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Filed under: Urban Planning
The troubles of Detroit are well-publicized. Its economy is in free fall, people are streaming for the exits, it has the worst racial polarization and city-suburb divide in America, its government is feckless and corrupt (though I should hasten to add that new Mayor Bing seems like a basically good guy and we ought to give him a chance), and its civic boosters, even ones that are extremely knowledgeable, refuse to acknowledge the depth of the problems, instead ginning up stats and anecdotes to prove all is not so bad.
But as with Youngstown, one thing this massive failure has made possible is ability to come up with radical ideas for the city, and potentially to even implement some of them. Places like Flint and Youngstown might be attracting new ideas and moving forward, but it is big cities that inspire the big, audacious dreams. And that is Detroit. Its size, scale, and powerful brand image are attracting not just the region’s but the world’s attention. It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit.
One natural response is the “shrinking cities” movement. While this has gotten traction in Youngstown and Flint, as well as in places like Germany, it is Detroit that provides the most large scale canvas on which to see this play out, as well as the place where some of the most comprehensive and radical thinking is taking place. For example, the American Institute of Architects produced a study that called for Detroit to shrink back to its urban core and a selection of urban villages, surrounded by greenbelts and banked land. Here’s a picture of their concept:
It seems likely that this will get some form of traction from officialdom, as this article suggests, though implementation is likely to be difficult.
Detroit is also attracting dreams of large scale renewal through agriculture, as Mark Dowie writes in Guernica (hat tip @archizoo).
Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.
This isn’t just a crazy idea from some guy who lives in California. He documents several examples of people right now, today growing food in Detroit. It wouldn’t surprise me, frankly, if Detroit produces more food inside its borders today than any other traditional American city.
About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.
The fact that Urban Farming moved to Detroit is exactly the effect I’m talking about. To anyone with aspirations in this area, it is Detroit that offers the greatest opportunity to make your mark. It is the ultimate blank canvas. For urban agriculture and many other alternative urban dreams, it is Detroit, not New York City that is the ultimate arena in which to prove yourself.
It’s not just farmers; intellectuals and artists of various types are drawn to Detroit, both to study it and pursue ideas about the remaking of the city:
Detroit has achieved something unique. It has become the test case for all sorts of theories on urban decay and all sorts of promising ideas about reviving shrinking cities.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Sue Mosey, president of the University Cultural Center Association, who has been interviewed recently by two separate PBS crews and an Austrian journalist writing about Detroit.
“All of us have been inundated with all of these people who somehow think that because we’re so bottomed out and so weak-market, that this is this incredible opportunity,” Mosey said.
Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University who has been interviewed by numerous visitors, echoed that sentiment.
“They realize that there is an interesting story to tell, that has real characters, but even more, they discover a place that is simply not like everywhere else,” he said.
Toby Barlow wrote in the New York Times about out of towners buying up $100 houses, moving to Detroit, and doing all sorts of interesting things with them:
Recently, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town…Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.
A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.
So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.
Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.
But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.
In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.
It’s what Jim Russell likes to call “Rust Belt chic”, and Detroit has it in spades.
This piece also highlights the absolutely crucial advantage of Detroit. It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.
Can you imagine a two-story beehive in Chicago? In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases. Much of the South Side of Chicago has Detroit like characteristics, but the techniques of renewal in Detroit won’t work because they are likely against code and would be shut down the minute someone complained. Just as one quick example, my corner ice cream stand dared to put out a few chairs for patrons to sit on while enjoying a frozen treat on a hot day. The city cited them for not having a license. So they took them away and put up a “bring your own chair” sign. The city then cited them for that too. You can’t do anything in Chicago without a Byzantine array of licenses, permits, and inspections.
In central Indianapolis, which is in desperate need of investment, where the city can’t fill the potholes in the street, etc., the minute a few yuppies buy houses in an area and fix them up, they immediately petition for a historic district, a request that has never been refused, ensuring that anyone who ever wants to do anything will be forced to run a costly and grueling gauntlet of variances, permits, hearings, etc. Only the most determined are willing to put up with that.
