of Right Sizing Flint's Water Infrastructure

Like several post-industrial cities across the United States, Flint, Michigan, has experienced a declining population and — with it — a need to reexamine planning practices. In 2014, the state-appointed emergency manager decided to cut costs by switching its water supply, which resulted in extensive pollution to their water system, creating the infamous 2014 water crisis. To mitigate the crisis, Flint and the state of Michigan planned to replace the damaged water pipes one-to-one, instead of resizing their water system altogether.

In considering Flint's future, two questions have been at the forefront:

  • How should Flint evaluate their water infrastructure and replace damaged pipes?
  • How could the aftermath of a crisis become an opportunity to reevaluate planning practices to support community-identified goals?

Any decision to reallocate resources is appropriately met with critique and necessary skepticism, especially for cities like Flint, which has already experienced an unequal distribution of resources through decades of harmful urban renewal efforts and racist planning practices.

Two viewpoints in the Journal of the American Planning Association address Flint's response to the water crisis: "Right Sizing Flint's Infrastructure in the Wake of the Flint Water Crisis Would Constitute an Additional Environmental Injustice" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 87, No. 3) by Richard C. Sadler, Debra Furr-Holden, Ella Greene-Moton, Brian Larkin, Moses Timlin, Dayne Walling, and Thomas Wyatt, and "Flint (MI) Missed an Opportunity to 'Right Size' With Its Water Crisis” (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 86, No. 3) by Victoria Morckel.

Both viewpoints include authors with direct, personal ties to planning objectives in Flint and center their recommendations around values of social equity, environmental justice, and community input.

THE CASE FOR RIGHT SIZING

As Victoria Morckel presents in her 2020 article (JAPA 86.3), already reviewed in an earlier blog, overcapacity in a water system can lead to increased risks of waterborne illnesses, water contamination, and faster pipe degradation — meaning that larger-than-necessary water systems become public health concerns.

Instead of rebuilding a larger-than-necessary water system, Morckel suggests that "right sizing" would help alleviate issues of overcapacity by aligning water systems to the current size of the population and reevaluating land use. Such a resizing would help alleviate public health concerns and thus address some of the existing environmental injustices in the city.

THE PUSHBACK TO RIGHTSIZING IN FLINT

This position on right sizing is controversial, even among those hoping for a better Flint. In a subsequent viewpoint, Sadler et al. disagree with the process of right sizing.

They emphasize the tendency of right sizing policies to be undemocratic and advocate that planners should gather adequate public input before conversations of right sizing occur. In particular, they note two public concerns to right sizing: 1) the substantial cost needed to right size, and 2) the risk of displacing residents if reductions to infrastructure pressure them to relocate.

Their hesitation to support right sizing stems from a concern regarding the influence that planning "best practices" have had on cities, promising to better cities, only to deepen racial and economic inequalities through failed urban renewal practices.

The authors, comprised of Flint residents, use their personal expertise to address overlooked environmental injustices, claiming that the right sizing process would take focus away from Flint's most environmentally unjust areas.

Figure 1 shows the relationship between parcel vacancy and population "distress" — defined as "census characteristics known to predict material and social deprivation." By disinvesting in less dense areas away from the city's center, the existing injustices in those areas may be further exacerbated.

Figure 1. 2010 socioeconomic distress and 2016 vacant properties by block. Sources: 2010 U.S. Census and Genesee County Land Bank.

Figure 1. 2010 socioeconomic distress and 2016 vacant properties by block. Sources: 2010 U.S. Census and Genesee County Land Bank.

Instead, Sadler et al. advocate for a "smart decline" approach, which would center planning efforts around values of social justice and participatory planning. For example, the "Strong Towns" approach values resiliency over efficiency.

In their call for structural change, Sadler et al. suggest planning practices should center on regionalism and revenue sharing rather than using a fiscal efficiency lens.

There is a significant trade-off in the two viewpoints of Morckel and Sadler et al. On the one hand, inefficient infrastructure is expensive to maintain and presents financial and public health burdens on the city and its residents.

On the other hand, disinvestment in infrastructure must consider the impact it will have on minority communities that have an existing history of the city disinvesting in them. Finances may pressure a city to prioritize the efficiency of its infrastructural systems. Yet, the city must balance finances with public health and social justice considerations.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTARIES

JAPA 87.3 offers six commentaries on this debate, including a response from the initial author, Victoria Morckel.

Morckel defends her initial viewpoint, agreeing with Sadler et al. that centering resident voices should be at the forefront of decision-making processes. In particular, Morckel clarifies that she is not advocating for complete right sizing (where all infrastructure is removed from a neighborhood and de-annexing the land is prioritized, thus displacing current residents).

Instead, she advocates for right sizing that still maintains service, but does so while reducing future risks like water contamination. Although the costs and benefits of right sizing have not been extensively investigated in prior literature, she encourages planners to use that lack of knowledge as an invitation to explore right sizing in more detail.

Several of the commentaries discuss the balance needed between Morckel and Sadler et al.'s claims. Margaret Dewar frames this debate as a broader planning issue regarding the role of planners in balancing technical expertise versus local interest. Dewar's commentary is a call for planners to leverage the technical skills in our profession to facilitate more community dialogue, specifically through extensive community-based planning.

Brent D. Ryan also discusses this balance, but from the perspective of rational planning objectives versus advocacy planning and the ability for both viewpoints to contribute towards a solution.

Andrew J. Greenlee advocates for an alternative to balance-based thinking that allows for deeper acknowledgment of the institutional inequities that caused the crisis in the first place. Planners do not have to think of financial concerns and social needs as in opposition to one another, but rather should be simultaneous goals that "come with different timescales."

Like Greenlee, Ivonne Audirac and Jason Hackworth discuss the political and institutional considerations associated with right sizing. While right sizing achieves certain desires in "the abstract," they argue that the implementation of such policies would further disenfranchise the city's most marginalized groups.

Renia Ehrenfeucht and Marla Nelson disagree altogether that a crisis is an opportunity for planning reform. They caution planners to consider the potential for austerity narratives to further inequities, because planning decisions made during a crisis may coerce residents to support the initiative without the proper iterative process and long-term visioning necessary to implement transformative policies.

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE

I am currently finishing my second semester of my first year as an urban planning student. This semester, our core studio engages communities in Lowell, Massachusetts, to propose a neighborhood plan for the post-industrial city. Like Flint, Lowell has experienced decades of urban renewal efforts that left a series of socioeconomic and racial inequities across the city. As my studio reconciles with the role planners have had in shaping Lowell, I find myself reflecting on the same concerns shared by both Morckel and Sadler et al.

The debate in these commentaries raises important questions about what guides the planning decision process, asking how cities can balance financial concerns with the community-identified needs of the town.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.

Top image: USDA/flickr.com


About the author
Mike Lidwin is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

June 9, 2022

By Mike Lidwin