The 2010 Census was unkind to the Rust Belt. Buffalo, Cleveland, Flint, and Youngstown all posted double digit percentile declines in population, falling back to levels last seen a century ago. Detroit lost a full quarter of its population. Yet, if Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher is right, there is still cause for hope. In his timely and optimistic book, “Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City,” Gallagher argues that although shrinking cities like Detroit face severe challenges, they also possess the space and opportunity to become greener and more livable, even if they continue to shrink.
The first step toward revitalization, Gallagher writes, is adjusting expectations. At its peak, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States. Its massive factories were booming and its streets were lined with shops and people. Although segregated and polluted, Detroit enjoyed immense prosperity, and many people still judge the city today against this high water mark. To make any progress, Gallagher insists, Detroit has to stop looking backward and work with the city as it is now: a deeply troubled, depopulated place that urgently needs to rescale itself.
For inspiration, Gallagher turns to a host of other cities that have pioneered ways to make use of empty space and retrofit obsolete infrastructure. In Portland and San Francisco, unneeded highways have been removed from the city center, enabling neighborhoods to reconnect to the waterfront. In Seoul, London, and Zurich, streams that were once buried in the sewer system have been brought back to the surface, improving the environment while creating new parks and development alongside the water. In Havana, an impressive network of urban farms, first created amidst the severe food shortages of the “Special Period,” are now providing most of Havana’s fruits and vegetables. In Chicago, major public arts projects, like the oft-photographed “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Millennium Park, have attracted tourists and catalyzed development downtown.
Many of Gallagher’s best suggestions are simpler interventions at the neighborhood level. To beautify the weed-choked vacant lots that dot the city, Gallagher recommends the model used by Philadelphia Green: reseed the lots with grass or ground cover, plant trees, and install picket fences. To rescale Detroit’s huge arterial streets, built eight lanes wide but now carrying little traffic, Gallagher recommends widening the sidewalks and reserving lanes for bicycles and buses. These are affordable improvements that, added together, could make a dramatic difference in the look and feel of a neighborhood.
Some of Gallagher’s ideas for Rust Belt reinvention come from Detroit itself. One of these is urban gardening, which has taken off dramatically in the past decade. Since 2000, more than 800 gardens have registered with the Detroit Agricultural Network, and several large-scale farming operations are currently seeking city approval. Gallagher sees great promise in this trend. At the community level, the benefits are undeniable: gardens beautify empty land, bring neighbors together in a common pursuit, and produce fresh, healthy food—often a scarce commodity in the inner city.
Whether urban farming can turn a profit is another question. Gallagher is a skeptic. He notes that Detroit’s best-known farms are actually quite small; if operated strictly for profit, they would only provide a subsistence living. To operate more profitably, urban farms would need larger parcels of uncontaminated land, a resource that is still easier to find on the outskirts of town than in the heart of the city. For that reason alone, Gallagher doubts Detroit’s local food economy will ever reach the scale of Havana.
For better or worse, Detroit is also on the leading edge of another trend: the shift from public to private governance. Nearly all of Detroit’s signature institutions now rely heavily on corporations and foundations for support. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Campus Martius Park, and Eastern Market are all run by conservancies; Toni Griffin, the lead planner of the Detroit Works Project (Mayor Dave Bing’s signature planning initiative), and Robert Bobb, the former Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools, were both compensated by national foundations; and the first leg of the proposed Woodward light rail line will be funded by a handful of philanthropists. A similar trend plays out at the neighborhood level, where parks and community centers depend on the labor of volunteers for the most basic maintenance, from mowing the grass to picking up trash. Several historic neighborhoods, like Indian Village and Palmer Woods, even hire private patrols to supplement the beleaguered city police force.
Gallagher applauds this reliance on public-private partnership as a model of fiscal responsibility, and other cash-strapped cities will likely follow Detroit’s lead. It is a dubious precedent though. On the one hand, it is true that many of Detroit’s greatest gains, like the revitalization of its riverfront, would not have been possible without private support. Urban farming, the most talked about trend in the city, is technically not even legal; it has spread in defiance of city codes through grassroots effort. But Detroit is not a do-it-yourself paradise. Volunteers do tremendous work in the city, but they cannot keep every park open nor keep every street clean. Furthermore, while they are free to paint a mural or build a new playscape at the neighborhood school, they are powerless to keep that school open if the state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager decides to close it. Likewise, while foundations and conservancies have restored some of Detroit’s best institutions, they cannot be everywhere at once, and each time they step in, the public forfeits some control. Public-private partnership may be necessary, but only as a complement to a robust, functioning government, not as a replacement.
With that important caveat, “Reimagining Detroit” is an excellent and inspiring book. In clear, open language, Gallagher lays out an agenda for Rust Belt revitalization that is creative, audacious, and (one hopes) achievable. Although he writes with Detroit in mind, his central thesis—that “a smaller city creates the canvas to become a better city”—should give heart to any city in the grip of Census-inspired despair. The challenges are still formidable, but Gallagher makes it crystal clear that shrinking cities have a wealth of options to reinvent themselves as something new.
First published at the great regional blog Rust Wire, which I highly recommend.