Downsizing for density

Looking south at Mitchell and Medbury on the east side.

Looking south at Mitchell and Medbury on the east side.

Writing in Fast Company, Greg Lindsay argued this week that downsizing Detroit “won’t make Detroit any denser, but the opposite.” He then quotes The Baffler’s Will Boisvert at length for support. While I too am not totally comfortable with Bing’s rhetoric on rightsizing, I think there are enough misconceptions in Boisvert’s quote that it’s worth picking apart section by section. Let’s start at the top:

[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.

It’s true that overall, Detroit is still denser than newer Sunbelt cities, even after losing half its population. Unfortunately, Detroit is no longer dense enough to support its own infrastructure. There are far too many streets, sidewalks, and sewers per person. The city is fiscally unsustainable, and as a consequence, depopulating neighborhoods are neglected, leading to environmental damage as well. Burned out homes are left standing; illegally dumped trash piles up in the streets. That’s why planners favor rightsizing — so Detroit can stabilize at a size it can afford to maintain and maybe start to grow again.

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.

“Shrinkism” is not responsible for hollowing out Detroit’s core; suburban flight and jobs loss are. Rightsizing is an attempt to deal with the consequences of the mass abandonment that has already taken place. Part of the solution, as Boisvert recommends, ought to be limiting further sprawl on the metro area’s edge. But even if that were politically possible, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Nor would simply building new housing in Detroit’s emptiest areas. It’s been tried, and the unfortunate truth is that when 100 new affordable homes are built in Detroit, dozens more are abandoned because net housing demand is essentially zero.

The reasons why demand is so low are well known: crime, poor schools, high taxes, lack of jobs, poor city services, limited retail, and so on. Problems like these can’t be tackled in isolation. There needs to be comprehensive change to bring any one neighborhood back, let alone revive the city as a whole. That’s why so many leaders here have come to favor rightsizing. They view this as an opportunity to focus concentrated resources on Detroit’s most promising corridors, creating the conditions that will finally make Detroit’s older neighborhoods once again safe, enriching places to live.

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.

Rightsizing will not “shunt” development to the exurban fringe. That’s what’s happening already. Most of the neighborhoods we’re discussing haven’t seen significant investment since the 1950s. If nothing is done, they will continue to deteriorate and the exurban fringe will continue to grow. If they can once again be made dense and sustainable, in part through consolidation, Detroit might have a fighting chance to compete against suburban neighborhoods by providing a safe, viable urban alternative.

9 thoughts on “Downsizing for density

  1. Marisa

    I like that you said things in this post.

    I also like the photo. Do you know what the round-y looking roof belongs to? Is it just a house with a round roof part?

  2. Pingback: Notional Slurry » links for 2010-03-10

  3. Sil

    My initial reaction to this proposed razing of Detroit buildings was concern for the environmental waste created by the demolition. No one has indicated how the debris will be disposed of, and if any of it can be recycled. I’m also unclear as to weather some of these structures are sound enough to repair and reuse for other purposes, rather than being destroyed.
    I was also surprised that no one, not Lindsay, Gunther or the rebuttal by Cooper, explored in depth the socio-economic, geographic and logistical effects this project will have on Detriot residents. The majority of current residents in these areas are poor. How will their displacement affect their lives? Will families who live in proximity now be forced to live in different neighborhoods, separated by farms? How will their access to transportation be changed? And if these farms are to create jobs, how will people be trained? It is my understanding that many people in Detroit are skilled in the trades and industry, not in farming. Has anyone asked the residents about their concerns if this project if to take place?
    Perhaps the creation of these farms will create jobs, improve the aesthetics of the city and create a limited supply of locally produced crops. But will it improve schools, streets, city infrastructure, lower taxes, reduce drug use and gang involvement? It is unclear how the urban farms will translate into a stronger and healthier Detriot overall.
    In theory, I love the idea of urban gardens and farms, but I am not convinced that this project has been well thought out. It seems that Bing, Hantz and others involved need to consult with urban planners, environmental engineers and other professionals before they embark on this massive project.

  4. Pingback: City of Destiny | The Night Train

  5. Bobby T

    Wow!! This is a great blog post. I think that definitely hit the nail on the head with so many issues that are decimating the city. I read Lindsay’s post which had some great information as well. Detroit has been highlighted (or lowlighted) as a microcosm of the overall tanking of the economy. While I agree with several aspects of Lindsay’s, someone from the outside looking in cannot accurately assess the problems. Hence the solutions are not quite on target either.

  6. Liam

    I think Will Boisvert needs to do a little more research. The urban area of Phoenix IS denser than that of Detroit. Let’s not confuse MSA’s with actual urban areas.

  7. James

    Downsizing Detroit seems like a prudent approach to some of the city’s structural problems. It reminds me of a quote from Steve Jobs. “Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff”. Finally Detroit looks to be doing just that.

  8. Linn Crescentia

    I am happy that the officials in charge of responding to the crisis in Detroit are finally taking a pro active stance. While there is some thing to be said regarding trusting one’s instincts about whether or not some one is trustworthy; the idea behind greening Detroit with productive farmland is a sound one.
    There are many valid reasons a large portion of Detroit’s residents resettled in my city of Grand Rapids in Michigan and when I speak with them, this is what they tell me:
    1. We wanted to live in a cleaner/smaller/more peaceful/nicer town
    2. We wanted to be closer to nature (they don’t come here to be choked by smog)
    3. We wanted more job opportunities
    4. We wanted to be in a safer, lower-priced town
    Detroit Does need to address the crushing poverty, without a doubt.
    Detroit Does need to solve some multi-layered, very complex challenges, But Detroit Can Do It!
    The size of Detroit is undoubtedly unsustainable and I think it is a good idea to gather the people together; those who Want to live in the city, that is, but they should be able to live in a functional city.
    Community gardens teach those who work in them many, many things. They directly impact some of the problems that plague cities such as Detroit because they are essentially problems humans have when they aren’t getting their basic needs met. Gardens and Farms satisfy the human need to have time and contact with Nature, they sooth, teach, inspire, encourage, and nuture people in a variety of ways. I am all for the green spaces returning. When my grandmother was born in Detroit in 1902, she was born on a farm. Simply because we had a population explosion in the late 1940s and 1950s and resulting rise of the auto industry, doesn’t mean things are supposed to stay that way forever. Currently the city of Detroit is too spread out and considered “too big” for Public and Private Partnerships to make a difference, but that is exactly what needs to happen. Look, city populations wax and wane, but with the right mix of innovations and wise use of land, we can assure upcoming generations of a good future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>