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Downsizing Detroit

Let me state the obvious: The issue of how to shrink Detroit is gaining traction locally and more attention nationally. This is a topic that all of Michigan, Midwest and even the country needs to study closely in the months and years to come. Detroit is at a turning point; it cannot sit still any longer.

As more is coming out about plans to downsize the city, voices of the proponents and the opposition are coming to light. Are people going to get on board or fight this thing? To me, it is a foregone conclusion that Detroit must get smaller to get better. What has to happen to create a plan that works?

Sounds like Mayor Bing is going to talk about it in his State of the City address March 23. He updated the Associated Press today on what he could; read it here. MUCH MUCH more to come.

From the first Associated Press article:

"Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable," said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. "There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don't accept that, but that is the reality."

The meaning of what is afoot is now settling in across the city.

"People are afraid," said Deborah L. Younger, past executive director of a group called Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation that is working to revitalize five areas of the city. "When you read that neighborhoods may no longer exist, that sends fear."

Though the will to downsize has arrived, the way to do it is unclear and fraught with problems.

Worth noting: This story had more than 1,000 comments, good and bad. That is a huge amount of interest for an article that was posted Monday (March 8).

A highlight of Bing's AP interview, printed March 9:

"It's a long road back," said Bing, who took office last year. "I don't want to raise expectations, false expectations. I want to be very straight with people. This is hard work and it's not going to happen overnight."

It's not known, Bing said, how much downsizing might cost or how much of the 139-square-mile city could be involved. He wants to make sure residents are a part of the long-term planning process and buy into the city's plan.

"We're not going in and just taking people's property and saying you don't have any say," Bing said. "Those people that we can encourage and that they would agree to be moved, those are the ones that we are going to work with first."

From The Detroit News on March 9:

The most viable neighborhoods, with the fewest vacant lots, are on the fringes, near the suburbs. The ones with the most abandoned houses and vacancies are closest to downtown.

"We have a downtown core and then we clearly have an outer ring," said Douglass Diggs, interim executive director of the recently formed Detroit Land Bank, a primary agency in the city's downsizing push. "The question is how do you link those two?

"Looking at the maps it seems like the real challenge is what to do with the middle part."

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  • 1

    One of the stranger criticisms of rightsizing I've read is the claim that it will make Detroit less urban and sustainable. Articles in Fast Company magazine and the Baffler have recently made this point (see here:

    I wrote a rebuttal today to make the opposite case:

    I'm not convinced yet that rightsizing will work -- and we don't yet know what form Bing thinks it should take -- but if there's any benefit to consolidation, it'll be restoring the urban feel of Detroit's neighborhoods. By offering incentives for people to live in fewer, better-serviced neighborhoods with reliable transit, Detroit can restore some of the urban character it's lost through depopulation.

    Sure, there might be more farms and parks popping up in between neighborhoods, but that's a welcome alternative to the scattered urban prairie we have today.

  • 2

    Hi - there's a problem with that 2nd AP story link: it goes nowhere, just takes you to a 404 page. (Looks like there's a string of junk text at the end of the URL, for what it's worth.)

    • 3.1

      The Fast Company article makes a valid observation -- Detroit's urban core ought to be high-density, not filled with parks and farms -- but betrays a misunderstanding of the goals and logic of rightsizing.

      The author makes it sound as if rightsizing were intended to clear land to make way for farms and parks, reducing the density of the region. The reality is that these neighborhoods are already half-empty and struggling with poor schools, lack of job opportunity, and so on. Consolidating them will restore their density and might make them attractive places to live again.

      The question then is what to do with the empty land that is assembled. That's where parks, urban gardens, and sustainable industries come in -- these are viable, interim uses for the land left vacant between the newly dense transit corridors and neighborhoods.

      As I explain more thoroughly here, in a point-by-point rebuttal of the article, if anything, rightsizing (if it's done right) will enable Detroit to finally stabilize and regain the density it's lost from sprawl, job less, etc.

  • 4

    Detroit has a density of about 6400 people per square mile. ( 900,000 in 140 square miles) By contrast, the three largest cities outside of Detroit in Wayne Oakland and Macomb Counties have less than half of that. Troy is about 2300, Warren about 2800 and Livonia about 3000 per square mile. So one has to ask if density per se is the problem or is it something else more fundamental.

