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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Which part of Detroit, if any, really needs "right-sizing"?

Kaid Benfield

Posted June 9, 2011

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  looking toward Detroit's Renaissance Center (by: Trey Campbell, creative commons license)

At the bottom of this post are two short videos about Detroit, both featuring architect and planner Mark Nickita, principal of the city's Archive Design Studio and a lifelong Detroit resident.  In a very refreshing change from the mind-numbing negativity one usually hears about the city, Nickita is upbeat and hopeful.  His point of view, emphasizing revitalization, is much closer to my own than much of what I read, which effectively takes the approach that the city has somehow been abandoned beyond redemption, leaving the only question how to manage its more-or-less permanent shrinkage.

But it’s not that simple.

  abandoned Detroit house (by: sj carey/buckshot jones, creative commons license)    abandoned historic building in Detroit (by: Trey Campbell, creative commons license)

There has indeed been a decline in part of the region.  In 1970, 1,670,144 people lived within the city limits of Detroit.  By 2010, that number had declined to 713,777, an astounding apparent loss of some 57 percent of the 1970 population.  Recently, much has been made the 25 percent population decline over the last decade, from 2000 (951,270) to 2010.

But the extent to which Detroit is such a tragically “shrinking city” depends on your definition of “city.”  The population of metropolitan Detroit - the jurisdictional inner city and its immediate suburbs - did decline from 1970 to 2010, but only from 4,490,902 to 4,296,250, a loss of only four percent.  Big difference. 

  Troy, MI in metro Detroit (by: Wayne Senville, creative commons license)    Eastwood Manor, Madison Heights MI (by: Bill Walsh, creative commons license)

Do the math:  what that means is that, while the inner city’s population was declining so drastically, its suburbs added some 761,000 people, growing at the handsome rate of 27 percent.  (In the most recent decade of 2000-2010, the suburbs added some 91,000 people, or between two and three percent.)   Patrick Cooper-McCann writes on his blog Rethink Detroit that, far from shrinking, the physical size of metro Detroit grew by 50 percent in those 40 years.  As I’ve written before, neither the economy nor the environment pay attention to jurisdictional lines; neither should analysts.

Look at the maps below.  On the left, the physical size of metro Detroit around 1900; on the right, by 1950 the developed area had grown:

  spatial Detroit, circa 1900 (by: Charles Waldheim, Harvard GSD, CNU 19)    spatial Detroit, circa 1950 (by: Charles Waldheim, Harvard GSD, CNU 19)

And by 2000, it had become immense:

                                  spatial Detroit, circa 2000 (by: Charles Waldheim, Harvard GSD, CNU 19)

Under current trends, it’s only going to get more expansive:  As of 2004, the region’s planning agency was predicting that, over 30 years, the amount of developed land in metro Detroit is going to expand yet another 36 percent or more. “390,000 more acres bulldozed for progress. The development will continue to be mostly single-family housing, and will require more sewers, more stores and more schools,” wrote Sheryl James of the Detroit Free Press (published on the web site Urban Planet).  

Shrinking city?  Really?  What this tells me is that an even bigger problem for Detroit than the decline of the rust-belt economy has been that the fringe of the region has been allowed, more than in most places, to expand, not shrink, and to suck the life and hope out of the inner city.  So why aren’t the self-styled progressive responses to “the Detroit problem” addressing this critical aspect of the problem? 

Maybe they are, but the only ones I hear and read are about “right-sizing” the inner city - demolishing vacant (and even some occupied) housing, letting vast areas revert to nature or farming, and so forth.  Let sprawl, the cause of the problem, be someone else’s issue to address.  But, in fact, the areas that are sprawling are where the “right-sizing” most needs to occur.

     CO2 per household from transportation, metro Detroit (by: CNT)

Whether or not there is any good in the current approach for Detroit as a community, it is impossible to see how it will be good for the region’s carbon emissions.  Just as is the case in every other US metro area, households on the fringe emit far more CO2 than households in the center of the region, because their inhabitants walk less, drive longer distances, and drive more often.  On the map above from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, households in the areas in red emit, on average, 8.6 metric tons or more of carbon dioxide per year from transportation; households in the pale yellow areas in the center emit 3.3 metric tons or less.  Again, big difference.

The way to stem pollution is to address the unchecked expansion on the fringe and keep the center as urban as possible.  In this troubled place even more than in others, Detroit needs a regional approach, not just demolitions in the center.

  Woodward Ave marked in blue (via Google Earth)

In the first video below, Mark Nickita discusses the importance of, and prospects for, revitalizing the Woodward Avenue corridor (above) that forms the Detroit region’s historic and economic backbone:


In the next (which actually was recorded first), Nickita discusses what’s really been happening with regard to population in the Motor City:


(Note:  Nickita's numbers on the region's population are bigger than mine because I conservatively used the six-county, census-defined Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) to define the region; Nickita used the nine-county Combined Metroplitan Statistical Area.) 

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.

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Ken FirestoneJun 9 2011 01:42 PM

If sprawl is Detroit's problem, then this is the problem to solve. And maybe the mortgage crsis can help. People in the outer suburbs everywhere are loosing their homes, and Detroit has a surplus of residences. So, why not offer these abandoned residential properties to the suburban dwellers who have, or about to loose their homes? Other cities have come up with a variety of mechanisms for basically giving the property away to worthy new residents.

The two biggest problems that I can see are safety and education. If they can be solved then this sould go a long way to reconcentrating population in the city, and the sprawl can then revert back to agriculture.

I will be visiting the Detroit area in a few weeks, and I hope to find out more about what is really happening.

gen321Jun 9 2011 04:27 PM

I have to agree with Ken Firestone. As a native Detroiter, I would like to see the city offer real estate to individuals and families (not individuals or entities interested in "flipping" or using as rental property) for little to no cost. I would also like to see a police force that is proactive, as opposed to reactive. Hopefully, with all of the changes to DPS, we will see a more stable and effective school district.

Midtown dudeJun 10 2011 11:06 AM

Three things come to mind when thinking about redeveloping the center of the Detroit region (greater downtown Detroit).

1 - Forming a regional authority made up of Detroit and its suburbs and perhaps even Ann Arbor and Flint to govern regional land-use and transportation planning

2 - Building a true rapid transit system in Detroit, connecting to major employment centers in the suburubs such as Dearborn and Southfield. Building a suburban rail system to connect to outer-ring suburbs and satellite cities such as Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, Port Huron and Toledo.

3 - Forming a regional task force on urban development. Create rule or regulations for development, encouraging dense, mixed-use neighborhoods rather than sprawling suburbs. Decide what areas will become major urban hubs or neighborhood centers, and what areas will remain low-density or rural.

R. John AndersonJun 14 2011 10:50 PM

Mark Nickia is a solid professional. Detroit is richer for his efforts over the years.

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