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Shrink Detroit?

"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?

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  • 1

    I have been a big fan of this idea for a while. The city's population to size ratio makes administrating it implausible if not impossible. To me it seems far easier to scale the city down to a manageable size than to attract tens of thousands of people to run-down, or abandoned neighborhoods.

  • 2

    Why not just ask Youngstown, OH how they did it?

  • 3

    Sounds like it could work, as long as Detroit's borders don't shrink along with it. And I hate that word "de-industrializing".....makes me sad. The thought that this whole area's culture could be or is changing is a difficult thing to accept. New York has Central Park....I know we have Belle Isle but a second big park in the city couldn't hurt. Whatever saves the city is what we'll have to do.

  • 4

    This is a brilliant idea. Do this and it would be a nice place to live. It could become a trendy place for recent college graduates to populate. With a visionary leading the charge (think Teach For America) it could become the next “thing to do” for courageous young people who want to resurrect a city simply by moving in and becoming citizens who make a difference. Eric Russ, Frank Patti and the members of Mack Avenue Church moved in and started the ball rolling a couple of years ago near Indian Village. Given a little help removing the blight and preparing the land, they could attract the next hippy generation. Cheap housing, organic farming, low cost of living, great sports teams, good restaurants, Eastern market, a new well run airport, nice weather six months out of the year, a foreign country on the other side of the river, what more could you ask for?
    Though your wife's concerns are valid, the exodus from Detroit is happening at an increasing rate without anyone forcing the move. If you look at schools in the surrounding suburbs, the influx of new residents is obvious. The incentive to move is strong when there's plenty of housing available in the surrounding suburbs with safe, healthy school systems and functioning city services.

  • 5

    Its an process we HAVE to undertake. The issue with Detroit is affordability. We need to have the best Detroit that we can afford. Is it painful, yes. Is it costly, yes. Is it needed, hell yes.

    The issue is that the shrinking of Detroit is already taking place. The tax base is shrinking, the population is shrinking, revenues (taxes) are shrinking.

    People do not see the benefit of their tax dollars, and the leadership of the past somehow made people believe that it was ok.

    Affordability is the term of the day.

  • 6

    Of course a managed contraction can be good for the city. Growth cannot be sustained, and its "benefits" aren't even demonstrable. There is no reason to grow the city; it's still the biggest on in the state.

  • 7

    I believe this to be a great idea and the beginning of "growing" Detroit back into a great city. Mayor Bing is seemingly acting in such a manner, but from the inside out, as oppose to actually dealing with the city limits and physical attributes of the city. He has already removed a decent number of public offices and has plans to remove even more before the fall is over. In addition to the positives that are mentioned in this piece, I believe that this would allow the efforts to be focused on a smaller, there fore more manageable area.

    Maybe "refocusing" or “restructuring” the city is a more positive description of such a movement, rather than "shrinking" or any other synonym that has a negative connotation.

  • 9

    These are all good comments, but I would recommend a city plan that puts in place 12-14 local mini-cities within the current city limits. I am an ex-resident from the 60's and saw Detroit near or at its peak. Boston Edison, Palmer Woods, U of D/University District are good examples of areas of the city worth rebuilding around. They offer good, enduring "anchors" and a sense of distinct and manageable communities and offer continuity to a once great city. Today's city is ungovernable and monolithic; it serves no area of the city well enough to continue trying.

    Each mini-city could feature an existing anchor around which a central area is formed then apportion surrounding neighborhoods and land redevelopment to achieve a reasonable density of housing all with access to the important roads, interstates and be able to redevelop retail, entertainment, security, parking and other community needs such as schools. Tax allocations would have local and regional elements to sensibly finance each in a more specialized way. Give people who must move a 10 year tax holiday, moving costs and a fair market price seems like an ample, fair incentive to move.

    A renewed central core serving the entire region essentially already exists and can continue to serve all the new mini-cities and outer suburbs efficiently. The city must immediately "drain" 40 or more sq. miles of un- or under occupied land that can serve low density purposes including parks, farms and transportation hubs. Doing it from the local areas out as part of a parallel development is better than driving it from the top down sequentially I believe. Just my opinion.

  • 10

    Shrink the city. Give the cops a smaller area to patrol. I think the biggest hurdle to getting people back to Detroit is the crime. I think I would easily move there from Ferndale if I didn't have to worry so much about the crime there. Bring more small businesses back to populate the empty storefronts. Make it what a city should be.

  • 11

    Don't bring in corporate farms. Take it from an ex-Detroiter living in rural central NY State where the economy, environment AND community have all been badly damaged over the past 25-30 years since the rise of corporate agribusiness began forcing all the small farms out of business.

    I see it anecdotally every day, but in case you don't believe me, here's the definitive survey of studies done across 40+ years: The community effects of industrialized farming: social science research and challenges to corporate farming laws. Linda Lobao and Curtis Stofferahn. Agriculture and HUman Values, v.25, no.2/June 2008, p.219-240.

    Using portions of all that empty land for growing food locally to feed people locally is an excellent idea. But keep the farms small, keep the people in touch with the whole cycle of whence comes their food, create jobs for local people not illegal immigrants, teach people the value of food production and how important it is to grow it in a healthy way. When people get too far removed from the production, they fail to see all the harmful things that go on in industrial production of anything.

    I like the incentives idea, though I don't know how it would work -- looking at other communities who've tried it and taking lessons from what did and didn't work sounds like a good start. Then put that land into supporting the people living right alongside it -- but keep it healthy and sustainable.

  • 12

    [...] I recently read this article about possibly the greatest real estate turnaround EVER.  Instead of paraphrasing the story (I’ll let you read that on your own), I’ll quickly summarize it and get to the more interesting commentary on the lessons this deal story has for the future of urban redevelopment. Especially when you consider the plight and blight of a place like this. [...]

  • 13

    Instead of demolishing perfectly good houses, I believe that Detroit should give up the parts of the city it cannot police, and allow people to buy and protect their own homes.Level the lands that don't have decent homes on them, let people pay taxes to a local police they create themselves. I have never heard of a city that included 40 miles of farms.. usually that is part of the county, not the city. If the areas are policed adequately, people would move in to these homes.

  • 14

    [...] relocated closer to downtown. A more controlled Devil’s Night, if you will. Surprisingly, the talk turned serious last year, with the mayor proposing to shrink the city by a [...]

  • 15

    Something has to be done to restructure the city. I agree with one poster who indicated that the city should eventually just stop providing resources (gas, electric, water) to individuals that will not take the incentives offered to them to move into residential areas that represent the future of Detroit. The city should try to be as flexible as possible with the options it provides but the simple fact is that you can't please everyone. While one might argue that this is unethical or unfair (i.e. for the city to stop offering the resources), is it really? This is a debate in itself, but I wonder if any posters can address the legality of it.

    Unless someone really believes a massive turnaround is around the corner, letting 40 sq miles sit idle, with no tax revenue or productivity is simply a waist. And any good businessman, which Bing is, would want all of the cities assets working for the city.

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