Back to the Land in Detroit?

The city of Detroit has gotten a lot of attention recently, most of it lamenting how far its fortunes have fallen. Time magazine has even sent reporters to live in a Detroit neighborhood for a year, covering it as if it were a foreign country — which, in a sense, it is. Foreign at least to the American self-image of infinite growth and expansion.

Detroit’s population has plummeted. Huge swaths of land lie vacant. Houses have gone feral.

But Streetsblog Network member Planning Pool sees the city’s radically distressed circumstances in a different and admittedly rose-colored way — as an opportunity:

3982437635_3b783ffeaa_b.jpgPhoto by x3nomik via Flickr.

Detroit’s strength is in its weakness. By that I mean the city affords
many opportunities to artists, entrepreneurs, urban homesteaders, and
people who do not want typical 9-to-5 lifestyles. Large, vacant
commercial space can be rented out to start-ups at basement sale
prices. People can buy homes and land for almost nothing, grow their
own food, and form communities of similarly-minded people. Imagine if
residents were given financial or technical assistance to build farms,
solar panels, micro turbines, grey water systems, vermiculture compost
systems, and other household-level or block-level amenities that local
government can no longer afford to provide. Not only is the government
relieved to pursue more pressing problems, like education and crime,
but people are empowered to run their own communities. In turn, people
are relieved of having to join the 9-to-5 workforce – with no mortgage,
no car payments and insurance, little -to-no utility payments, and a
small food bill from farming, people can use their time to invest in
their community or take risks, like starting new companies or producing
works of art.

The writer of the post cops to "youthful optimism" (who’s going to provide that "financial and technical assistance"?) and her vision is pretty extreme. But so is the situation on the ground in Detroit. Your thoughts?

More news from the decaying industrial frontier: The fine blog Rust Wire has a piece on young Buffalonians who are returning to their native city with some bright ideas.

  • brian

    vacant houses seems to also be really common in baltimore, along with really low rents. you can buy a house in some parts of downtown for the price of a car.

  • Jim Berry

    Detroit has an “after the dinosaurs” look and feel on the streets. The cars and traffic that I had to deal with as a urban cyclist thirty years ago are gone with the population. On a recent cycle tour of urban homesteads near downtown we encountered zero automobiles. In Detroit, bicycles are like the small adaptable species that survived the cataclysm. I wonder if the automobile culture’s fall from grace in the heart of the Motorcity is a precursor to the automobile’s demise everywhere? Any thoughts from where you stand?

  • James

    Next American City magazine did a great piece on the Detroit Wheelhouse, a community-based bike shop that has become kind of a focal point for a lot of the livable streets advocacy work there. IIRC, they also just turned an abandoned rail right-of-way into the first section of a new multi use path. I think you may be able to access at least part of the article free on their website – it’s great to hear something other than bad news out of Detroit for once. As always, crisis = opportunity.

  • This discussion surely needs a link to the AIA Detroit study which covers this topic and proposes solution in greater detail.

    My only comment on the Planning Pool article regarding densifying Detroit. “Densifying Detroit is problematic” but not for the reasons stated. Detroit has lost density for 50 years. This didn’t happen overnight and we shouldn’t expect re-densification overnight. It can happen (and is already happening) through some city policy changes, e.g. school closings, bus route changes. And as Allan Mallach noted, we shouldn’t assume people living in the sparsely populated areas want to remain there. In many cases, they may be stuck there. We need the tools to help them move to the more dense portions of the city.

    So, I think the problematic part of densification lies in the politics. You don’t win popularity contests by closing schools, parks, bus routes, etc. It’s going to take some solid leadership to sell the resized Detroit and make the tough decisions necessary to make it reality.

  • Robert

    In studies of Youngstown, another well known shrinking city, many residents preferred the lack of density. Some noted they were able to see the stars at night. Now whether or not that is sustainable is another matter. Ultimately what visionaries have in mind and long-term residents have in mind may not always be similar.

  • rex

    Governments and corporations will never let this stand. They are too invested in political/economic growth to allow this to happen except in isolated pockets. People they cannot collect enough taxes from, or consumers that do not want stuff enough will never fit into visions of the global economy.

    This redevelopment of Detroit is a crack in the vision of progressive civilization we have held as dogma since Descartes. Houses are <$1,000 because no bank will loan on them, because none will write fire insurance policies in downtown Motown. As soon as they build a community worth a rip they will be beset by criminals – elected or otherwise.

  • Greg M

    How can you have a post like this without a link to Model D — the site about the positive entrepreneurial energy in Detroit? It’s pretty impressive.

  • Great article Sarah. I think it goes one step further where struggling, post-industrial cities are actually the best settings for us to begin to reformat our social norms of urban living. These cities are everywhere and they share common traits that leave them superior to our bellwether cities when it comes to instituting new, sustainable models. Some such characteristics are:

    – Their depressed populations have lead to falling land values and vacant space, as you said, making acquisition possible on a scale that cannot be mirrored in cities like Boston or New York.

    – They have a talented, trained, but largely unemployed work force left over from an industrialized age.

    – Due to low business and occupancy volume, they often get significant portions of their city budget from state aid which means when it comes to instituting new regulations of urban living, they are less likely to bite the hand that feeds them.

    – They are interconnected with our infrastructure system of rail, airports and highways. When combined with an old, study building stock they have all the bones of a successful city (the hardest part to create.)

    Revamping cities like Syracuse, Providence, Hartford, Oklahoma City, Rochester, could be done with a fraction of the funds and much more freedom than greening the city of Miami or Chicago. Places like Detroit should be our priority targets.



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Low-income residents of Detroit and Milwaukee face formidable obstacles to job access. These two Rust Belt regions are consistently ranked among the most segregated in the country, and neither has a good transit system. In both regions, the places that have been growing and adding jobs fastest have been been overwhelmingly sprawling, suburban areas inaccessible to people without cars. A 2013 Brookings study […]