Saving Detroit

By Richard C. Longworth

An abandoned building in Detroit, MI

Detroit, Michigan (Photograph by Jonathan Bradley)

For years now, the question has been: What in the world do you do with Detroit? Or: Does Detroit have a future? Or put it another way: Should Detroit have a future, or should this poor, empty, echoing, poverty-stricken, job-bereft shell of a city simply be allowed to decay, to become one of history's cast-offs, of interest only to future archaeologists curious about the Midwestern industrial age and where it ended?

For Detroiters, this is no academic question, and so they've come up with an answer. It's called "Detroit Future City", a painstakingly compiled plan, 184 pages long, written by a planning team appointed by Mayor Dave Bing, laying out what Detroit should — or must — do if it's going to survive.

Now the fighting begins. The Detroit Works Long-Term Planning Team, which did the report, stresses that, so far, it's a set of recommendations, not diktats. It plans public programs and other fora aimed at persuading Detroiters — both residents and politicians — to buy into it. Given Detroit's dysfunctional politics, this is an uphill slog.

"Detroit Future City" is long and detailed. Much of it will interest only the people who live there. But it's worthwhile considering the broad outlines and assumptions behind it, because the problems that beset Detroit — vanished industry, declining population, crippled public services, a depressed quality of life — apply to other Midwestern cities, such as Cleveland, Flint, Youngstown, Dayton, Rockford, and others. Detroit is part of the "shrinking city" debate — the argument that a once-thriving city with a shrunken population can become a decent place to live for a lot fewer people.

Here are the main ideas:

  • Detroit, once home to about 2 million people, has closer to 800,000 now. It can stay that size, but not get much bigger.
  • About one-third of Detroit's 139 square miles have become mostly vacant, bombed-out, and deserted neighborhoods. It makes sense to take away city services, persuade the few remaining residents to relocate and turn the land over to forests, ponds — even farms. Yes, the plan is to plow up part of a once-great city and return it to farms.
  • There are other parts of the city with a denser population, more residents, more stores, more prosperity. Public funds, including transportation and education, would be focused on these areas.
  • City centres are important. Direct funds toward making Detroit's stronger.

Commentaries, like local debates, have just begun. Predictably, one of the best so far is by Aaron Renn on his Urbanophile blog.

A few other conclusions jumped out of the report at me:

First, much of this isn't new. The Brookings Institution in Washington has published papers in recent years, most of them dealing with troubled old Ohio cities, making the same suggestions — abandoning the poorest and emptiest neighborhoods and focusing resources on downtowns and on more stable neighborhoods. This seems to be the new orthodoxy, and we can expect it to pop up in Cleveland and other cities.

Second, it makes economic sense. Tax-supported city services — police, schools, fire departments, sewers, water — which were designed for a vast area housing a big population are unaffordable when the population has shrunk by half or more and the inhabited area is imploding. Something's gotta give.

But third, the human cost here could be more than the Brookings and Detroit planners reckon. It's not just the chore of persuading old Mrs Smith that she has to abandon the house where she's lived for forty years, or lose her electricity and water. It's the fact that, while the city may be able to rehouse Mrs Smith, many of its other residents have nowhere else to go.

The unstated upshot of the plan is to write off large numbers of poorer residents, of whom Detroit and similar cities have many. As Harvard's Edward Glaeser has pointed out, many people live in Detroit because they can't afford to live anywhere else. This means that they live in the worst neighborhoods because they can't afford anything better.

The plan would wipe out their neighborhoods and encourage these people to move to better neighborhoods, where services will be focused. But they would live there now if they could afford it. The plan, in essence, destroys the only home they can afford, without providing the means they need to find another. Presumably, they'll just pick up and leave town.

(To be sure, the plan calls for a sharp increase in the number of jobs in Detroit: Aaron Renn's blog shines some reality on these dreams. These jobs would be in four areas — health and education, industry, local entrepreneurship, and digital/creative. Well, every city is chasing eds and meds: since both are largely government-financed, it seems unlikely that squeezed state, local and federal budgets will finance a boom here. Industry, as we've read, may be recovering but isn't creating many jobs, especially the high-skilled jobs that Detroit's poor could fill. Some entrepreneurship is promising. But, again, the poorest of the poor in Detroit's worst neighborhood seems poor prospects for digital or creative jobs.)  

In short, it's a middle-class plan, aimed at turning Detroit into more of a middle-class city, with good neighborhoods and a vibrant downtown, while pulling an already tattered rug out from under the poor.

This is not necessarily a thumbs-down on the "Detroit Future City" plan. Rather, this states the dilemma. For cities like Detroit, created to serve an industry that's gone away and designed for a purpose that no longer exists, there may be no solution that is both economically realistic and humanitarian. Cities like Detroit lack jobs, industry, decent schools, money and hope, and no plan can restore these. But they house refugees from an earlier era who are unlikely to cope in this new era.

Detroit is an extreme case of a malaise that affects too many Midwestern cities. For that reason, the "Detroit Future City" plan — a desperate attempt to find a way out — is worth our attention.

This post was originally published by The Midwesterner

24 January 2013