In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not. It’s a sort of anarchy in a good way as well as a bad one. Perhaps that overstates the case. You can’t do anything, but it is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places because the hand of government weighs less heavily.
What’s more, the fact that government is so weak has provoked some amazing reactions from the people who live there. In Chicago, every day there is some protest at City Hall by a group from some area of the city demanding something. Not in Detroit. The people in Detroit know that they are on their own, and if they want something done they have to do it themselves. Nobody from the city is coming to help them. And they’ve found some very creative ways to deal with the challenges that result. Consider this from the Dowie piece:
About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.
This might sound awful, and indeed it is. But it is also an inspiration and a testament to the human spirit and defiant self-reliance of the American people. I grew up in a poor rural area where, while hunting is primarily recreational, there are still many people supplementing their family diet with wild game. Many a freezer is full of deer meat, for example. And of course, rural residents have long gardened, freezing and canning the results to help get them through the winter. So this doesn’t sound quite so strange to me as it might to you. The fate of the urban poor and the rural poor are more similar than is often credited. And contrary to stereotypes the urban poor often display amazing grit and ingenuity, and perform amazing feats to sustain themselves, their families and communities.
As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age. No doubt in the 19th century many of those sitting secure in their eastern citadels thought these homesteaders, hustlers, and fortune seekers crazy for leaving the comforts of civilization to head to places like Iowa and Chicago. But some saw the possibilities of what could be and heeded the call to “Go West, young man.” We’ve come full circle.
Filed under: Urban Planning
The Brookings Institution recently unveiled “The Detroit Project”, a plan to revive Detroit, in the New Republic. Brookings’ plan has good elements and recognizes some important realities, but also has key gaps. It relies excessively on industrial policy and conventional approaches that are unlikely to drive a real turnaround in America’s most troubled big city.
On the plus side, Brookings does a great job stating why Detroit’s fortunes will take a long time to reverse, possibly a generation or more. As they note, “Detroit’s leaders must manage expectations. It took half a century for the city to get this low. It won’t turn around in a four-year political cycle.” Authors as prescient as Jane Jacobs and as conventional as Time were talking about Detroit’s decline as far back as the early 60s. Turnaround won’t happen in six months or even six years. Given the political preference for election-cycle results, this means strong and courageous leadership will be needed, a point they also stress. Sadly, that’s a commodity that has long been in short supply in Detroit.
Brookings is known for their promotion of regionalism, and this plan predictably follows that prescription. Clearly, rationalization of investment policy on a regional basis is needed. The Detroit region is losing population, yet the long range transportation plan calls for huge amounts of spending to widen roads on the fringes. That makes no sense. People and businesses in Detroit keep moving out as the cities and suburbs they once inhabited fall into ruin under a regime of failed stewardship and the endless search for new greenfields to exploit. It’s like prospectors skipping from one clapped out mining town to the next. If they want to do that, they shouldn’t expect the rest of us to pay for it via federal funds – either to build the new or to clean up the mess in the ghost towns they leave behind.
They also recognize the need for improved governance, including potentially state receivership for failed institutions. (They did not, however, give due credit to new Mayor Bing for the change and new leadership attitude he has already brought to the table). Suggestions like a focus on brownfield remediation and managed shrinkage were on point, as was the recognition that significant federal assistance will be required. Given the depths of the problems in Detroit and Michigan, the city and state are not going to be able to do it alone.
The plan also rightly notes that “Detroit will have to become a different kind of city, one that challenges our idea of what a city is supposed to look like, and what happens within its boundaries.” Very true. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the Brookings prescription failed to meet that challenge.
Brookings’ plan relies heavily on analogy to other post-industrial cities, especially in Europe, which makes it difficult to be sure exactly what they are recommending at times. Even to casual observers, these cities are far different from Detroit. For one thing, Detroit is huge. The region, if one includes Ann Arbor and Windsor, Canada, is over five million in population – more than double the size of Brookings comparison areas.
