Flint, Michigan, accidentally poisoned its water supply. Its story holds lessons for other cities

A local wears a t-shirt highlighting Flint's water crisis. Image: Brett Carlsen/Getty.

Flint, Michigan, has always projected a distinctly gritty and often grim image to the rest of the United States. It’s one of the few cities that Detroit, 60 miles to the southeast, can look down on. It’s a city where even the good times seem to be hard times.

But times have been particularly hard in Flint since April 2014, when local and state officials carried out a dubious plan to use the Flint River to supply drinking water for the city. Locals were aware of the disastrous effects of the decision from the start; in recent months, it’s exploded into a national controversy.

Now, as the US and international media pick over the fallout from the city’s water crisis, citizens of Flint (or “Flintstones”, as they like to be called), find their town an unlikely poster child for the importance of building and maintaining proper urban infrastructure – and what can go wrong when cities do not.

Founded by a fur trader in the early 1800s, Flint’s population took off after General Motors was founded there in 1908. Though GM would later move to Detroit, Flint remained a booming automotive centre.

Not all of the windfall profits seen by GM’s management trickled down to the average Flintstone, however. In 1933, the city was the site of a memorable sit-down strike that formed the basis of the United Auto Workers, a powerful union.

All that came crashing down in the 1980, when GM’s flagship plant in Flint closed up shop. Thousands of workers found themselves out of a job, and the local economy plummeted. Over the coming decades, the city’s population dropped from a high of nearly 200,000 to less than 100,000.


And this decline hit city coffers hard. By 2014 officials, desperate to find some way to cut costs, were looking to the city’s water supply.

Since the 1960s, the city had been pumping in water from Detroit – an effective but costly source of water. So the city’s mayor, in conjunction with a special “emergency manager” appointed by Republican governor Rick Snyder, decided it would be better to begin pumping water out of the nearby Flint River.

While the measure succeeded at cutting costs, the negative effects to the health of average Flintstones were felt immediately. In June of 2014, residents began complaining of displeasing smells in their drinking water. Soon after, faucets in Flint began spouting brown and yellow tap water. By February 2015, it became clear that the water was tainted with an even more deadly contaminant: lead.

Though the contamination of the city’s drinking water had been caused by switching to water from the Flint River, it was just as much a product of the city’s decaying network of water mains. The system, comprised mostly of cast iron piping over 75 years old, reacted poorly to the warmer water from the river. It became a breeding ground for E. Coli bacteria, while also causing higher levels of oxidised iron to break from the pipes, causing the water’s unsightly brownish tint. And, as a research team from Virginia Tech revealed in September 2015, high chloride levels in the water caused lead to seep from the aging pipes.

Flint finally resolved to return to Detroit water in October 2015. But the damage had been done. And even after returning to its original water source, the city’s pipes continue to seep lead.

A resident carries bottled water, surrounded by volunteer militia.  Image: Brett Carlsen/Getty.

As the crisis over Flint’s water blew up over the last few weeks – including a federal emergency being declared and a visit from Obama – it has become the focus of a torrent of commentary from the nation’s media. But surprisingly, few seem to be holding up the city’s crisis as a crucial example of just how important it is to maintain urban infrastructure.

While the debate over the situation in Flint rages on, roughly 663m people worldwide don’t have access to reliable sources of water. Some developing world cities continue to experience a debilitating lack of water infrastructure – but others have made steady gains in creating reliable supplies. The results of the successes or failures of these projects are felt directly by people in these cities; infrastructure often occupies a prominent role in these cities’ politics.

But in the United States and other developed countries, generations of access to reliable infrastructure has all but erased it from the public psyche. Few people remember a time before having access to water was as simple as opening a household tap. The crisis in Flint is an example of just how dangerous this lack of attention can be.

To be sure, there are many lessons to be taken from Flint. Many have pointed out that Flint’s large population of African Americans is further evidence that the country’s deeply entrenched racism dies hard. And in an article at Vox, Flint writer Connor Coyne argued that the crisis was worsened by Governor Snyder’s imposition of “emergency managers”, who undermined the local decision making process and prolonged the crisis after Flintstones sounded the alarm.

But the level of apathy toward such fundamental services as clean water has undeniably been one cause of the crisis.

After nearly two years of dangerous drinking water, Flint’s story may have a happy ending – sort of. A new pipeline is set to be completed in June 2016 that will supply the city with water from Lake Huron without the need to pay the steep rates charged by Detroit. So far, though, little has been said about upgrading the city’s dilapidated water mains that played a key role in causing the crisis.

As Flint recovers from this devastating crisis, cities around the world fortunate enough to have good functioning water infrastructure should take note. While cutting maintenance funds for this infrastructure may be seem like a good idea in the short term, it comes with a high price tag down the line. 

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.