Is Detroit Half-Empty, Or Half-Full?

Mike Lydon's picture

Two years ago I saw John Norquist, former Mayor of Milwaukee and current President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, give a presentation on the state of America's cities. During the slide show, Norquist used two sets of images to effectively convey a point about urban disinvestment in America. The first set of images was of Berlin and Detroit circa 1945. Unsurprisingly, the Berlin image displayed a war-torn and rubble-strewn city, while the Detroit image revealed why it was once called the Paris of the Midwest -- it was simply elegant.  However, the second set of images displayed the same two cities 60 years later. It was as if Detroit had been through an epic war and not Berlin. It was the perfect and perhaps most extreme example of America's substandard and deleterious post-industrial urban condition. There it was on the big screen, Detroit as the poster child for all things wrong in urban America.

After attending the presentation I developed a slightly perverse, if not strong curiosity for Detroit, which today remains as the most maligned city in North America. Was it anything like the image portrayed by Mr. Norquist and through the popular media? Could it undergo an urban renaissance like other American cities? If so, how? Though the demographics made it look like Detroit was half empty, could it not be seen as half-full?

A few months later I happily accepted admission to the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, a planning program that seemed particularly committed to urban revitalization, especially in Detroit. I jokingly reasoned that if I could find answers to my questions, working in any other American city afterwards would seem like, well, a vacation to the actual Paris. 

Fast-forward to today, two years later. As I reflect on Detroit and my experiences studying the city, I feel that I am able to at least partially answer some of my original questions. It is not as bad as advertised, or at least parts of it are not. In fact, Detroit has made large strides, even since I saw Norquist make his presentation. The downtown and midtown districts are experiencing a great amount of reinvestment and regeneration. In fact, according to the University Cultural Center Association, the stewards of development in midtown, more than $1.5 billion dollars has been invested into what is now metro Detroit's cultural and educational epicenter. This includes loft conversions, property redevelopment, museum restoration and expansion, and several new restaurants and galleries. The momentum is certainly tangible and with the 32,000-student Wayne State University campus transforming itself from a commuter school into a residential one, an optimist could sense that midtown will soon become a truly livable and funky urban district.

But perhaps what is more impressive is the story of downtown Detroit. The Brookings Institute, along with some of my fellow Michigan students, did a drill down analysis for the city's central business district and found that the past decade has seen more than $15 billion dollars of investment.  They also found a growing population, replete with rising incomes, as well as education attainment rising to levels not seen in the city for decades. Moreover, the city's downtown is being cleaned up and remade, its riverfront redeveloped, and its status as a thriving employment and entertainment center solidified. Also, did you know that Detroit led the State of Michigan in housing starts last year? Given the city's recent history, that is an impressive and encouraging feat.

However, Detroit is still nowhere near where it needs to be. It is not a healthy city by any measure. Taxes remain high while property values are low. The school system is in total shambles (34 schools closing this year). Public transportation remains a nightmare, and the city's formerly rich neighborhood structure has been decimated. It remains a fairly walkable city; only in most neighborhoods there is nothing to walk to. In the parlance of the planner, there is no there, there. This is just one of the many contradictions which currently shape the character of the city.

But to get even bleaker, the region's employment and commercial centers continue to be located outside of the city.  And though partnerships across public and private sectors are finally being nurtured within the city, relationships with the wealthier suburbs remain strained at best.  Moreover, while growth is occurring in the core, the outer neighborhoods continue to decay and decant themselves to the surrounding suburban and exurban areas, if not to the Sunbelt region where, *ahem*, I now reside. This is a major problem for a city that ambitiously created infrastructure for 5 million residents, but only got halfway there during its heyday.

Yes, Detroit is fighting an uphill battle, but at least it is now fighting. It has major hurdles to overcome in education, public transit, and regional relationships. Nonetheless, Detroit stands a chance. If you don't believe me, go check it out for yourself. Visit the museums, restaurants, and galleries in midtown, stroll the new and still expanding riverwalk, witness the urbanism of Greektown, hang out in Campus Martius, check out concerts at some of the nation's most regal theatres, take in the thriving sports culture, and for god's sake eat at Slows BBQ!  If you do one third of these things, you too will realize what Detroiter's already know. Detroit is finally starting to feel half-full.  

Mike Lydon is Principal of the Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Actions for Long-term Change (Island Press, 2015).



Detroit is not alone!

Thanks for the nice article. I went to university in Buffalo, and that city certainly shares much the same history of boom and bust as Detroit. Excepting NYC and Chicago, most of the Northern industrial cities in the US are still struggling to reinvent themselves after their economic base went elsewhere. These cities were founded before the automobile era, so development in their historic areas tends to be of a more 'human' (or 'humane') scale. Plus, most of these cities actually had very strategic locations from a transportation perspective: either at river or lake-side locations, and then later along rail lines. With fuel and energy costs sky-rocketing, perhaps one day these cities will come back into fashion.

Mike Lydon's picture

Back to fashion

Thanks for the comment Zvi, and I could not agree with you more in regards to our energy problem. The best solution can be found in the urbanism.

Also, both Buffalo and Detroit are directly on the great Lakes. With an impending water crisis in the southwest, this could be a huge economic resource for the region, especially their cities.

Detroit Planning Opportunities?

Detroit certainly is an interesting city, and is becoming revitalized slowly but surely... but are there opportunities for planners there? I receive Detroit TV stations as part of my cable package and all I hear about is trouble with the city's budget, and layoffs in police, schools, etc... does the city have the staff it needs for the difficult job of bringing the city back?

Detroit is Inching Back!

Good story, but why didn't you step up to the challenge of remaining in a region that truely needs dedicated planners, young professionals, and residents who believe that the lack of public transportation in the region is a major concern? Miami Beach couldn't hold a candle to Detroit's riverwalk.
I find your article a great example of a young professional with a curiosity about Detroit, who chose to attend U of M and view Detroit from the outside while taking occassional trips to the city just to educate yourself enough to say you know Detroit. After improving your education you take off to become another sunburned southerner wannabe. All of your education at the mighty U of M still didn't convince you to be part of the solution not the problem. I may be wrong, but I hope that you did take the time to live in Detroit for atleast one year before heading south.
Good plug on Slows BBQ, and when you leave there you will be much more than half-full. GO TIGERS!

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