Places like Turin and Bilbao also have radically different built forms, history, culture, and are virtually racially and ethnically homogeneous compared to Detroit. Even the measurements of European success need to be redone. Neither Italy nor Spain represent role models since both have fared worse than America in the current downturn. These countries (and cities) are aging rapidly, with some of the world’s lowest birthrates.
Their US examples of Toledo and Akron (i.e., greater Cleveland) are hardly bright and shining lights of economic or demographic success. Since 2000, Akron has lost nearly 10,000 people and Toledo over 20,000. Toledo’s 11.4% unemployment rate exceeds the nation’s. These aren’t even Ohio’s biggest cities, much less dominating the state’s economy the way Detroit does Michigan.
Brookings also all but ignores a lot of the root issues of Detroit’s problem. Firstly, they fail to make a point about healing America’s most poisoned race relations, arguably the signature issue of Detroit. Racial tensions and inequity have perpetually bedeviled America. Making progress in Detroit won’t be easy, but is an absolute prerequisite to progress. Perhaps shared economic struggles will finally provide a common interest around which to build some form of racial rapprochement.
Most glaringly, Brookings has nothing at all to say about Detroit and Michigan’s tax and regulatory regime, its failed management and labor cultures, or its dysfunctional state politics. Brookings’ desire to stay on good terms with the establishment might inhibit their ability to speak freely, but these problems must be confronted.
It is impossible to ignore this witch’s brew of policies and attitudes that is totally toxic to economic development. It’s a classic case of ignoring the elephant in the room. Until these blocking and tackling matters are addressed, Detroit is going to remain kryptonite to business expansion. In Forbes 2009 list of the best states for business, Michigan ranked 49th.
Instead of improving the terrible business climate, Brookings proposes a top-down industrial policy, explicitly stating “local government (or NGOs, even) can play the role of industrial planner. That is, they can look across the map and find instances where research institutions and manufacturers should collaborate on new ventures.” And they say “public money” is needed to retool old industries and advance new ones. The government in Detroit can’t even manage the delivery of basic city services. None of the region’s levels of government have performed well on their core competency, so why would we believe these entities would be effective venture capitalists or industrial planners? This is a recipe for epic rent seeking and an economic Waterloo on a grand scale.
Their suggested industries for Detroit are a tired looking roster of the same ones everyplace else is chasing: green industry, life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and university technology spin-offs. With such a crowded playing field – 49 out of 50 states are chasing life sciences, for example – it is hard to discern the Detroit region’s distinctive capabilities in any of these areas apart from automotive related R&D and manufacturing. Sure, they’ll get some slice of the pie in these growing markets, but unlikely enough to turn the ship around or create a true innovation cluster.
Public-private partnerships do have a strong role to play in Detroit’s economic development. This includes looking for sectors where it can realistically compete and win, and looking to create the infrastructure and conditions necessary for them to flourish in terms of facilities, talent attraction, legal and regulatory frameworks, regional business culture and practices, and more. It’s about creating fertile soil, not picking winners.
However, assistance to the restructuring auto industry was clearly required. Without federal aid, GM and Chrysler would have been liquidated. They still might, but given the importance of that industry to our economy, it is probably worth doing what we have to do for now. But we should recognize that getting in was a lot easier than getting out will be, and that the end result might still be failure or Soviet style zombie companies that survive only as wards of the state.
Lastly, the praise of rail transit by Brookings – the cook book solution du jour for cities – is puzzling. Again, Detroit is shrinking and needs to shrink more. Trains work best when people are commuting to a central point, but jobs have been disappearing from the core of Detroit for generations. Today barely 4.5 percent of area employment takes place in the urban core, among the lowest percentages among the nation’s top 50 cities.
