"I don't want to shrink the city. I want to grow the city."
— Detroit mayoral candidate Tom Barrow to talk-show host Mildred Gaddis
Wonderful sentiment, Tom, seriously. And if you're speaking figuratively, I hope that you or whoever else becomes mayor of Detroit in November succeeds overwhelmingly at this.
But when it comes to the idea of literally shrinking the city, at least temporarily, I think it's one we need to consider.
I'm not trying to claim the idea as my own. Some in the Detroit area have been discussing the notion for many years now. And it's also been floated in places like Flint, MI, to often lukewarm response. But can it work? Is it worth serious consideration by the pols trying to woo voters as the elections near?
It seems to make sense. As a result of steep population decline, Detroit has gone from being the 4th largest city in America in 1950 to the 11th largest today. But we're still spread out across 138 square miles of land. As a result, some 30 percent of the city -- or 40 square miles -- sits vacant. That's nearly twice the size of Manhattan. Meanwhile, dwindling tax revenue and a $300-million budget deficit paradoxically make a less populated Detroit more difficult to maintain and serve.
So since the city is shrinking and de-industrializing anyway, why not attempt to exercise some control over the contraction, make money from it even? Target areas that have been largely abandoned and provide incentives for those who remain to move elsewhere in the city. Then fence off giant swaths of Detroit. Turn huge portions of the land over to nature, create preserves and parks and lease other portions to farmers who could use it to grow the fresh, affordable food -- and jobs -- that many of our communities could sorely use. Some businessmen are already trying to do just this. (Though I wouldn't mind seeing some big farms in the city, I think it'd be critical that smaller community-based groups have an opportunity to farm the land, too.)
Couldn't a move like this be a major step in transforming Detroit, where we've had various forms of urban farming for nearly 30 years, into a model for green cities across the country?
Further, a more concentrated populace should allow for a more efficient deployment of city services. I'd imagine we could also save some sorely needed dollars by not having to provide regular power and police and fire services to the fenced-off areas. And, as one of my best friends pointed out recently when he was championing this idea, by sealing off vacant areas, we create a type of land scarcity that gives greater value to the remaining parcels that can be developed. If/when more people returned to the city, we could re-open fenced off sections as needed.
I ran the idea by the ever-skeptical Wife, and she raised some very compelling questions about the efficacy of this strategy, such as how to encourage people to move, how to pay for relocating large numbers of residents and how to ensure that they are provided with homes of comparable or greater value that are safe, clean and comfortable.
All excellent questions. But are there any progressive answers?
What're your thoughts on this? Can downsizing, for once, really be good for Detroit?