Right-Sizing Done Right: How Planned Shrinkage Can Save Detroit

In a rebuttal to Roberta Brandes Gratz's argument against shrinking cities, planner Brian J. Connolly argues that Detroit is beyond preserving and needs to increase density by concentrating development in more limited areas and cutting off services and infrastructure to areas that are almost empty. 

Surrounding the intersection of Chene Street and Warren Avenue in Detroit are blocks of urban prairie, a wasteland devoid of people and dotted by abandoned buildings. One would be hard-pressed to believe that this spot is three miles from the downtown of America's eleventh-largest city.

Areas like these are the subject of Mayor Dave Bing's plan to "right-size" Detroit, cutting infrastructure and services to the most blighted areas. By shrinking Detroit, Bing rightly recognizes opportunities for the city to save resources and focus development efforts in healthier areas such as Midtown and Cass Corridor, the riverfront and other revitalizing neighborhoods.

 Near Chene Street, an empty field.
Near Chene St. in Detroit, image courtesy of Flickr user Michael Greenlee.

Earlier this week on Planetizen, Roberta Brandes Gratz rebuked the idea of shrinkage, arguing that a successful revitalization is built on preservation efforts. Gratz ignores Detroit's exceptional problems - no city has experienced the magnitude of abandonment that Detroit has, and no market exists to bring the city back.

Unlike neighborhood-decimating urban renewal, Detroit's right-sizing program targets areas that have neither people nor intact buildings. Preservation is important but in many Detroit neighborhoods, remaining buildings are too burned-out or unsafe for rehabilitation.

Preservation-based regeneration examples such as Georgetown, Harlem or neighborhoods in Brooklyn are not replicable in parts of Detroit. Some Detroit neighborhoods simply have nothing left to revitalize. Georgetown's regeneration was supported by its proximity to the nation's biggest employer, the federal government, and a large private university. Harlem's and Brooklyn's location in the New York real estate market was a key factor in their rebirth. Detroit has neither of these conditions.

Density is necessary, which is all the more reason Detroit must shrink. Detroit was always a low-density city. Closing vacant neighborhoods increases density by concentrating development in more limited areas.

To make right-sizing successful, Bing should integrate the program into a broader initiative with four elements.

Plan Comprehensively

First, instead of a piecemeal approach, right-sizing should be part of a citywide comprehensive planning effort. As portions of the city are closed down, stakeholders should be engaged to determine what a shrunken Detroit should look like.

An asset inventory would ground the effort in the city's strengths and direct the planning process. Afterward, updates to Detroit's outdated zoning ordinance would codify the city's goals, especially for closed-down areas, and could create a walkable and transit-oriented character for remaining neighborhoods.

Detroit has help available and models to follow. Recent national media coverage has planners itching to get involved, while philanthropic organizations stand ready to fund revitalization efforts. Local universities can contribute no-cost planning talent and generate ideas. Planning efforts in other large American cities, such as New York's PlaNYC program, can serve as models for a citywide planning effort.

Downsize Infrastructure

Second, although Bing's right-sizing strategy focuses on huge vacant areas, even Detroit's vibrant neighborhoods need infrastructure downsizing.

Midtown, one of the city's redeveloping neighborhoods, is an example. Its nine-lane-wide spine, Woodward Avenue, was outmoded in the 1960s by the construction of parallel freeways. Cutting vehicular lanes, offering transit options and adding pedestrian amenities would create an environment that encourages people to do more than drive through the neighborhood as well as improve pedestrian safety. Increased human activity would reduce crime, too.

Infrastructure right-sizing would reduce maintenance costs and build a more human scale, triggering investment. The successful rehabilitation of the downtown portions of Woodward, Broadway and Washington Boulevard in the early 2000s with landscaping and pedestrian amenities brought new development to the surrounding neighborhood and could be replicated elsewhere.

Focus Growth

Third, the right-sizing program should remain committed to targeted growth opportunities.

Detroit should rekindle momentum on initiatives such as riverfront redevelopment, façade improvements and streetscaping. The past decade saw over $1 billion in private investment go into downtown and riverfront projects, and these efforts should not be wasted. With its strong nonprofit sector, the city can build on these successes and pursue development projects for key sites, particularly downtown. An inventory of vacant properties would start this effort.

Additionally, good physical development breeds successful revitalization efforts. Detroit can avoid desperate approaches to development that produce strip malls, gated communities and monolithic office complexes. The city should foster positive relationships with developers through collaborative efforts that ensure high-quality design and construction that foster an urban character instead of the suburban character typical of some recent projects.

Moreover, Detroit should pursue some landmark developments to catalyze neighborhood revitalization. The city should tear down or restore eyesores such as the Michigan Central Depot and the derelict Packard plant. Seeking creative redevelopment options, such as conversion of the Depot into a convention center or other public use would symbolically reestablish the city's control over its destiny.

