Retrofitting Detroit: Stop the sprawl

This is the second in an ongoing series on retrofitting metro Detroit for urbanism. Read the first here.

1920s Suburbia - Dearborn, MI

Great cities have great neighborhoods. But not only has Metro Detroit long neglected its most walkable, urban neighborhoods, it has actively undermined them through sprawl.

Despite the fact that population growth has been flat for forty years (there are fewer people in Metro Detroit today than there were in 1970), we’ve kept building new subdivisions. Metro Detroit is now 50% larger than it was in 1970. Think of the madness of that. Despite the fact we could all comfortably live in a fraction of that space — in suburban, single-family homes no less — we’ve kept pushing ever outward, leaving behind the communities at the region’s center.

These are the communities with the greatest potential for urbanism. Places likes Detroit, Dearborn, Hamtramck, and Ferndale. While generally car dependent today, they are centered around small downtowns and have walkable street grids. With the right reinvestment, these communities could create an urban alternative for Metro Detroit — an area where more people live in apartment buildings and condos than single-family homes, an area where it’s easy to walk to the store or bike to work.

1950s Suburbia - Warren, MI

But the sprawl of the region actively undermines this future. The problem is not suburban living per se — even Detroit proper is dominated by single family homes. The problem is that suburbia is so dominant and so overbuilt. For forty years, there have been more homes than households in Metro Detroit. So every time a new subdivision is built — and new ones are built all the time — older blocks of homes in less desirable areas lose value. They can’t compete with the lower taxes and bigger homes of the exurbs, and developers aren’t interested in reinvestment because it’s cheaper to build new. So these older blocks end up blighted or even abandoned.

Historically, most of the damage has been in Detroit. The Detroit Parcel Survey found that a third of all residential land in Detroit is now vacant — a figure that never ceases to astonish. But the blight is also visible in the ‘burbs. Older suburbs like Hazel Park and the southern end of Warren have long struggled to maintain their retail and commercial corridors. Dying malls and empty factories are becoming common sights. Post-housing bubble, they are struggling to keep houses occupied, too.

For the cycle to ever end, and for urban redevelopment to have a fighting chance, we need to curb regional sprawl. It’s the necessary counterpart to “rightsizing.” Consolidation of the urban core must be matched by growth controls at the edge. If it’s not — if we simultaneously build our urban corridors up and our suburban edge outward without population growth — we’ll only further squeeze the areas in the middle, letting more historic communities slip into needless decline. And the damage will increasingly be felt not in Detroit but in the older suburbs that most closely surround it.

2000s Suburbia: Macomb Township

6 thoughts on “Retrofitting Detroit: Stop the sprawl

  1. Pingback: Retrofitting Metro Detroit for urbanism | Rethink Detroit

  2. Jim Meredith

    For decades, now, Detroiters have found reasons (goals, excuses, prejudices, etc.) for leaving the city. And, more recently, the city’s leadership has provided many more. An interpretation of the Parcel Survey is that those who remain in the last standing houses on the block are mostly those who do not have choice.

    Can “curbs” be effective without having a leadership and a civic culture that, instead of making so much about and of the city “less desirable,” focuses on what it is that will bring people back? What “curbs” will keep anyone with resources to stay (or make the choice to bring jobs here) in a city that, for example, has a school board that steals the future from your kids? What is the function of “curbs” when the Mayor has declared the intention to revert the city’s development to agriculture?

    Are there more effective alternatives than controls that may be able to form a more effective social and governance foundation to achieve the physical objectives that you’ll address in your next two posts?

  3. Cooper

    To be clear, I don’t think curbing suburban sprawl will magically repopulate the city of Detroit. The continous construction of new subdivisions at the region’s edge has certainly helped enable flight from older communities by depressing housing prices generally, but many people would have left regardless, even if it were expensive to do so. That’s how high the frustration level is.

    Nor do I think urban redevelopment needs to wait for suburban sprawl to stop. We’re already starting to see incremental improvements both in Detroit and older suburbs, and I see real opportunity there. I just wanted to acknowledge upfront that if we build our older communities upward and our newer communities outward simultaneously, in a region with no population growth, something will have to give, and that something will be the middle areas of Detroit that are already mostly depopulated and some of the older inner ring suburbs that don’t have the historic assets or the vision to escape the downward pull from population loss.

  4. Shannon Paul

    Hi Patrick — I’m sorry to comment here like this, but I was hoping we might be able to connect via email. Please feel free to send your contact information to my gmail address included with my comment, or on Twitter @shannonpaul

    Many thanks!

  5. Pingback: Retrofitting Detroit: Filling in the blanks | Rethink Detroit

  6. Pingback: Retrofitting Detroit: Connect the dots | Rethink Detroit

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