Dreaming Detroit: Decline to Renaissance

The state of Detroit is alarming, particularly in its continued dependence on cars, but there is hope that the city could reinvent itself as an ecological metropolis, says Jeffrey Kenworthy of the Curtin University of Technology.
January 10, 2011, 10am PST | Jeff Kenworthy
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Detroit has the unenviable reputation worldwide as perhaps the first large modern metropolis that could return to farmland. The most enduring impression of the City of Detroit is not one of the GM Renaissance Center towering over the city, or of other landmarks of global capital designed to help lift it out of its long-term malaise, but of its fractured landscapes, punctuated by vacant, overgrown land and dilapidated housing. In 2000, over 21,000 acres or 33 square miles of the city had residential areas where only 75% or less of the original housing remained and were still declining. This was a 29% increase over 1990.

Image courtesy of Flickr user jm3.

The picture of a dysfunctional urban region does not stop there. My own comparative studies of cities throughout the US have revealed some disturbing facts. If we take the three core counties of the Detroit region (Wayne, Oakland and Macomb), they average only 5.1 people per acre, or 16% below the average population density of a sample of 13 other large US metropolises. At a time when sprawl is bad for business, the environment and society, this is not good news. When we examine the transportation system we find the shocking statistic that these three counties, numbering almost 4 million people in 2005, recorded less that 12 transit rides per person per year (or one ride a month for every man, woman and child). In a modern nation that collectively has the world's worst record for urban transit ridership, the average for the same 13 US metropolises was 64 rides per person each year, or over 5 times higher than Detroit. There is no city in my study that records lower transit use; the next lowest is Phoenix, with 17 rides per person per year.

As if to mirror this unsustainable transit situation, and going entirely against the generally poor state of the Detroit economy, the region still records the second highest car use per person each year, some 9,300 miles per person, beaten only by Atlanta with 11,300 miles and even above Houston with 9,000 miles. It seems that the parlous state of transit infrastructure, which has its roots in the history of the city as the car-making capital of America, and the urban sprawl, ensures that people stay away from transit in droves. Combined with the generally threatening conditions for walking and cycling in "Motor City" and its hostile urban terrain, navigable for most only in a car and leading to long trip distances, Detroit has become one of the most car-dependent regions in America. In both land use and transportation terms, Detroit has followed a spiral downwards which ranks it as one of the least sustainable of America's large metropolises.

But Detroit holds within itself the seeds of a truly ground-breaking renaissance, one that could see it become a global magnet for ecologically regenerative city development. Flint, Michigan has introduced an "urban pruning" program to consolidate the city into a more compact form, one which the city can afford to service and which would be capable of being served by transit, walking and cycling. Such a program has the potential to see the city surrounded by farmland and natural areas, and if it were to ride the global wave of organic food growing, one that could create a profitable new industry.

With so much derelict land Detroit could begin a process of inner growth and greening, but such a program has to have a basis, a larger economic rationale. This has been provided in the form of the current world recession, which for many is signaling the end of the current fifth "long wave business cycle" (or Kondratiev Wave), which started at the end of the 1970s and which has been built on communications and computer technology. America led this revolution. The world has been through four such other cycles before this, the first of which was the Industrial Revolution and then others driven by steam and railroads, heavy engineering and electricity and oil and automobiles.

These cycles have seen the world go through dramatic phases of decline and prosperity and the new wave is always preceded by an intense recession, such as we are seeing now. We need innovation to drag ourselves out of it and achieve prosperity again. Detroit, in dire need of a new basis to its economy and reputation as a world city, could early get on board the sixth wave of innovation, what some are calling the "age of sustainability", and start to reinvent itself as an ecological metropolis, albeit a more compact one, through a coordinated program bringing together the wider community, government agencies and the private sector.

The Spirit of Detroit sculpture. Image courtesy of Flickr user laughlin.

This could lead to a newly green city characterized by:

  • more human scale, walkable and bikeable mixed land use centers and neighborhoods
  • high quality, rail based transit infrastructure linking such centers together, building on the momentum for the Woodward Avenue Corridor light rail line.
  • the reclamation of destructive freeway corridors into green avenues or green belts, in much the same way as Seoul in South Korea tore down a major freeway and exhumed a river, creating a green lung for the city and Portland tore down a riverfront freeway to create Tom McCall park. Freeways would not be needed in the new Detroit.
  • superb urban design of the public realm, welcoming people back to the streets and made easier to create by the less expansive populated area.
  • food growing and natural areas surrounding and permeating the built up area, creating a new green city.
  • adoption of best practice standards for new ecological urban construction. All residential and other development would aim for closed-loop cycles for water, waste, energy and other resource use, making Detroit one of the world centers for environmental technology.
  • a network for private motorised mobility using electric vehicles that would service a very much reduced demand for private mobility. An ecological mobility package combining some privately owned and car sharing electric vehicles, walking, cycling, electric bikes and transit would form a world class demonstration project of integrated mobility provision and attract urban eco-tourism from around the world. Former car manufacturers could reinvent themselves as innovative "multi-modal mobility providers", thus fulfilling better their corporate environmental and social responsibility.

Such a plan is naturally bold and would occur in small stages, perhaps first in the center with some large-scale demonstration projects. But its success would radiate out like the ripples in a pond and lead to the renaissance of this great city. The challenge is to dare to dream, in the same way Henry Ford dared to dream and made his now superseded vision come true. We are only limited by our imaginations and our daring.

Jeff Kenworthy is Professor of Sustainable Cities at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia. He has spent 28 years in the transport and urban planning field and currently teaches courses and supervises postgraduate students in the city policy and urban sustainability fields.

The author gratefully acknowledges the essential and generous support of the William and Helen Mazer Foundation of New Jersey in providing funds that enable me to continue collecting my urban comparative data, including that on Detroit.

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