In Richmond, Virginia, a triangular-shaped island—once the site of an abandoned crack house—is now paved with bricks and landscaped with dogwood and liriope. It is a small symbol of a new trend in some midsized American cities: shrinking.

In numerous metropolises across the country, green space is replacing boarded-up homes; single-family houses are being erected where crowded cinder-block apartment complexes once stood; and individuals and couples alike are moving into rehabilitated homes that once housed families of eight.

“Unmanaged vacant land attracts illegal dumping and contributes to a feeling of instability in a neighborhood,” says Terry Schwarz, director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Ohio’s Kent State University. “Simple, low-maintenance greening strategies create a perception of stewardship that helps residents feel more secure in their neighborhoods. Land stabilization strategies are also a way to hold land for future development.”

Faced with declining populations and an increasing number of abandoned structures, some U.S. municipalities believe that if cities can grow in a smart way, they can shrink smartly, too. After all, nowhere does it say that a city with fewer people has to be a bad place.

“Shrinking cities have to grapple with the dual challenges of managing decline right now and setting up opportunities for future growth along more sustainable patterns of development,” says Schwarz. “This is especially important when you consider that the majority of shrinking cities are concentrated in the Great Lakes region, and the issue of water access will be a key development driver in this century.”

In other words, American cities have a choice, says Tom Murphy, a senior resident fellow, ULI/Klingbeil Family Chair for urban development, and former mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “There are large pieces of property that are now vacant in many American cities,” he continues. “The choice is whether to just look at it or do something about it. Cities need to understand how to get control and act. When I was mayor of Pittsburgh, we bought 1,500 acres [607 ha] of abandoned land and redeveloped it. It was high risk and controversial, but at the end of the day it was a great decision because we got billions of dollars’ worth of development out of ‘worthless’ property and shared the risk and reward with developers.”

Today, there is more acceptance of the idea that some cities are not growing and that vacant property issues need to be addressed. “Detroit, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio, are exploring the most aggressive ideas for managing decline, to the point where both of these cities have looked at relocating residents and consolidating their urban footprints,” Schwarz adds. “To my knowledge, there has been relatively little implementation of this strategy on the ground. Mostly because it is very difficult—politically, structurally, and economically—to do. In Cleveland, the focus is on the productive reuse of vacant land—for stormwater management, green-space expansion, ecosystem restoration, agriculture, energy generation, and so forth. These strategies are generally well accepted by policy makers and residents, since they convert derelict properties into something useful.”

But many consider this a short-term approach. “If development demand gets stronger in Cleveland, there would be pressure to replace these nontraditional urban uses with new housing and businesses,” Schwarz says. “This has happened in some parts of Philadelphia, particularly around agricultural uses in recovering neighborhoods. When development demand gets stronger, small farms and green spaces often become prime development sites. The city of Cleveland has developed zoning classifications for urban agriculture that allow for food production in city neighborhoods and offer these kinds of uses some protection in the face of future development demand.”

Thus, elected officials should become risk takers—willing to share the downside with those who see opportunities where others see litigation, says Murphy. “Cities have the ability to create a public/private partnership to shape a vision that is doable and exciting,” he continues. “They have the ability to marshal the financing for it. They have to understand how to do public/private financing so they share risk with the developer and share any possible upside.”

Officials must create a transparent process so the entire community has a sense of what’s going to happen. “The quality of development will determine its success,” Murphy continues. “You have to move from how to manage decline to how you manage growth and investment in the future. It’s controversial, sure, but leadership is needed. It’s about saying we’re going to do it, we’re going to redefine the rules, and we’re going to make the city perhaps smaller but definitely better.”