Engage the Suburbs

 Mayor Bing.

Mayor Dave Bing (photo: Dave Hogg).

Finally, the right-sizing plan presents a unique opportunity to engage the suburbs in a long-overdue regional dialogue. Detroit is not alone in its plight. The inner-ring suburbs have experienced abandonment and are in worse fiscal predicaments. The recent recession has exposed the whole region's overabundance of commercial and industrial space, and residential vacancies have crept higher even in outer suburbs. This shared reality should be addressed by the entire region.

Bing, a former sports star, businessman and quasi-suburbanite, is the best-positioned mayor in the city's history to reach beyond its borders. A City Council with new, young faces should open the doors to collaboration. Convincing arguments can make suburban leaders understand why Detroit's revitalization is of regional importance. Public education and media exposure are essential throughout the process.

Detroit is at a crossroads to which no city of its size has ever come, yet opportunity is knocking. The right-sizing agenda can be a foundation for rebirth, but must exude good planning.

In Bing, Detroit finally has a mayor who recognizes the city's reality and has the gravitas to build consensus. A strong nonprofit sector and philanthropic organizations are committed partners. The national media has taken interest in the city's redevelopment. Widespread interest in walkability, transit-oriented development and environmental sustainability can direct planning efforts toward high-quality development. By shrinking the city to a manageable size, the mayor might finally create a brighter future in Detroit.

Originally from the Detroit region, Brian J. Connolly is a professional planner with land use and economic development experience in federal and local government and the non-profit sector, including in Detroit. Connolly holds a Master of Regional Planning and B.S. in Urban and Regional Studies, both from Cornell University. After working in the New York City area for two years, Connolly will be returning to Michigan in 2010 to study real estate, land use and municipal law at the University of Michigan.



Urban Shrinkage: the case of Detroit

I read both "urban shrinkage" articles, by Ms. Gratz and Mr. Connolly, with great interest. As a Detroit native who spent much time working in both Detroit area and east coast economic development efforts, personally undertook renovation projects of historic residential and commercial buildings in both PA and MI, and returned to Michigan to specialize on downtown development, I have been explaining for over a decade, to friends and coworkers (most of whom rolled their eyes), that if any major city would revert to townships and villages, it would be Detroit. As Mr. Connolly correctly points out, Ms. Gratz grossly underestimates the degree of blank urban fabric in Detroit and overestimates the applicability of other urban revitalization success stories (e.g., Society Hill, Philadelphia, was achieved at incredibly great costs, namely the social upheaval in relocating its poor residents and the renovation costs, mostly federally-funded). Whether one agrees with a Society Hill type project or not (much less a Society Hill renovation budget), one thing seems certain: the urban fabric "bones" and density of a Society Hill type project cannot be applied to strategies for Detroit. Philadelphia still has good bones stretched upon a continuous urban fabric (with a few tears here and there). Detroit, on the other hand, has pockets of urban life, but these pockets are disconnected and torn loose from one another, and now the sensible approach seems to be careful reconstructive surgery, with an emphasis on "careful". If careful and comprehensive reconstructive shrinkage is implemented in Detroit, this would break new ground and properly diminish the effort's comparisons with the failures of urban renewal.

No rebuttal? Really?!

@Rex: I am baffled by your claim that Mr. Connolly failed to directly rebut Ms. Gratz's reasoning.

By arguing that fundamental market realities in Detroit preclude the applicability of the preservation and rehabilitation strategies that Ms. Gratz advocates, he is going to the core of her argument. He is saying that what has worked in Boston and New York and San Francisco just will not work in Detroit. Detroit, therefore, must try something else, i.e. planned urban shrinkage, which is precisely what she is arguing against.

What could be a clearer or starker point of difference between these two thinkers than that?

You may disagree with Mr. Connolly's reasoning, but he is certainly doing something much more dramatic than "adding one or two points" to Ms. Gratz's argument.

Jake Wegmann

Throwing good money away on lost causes

I did make a comment on Ms Gratz' article which no-one has responded to.

I would like to emphasize here, that the paper I linked to entitled "Success and the City" is very informative on this subject. I incorrectly attributed it to Oliver Marc Hartwich; he was the editor; the authors are James Swaffield and Tim Leunig.


In Britain, the central government has spent endless amounts of money over several decades attempting to "revitalise" economically dead cities and regions. For all the effects, this money has been a complete and utter waste and the accumulated public debt consequent on it is nothing but a dead weight on Britain's taxpayers present and future.

Also, policies have been in place for as long, seeking to "discourage" continuing growth where it IS taking place, especially in the London Metro Area. Again, these policies have not stopped London growing in spite of the enormous cost burdens caused by many of the policies, especially in terms of land prices.