As with fringe highway expansion, the last thing Detroit needs is even more infrastructure. It has too much already that it can’t afford to maintain. Taking on a costly new rail transit system with both high capital expenditures and significant ongoing operations and maintenance costs is a dubious proposition – particularly when the existing bus network is on the verge of a near shutdown. The biggest game changer from an infrastructure perspective – new highway crossings to Canada to strengthen Detroit as the premier gateway to Canadian international trade – is not mentioned.
So while Brookings gets a few key pieces of the puzzle right, ultimately their solution is too standard issue and lacks the boldness and innovative thinking needed to tackle the core problems and create a realistic prospect for renewal.
Filed under: Urban Planning
If Brookings’ plan for Detroit isn’t enough to get the job done, what is?
Turning around Detroit means facing head on the core problems that hobble the region, notably:
• America’s worst big city race relations
• A population that is too big for current economic reality
• A management and labor culture rooted in an era that no longer exists and is unsuited to the modern economy
• A tax, regulatory, and political system toxic to business
A robust plan for renewal in Detroit will tackle these problems, recognizing that matters like improving race relations and cultural change need indigenous solutions from courageous local leaders. Then mix this with best practices from elsewhere and innovative, unique to Detroit solutions. And be patient, knowing the turnaround won’t be a short journey.
1. Repair race relations. The city-suburb divide in Detroit, to an extent far greater than elsewhere, is a matter of black and white. Bringing racial rapprochement won’t be easy, but it is an absolute imperative for future regional success. Perhaps a newly shared sense of economic pain can foster this, along with grass roots connections such as white urban gardeners making common cause with black ones seeking better access to fresh foods.
2. Active shrinkage. Many recognize the need for Detroit to “right size” to its reduced population and for federal help doing so. But beyond adjusting to the city’s decline, the region remains too big. Detroit no longer needs large armies of unskilled and even skilled laborers in its factories. There is simply no economic raison d’etre for a region the size of Detroit in that location today. A lot more people need to leave Detroit. Many already would like to but can’t because they can’t sell their house or afford to move. Serious consideration should be given to a federally assisted voluntary relocation program when the national economy recovers to help Detroiters move to Texas or other places with strong jobs growth if they want to. Detroit should also engage with those who did move away to create an urban alumni network. In a globalized economy, those Michigan expatriates can serve as a sort of field sales force for the city.
3. Improve the Business Climate. Michigan’s government needs to be downsized to match a downsized state. Dubious programs of all types, from film industry subsidies to “cool cities” initiatives need to be scaled back or eliminated. The criminal justice system should be reformed to stop over-incarcerating non-violent offenders. Streamline or eliminate regulation wherever possible, and make those that remain operate swiftly and predictably. Eliminate or merge overlapping jurisdictions, and especially non-general purpose entities that are too often patronage dumps operating out of the public eye. Reduce taxes on business, especially small business.
4. Change the culture. Michigan’s social and business approach, its labor and management culture and business practices were designed for a stable industrial age dominated by a limited number of large and vertically integrated corporations. Today’s economy is based around smaller, more innovative, nimble firms, virtual networks of people and collaborative business relationships, rapid change, and a competitive global environment. This sort of change has to come from the inside. No one can just tell Detroit how to do it.
5. Renew Brand Detroit. How does Detroit want to be known in the world and how can it make itself known? Within a framework of shrinkage, Detroit needs to become attractive to the right new talent and new businesses. It needs an aspirational narrative that is authentically Detroit in a way “cool cities” will never be. Cool, No – but edgy? Definitely. Think of Detroit as the new American frontier, a blank canvas where anything is possible, and the ultimate arena in which to pursue alternative visions of urban life. A place where you can pursue a personal urban vision without getting tortured by a Byzantine blizzard of bureaucracy. This should be nourished – and preserved – by maintaining a “light touch” approach to regulation in the city proper. The region is well positioned to attract new urban pioneers and homesteaders, and to leverage its reputation as both a black city and large Arab population center. Detroit should stand proud as “Detroit”. It shouldn’t hide behind euphemisms like “Southeastern Michigan” or “The Big D” – as if that fools anybody. Detroit is a name with international recognition and resonance. Wear it with pride.