    Even if the populated part of the city was reduce to say, 90 square miles instead of the current 140 ( a one third reduction) it would presumably still have the same number of people. 900,000 people even in a smaller area would still need fire protection, police services, garbage pick-up etc. There probably would be some efficiencies to be gained but my hunch is that it wouldn't follow that costs of operating the city would go down proportionately.

    I don't think downsizing is a bad idea, I just wonder if some people aren't overstating the impact a bit. Hopefully the discussions and study about this issue will focus on real facts and figures and this ideaa isn't just the twenty first century version of 1950's "urban renewal" that helped to destroy the city in the first place.

    • 4.1

      I think you're understating the potential impact right-sizing the city would have. As far as city services go, the economic benefit would be pretty huge. The impact of eliminating non-viable neighborhoods stretches beyond being able to discontinue services in those areas. It spread to the new, more viable neighborhoods as well. Neighborhoods that aren't plagued with abandonment and vacancy have less need for fire and police protection, as they aren't living amongst the abandoned homes that are magnets for fires and crime.

      Beyond the cost of services, denser neighborhoods, in theory, increase property values therefore increasing tax revenues. Placing proud homeowners among other proud homeowners creates a cycle of investment and thus increases property values and tax revenue. On the other hand, abandonment in neighborhoods creates a cycle of disinvestment and lowers already low property values. So, right-sizing could end up making money for the city in the long-run.

    • 4.2

      Though Detroit has a higher density than some neighboring suburbs, it is still far lower than other major cities outside of the state. San Francisco has a comparable population to Detroit, but has a density of 17,000ppl/sq. mile. That is a city that Detroit is compared to, not Warren, Troy, or Livonia.

      Another way Detroit differs from suburban cities is that it has exponentially higher infrastructure and service costs. It is a much older city, while the suburbs are relative greenfields. The burbs do not yet have to face the enormous ongoing costs of aging infrastructure.

      Detroit does need to be downsized in order to make a comeback. The economic benefits might be insignificant at first, but will be realized long term.

    • 4.3

      My reason for bringing up Troy, Livonia, and Warren was not because I think those places are models that Detroit should follow. Quite the contrary....I wouldn't live in any of those places if you forced me at gunpoint. However, what I had hoped to show that if the premise for the proposed "rightsizing" is that increased density will necessarily result in lower operating costs then Detroit would be in better fiscal shape than those other places. Sadly that isn't the case so one has to simply question the premise.

      We seem always to look for the simple, one size fits all, silver bullet solution to problems when the real underlying causes are far more complex. Consolidation and increasing the effective density may not be the panacea that it appears at first glance.

      I am encouraged that mayor Bing has the courage to put forth a bold idea like this and hope he continues to propose big initiatives. I'm just hoping that a true measure of the positives and negatives will be done before they rush into something like this. I've been around here for 40 years and have seen far too many silver bullets miss their mark with far too much collateral damage. I hope this isn't another one.

  • 5

    I guess my main concern is how do we ensure that a realestate bubble/bust pattern isn't re-created? The city is 139 square miles. All of the area is theoretically inhabitable. If development is going to be limited to say 70 square miles (just using placeholder numbers here) on an artificial basis, what happens if the plan works? Do those last 69 square miles that were dormant, used for farming etc. remain as such? If I were Hantz or a descendant of his I would slap a for sale sign on my huge, artifically tax efficient plots which now reside at the edge of positive urban density and this effectively dumps all that land we had to shrink back into the city. Is this the desired outcome, I see plusses an minuses.

    • 5.1

      Interesting point, although it's a problem I'd love to have.

    • 5.2

      it is avoidable if done right - like through zoning or public-brivate landbanking partnerships. What if the city granted 50 yr leases on land tracts with the option to sell. this creates interim cashflow with appreciation opportunity.

  • 6

    Here's a quick quip and I will respond more later because it is the central issue.

    What to do with the annular ring.

    When Coleman opted for the huge incinerator which stinks up the place, It seemed rational to me that he should have opted for a sanitary landfill much like Woodhaven, and Bill Davidson did.

    And like Woodhaven the kids could have learned to skii during the winter.


  • 7

    It is the incinerator that has cause the strip east of Woodward to tank more quickly.


  • 8

    You see, your don't have to be wealthy or highly educated to detest the odor or burning garbage.


