Detroit holds a unique place in American history. It’s the cradle of some of the 20th century’s most enduring music, the birthplace of the American auto industry, and the subsequent exemplar of the American made-for-Manifest Destiny city by sprawl, ruled by highways, bypasses, and asphalt. Some of these same choices have made Detroit the quintessential sad poster child for catastrophic urban disinvestment.
In this week’s Newsweek , Bill McGraw argues a heartfelt case for shrinking the Motor City. The city has 2,700 miles of road that snake through 40 square miles of abandoned, empty blocks. As I’ve written about the depressed state of the built environment in Detroit before, it was a city built for 3 million people, many of whom never showed up. Of those that did, 20 percent left for the suburbs between 1970 and 1980. Now it’s an impoverished shell of a city, disconnected by building husks, tear-downs, and empty lots, starving for human activity and vibrancy, pinning its hopes on wave after wave of redevelopments schemes that always seem to fall short of sparking a city-wide renaissance.
Most simply, where there are no people, urbanism can’t grow, and Detroit has become inhospitable to many people because of economic, social, and political fortunes, of which the last-ditch federal bailout of the domestic automobile companies is only the latest example. Thus, it’s straining under its own weight to maintain what it has.
McGraw isn’t alone in urging Detroit to shrink. An AIA Sustainable Design Assessment Team has suggested the same thing, calling for more sustainable mass transit, denser development, and turning the city’s abandoned lots into urban farms and parks.
The last time the nation engaged in any kind of serious discussion about willingly shrinking a city, the subject was post-Katrina New Orleans. The culprit there was natural and irrational, not the result of human intent and reaction, but it was and is no less upsetting. The urge to explore and expand civilization across the frontier, often rather unsustainably, still lives on in our urban planning practices, a legacy left by pioneering ancestors. There’s no reason this urge to expand possibilities can’t be redirected in a more ecologically responsible direction, in Detroit and elsewhere. In fact, I think it’s already been done.
This week I had the pleasure of having a long chat with Canadian architect Bing Thom, a Vancouver native. Over the decades, he watched his city repel intrusive plans to divide the city from its waterfront with freeway projects, embrace natural resources and their place within the city, and densify their downtown, especially residentially. Today, Vancouver is known the world over for the rich urban experience it offers, its previous reputation as a small, remote, industrial city notwithstanding. Those are words that could be used to describe Detroit. And when McGraw writes, “Surrounded by fresh water, and buffeted by nature reasserting itself on land where factories used to be,” the city could be “the greenest, most livable urban area in the country,” is he talking about Vancouver?
This vision is already there, and so are the hard choices. If Detroit can reinvent itself, it’ll be as good a story as city’s epic history can offer.