6. Pursue Targeted Industry Clusters. The auto industry will remain a mainstay in Detroit, particularly management and R&D, though a lot smaller after a federally assisted restructuring. But the city should be wary of overly pursuing “me-too” industries like life sciences without distinctive advantages. Instead, Detroit should look to get its “fair share” of those, then look for where it is positioned to uniquely excel and try to create the environment favorable for investment. Potential targets include:
A lead role in international trade with Canada.
Dominating and expanding non-energy/non-financial trade and relations with the Middle East and Muslim world. With America’s largest Arab population, Detroit is positioned to be the American gateway to that ever more important part of the globe the way Miami is to Latin America.
Music. Detroit has one of America’s richest and most innovative musical legacies, from Motown to electronica to hip hop. But it hasn’t profited from it. Detroit needs to take a page from Nashville and figure out how.
Realize the Detroit Aerotropolis plan.
Alternative urban visions. The recipe for grass roots neighborhood renewal in the city, and a potential innovation cluster for any new Detroit ideas that gain widespread adoption.
7. Rationalize Regional Governance and Infrastructure Investment. Detroit should seriously question any expansion of infrastructure when shrinking in regional population. All subsidized infrastructure expansion outside of currently fully urbanized areas should be terminated. It makes no sense to be widening streets on the fringes when you are ripping them out in the city. In this context, the kind of fixed rail investments advocated by Brookings and other “me too” urban boosters should be avoided in this highly decentralized region. Rather, the central city should start with a quality bus network, with rail added later if and only if existing ridership justifies it.
8. Secure Irreplaceable Assets. Detroit built amazing treasures during its golden age, many of them lost or threatened. Detroit has one of the largest collection of pre-War high rises in America. Yet many of them stand vacant. Another gem, the Lafayette Building, is about to be demolished because it is so badly deteriorated, with trees growing on the roof. Some funds need to be earmarked for securing and and supporting basic maintenance such as roof integrity. While there may not be demand to reuse these structures now, they are irreplaceable and should be saved for future generations. On the cultural side, Detroit needs to ask itself tough questions about institutions like the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra that are bleeding red ink.
The road back for Detroit won’t be short or easy. It will certainly not be back as the colossus of its past. But Detroit can grasp a more successful future if it finds the courage and the leadership to change, and to find a unique path forward for a city that is simply not like anyplace else in the world. Conventional wisdom solutions are just not enough. It will take radical change, new attitudes and an ability to think independently about what’s best for the region.
Filed under: Urban Planning
For much of the United States, Detroit has become shorthand for failure–not just because of the dilapidation of the town’s iconic industry, but because the entire metropolis seems like a dystopian disaster. It is the second-most-segregated metropolitan area in the country; the city’s population is 82 percent African American. No other American city has shed more people since 1950–Detroit is only half its former size. Its city government fails at the most basic tasks. A call to 911 will bring a response, on average, in about 20 minutes. (Such emergency calls are depressingly common in the metropolitan area: There are 1,220 violent crimes per 100,000 people.) And that’s to say nothing of corruption in the municipal ranks. This year alone, at least 48 Detroit public-school employees have been investigated for fraud–which might help explain why only one in four high school freshmen ever receives a diploma. Unemployment in Detroit stands at a staggering 28 percent. And, in key measures of economic vitality in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions, Detroit finishes dead last.
All this might make Detroit seem like the most hopeless case in the global history of the city. But it is hardly the worst and certainly not hopeless. Europe is filled with cities that have risen from similarly miserable conditions.
