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How a Coming Exodus From Flint Could Further Imperil the City's Infrastructure

According to a new study, wealthy and educated citizens could be the first to go.
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Placards warn against drinking from the water fountains at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, on May 4th, 2016.

Placards warn against drinking from the water fountains at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, on May 4th, 2016.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, could cause people to migrate in unexpectedly high numbers—an exodus that might further worsen the city's infrastructure, according to a new study.

Following the discovery that Flint's water had been contaminated with lead, journalists wondered whether residents would leave the city. While some highlighted examples of people who had fled, others pointed out the various factors that might keep someone in a place like Flint: poverty, the difficulties of selling a home, and a resigned sense that quality of life in this Rust Belt city has always been subpar.

Planning experts at the University of Michigan–Flint have surveyed residents to ascertain how many people have already left Flint, and how many are thinking of leaving. It's an important question, particularly given the role of population loss in creating the lead crisis in the first place. Between 1960 and 2015, the population of Flint more than halved, depriving this large city of the people and taxes required to maintain basic services—like clean drinking water.

The researchers wondered if, in Flint's case, the disintegrating infrastructure could lead to a vicious cycle, causing yet more people to leave the city, leading to a further decline in vital services for those who remain.

If more people leave, "The cost of infrastructure and basic services will continue to go up while their quality will continue to decline," says Victoria Morckel, the first author of the paper. "In short, people will pay more for even less. The physical size of the city is fixed, so certain costs are fixed barring drastic efforts like de-annexation or shutting down parts of the city and relocating residents."

Flint's local government already anticipates that the city's population will decline. A master plan from earlier this decade already projected 20,000 departures by 2020. But that plan was drawn up in 2013, before the water crisis hit, raising concerns that its projections could be out-of-date, and that the city will be unprepared for any additional population flight precipitated by the water crisis.

Initially, the researchers examined Postal Service data to see whether people had already begun fleeing Flint. They hadn't really: While the population had indeed declined since the water crisis, this trend hadn't accelerated compared to before the crisis hit.

In a survey administered online, over the phone, and by mail, the researchers then asked households in Flint whether they planned to leave the city any time soon, whether the water crisis was the primary reason for their exit, and what could be done to persuade them to stay.

The team found that 54 percent of people surveyed said they are considering leaving the city, and 75 percent of these people indicated that the water crisis was their primary reason (other reasons included crime, a weak economy, and governmental incompetence).

That means that, even if people haven't left yet, there's a high chance that Flint residents will leave the city in unanticipatedly large numbers in the future. A previous study has found that 44 percent of Americans who express the desire to move do so within two years; that analysis did not focus on places affected by disasters, so there's a good chance that the proportion of people who follow through on their intentions could be even higher in the case of Flint, the researchers say.

One worrying element of the study is the suggestion that educated citizens would be the first to go, creating a "brain drain" effect in Flint, which could—again—have a deleterious effect on infrastructure. Although the survey was sent out randomly, there was higher participation by women, white people, highly educated people, and the wealthy, suggesting that more disadvantaged groups could be left behind in an increasingly deteriorating city.

"Young, educated people who have choices will opt to move to places with high-quality services and a high quality of life. Flint and other Rust Belt communities need young people to stay and make their cities better, for example, by being entrepreneurs, creating jobs, purchasing homes, paying taxes. If educated people leave behind those who are less mobile, then, once again, the quality of services and quality of life will further decline for those left behind," Morckel says. "This brain drain and flight of people with means (such as 'white flight' in the 1960s) had a negative effect in many Midwestern cities decades ago. The question is whether there will be another wave of people leaving de-industrialized cities as conditions worsen."

The researchers also looked at how to persuade people to stay in Flint—and found, unsurprisingly, that trust is key. While the Environmental Protection Agency declared in June of 2016 that filtered water would be safe for Flint residents to consume, many respondents still stated that lead contamination was their main reason for leaving, suggesting that they did not yet have faith in Flint's infrastructure. "It might be that without actions that residents can physically see (e.g. digging up and replacing pipes) they will not believe the water crisis is over," the authors write in the study.

While it was beyond the scope of the paper, the researchers note that the issue raises an ethical conundrum. Like many environmental problems, including climate change, fixing Flint's problems requires people to act for the common good—staying to improve the city, rather than pursuing a more promising life elsewhere. Another benefit of retaining the population is that it prevents people from developing on previously rural land, instead transforming the city’s depressing empty lots into uplifting occupied spaces.

For city planners, convincing people to stay, and thereby stalling the deterioration of the city, can only be ethical if basic needs, like water, are met. "We cannot fault any individual who moves because he or she is looking for a better quality of life in a place that provides better or more services," Morckel says. "However, we, as a society, would be better off if individuals did not run from places like Flint, but instead chose to make them better."

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.