The authors of this paper suggest that the government should try "going with the flow", allow London to grow and prosper, and to drag the rest of the nation up with it in due time. One of the things they suggest, too, is that residents of the "dead" areas should be subsidised to move out to growth areas, and their empty homes given to their next door neighbours so as to double their property size. Eventually, the large properties would become an attraction for the area.

Furthermore, I suggest that "planning" to remodel Detroit now, on concepts of "sustainability", "walkability", transit-based transport and high density redevelopment, would be like hammering a whole lot more nails into Detroit's coffin - as if it needs any. When will the planning profession wake up to reality on these things?

Even the most successful such experiments are a heavy cost burden in public money, in transit subsidies; and furthermore, the much vaunted "demand" for apartment living turns out to have little substance once the initial demand has been satisfied.

Nice empty freeways would be one of the biggest attractions to new business and population in due time, assuming Detroit faces reality on the toxic tangle of fiscal profligacy, priviledge, bureaucrats and unions.


Brian Connolly's rebuttal of Gratz is correct and warranted. That being said his remarks need development.

First, the examplars for a comprehensive planning exercise in Detroit need to be drawn from comparable cities and regions. Examples need to be found in cities that have experienced massive private disinvestment, have concentrated, chronic and persistent poverty, a very weak property market and dysfunctional city administration. NYC and the its region is not the model for a central city and a region that is bound up in structural economic decline.

Second, focussing investment ("triage") is happening in Detroit, by default if not by design. The concentration of scarce investment in the downtown, in the greater Midtown area, along the river front and in selected viable neighborhoods is occurring and will likely strengthen these area. The biggest challenge is what to do with the rest of the city - the empty city - the vacant parcels that now cover some 30% of Detroit - amounting to 41 square miles or about 27,000 acres.

Third, and critically, what future is there for the scattered, impoverished residents who remain in these hollowed-out neighborhoods? Hard as it is, and this is really tough in Detroit, how will resettlement occur? Sooner rather than later, a program of moving households will become necessary if only to ensure city services and utilities can continue, although probably greatly diminished. Residential resettlement on a scale that will make a difference to the lives of thousands of Detroiters will be a truly difficult task.

Four, the key to the future of Detroit depends on funding, first and last. In order to reignite private investment in land and property development, in order to attract middle-class families into the central city , in order to bring ONE national supermarket across 8 Mile, there will need to be sustained, significant front-end public investment to consolidate land, streamline and upgrade infrastructure, rebuild the failed school system and redesign public administration and its services. Does the nation have the stomach for such a program?

That Was No Rebuttal!

I hate it when a professional adds an interesting point or two and then some editor tries to spin a response as a “rebuttal”. There are points of disagreement on development practices but there were no truths denied, and no argument offered to disprove the points by Gratz.

I see hundreds of professionals who are not trying to get ‘on the same page’. I’d bet there is a minimum of 100 student architecture, planning and urban design semesters that have examined the beloved Motor City. That has got to stop

A point on preservation even if it is shrunk.

Before you do anything, find the talent of the people that remain and see a future there. They are not lurkers, or squatters – they are dreamers, they have a vision. Before any grand plans begin, take the time to find this gold amidst the dross, meet them, work together. Given the economy, we will have plenty of time. Find ways to preserve and invest in people as treasured partners – not eventual candidates for displacement.

Change the ‘shrinkage’ rhetoric as it affects people. It is as simple as that. When a traditional city school is closed, the truth is you also close an entire neighborhood. The right question should be how and where and with who do you open and run a school for the remaining 77 children? Now that would be innovative and it would build new traditions, learning concepts, and design ideas. If agreement could begin on that simple point, a real planning effort could begin with real people and it would not be something like a re-spun but failed bid for the Olympics. That's a bit harsh PlanNYC, but the point remains, start with people, take your time.

There are two people that I know that have been there from the beginning. They know about the art, the buried creek beds, the natural landscapes, the pheasants that save the UP, the history of the river, and a real heart that still beats in that town. They know the people I am talking about personally. They know how you can start to build something good, workable, probably innovative, and born of a human spirit that ignites hundreds of projects. This is not time for ‘big plans’ this is a time for ‘people plans’.

Do not get ‘spun’ into a pointless list of disagreements, find the common points, and build from there. Be more like our President! Be willing to pay that price.

Dan Pitera, Director of Operations: Detroit Collaborative Design Center; University of Detroit Mercy; 4001 W. McNichols Road; P.O. Box 19900; Detroit, MI 48219.0900. Telephone: 313-993-1037. Fax: 313-993-1512. piteradw@udmercy.edu

Stephen Vogel, Dean, University of Detroit Mercy; School of Architecture, 4001 West McNichols Detroit, MI 48219 Phone: (313) 993-1532; E: Stephen Vogel (vogelsp@udmercy.edu) Web: http://www.arch.udmercy.edu


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