Don’t demolish Detroit

The following story about a presidential program to demolish whole neighborhoods of inner city fabric in the United States and turn them back into wilderness has been making the rounds around news blogs.

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.”

This is the type of neighborhood that the government wants to disurbanize. It is located in central Detroit.

Detroit Demolished

To someone trapped in the mindset of development and control that we have practiced in the 20th century, a place like this is a nightmare. It is not possible to consolidate properties in order to bring in a large developer and a large bank that will finance “re-development” of the place. Worse yet, properties have been abandoned randomly, turning what were neat row houses with identical lots into a pockmarked landscape of randomly-sized public land chaos. Better to demolish everything and start over.

There is another mindset through which to interpret such a neighborhood, that of complexity. If we embrace complexity, then the randomly sized pockets of open land are an exceptional opportunity to renew the city of Detroit. They form a fractal solution set to new construction that many different people can participate in and contribute to. It can accomodate small, medium-size and eventually large-size businesses in close proximity with diverse housing and convenient transportation structures.

But why has this not worked for Detroit? Because its process of growth has not been focused on fractal scales but only on big projects and big businesses. Now that the big businesses are dying the city is threatened with disappearing and has to beg even bigger governments to prevent their death. That cannot go on forever. Death is a normal, natural process, and big businesses disappearing should never be a threat to a large city. The economic fabric of a city must always be renewed by new businesses. It is this renewal that creates a sustainable business ecology. At some point Detroit stopped the process of new business creation, and from then on its decline was assured.

Instead of demolishing its remaining neighborhoods and surrendering to the decline and death that will surely follow in its reduced form, Detroit should instead adopt the process of a special economic zone in those neighborhoods it wants to return to “nature”. Tolerate people build as they wish and let a slum happen, and from the slum will emerge the businesses that will renew Detroit’s economy. It can’t be worse than the bulldozer.

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5 responses to “Don’t demolish Detroit

  1. I agree; in any other city, the neighborhood would present an opportunity for new construction pursued by individuals – it’s close to downtown and presumably is no worse than other Detroit neighborhoods in its fundamentals. The highway in the corner is what doomed it by flattening the demand curve for land, leaving the relatively small homes here increasingly undesirable. However, a recapitulation of the stages of urban growth is feasible here. If the City needs to shut off utilities, it should sponsor decentralized waste management, authorize a newly created village government to handle policing and basic street maintenance, and agree to continue providing fire protection, water, and sewage (relatively cheap items). Starting with market gardening, the remaining residents (if enough remain) could cultivate the vacant lots, selling in the city’s farmer’s markets . As the farmers generate capital, they will move into more value-added businesses such as cheese production, prepared foods, and even wines. Restaurants serving this produce would be a natural result, and soon there are visitors from other neighborhoods and even tourists coming to this once-abandoned area. The development of small retail, as in other urban neighborhoods, will eventually support a large portion of the residents, and over time the neighborhood will become a tax generator for Detroit (and a rather special place), not a burden.

  2. North America has a terrible record with urban renewal through demolition, but its record for “letting slums happen” is even worse.

    In Canada you only have to look at Africville in Halifax, Lower Town East in Ottawa, or Cabbagetown/Regent Park in Toronto and what you see is vital but poor communities being destroyed. In those cases you have to suspect that their location on desirable real estate was the sin that made governments want to demolish all their homes and relocate the residents often to highrise projects. In most cases, the community never recovered its social structure.

    On the other hand, letting slums happen is not much better. Concentrated poverty alone is bad enough, and the non-linear negative impacts of concentration of poverty are well documented, but what the residents have to fear from a laisser-faire approach to concentrated pockets of blight is crime. Sacrificing a community to the criminal gangs in the hopes that it may some day rise from its ashes is not a good tradeoff. There are few modern examples of spontaneous rebuilding in urban North America. Will individuals build their own homes there? Will businesses move in? More likely, slum landlords and developers will eventually do land consolidation. I agree that ideally, slums where people know each other and where they build rather then renting would be a good solution, but it how do you keep the absentee landlords and land speculators out?

    Flint is not the first to do selective demolitions while attempting to preserve communities, in response to declining population. In the US, Youngstown has been doing it and before then former East Germany has been doing it for over a decade. See here for instance http://www.goethe.de/kue/arc/dos/dos/sls/en4269927.htm

    Germany has the advantage of much older city centres that can be preserved almost completely. Demolishing selectively to create large irregularly shaped wooded parks and paths is a German solution.

  3. Very cool, thanks Lori.

  4. Pingback: The rules for changing rules « Emergent Urbanism

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