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The conversation: How to save Detroit

March 29, 2011 |  1:24 pm


To photographer Jim Griffioen, news of Detroit's shrinking population -- from 1.8 million in 1950 to 714,000 in 2010 -- must not have come as a surprise. He's spent years documenting the city's decline in "The Disappearing City," taking a special interest in abandoned schools, lost neighborhoods and "scrappers." Pair Griffioen's visuals with the U.S. Census data and it's impossible to ignore the plight of Detroit. The issue now becomes how to handle the boom city that went bust.

Stop arguing about what happened and start focusing on what to do now

The important thing now is for everyone to accept that this is a fundamentally changed city, a hollowed-out version of the Detroit that boasted 1.8 million people in the mid-1950s. […]

Downtown and Midtown, which are attracting new workers and residents, have to be girded with services that will continue to attract and retain people. And services won't get better until they're not spread over such a large, depopulated area.

Programs such as Live Detroit, which will see the Detroit Medical Center, Wayne State University and Henry Ford Health Systems give cash to employees who move to the city, are models that might have potential for moving residents around the city as well.

--Detroit Free Press editorial

It will take a nation to save a city

There are all sorts of implications here, both for Detroit and for the nation. The 2010 census counts for Detroit (and Chicago) were much lower than local officials, and earlier census estimates, had predicted. That raises the question of whether there were problems with the count last year or in 2000, setting false benchmarks. Detroit officials say they plan to challenge the numbers, and Mayor David Bing announced he wants to find 40,000 Detroiters who were missed to try to push the count above the 750,000 mark, a key threshold for formulas used in distributing federal urban aid.

But there are two larger issues that have broader national implications. The first is, when we look at Detroit, are we confronted with the remnants of the nation's industrial past or a harbinger of its urban future?

The second is, what are we going to do about it? And no, that's not Detroit's problem alone. If a similar collapse happened to San Francisco or San Diego or Denver or Dallas, there would be national cries for intervention. Detroit we treat like a crash on the freeway: something to gawk at, then forget while we blame auto executives — the driver — for their follies and ignore the injured passengers.

--Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times

It's time to "unbuild and reinvent"

What we need is a new mindset. Physical growth has been a powerful American narrative, embodied in huge public expenditures from the Louisiana Purchase to the Interstate Highway System and the mortgage interest deduction. The nation now needs a parallel commitment to physical ungrowth. Ungrowth is not surrender but a phase of urban evolution.

Remaking a city is breathtakingly expensive, and the market won’t do it. Indeed, the lack of a robust land market is part of the problem in shrinking cities. It costs about $10,000 to demolish a single-family home in Detroit; about 12,000 vacant homes there need demolition. And clearing the land is just the beginning. Philanthropy has stepped up in Detroit and elsewhere, but the need exceeds most foundations’ resources. […]

Americans have been spending for growth for centuries. Our commitment to ungrowth, and new ideas about how cities change and what they look like, needs to be sustained for decades.

--Jennifer Bradley, New York Times’ Room for Debate

Move to Detroit… for the water

Whatever energy alternatives the vicissitudes of oil pricing and availability drive along the way, concerns with accessible power sources will pale alongside the specter of thirst and hunger arising from a shortage of the world's most basic source of survival, H2O. […]

At a time when public budgets and political will show no appetite for the kinds of massive (read: costly) governmental infrastructure needed to transfer water supplies to places where they don't exist, such localized, low-cost concentration offers even more evidence for the Motor City's eventual and promising rebirth.

--Paul Gunther, the Huffington Post

Don’t shrink Detroit, super-size it

Super-sizing Detroit isn't just about better numbers, its about better policy. When Indianapolis enacted a similar "Unigov" city-suburbs merger in the late Sixties (under Republican mayor Dick Lugar), the region experienced economic growth (and the benefits of economy of scale), AAA municipal bond-ratings and a broader, more stable tax base. The same could happen in metropolitan Detroit, which sorely needs to attract young people and entrepreneurs in order to fill the void left by the region's dwindling manufacturing base. Elastic cities are less segregated and have fewer of the problems associated with concentrated areas of poverty. And though sprawl wouldn't necessarily be reined in, the region could finally adopt a sensible transportation policy to unite its businesses and residential areas. At the moment, suburban Detroit maintains its own bus system, separate from the city's, and a planned $150 million light rail project, slated to run from downtown Detroit up the main thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue, would nonsensically stop at 8 Mile Road, the suburban border. That's a formula to limit, not maximize, growth.

--Mark Binelli, the Atlantic


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Photo: Robinwood Street, off Woodward Avenue in Detroit, is now burned-out homes and a dumping ground for tires and hazardous materials. Credit: Max Ortiz / Detroit News

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