Turning Detroit Around

Detroit Boat House (cc photo by Bob Jagendorf)

Detroit Boat House (cc photo by Bob Jagendorf)

Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley have a very interesting piece looking at successful turnarounds of dying European industrial centers and laying out a vision for making Detroit work again. A lot of this has to do with possibly wishful thinking ideas about government governance. For example, the idea that “State and federal governments should place the city’s most dysfunctional agencies in receivership as a quid pro quo for federal investment . . . [t]hese higher-level governments should also insist that the city and its suburbs end their wasteful bickering and act as one on issues that naturally cross borders, like transportation and the environment.”

But perhaps the most interesting part just has to do with the physical state of the city itself:

Even if Detroit were to rebuild its economy, it would still face a fundamental obstacle to recovery. It is just too big for itself, with a landscape that even locals compare to postwar Dresden. Nearly one-third of the land in the city is empty or unused, and some 80,000 city homes are vacant. […] Detroit has to change physically because it simply cannot sustain its current form. It was built for two million people, not the 900,000 that live there today. Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston could all fit within Detroit’s 139-square-mile boundary, and there would still be 20 square miles to spare. Even more than its European counterparts, which had much less severe population losses, Detroit will have to become a different kind of city, one that challenges our idea of what a city is supposed to look like, and what happens within its boundaries.

I’m not sure how well this fits the European cases, but my sense is that one of the further challenges facing Detroit is that a healthy proportion of the remaining 900,000 are essentially too poor to move. Under the circumstances, modest amelioration of circumstances might merely lead more people to leave. Maybe large underpopulated cities like Detroit could be the locations of guest-worker programs or something? Rather than outsource low-wage industrial production to Mexican factories, bring the low-wage factory workers to Detroit where their presence would fill empty space and tax coffers while creating demand for other kinds of goods and services. Of course that would cut against everything about the way we do things in the United States so I wouldn’t count on it happening.