City infrastructure has received an inordinate amount of attention in the past few months across the State of Michigan. And for good reason; The Flint Water Crisis. The fallout from the crisis has started an open dialogue about the large need for an infrastructure overhaul in Michigan cities across the State. The question about how to pay for this massive overhaul has been on lawmaker’s minds. Further, this issue has been compounded by significant depopulation in major Michigan cities. Whereas Flint’s population has declined nearly 50% in the past several decades, the City’s boundaries are unchanged, meaning the local government has to still provide services to the same area, but with a significantly declining tax base. These are the types of issues which lead to issues such as the Flint Water Crisis, particularly when cities are left to deal with the issue on their own.
When cities, especially those once focused on heavy industry, become depopulated, what happens to their infrastructure? Using Saginaw, Michigan as a pilot study, a Michigan Applied Public Policy Research 2015 report seeks to educate on simultaneous land use and water system decision making for cities with a falling population. A map of the Saginaw Green Zone, with designated future land use, that was used in the pilot study is pictured to the left. In the briefing paper, there’s background on this policy issue, literature review on best practices, policy recommendations, and proposed follow-up research. The paper can be viewed in full here. The paper also examines the reactionary approach that many local governments have taken with the issue. Cities have not approached infrastructure as an issue that can be dealt with long before an issue occurs, instead, infrastructure issues happen, and then local governments react. The authors call for an empirical approach, using quantitative methods to map out the best use for formerly abandoned areas, and allot the most efficient use of government resources to deal with these issues.
It is particularly this type of work that will drive local governments over the next decade, particularly in the State of Michigan. While the attempts of ‘legacy cities’ to re-invent themselves in the 21st century has been well documented, this is precisely the type of governance that has gained traction and admirers across the United States. Therefore, it makes good sense for local government, and state governments to incentivize this type of governing approach. The authors advocate for the most efficient use of government resources, recognizing that this entails the use of data. Local governments have more and more moved towards utilizing data to manage city issues, and this particular work is the next step in that process. Preventing the next Flint Water Crisis starts with utilizing best practices across cities, particularly when it comes to infrastructure issues. Until the federal government steps in with massive funding available to cities to make these upgrades, local elected officials are on their own, and as such, utilizing the academic community and an efficient data driven approach may very well prevent future catastrophes.