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Undeveloping & Developing Detroit

Detroit Mayor David Bing has indicated that the city may have to clear some neighborhoods out in order to save others, a process that would involve picking winners and losers and require the movement of people living in homes.

Wired magazine’s Greg Lindsay makes the case against this:

The city of Detroit may be a shadow of its former self, but metropolitan “Detroit” and its suburbs still contain 4.4 million people, more than metropolitan Phoenix, San Francisco or Seattle. And while Detroit may be shrinking in area, “Detroit” is doing anything but. This fact, which is so often absent from reports about the city’s plight, fatally undermines Bing’s best intentions. His plan won’t make Detroit any denser, but the opposite.

Lindsay then quotes The Baffler’s Will Boisvert:

“[As] rational as all this sounds, it hangs on a grotesque misunderstanding of Detroit’s predicament. Despite its ghost-town image, Detroit’s population density is still actually rather high by American standards. The city is half again as dense as Portland, Oregon, substantially denser than the booming Sunbelt cities of Phoenix, Houston, and Dallas, denser even than Pittsburgh–all of them places that adequately fund city services. Detroit’s problem is not underpopulation, but brute poverty, something that the grossly overstated efficiencies of shrinkage won’t alleviate … And for all its anti-sprawl rhetoric, shrinkism is extravagantly wasteful from the larger perspective of metropolitan land use. It hollows out the dense core of metro-area settlement under the assumption–the ugly, unstated postulate of shrinkage–that decent people can’t be enticed to live there. As city districts are razed and emptied, development is shunted, as usual, to cornfields on the exurban frontier, where people drive everywhere and nowhere–that’s the green part of the equation.”

Detroit's vacant parcels are scattered and not fully contiguous.

In a piece in December, 2005, Robert Fishman argued that there is a “fifth migration” starting of people moving back to cities from suburbs, and that this would continue and heighten in the coming years — something recent evidence has shown. Fishman has even said that Detroit will be no different. With a metro area of 4.4 million people, it wouldn’t take a mass shifting to repopulate a very good chunk of Detroit city.

And while there is an alarming amount of vacant land in the city, most of it is not contiguous. Creating a 10,000-acre farm or a 5,000-acre forested park would be no easy task, given the challenges (political, racial, legal, etc.) of moving people from their homes.

Still all of this can’t avoid the fact that the city still has some 44 square miles (about 28,000 acres) of residential and commercial land sitting fallow. You will have to mothball it, redevelop it, turn it into gardens or farms, new parks and the like.

The question seems to be: how can Detroit balance the need to address its vacant land problem without prematurely capping the potential of future inward development? Just how that is done remains to be seen.

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