Professur für Internationale Planungssysteme

Flint, Michigan

Shrinkage profile of Flint

The case study of Flint, Michigan is a representative case of much of America’s twentieth century industrial history (Gilman 2001, p.36).
It is located within the Genesee County in the state of Michigan, USA. The city was founded in the early 19th century and became famous as the centre of automotive industries and the founding city of General Motors, the biggest car manufacturer in the United States (for some time even the world). Flint covers an area of approx. 88 km2 with a population of around 102.000 people in 2010. The Flint Metropolitan Area (statistical area) had a population of 426.000 in 2010 (US Census Bureau 2012a). The City’s case is well-known because of Flint native Michael Moore’s movie “Roger and me”, which is a quasi documentary about the situation in Flint (Gilman 2001, p. 33).

In the chart below you can see the development of the population in Flint. During the time from 1900 until 1930 the population increased from around 13,000 to more than 150.000 people demonstrating the enormous pull factor the developing automotive industry posed. In the following years there was a stable development and a comparably modest continuation of population growth until the 1960s. Since then there is a constant loss in population.

Population development


The reasons for this development of Flint’s population can mainly be traced to the strong dependency on the automobile industry as the main branch of employment.

In the beginning of the 20th century the first automotive companies settled in Flint like Buick and General Motors. General Motors was funded in Flint in 1908 but moved headquarters to Detroit in 1920. During this time the population numbers show immense growth (13.103 to 91.599) and continued to grow since the plant facilities remained in Flint. In the late 50s the City of Flint was seen as forerunner of a new society with fair wages for workers making it even more attractive for people to move there (Dandaneau 1996, p. 96/97).
Flint’s loss in population began in the 1970s as an outcome of the changes and the come-down of the automobile industry. There were a lot of common structural transformations in the economy based on the development from industrial production to service oriented economy.

The whole industrial production was transformed into a more technological sector by way of example through the introduction of assembly-line work, automation of several production steps and the dislocation of the production into other regions or even abroad, where the production costs were a lot smaller. Another important parameter was the oil crisis in the 1970s. Due to all these changes General Motors was forced to close some of their factories in Flint, which led to a massive reduction of employments. Between 1971 and 1991 GM lost 30% of US market share and cut his workforce in half. (John Greenwald 1992). The exploding rates of unemployment in the City lead to a huge emigration (Gilotti and Kildee 2009, p.140 ff.).

Flint is an extreme example for a city depending on one industrial branch because here it was also depending on one single company. With General Motors struggling the city shared the company’s fate. Genesee County however, has not suffered a similar loss of population over the last 30 to 40 years. This development is more related to urban sprawl and suburbanization then shrinkage (Gilotti and Kildee 2009, p.141).

Actions to deal with shrinkage

One could say the measures against shrinkage and economic decline have been taken in Flint right in the beginning of the decline but proved to be ineffective. In the early 1970’s the federal program for urban renewal ended. This program was used to raze down urban blight and redevelop the areas with federal funds. Like in other cities this program was used to develop prestigious projects rather than redevelop neighborhoods in decline (Gilman 2001, p. 57).

By the end of the 1970’s the development was focused on private investments supported by federal funds in form of Urban Development Action Grants (UDAG) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). Flint got 10 of these grants (out of 112 in total in the state of Michigan) and was very successful in the application for federal money for its projects. Although the focus of these projects was downtown redevelopment with private investment, the majority of projects could not achieve their intended goals (Gilman 2001, p. 57).

By the end of the 1980’s these federal programs came to an end. From then on the city focused on small businesses to improve the job situation. These efforts were partly successful but the number of jobs that were created is relatively small compared to the ongoing personnel reductions in the automotive industry Gilman 2001, p 58).

In 2003, Michigan passed one of the most progressive land banking laws in the US based on the work done in Genesee County. With this new land bank law the County was able to adopt a Brownfield redevelopment plan that utilizes a unique Tax Increment Financing strategy. This enables the Land Bank to redevelop its properties in a much more effective way (Gilotti and Kildee 2009, p. 144).

The redevelopment of vacant land is probably the main opportunity for shrinking cities to adapt to past and future challenges. Unfortunately, urban development projects have to be attractive for investors even in a shrinking city with a dysfunctional real estate market. The investments made by the land bank can support these redevelopment efforts and attract private investment in addition to the public funding. However, until 2009 private investors have not returned to Flint and it is not clear at what point the city becomes attractive for investment again (Gilotti and Kildee 2009, p. 146).


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