Friday, February 11, 2011

The Future of American Cities Might Also Be Detroit – Part I

After my gushing last week about Vancouver, Canada, I was brought back to reality by an interesting article by Krissah Thompson of the Washington Post, titled: With Detroit in Dire Straits, Mayor Invites Big Thinking. The article was the latest update on the disaster that is this once fine city and the parallels and similar characteristics faced by cities across the country but concentrated in the “Rust Belt” as it seems to be now called, Cleveland shares many of the same problems as do many smaller cities: evaporating populations, collapsing infrastructures, failed family structures, failed businesses and failed governments. The only success seems to be achieved by crime and the hyperbole shown by the press.

Go to Google Earth and just cruise around the immediate neighborhoods around the center core of Detroit. The view is scary, there are more empty lots than houses. What is remarkable is that as you move outward, the neighborhoods grow more populated and there are cars in the retail lots. How many of these houses are empty I don’t know, how many are foreclosed – not a clue? But what is known is the town is facing failure on a scale that boggles the mind.
Detroit Residential, 2.5 miles from downtown

I went to Michigan State University in the 1960s, my family’s roots are north of Detroit about 200 miles, the state survived and thrived on what happened in Detroit, period. Michigan has some of the most prestigious universities in the country, a well-educated citizenry and one of the worst internal political systems. Every effort by both the state and the major cities has been one that drives businesses, jobs, and its people out of the cities and the state as a whole. The residents see no future, so why stay?

A few facts: Detroit is the eleventh most populous city with 910,920 people (and probably dropping as I write this), in the 1950s it was the fifth-largest. With Windsor, Canada across the Detroit River the region has over 5.5 million people. The Midwest’s water born trade passes by the city’s gates from Lake Huron to Lake Erie. It is more centrally located than Chicago or Cleveland to the region. No large American city has better access to Canada.

It’s easy to point at the reasons for the city’s collapse, but it is probably hinged on the decline of manufacturing in the United States over the last thirty plus years. Not just automobiles but the attendant industries of machine tools, assembly, industrial design, changes in distribution, and the movement out of the region to assemble cars in non-union and more affordable locations. Now, nowhere else is more affordable than Detroit.

Detroit and Cleveland and Toledo and Gary and hundreds of other smaller cities of less than 100,000 people are the ‘Dust Bowl’ of our times. How can this change? Can a wand be waved? Can a Band-Aid be placed?

All the major and minor players in urban development and design have their fingers and egos in the porridge. The Urban Land Institute is offering its help (how did that New Orleans thing work out ULI?), the universities are having their clueless students do plans and studies, Washington is flying in and out daily with handouts and programs. Foundations are lining up at the ticket counters offering help: Kresge, Ford, Rockefeller, and Kellogg. Everyone has their hand out waiting for a taste.

The time is past to save the city for a Phoenix rebirth, if it happens the city will not look like its past. The city must change to encourage people to return and built a new city on the bones of the old.

I am a planner and urban historian, so it would be well to look at how most American cities grew. They started as places where things came together and had easy access to the region: junctions of major rivers, safe harbors, inlets to long rivers, and lately freeway interchanges, airports and rail lines. From these nascent villages great cities grew, and usually not by incremental growth like an onion but by ‘leapfrog efforts’ that would later be ‘filled-in.’ Land values and affordability drove most decisions, land speculation was the norm (the good and bad kinds), cities grew not by the hand of some type of governmental management (this is a recent and not so flexible management system) but through some efforts that were, at times, not always nice, neat, and egalitarian.

Some suggestions, take them for what they are worth:
1. Look at immediate Detroit region and redefine core neighborhoods, village centers and adjacent residential area, do what can be done to support these entrepreneurial islands through tax rates, fees, and assistance.
2. Separate these areas with greenways, parks, agriculture. This is a step back to the incremental growth patterns of a hundred and fifty years ago.
3. Reduce costs by concentrating future growth in these cores.
4. Do not give away things. It might get the problem off one ledger but if there is not the American “earned it” reward, the property will never become a neighborhood catalyst. Sure there are ways to help, think of the 1890 land rushes, but there were also very important requirement to insure long term ownership.
5. Encourage immigration into the community. Go to countries that have people desperate to leave and offer them ‘forty acres and a mule;’ we all got here on the same boat but at different times. Would you deny your great-grandfather his right to immigrate?
6. Do not rely on technology to save your butt. It is costly and has strings, especially if from Washington. High speed rail and urban transit systems are costly and intrusive. Besides how do they save a city, I tend to think it cut it apart.
7. Make is essentially free for a business to operate in a community. Reduce or eliminate fees, licenses, taxes and other governmental niceties. These are there to support the city not the community. Give the entrepreneur a five year moratorium; they have enough difficulties without the heavy hand of government and its management teams.

I can go on and will in the next few installments.

Stay tuned . . . .

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