Susan Saulny’s post about Detroit demolishing structures in order to save the city is necessarily melancholy, but it’s difficult to dispute the policy judgment that Detroit needs a policy of planned shrinkage. When your population falls far below its peak level, it simply becomes uneconomical to maintain infrastructure and services at the previous geographic scope. What’s more, Detroit doesn’t have the good fortune of a Baltimore, which though depressed is smack in the middle of a rich state and closely linked to nearby more prosperous cities. Instead, Detroit is like an island of economic bad fortune located inside a lake of somewhat milder economic bad fortune, so the prospects for population rebound are bad.
Still, reading this story alongside the “border security” madness out of Arizona makes me doubly sad. There are clearly insurmountable logistical, legal, practical, constitutional, and political obstacles to doing this but I can’t help but think that with 165 million people around the world telling Gallup they’d like to permanently relocate to the United States that it would be possible to find 1.3 million people who’d be interested in permanently relocating to Detroit and bringing the city back up to its peak population level. Economic and governance opportunities in Detroit are poor by American standards (or even by Italian standards) but they’re great compared to what you’ll find in Haiti, Gaza, Myanmar, Chad, or Nicaragua. There’s discussion of trying to turn Detroit into some kind of hub for wealthy immigrants who are just trying to escape a bad political situation, but there’s simply a limited number of such people, and the real opportunity is in thinking bigger and creating a kind of Detroit Special Migration Zone that would become a diverse, bustling hub of economic opportunity for the world’s poor while providing new taxpayers for Detroit’s government, new customers for Detroit’s businesses, and a new source of value for Detroit’s property owners.
It’ll never happen for a million reasons, but I’d love to see it.