  • 9

    Downsizing may or may not be a solution for saving the city. There are good reasons for and against, each equally persuasvie. And no one knows whether or not downsizing will work. Could be a big mistake. These abandoned neighborhoods have existing infrastructure for homes and buldings, not farms. Many also have exisitng parks with dilapidated tennis-courts, baseball diamonds, playgrounds, picnic areas, etc...
    If downsizing becomes another idea gone wrong, it could result in more weed-infested, junk filled land, an urban nightmare between Downtown and the perimeter of the city. Picture densely-pupulated Hamtramck,which is in the center of the city, surrounded by the fields of nothingness in Detroit. I just wish there was some way to revitalize and repopulate these once, thriving parts of town.

    • 9.1

      Do you think that some kind of land clearing campaign would be a good start? If the city could eliminate blighted structures and incentivize re-development in a planned out manner that could make Detroit more appealing then it would probably be easier to allow the development to feed on itself and slowly spred out.

  • 10

    We had better see some population curves to understand what is going on..

    Without them we're all jawjacking with bumblegab.

    Right size, wrong size, upsize, downsize sounds like you are selling pizza.

    In all of the discussions no one has mentioned Lafayette Park... considered by many to be the finest Urban Renewal Project ever and it was the first.

    There should be an international competition to come up with more urban housing like it, only updated.

    And Downtown should be rung with such housing but we had better see the charts.

    And you all have to remember that although Sigfreid Gideon's "Mechanization takes Command" has finally hit it's stride with all the robotics and computer controlled production lines.

    People are in a phase of rapidly increasing marginal utility. Sure there are some in desperate need and unsurpassed competence but do they have the job to do their work?

    Colleges are graduating people in fields that are vastly overcrowded and absolutely not in need for more.

    We had better look at that.

    And Obama can't just keep extending unemployment benefits without demanding some work in return.

    There's lots to do.


  • 11

    This is an innovative idea, but perhaps premature. The City needs to stop the bleeding (loss of population). The City is too expensive for the middle class. The homestead millage of 65 is about 24 mills higher than the Wayne County average. Those who live and work in the City pay an income tax. Homeowner's insurance is higher than in the suburbs. Auto insurance is higher than in the suburbs. Residents have to drive to the suburbs to shop at Krogers (food desert). As a general rule, whatever you tax you get less of, so it's not surprising that people are leaving. A related problem is public employees who retire and leave the City. Their children no longer live in the City, so what's the point. They take their City funded retirement checks with them. If the City is able to realize savings from rightsizing, the savings should be put to immediate use by cutting the millage to make the City more competitive with neighboring suburbs. As Charles Tiebout argued, people can and do vote with their feet.

  • 12

    All my life various Detroit planners have advocated various plans that have torn down this or that neighborhood to save the city, starting with the neighborhoods to create Lafayette & Elmwood Parks. Ripping apart the city to create freeways with footprints more suited to farmland rather than a major urban area. The various city governments since the '60's have failed to provide any real protection for residents or their property. What I have not seen is any real effort to increase the city population. Little attempt to understand just what prompts developers in the suburbs and other cities across America to create new neighborhoods and developments. The type of housing built in Detroit in the last 20 years has been just to keep the current residents from moving out rather than providing housing that would attract new residents of any sizable numbers to move into the city. Take a look at the size of houses being built in the suburbs here in Michigan as well as across America. Nothing built in Detroit approachs those sizes consequently even if Detroit were safe to live in few would move in. My suspicion is that there is no real interest in attracting new residents of any significant amount as such numbers would threaten the current power structures. If the city were to create enough incentives to increase the population by 500,000 all the current office holders and influential groups would lose their positions of power in subsequent elections. If one were to take a step back to look at policies of the various city administrations since the '60's they have been almost designed to deliberatly drive residents out rather than to effectively deal with issues making living in Detroit difficult. I don't see anybody talking about growing the city, all I see is people talking about downsizing. Maybe it's time to break up the city back into the various small towns and townships the city absorbed throughout the first part of the 20th century to let those residents create their own local governments for Detroit city government has been an utter failure for the past 50 years by any rational measurement.

  • 13

    [...] since we all love The D, I want all my fellow LionsDetroit fans to check out detroit.blogs.time and tell me what you think about[...]

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