Don't Shrink Detroit, Super-Size It

Urban experts and politicians have decided among themselves that "right-sizing" Detroit by shrinking the city is the only way to save it. They couldn't be more wrong.

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As with much of the bad news coming out of Detroit, last week's abysmal census inspired a peculiar mix of solemn pity and barely concealed delight in the media.

The U.S. Census found the city's population had plummeted a staggering 25% in ten years -- down to a pre-Model T low of 713,000. News writers rebooted their Detroit-as-failed-state storylines. Did you know the city possesses enough vacant land to hold the entire city of San Francisco? That the Pontiac Silverdome sold for the price of a modest one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan? That there are 50,000 stray dogs roaming the streets? The census numbers raced around the Internet, made the front page of the New York Times and lots of other papers.

Local politicians responded quickly, and many all but demanded a recount. City Council president Charles Pugh insisted on Facebook that the count was "way low." He even explained away the numbers by suggesting a large number of Detroit residents were doing prison time in other cities. Many of the news stories also referenced Detroit Mayor Dave Bing's euphemistic "right-sizing" plan to shrink the city. The plan is still quite vague in its outlines, but it correctly hopes to incentivize citizens living on isolated urban prairies to move to denser, more easily serviced neighborhoods.

A prominent official under former Mayor Dennis Archer's administration told me that shrinking Detroit "betrays who we are." Instead, he said, we should be doing the opposite of right-sizing.

"How did Philly grow?" he said. "It grabbed up the suburbs. How did LA grow? It grabbed up the suburbs. Think about it: Detroit is older than the country. [The city was established in 1701 as French trading post.] This place was founded with frontier spirit. And now we're here in 2010, a bunch of wusses."

The Greater Detroitopolis would easily vault past Chicago to become the third-largest city in the U.S., behind New York and Los Angeles.

I've come to learn my friend's idea is a favorite thought experiment among a certain subset of Detroit-area urbanophiles. Sometimes they will reference David Rusk, the former Albuquerque mayor whose book Cities Without Suburbs makes the case for the economic vibrancy of "elastic" cities (like Houston, Austin, Seattle and Nashville) whose central hubs have the capability to annex or otherwise regionalize their surrounding suburbs into a unified metropolitan area.

The takeaway from the census stories was that Detroit plummeted to 19th place on the U.S. city-size list, behind Austin, Jacksonville and Columbus (Columbus!). But the Detroit metropolitan area -- which we'll define, for these purposes, as Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties -- still retains a population of nearly four million. If our territorial-expansion fantasia could have been magically enacted with even two-thirds of this figure, the Greater Detroitopolis would easily vault past Chicago to become the third-largest city in the U.S., behind New York and Los Angeles. This would translate into more state and national clout (and allocated funds, many of which are based on population) and eliminate the need for much of the wasteful duplicate spending inherent in maintaining dozens of tiny separate municipalities, especially at a time when many of these suburban communities have announced their own cutbacks. (In February, the westside suburb of Allen Park announced plans to eliminate its entire fire department.)

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Mark Binelli is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and author of the novel Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! He is currently writing a nonfiction book about Detroit.

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