Take Belfast, which suffered not only industrial decline and disinvestment, but also paralyzing religious guerrilla warfare. Although it received the same sort of hammer blow from globalization as Detroit, it now has steady job growth after decades of losses. Its economic output leapt 35 percent per capita between 2000 and 2005. And, throughout the European continent’s industrial belt–the parts that are distinctly not Disneyland for American yuppies–there are many other examples of old redoubts of manufacturing (Bilbao, Leipzig, Sheffield, St. Étienne) that have enjoyed the very same sort of dramatic recoveries. This is not to oversell the optimism that these cities should inspire. They will never recover their full manufacturing might or swell with quite so many residents as before. Still, they represent realistic models for the rescue of Detroit.
It is strangely fitting that the recent auto bailout endowed Detroit with a new corporate patron hailing from Turin, Italy. Like Detroit, Turin was once a grand capital of the auto industry, which accounted for 80 percent of the city’s industrial activity, most of it with Fiat, Chrysler’s new owner. But the Italian auto industry didn’t fare much better than the American one in the face of new competition. Fiat’s Turin operations went from 140,000 workers in the early 1970s to a mere 40,000 in the early ’90s. And with the collapse of Fiat came the collapse of Turin. Its population plummeted almost 30 percent in 25 years. National and local leaders focused more on combating domestic terrorism from the Red Brigades than on providing basic services. The city spun through four mayors in seven years and accumulated a budget deficit in the mid-’90s of 120 billion lira.
Recovery from this kind of spiral begins with political leadership. And, in 1993, the city elected a reformist mayor, Valentino Castellani, who devised a breathtakingly ambitious plan for the city. Potential investors were never going to have faith in Turin unless the city spelled out its strategy with specificity, so the plan laid out 84 “actions” for development, which Turin vowed to implement by the year 2011. Despite its gritty condition, the city promised to develop a tourism industry and the transportation network to support it. It used its own funds, plus money from national, regional, and provincial governments and private companies, to create a range of institutions–business incubators, foundations, research laboratories, venture-capital funds, and technology parks–that would promote its information-technology and green-energy industries. Other efforts built on Turin’s historical strengths. Turin may no longer have had cheap industrial labor, but it still possessed people with a deep understanding of production and design. They simply needed new outlets and markets for their core competencies.
Turin’s plan worked. By 2006, it posted its lowest levels of unemployment ever and its highest levels of economic activity in half a century. The city reinvented itself as a center for design, not just of cars, but also for aerospace, cinematography, and textiles. Plenty of parts suppliers still depend on business from Fiat, but they have also found new customers in China and other growing markets. Physical regeneration accompanied the economic recovery. The city submerged the old central railway line that had bifurcated the town, transforming that route into a boulevard that serves as Turin’s new backbone. What Turin shows is that even a decaying industrial base can be the foundation for a new economy. That is, the industry may fade, but expertise doesn’t. Detroit’s American cousins, Akron and Toledo, have already shown how specialties developed for car manufacturing can be repurposed. As Akron’s tire-making industry declined, companies, working with local universities, shifted their focus and research efforts into the related business of polymers. The former Rubber Capital of the World now makes polymers and plastics that can be used in clean energy and biotech. Or take Toledo, which long specialized in building windows and windshields for cars. One industry leader, known locally as “the glass genius,” started tinkering with solar cells in the 1980s. The University of Toledo showed an interest in his work, and the state gave the school and two companies some money to investigate photovoltaic technology. That spurred other business and university collaborations, which drew more infusions of state economic development funds, and the region now has some 5,000 jobs in the solar industry.
Institutions developed at the height of Detroit’s postwar prosperity remain–and provide the city with advantages that similarly depressed industrial cities cannot claim. It has educational institutions in or near the city (the University of Michigan, Wayne State) and medical institutions (in part, a legacy of all those union health care plans) that are innovative powerhouses and that currently generate private-sector activity in biomedicine, information technology, and health care management. And there is already a smattering of examples of old industrial outposts that have reacquired relevance. An old GM plant in Wixom has been retrofitted to produce advanced batteries. There’s a new automotive-design lab based in Ann Arbor. And Ford, the most promising of the Big Three, has made a decisive shift toward smaller, cleaner cars.
