Downsizing for density
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.