Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, January 04, 2010

What to do about Detroit?

Time Life Publications spent 2009 publishing many articles about Detroit, in a project they call "Assignment Detroit." Detroit, once the cradle of U.S. manufacturing power--called the "Arsenal of Democracy" during World War II--now, with the bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, the region is in an economic free for all.

Because of the TimeLife effort, other publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post ("A wavering faith in Washington's power to fix Detroit" about people's attitudes about the future of the Detroit region, ran in yesterday's paper) have also published articles on the region and its future.

Nigel sent me an article from Fortune Magazine, "Can Farming Save Detroit," and he wrote:

I have no doubt that farming cannot save Detroit. You will still have unemployment and other social issues. But I wonder if the large swathes of urban desert cannot be used in a more productive manner -- whether by small scale farming or small scale forests. But not just left to rot.

There seems to be no point having so many streets that have no houses on their blocks. Are there still streetlights in all the empty sections?

Could the city council rip out all the roads and utilities of the grossly underutilised sections and turn the land into rural use until such time ( if ever ) that it is required for other use?

Here's my response:

Ripping up the street network is relatively easy. Rebuilding it is an expense almost beyond calculation. The other thing about farming is that the soil in an urban area likely is somewhat contaminated. The amount of soil to be removed without treatment is incredible. Maybe there are ways to treat the soil in place with helpful bioorganisms.

I really don't know what I'd recommend. I guess I'd recommend creating Detroit City and Detroit Township, and guaranteeing city services only within the "city." Then you could figure out how to deal with the "Township" land. But residents would have to relocate to "the City" in order to receive city services, from garbage pick up to streetlight service.

Alternatively I would break up the city into 4 or 5 smaller communities, allowing different directions to be applied according to the will, desire, and energy of the citizens. But even so, they would be operating in a terrible situation, with limited resources and way more problems to address than there are human and financial capital resources to bring to bear on the situation.

The reason that Detroit might be beyond saving (meaning, in this juncture, the way business and government operates), different say from Pittsburgh, is that yes, PGH was "Steel City" but really it was a more well balanced industrial city, with Westinghouse, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Bayer Pharmaceuticals among many other large and successful industrial companies, + banks, well respected universities, and spinoff businesses deriving from the universities. Not to mention an incredibly productive hospital system with world-leading expertise in certain forms of transplantation. (The big thing these days is what is called "medical tourism," where people go to foreign countries to get medical care, because it is affordable. For decades, people from other countries have been going to the University of Pittsburgh Hospital Center for organ transplants.)

So sure, the shrinking of the steel industry, and its move from a mass production format requiring tens of thousands of workers to a more capital and knowledge intensive system requiring far fewer workers was a terrible blow to the Pittsburgh region. But even so, the region is still functioning--albeit not like it could be (the region continues to lose population, unemployment is relatively high, real estate values are low, and there are many communities with very high levels of vacant, abandoned and undermaintained properties)--because it has a more balanced economy.

By comparison, the Detroit region was far more dependent on one industry and one particular form of business organization.

It's like Ireland, growing potatoes, and then being hit by the potato blight. In agriculture, it's called "monoculture." In discussing third world economies, it's called "enclave development."

When material conditions change, the area crashes.

But concepts of unbalanced economies, whether the concepts come from agriculture or international development and Marxist economics, are fully relevant to consideration of the future of center cities and metropolitan regions in an economy that if not "deindustrializing" has definitely moved away from a mass production paradigm requiring tens of thousands of workers to produce items. Without mass production, you don't have "mass employment."

There is very little else to fall back on. And for Detroit, having become the region's catchment area for the poorest of the region, well Detroit has even fewer resources and opportunities to draw upon than the typical center city.



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