Retooling Detroit’s old industries and advancing its new ones will take public money, and the feds are the only ones with money to give these days. But Washington already spends heavily on Detroit–$18.4 billion went to the city and the surrounding county in 2008. This money, however, isn’t invested with any broader purpose, a sense of how all this spending can add up to something grander. A better return on federal investments will take a functioning local government as well as leadership in suburban counties that is willing to collaborate closely with the city. And, with so much sclerosis, change will only emerge with a strong hand from above. State and federal governments should place the city’s most dysfunctional agencies in receivership as a quid pro quo for federal investment–a milder version of the federal takeover of Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. These higher-level governments should also insist that the city and its suburbs end their wasteful bickering and act as one on issues that naturally cross borders, like transportation and the environment. The region’s elected officials should be strongly encouraged to replicate the metropolitan mayors’ caucuses in Chicago and Denver, or a strong metropolitan transportation and land-use agency, as in Portland or Minneapolis. Business will never have faith in Detroit with local government in its current condition and with the metropolis so riven by old city-suburb divisions.
The point of Turin is that dramatic reform in local and metropolitan governance, coupled with strategic interventions from above, catalyzes market revival. Turin reoriented manufacturing with smart, subtle, and relatively minimal government interventions. And there are plenty of opportunities like this in Detroit. The metropolitan region is packed with companies that supplied parts to the Big Three. Because of the current credit desert, these companies should receive low-interest loans that allow them to reconfigure their plants to produce parts that can be sold to the international auto market–or for other types of machinery. And local government (or NGOs, even) can play the role of industrial planner. That is, they can look across the map and find instances where research institutions and manufacturers should collaborate on new ventures.
Even if Detroit were to rebuild its economy, it would still face a fundamental obstacle to recovery. It is just too big for itself, with a landscape that even locals compare to postwar Dresden. Nearly one-third of the land in the city is empty or unused, and some 80,000 city homes are vacant. European cities faced a similar challenge. After decades of population and job loss, they were saddled with an excess of housing and too much unproductive, polluted, or vacant land. This derelict land was as much an economic problem as a physical one, depressing property values and repelling new investments. So these cities reconfigured themselves into denser communities, recycling polluted industrial lands, laying down new rail and transit infrastructure, and investing in projects that created demand not only for particular parcels, but also for the wider urban area.
This physical regeneration, much more than economic reorientation, is where governments have a major role. The great object lesson is Bilbao, Spain. As in Turin, leaders–in this case, the Basque regional government, worried about the condition of its largest city–created a master plan and two public-private agencies to support it, one of which, Bilbao Ria, focused specifically on managing large-scale land-cleanup-and-revitalization projects. The master plan identified four swaths of the city for targeted reinvention, including a major parcel of riverfront land, which was cut off from the central city by unused shipping and transportation infrastructure.
Bilbao Ria spent 184 million euros on site cleanup; the provincial and regional governments kicked in 144 million euros–the full cost–for the Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim museum. But the city also created a new metro system and a tram line for the revitalized waterfront. Airports, ports, and regional train systems were also modernized. And, critically, the city spent two decades and one billion euros (mostly from higher levels of government) on a new water-sanitation system to keep untreated household and industrial waste out of the river, which would make waterfront development possible.
