Tag Archives: Detroit

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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Dying in dignity – Berlin and the American City

The whole class went on a study trip to Berlin last week. The city is mesmerizing in the way it clings to life despite having been the site of tragedy after tragedy in the past century. This made the appearance of renowned American urban history professor Kenneth T. Jackson at the technical university somewhat ridiculous, as he chose to begin his talk by speaking of Detroit.

Jackson, the author of Crabgrass Frontier, is a specialist on the suburbanization of the United States in the post-war era, and he pit the blame for the collapse (there is no other way to describe it) of Detroit on Federal housing policies, racism, and cheap wood-frame home construction. Between pictures of abandoned skyscrapers and mansions, and riot neighborhoods turned to meadows, Jackson built a diagnostic of suburbanization that is entirely political. At no point did he ask himself if Detroit was a good place to live in. From what we know of it, it wasn’t that great of a city. In comparison to the glory that was Berlin, it was a horror. If politics was the explanation for suburbanization, then the suburbs would not be so qualitatively different from the cities. But Jackson never mentioned that. Of everything I’ve read from Americans complaining about suburban sprawl, not once does anyone ask if American cities were good places to live. They weren’t. A few days in Berlin was all it took to understand that.

Unlike Paris, which was a medieval city that was intensively renovated in the 19th century, Berlin was a small burg of 150,000 at the beginning of it, about one seventh the size of London. Berlin’s growth took off in the mid-19th century at a pace and a time similar to New York City, both cities hitting about 2 million in time for the fin de siècle. Berlin is therefore a modern, industrial city of the same class as all the Great American Cities praised by Jane Jacobs. That is why, every time I turned a corner in one of its broad streets and avenues, I couldn’t help but feel “this is what an American city would have been if Americans had known how to make cities.”

American cities have been a mess for so long that American urbanists have been fighting what is essentially a hopeless struggle to save what has never been worth saving. New York City, with its grid plan repeated endlessly, somewhat accidentally became a great city and was retroactively manifestoed by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York. The rest of the country was not so lucky. Of the Great American Cities, only three more survived: Boston, Chicago, San Francisco. It wasn’t just de-industrialization and racism that did it. Chaos is synonymous with urbanity in America. The New Urbanists, who promote a more refined form of urbanism, have been labeled as “too suburban” by some of their critics. What they propose is functionally identical to Berlin.

What really happened to the Great American Cities? They annoyed their citizens to such an extent with awful living conditions, high costs and endless political conflicts that the suburbs, with a promise of peace and quiet, easily outcompeted them. The exodus of the middle class then fed the chaos even more. What if Detroit collapsed because the people who ran Detroit were objectively corrupt and incompetent at producing cities?

In Berlin we have a modern city that has faced a hundred years of chaos, and a hundred years of industrial growth beforehand, and come out of it gracefully. The city is economically in no better shape than Detroit. It lived for almost 50 years in a completely artificial state, serving as a demonstration of wealth for both the East and the West. With the wall down, the subsidies were taken away. The population fell lightly over the next decade, and the economic promise didn’t materialize. Today unemployment is around 14% and kids are migrating south where there is better hope for work. There are empty office buildings all over. The city government is broke. Suburban sprawl is expanding. Despite that, Berlin is full of construction cranes. Walking around the lovely Prenzlauer Berg, its buildings restored fresh after years of neglect under the Socialist Republic and now invaded by young families, Berlin does not give the impression of a city struggling. It is what Detroit never was and certainly isn’t today: a place that feels good. This is why people are willing to stay here. This is why private money is funding the reconstruction of the Hohenzollern palace on the wreckage of Palast der Republik, just behind the bigger than life statue of Marx and Engels. There are enough people out there who love Berlin and will sacrifice for it. Berlin will remain a relevant city even as it stagnates or shrinks. It will have everything a state-of-the-art city is expected to have. Whatever needs to be invested will be invested. New train stations will be built and they will work better than any train station you’ve ever seen. (The new Hauptbahnof is a sight for sore eyes.) Some derelict neighborhoods will have to be abandoned, much like some Detroit neighborhoods have turned into meadows. I’m sure the Berliners will find something useful to do with them, perhaps barbecues with curried sausage and sauerkraut. Complexity science tells us you can never stop growing a city, even if it is shrinking in size. The urban fabric has to be recycled. When it stops, as is the case with Detroit, the city is dead.

One thing that is scarcely mentioned about Berlin urbanism today is politics. Berlin is tired of politics. “No more experiments!” was the proclamation of city planners when postmodern architects came swarming in favor of new plans after the reunification. However boring the vision for Berlin may be, it is graceful, dignified, and has gathered popular support. Americans, I’m afraid, are unable to conceive of cities as anything other than political objects to fight over. Everything must be fought over, even the most redundant parking space in Brooklyn. That is why I don’t expect anything other than more chaos to come out of America in the short-term.

Prenzlauer Berg Prenzlauer Berg