Urban Absorption in a Shrinking City: New Bedford, Massachusetts
Tufts University, Medford, USA
Economic decline associated with the Rustbelt's shift away from manufacturing hit many places hard, but few saw the kind of wholesale shift in its physical form as New Bedford, Massachusetts. Once the whaling capital of the world, New Bedford today is but a shell of its former self. Neighborhoods littered with foreclosed and abandoned homes, empty factories, and little hope for the future, New Bedford would seem an unlikely place for the application of one of the most innovative and creative strategies around. Albeit informal, New Bedford's local government has adopted a strategy to shrink the physical plant of the city to better match its declining population. New Bedfordians are embracing the language and policies of an emerging group of practitioners and scholars working under the umbrella of "shrinking cities." They reject the growth-based paradigm that feeds much of urban planning and local government intervention in North America (Oswalt 2006; Pallagst 2007; Hollander et al. 2009).
With economic conditions uncertain, employment levels unstable, and the high likelihood for greater population loss, what can local government do? This paper begins to offer an answer through a detailed analysis of the history, politics, environment, and planning strategies of one such shrinking city, New Bedford.
This paper is the first of three segments of a larger project, providing the historical context for current policy choices. It begins with a spatial analysis of historic Sanborn maps, Geographic Information System (GIS) data, and photographic evidence to examine how building location, density, and form have changed over the last half-century. That data was then cross-validated against the results from an extensive historical analysis of local government policy and planning reports during the same period.