Many believe the events leading to the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water began in April 2014, when it started drawing from the Flint River. Others believe it began in November 2011, when Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to take control of Flint’s government.
While those actions were immediate and important factors in the crisis, Richard Sadler, an assistant professor of public health and co-author of a new Michigan State University study, has found that in order to understand its real genesis, one must go back decades and examine a series of governmental, social and economic policies that led to the city’s decline and ultimately to the contamination.
“The main point is that, although we tend to think of the water crisis as proximately caused by the switch to the Flint River or the emergency manager law, we need to think about more distant political and economic causes,” Sadler said, who is also a medical geographer in the College of Human Medicine.
The study is published in the journal Environmental Justice in collaboration with Andrew Highsmith, the author of "Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan and the Fate of the American Metropolis," a book about the city’s decline.
While the loss of the auto industry certainly contributed to Flint’s deterioration, racial segregation, suburban sprawl and the resulting political fragmentation were major factors leading to the water crisis, he indicated.
As Flint’s population dropped from nearly 200,000 to fewer than 100,000 residents, many of them low income, the city was hemmed in by the suburbs and unable to grow through annexation after mid-century changes to state law.
“Local governance changes in the ‘60s and ‘70s were the lynchpins in Flint’s decline,” Sadler said. “The suburbs – supported by the state – basically strangled Flint’s ability to effectively grow and manage its finances.”
Intentionally or unwittingly, state and local officials followed an urban development model created by the late Charles Tiebout, an economist and geographer who promoted competition – rather than cooperation – among local governments for residents and investment.
“In other contexts where a region is growing, the Tiebout model can work,” Sadler said, “but it is particularly ill-suited to shrinking urban regions with stagnant tax bases.”
State and federal laws and land use policies encouraged suburban sprawl by offering subsidies that duplicated infrastructure that already existed in Flint. As residents fled to the more-affluent suburbs, they left Flint behind with a declining tax base and fewer residents to pay for maintenance of the infrastructure. Cuts in state revenue sharing also made it even more difficult for the city to adequately maintain its water system.
In the study, Sadler and Highsmith found that the fragmentation of the Flint metropolitan region – supported through a variety of housing and land use policies over many decades – created the conditions whereby suburbs were absolved of responsibility for Flint’s decades-long economic crisis.
As a result, Flint’s more affluent suburbs continued to prosper while Flint grew poorer and experienced infrastructure decline.
Both authors stated that the crisis is a classic example of an environmental injustice, as policies were set in motion which led to the creation of a politically separate and majority-black municipality with concentrated poverty, while nearby municipalities – most of them overwhelmingly white – accepted little responsibility for the legacy costs created by the region’s starkly uneven patterns of metropolitan development.
A better approach, Sadler said, would be a form of “federated regionalism,” which would preserve local government autonomy while also encouraging coordinated regional planning and consolidation of services.
“Failure to address the causes of declining urban areas will lead to further deterioration, not only in central cities, but in suburbs, he said. “Troublingly, suburbs could experience more severe issues maintaining quality of life because they already serve much lower densities, so their infrastructure is more costly per person to maintain.”
Sadler recalled the prophetic words of a black Flint city commissioner in 1969: “Those of you who feel you will escape by running to suburbia, beware…blight recognizes no border lines.”
“It should be a lesson learned that when we, as an urbanized society, go frolicking off into the farmland and ignore the infrastructure we already built, problems will inevitably arise,” Sadler said. “And ignoring these problems eventually will come back and bite you.”