In May 2014, the Vacant Property Research Network announced the recipients of its first student paper competition. The awards recognize two masters students whose research in a single-authored paper contributes to new knowledge and practice around vacant properties.
Patrick Cooper-McCann, one of the winners, was selected from the submission of a single-authored paper (12-30 pages in length) on a “vacant property” topic, which we broadly called anything from de-industrialized landscapes, distressed cities and shrinking regions to land banks, code enforcement strategies, and housing courts.
Cooper-McCann completed his third year of coursework for a joint masters and PhD in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. He will earn his masters degree this May and become a doctoral candidate later this summer. He spoke with us recently about his work and the paper that won him this recognition, “The Politics of Spatial Targeting: Urban Triage in St. Louis.” Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
To hear more from Cooper-McCann, make sure to check out his panel at the Learning from Detroit: Turbulent Urbanism in the 21st Century forum.
What influenced your paper topic?
A few years back, when the City of Detroit began the planning process that ultimately resulted in the Detroit Future City framework, there were discussions then about whether we ought to consolidate neighborhoods, whether the city should offer incentives for people to move from less dense areas to more dense areas. I was trying to get a hold of what that would look like, whether that would be fair, and what that would mean. So I went surfing for examples and there aren’t many examples, but one thing that I did see referenced was the Team Four plan in St. Louis.
In your paper you mentioned that planners in shrinking cities are debating today policies similar to the Team Four plan. How so?
The Team Four memo recommended that resources be targeted to neighborhoods in the early stages of decline because you’d get more bang for your buck. You’d be able to keep more neighborhoods intact. The flip side of this recommendation was that the city should not invest in major capital improvements in neighborhoods that were already heavily deteriorated. Not because they didn’t deserve to be rehabilitated but because the city simply lacked the resources to invest in every neighborhood in need.
We are discussing very similar things today even if not all cities are going to the same lengths of discussing actually physically relocating people. There have been a lot of recent studies arguing that community development resources are most effective when they are spatially targeted. Findings suggest that if you concentrate your spending in specific neighborhoods, and you do that for a long period of time, you’re going to see more results. However, [these studies] don’t discuss the implications of the neighborhoods that are left out.
Your paper did a great job of describing the policy change from urban renewal to urban triage from the 1940s to the 1970s. Why was this shift significant?
Some of the urban renewal policies came out of a way of thinking about neighborhood decline and blight that seemed to analogize blight to a sort of cancer. Blight and decline were conceived of as something that you could target and stamp out. As time went on city strategies sort of shifted. In St. Louis, where neighborhood decline was becoming more pervasive, the city found itself working to rehabilitate or conserve neighborhoods that were in good shape or on the verge of decline. St. Louis eventually received federal funding to do things like concentrated code enforcement, minor home repair programs, and street upgrades—all little things that you could do to make sure that middle class and working class neighborhoods stayed viable over time.
While conducting your archival and historical research did you have any unexpected or surprising findings?
I was shocked that the Team Four legacy is so toxic. It’s still controversial today. It’s still being referenced in stuff. Every couple of months I see an article with some St. Louis official saying, “Now this is not another ‘Team Four.’ Don’t worry. We’ve learned.”
What book are you reading right now?
I think I have 112 books checked out from the library right now. I’m preparing for my comprehensive exams and writing my dissertation proposal. But, you know, I’m not reading most of those. To the extent that I have free time, I’m trying to read Brown Dog by Jim Harrison.