Don't Shrink Detroit, Super-Size It

By Mark Binelli

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.)

Super-sizing Detroit could also translate to better policy. When Indianapolis enacted a similar "Unigov" city-suburbs merger in the late Sixties (under Republican mayor Dick Lugar), the region experienced economic growth (and the benefits of economy of scale), AAA municipal bond-ratings and a broader, more stable tax base. The same could happen in metropolitan Detroit, which sorely needs to attract young people and entrepreneurs in order to fill the void left by the region's dwindling manufacturing base. Elastic cities are less segregated and have fewer of the problems associated with concentrated areas of poverty. And though sprawl wouldn't necessarily be reigned in, the region could finally adopt a sensible transportation policy to unite its businesses and residential areas. At the moment, suburban Detroit maintains its own bus system, separate from the city's, and a planned $150 million light rail project, slated to run from downtown Detroit up the main thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue, would nonsensically stop at 8 Mile Road, the suburban border. That's a formula to limit, not maximize, growth.

Unfortunately, there is a greater likelihood of Ford announcing, tomorrow, that the company has been pouring all of its F-150 profits into a top-secret program to develop a zero carbon flying car, which will be ready for market by the first quarter of 2012. For one thing, Michigan has laws making such annexation extremely difficult. And even if the laws could be changed, long-nurtured, largely racial city-suburb resentments would never allow for such bedfellowing. White suburban residents would freak out at the possibility of merging with a city so long demonized as a terrifying warzone; the black leadership in Detroit, meanwhile, would surely be loathe to see its own political power subsumed within a majority-white supercity.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's benign proposal to ease the ability of state counties to merge into loose metropolitan authorities has been a non-starter in the Detroit area. "I don't think anyone would support it," Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano told the Detroit News. Meanwhile, work on the right-sizing initiative is moving forward -- if not exactly apace. Over the weekend, a Bing administration official acknowledged the part of the project assessing the viability of various neighborhoods had gone offline for the past thirty days.

Perhaps you can guess why. Funding for the technical team in charge of collecting the data had temporarily run out.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/03/dont-shrink-detroit-super-size-it/73165/