Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Shrinking of Detroit

Detroit is shrinking, and this map by architecture professor Dan Pitera shows just how great has been the extent of the depopulation:



Back at its mid-20th Century peak - before the race riots, before white flight, before the decline and fall of General Motors - Detroit had a population of close to 2 million. Since then it's shed more than half its population and now, according to City Farmer, "about 30% of Detroit is now vacant land — about 40 square miles, by one estimate." Forty square miles is roughly the size of San Francisco.

You can see the change in the city in these maps of population density from Wayne State's Center for Urban Studies:





For a concrete illustration of the effect of this diminution on the urban fabric, here's a Google maps image of a neighborhood in central Detroit:



This smattering of houses amidst vacant lots looks positively pastoral, but it's within walking distance of the old Tiger Stadium as well as the once-illustrious Michigan Central Station (pictured below). Places like this are common around Detroit

So what can be done to save a city that seems to be evaporating away? The Telegraph discusses one approach that might make sense:
The government looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint, one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and returning the land to nature.

Local politicians believe the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the dwindling population and local services into a more viable area.

The radical experiment is the brainchild of Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint.

Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country.

Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes.

Most are former industrial cities in the "rust belt" of America's Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside.

"The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we're all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way," said Mr Kildee. "Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity."
The problem is that economic growth in the US over the past several decades has largely been driven by urban development (for which read: suburban sprawl). In some ways, the old manufacturing base of the economy has been replaced by construction - of housing, strip malls, glass office boxes - and associated financial activities (a model for growth that met a bit of a notorious end in the last few years (at least one hopes it was an end)). As short-sighted as such a growth model might have been, its legacy - as well as the legacy of the history of a country that has grown from a few towns dotting the East Coast to a continental empire with the world's third-largest population - is that contraction seems synonymous, in the American context, with defeat. As Kildee says: "The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there's an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they're shrinking, they're failing."

But changes in cities like Flint and Detroit don't have to follow a pattern of collapse. Kildee proposes another metaphor for the process of urban contraction in the Rust Belt:
Mr Kildee acknowledged that some fellow Americans considered his solution "defeatist" but he insisted it was "no more defeatist than pruning an overgrown tree so it can bear fruit again".
For more, see this Google street view tour from James Howard Kunstler's podcast, as well as this site on the ruins of Detroit.

210 comments:

1 – 200 of 210   Newer›   Newest»
Andrew said...

Living in Philadelphia and having in-laws in Pittsburgh, I fail to see the similarities of these cities to Detroit. Yes, they've both lost significant population, but Philly and Pittsburgh have already dealt with this by demolition and reconstruction.

In Philadelphia, the city has been actively changing rowhouse neighborhoods into twin with lawn neighborhoods, effectively halving the density while beautifying the landscape.

Anyone who has visited either city knows that there are no huge tracts of land in a state similar to Detroit where a solitary house here and there reminds one that there used to be a bustling neighborhood.

Jason said...

It's hard to find another city like Detroit at the same scale, but some smaller cities like Youngstown, Ohio, are in a similar spot.

Also, that map at the top is fascinating, but I wonder how Detroit now compares to large, suburban cities like Indianapolis or Jacksonville, rather than the most dense urban cores in the country.

Chachy said...

A - I was sort of under the impression Pittsburgh had already gone through a period of 'constructive shrinkage' and that it's doing pretty well these days on a smaller scale. I don't know what the specific plans are, but yeah, I would think the cities of Ohio and Michigan and upstate New York and maybe some of the smaller cities in PA would be more likely candidates for this sort of program.

J - I had the same thought. In particular, the one city that sort of reminds me of Detroit in that it has these weird expanses of vacant land with maybe just a scattering of houses in certain parts of town is Houston, of all places. But that's a function of Houston's haphazard growth, and lack of planning and zoning, rather than declining population; Houston's one of the fastest-growing major cities in the country. You definitely need to look at historical trends to see the relevant context.

Jason said...

Cities in the rust belt seem to take two very different approaches to the problem of population loss - the optimistic course of infill and reinvestment and the realist course of demolition. Detroit and Youngstown are definitely in the latter camp. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, etc. keep trying to stop the bleeding. I'm not sure which is more successful in the long run - the downside of the optimistic approach is a whole lot of crack houses to deal with in the short term.

SF said...

"The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there's an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they're shrinking, they're failing."

Detroit isn't failing because it is shrinking. It is shrinking because it is failing, or more realistically, has failed outright at this point.

Richard said...

Jason:

??? Not that I've lived in either city, but I'm pretty certain that Pittsburgh has less crack houses and in general is doing a fair bit better htan Detroit.

RJ said...

Interesting... check out some of my photos of urban decay in Detroit:

http://rjart.blogspot.com/2008/03/detroit-city-of-dreams.html

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maurice said...

One thing that has been left out of this discussion is the suburban growth in the metro detroit area. Detroit is like a donut; an empty center with all the action surrounding it. I think over the years, there has been a systematic divestment within the city boundaries. While the suburban communities flourished, the city core was left to rot. It is only recently that people outside of Michigan started to take notice after the collapse of the Big 3. If you look at the metro area as a whole, you will see that less than a quarter of the population in Metro Detroit actually lives in the city.

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