Detroit has to change physically because it simply cannot sustain its current form. It was built for two million people, not the 900,000 that live there today. Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston could all fit within Detroit’s 139-square-mile boundary, and there would still be 20 square miles to spare. Even more than its European counterparts, which had much less severe population losses, Detroit will have to become a different kind of city, one that challenges our idea of what a city is supposed to look like, and what happens within its boundaries. The new Detroit might be a patchwork of newly dense neighborhoods, large and small urban gardens, art installations, and old factories transformed into adventure parks. The new Detroit could have a park, much like Washington’s Rock Creek Park, centered around a creek on its western edge, and a system of canals from the eastern corner of the city to Belle Isle in the south. The city has already started on the restoration of the Detroit River waterfront, largely bankrolled by private philanthropy. The city has created a new “land bank,” which can take control of vacant and derelict properties and start the process of clearing land, remediating environmental contamination, and figuring out what to do next with the parcel, whether that’s making it into a small park, deeding it to a neighbor to create a well-tended yard, or assembling large tracts of land for redevelopment or permanent green space. There are plans for a new transit line along Woodward Corridor, which, if coupled with smart land use and zoning changes, could spark an entirely different pattern of development. Expanded commuter-rail service to Ann Arbor is in the works, and the Obama administration is weighing a high-speed-rail plan that would link Detroit to Chicago and other Midwestern cities.
Like a neglected brownstone or a ramshackle Victorian, Detroit has good bones. Already, the city is attracting social entrepreneurs who are excited by the challenge of fundamentally remaking a city. Philanthropies are pouring in money and imagination–the rail system on the Woodward Corridor is partially funded by tens of millions of dollars from two major foundations, and other philanthropies are trying to develop a comprehensive educational plan.
The federal government could support the physical regeneration of Detroit by footing the bill for the development of a new city plan focused on reconfiguring land uses and economic activity around the reality of population loss. More radically, the feds could overhaul that tired cliché of urban policy: the community-development block grant. They should require Detroit and other cities to use these grants (and other federal, state, and local resources) for reclaiming, reconfiguring, and reusing vacant and abandoned land and housing. The federal government could make Detroit a pilot city for land recycling and demolition projects. Scores of other industrial cities have too much land and outdated infrastructure. The foreclosure-smacked boomtowns of the sunbelt are also grappling with their own version of this legacy of excess.
European leaders understood that recovery requires at least a generation. This is a tough realization in places that are not just in economic decline, but are often caught in a kind of mass state of depression. Detroit’s leaders must manage expectations. It took half a century for the city to get this low. It won’t turn around in a four-year political cycle. Turin’s revival started with the mayoral election of 1993; Bilbao’s physical transformation began in 1990. And both cities are still in the process of recovery. The policies that salvaged these cities are perfectly compatible with the American grain of politics–but the patience required for their success is not.
Washington has already bailed out Detroit–at least, the companies that once turned the city into the quintessential American metropolis of the industrial age. When the government justified injecting money into the firms, it made an implicit argument about the country–that these companies are essential to our future economic greatness, that their loss would be an unbearable symbolic defeat. The same holds for the city that houses them. Even after losing one million people, Detroit is still the eleventh-largest city in the country and, before the auto crisis, it was the source of more than half of Michigan’s GDP. To allow Detroit to continue its march toward death would come at significant costs, both human and economic. For Detroit to die, especially in the face of such tested methods for saving cities, would be an American tragedy.
Bruce Katz is director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Jennifer Bradley is a senior research associate with the Metropolitan Policy Program. This essay draws on research undertaken by Brookings and the London School of Economics for a joint project on older industrial cities.
[mi]nervousystem will be in the rouse[d] exhibition at gallery 555 in detroit michigan on september 26th. all participants in the competition as well as jurors will be exhibiting their work. below is a list of these exhibitions;
Jason Johnson/FUTURE CITIES LAB
Dave Jackowski/ALVATRON STUDIO
Matias del Campo,Sandra Manninger/SPAN
Mark Bearak/ARCHITECTURE COLLECTIVE
Nick Pisca,Kieran McCaughey/0001d
Xiaojun Bu/ATELIER ALTER
Ludovico Lombardi/LDVC/Zaha Hadid
PAUL PREISSNER ARCHITECTS
Mark Collins,Toru Hasegawa/PROXY
Chris Perry,Marcelyn Gow/SERVO
GAGE CLEMENCEAU ARCHITECTS
Filed under: Competition
arch452 of southern illinois participated in this years rouse[d]etroit competition, and won the competition with the [mi]nervousystem project.