You are on page 1of 8

My hometown of Detroit has been studied obsessively for years by writers and researchers of all

types to gain insight into the Motor City‟s decline. Indeed, it seems to have become a favorite
pastime for urbanists of all stripes. How could such an economic powerhouse, a uniquely
American city, so utterly collapse?
Most analysis tends to focus on the economic, social and political reasons for the downfall. One
of my favorite treatises on Detroit is The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, who
argues that housing and racial discrimination practices put in place after World War II played a
primary role in the decline of Motown. I‟d argue that it‟s closest to the truth of an explanation for
Detroit today, but not quite there.
Everyone seems to know the shorthand narrative for Detroit‟s fall. Industrial output declines;
racial tensions rise. White residents leave; an unapologetic black leadership assumes control.
And there‟s quite a bit of truth to that narrative. Yes, the auto industry faced stiff competition,
moved jobs to the suburbs, moved jobs down south, and later moved jobs out of the country. And
all that happened with fewer jobs at each stop. Yes, Detroit does have a regrettably complex
racial history and the legacy of two perception-forming riots since World War II (in 1943 and
1967). Yes, Detroit has had its share of political corruption, often tied to the tumultuous mayoral
administrations of Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick.
But here‟s the thing. Buffalo and Cleveland have suffered the same kind of economic loss, but
have not (quite) fallen to the same depths as Detroit. In fact, Pittsburgh suffered as much
economically as Detroit, and is now poised for an amazing Rust Belt comeback. Any number of
cities has had as troubled a racial legacy as Detroit, without being as adversely impacted. And
Detroit certainly hasn‟t cornered the market on political corruption, as long as Chicago exists.
So why has Detroit suffered unlike any other major city? Planning, or the lack thereof for more
than a century, is why Detroit stands out. While cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Los
Angeles (don‟t laugh – Detroit and LA essentially boomed at the same time) put a premium on
creating pleasant built environments for their residents, Detroit was unique in putting all its eggs
in the corporate caretaker basket. Once the auto industry became established in Detroit, political
and business leaders abdicated their responsibility on sound urban planning and design, and
elected to let the booming economy do the work for them.
Detroit‟s decline has been going on far longer than most people realize, because of the city‟s lack
of attention to creating a pleasant built environment. Evidence? A Time Magazine article entitled
“Decline in Detroit” from 1961 – yes, 1961 – had the following to say in its opening paragraph:
If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit. It was not pretty. It
was, in fact, a combination of the grey and the garish: its downtown area was a warren of dingy,
twisting streets; the used-car lots along Livernois Avenue raised an aurora of neon. But Detroit
cared less about how it looked than about what it did—and it did plenty.
Emphasis added.
So what exactly did Detroit get wrong on the planning side of things? I outline nine direct and
indirect planning and land use reasons for the Motor City‟s current state. Here they are below.
1. Poor neighborhood identification. Ask a Chicagoan where they‟re from, and they will likely
give you a neighborhood name – Wrigleyville, Jefferson Park, Chatham. The same is true in
other neighborhood-oriented cities like New York, Boston, even Washington, D.C. However, ask
a Detroiter where they‟re from, and they will likely tell you East Side or West Side; if pressed,
they might note a key intersection. While the Motor City does have its share of traditional
enclaves (Indian Village and English Village) and emerging hot spots (Midtown), Detroit is
notable among large U.S. cities for having very poorly defined neighborhoods.
Neighborhood identification is important because ideally residents live in a neighborhood
context. Schools, convenience shopping, social activities and recreational uses, all connected and
shared by locals in a defined area, can provide a sense of community ownership. An argument
can be made that‟s been lacking in Detroit for decades.
2. Poor housing stock. Detroit may be well-known for its so-called ruins, but much of the city is
relentlessly covered with small, Cape Cod-style, 3-bedroom and one-bath single family homes
on slabs that are not in keeping with contemporary standards for size and quality.
The general national perception of Detroit‟s housing might be of a city that resembles the South
Bronx in the late 1970‟s – long stretches of dense but abandoned walk-up apartment buildings
with a smattering of deteriorated single-family homes. The truth, however, is that Detroit may
have one of the greatest concentrations of post-World War II tract housing of any major U.S.
city. Two random images from Google Earth effectively demonstrate this. Detroit‟s residential
areas look pretty much like this, from the city‟s northeast side:

Or like this, from the northwest side:

Note that these images come from the more intact parts of the city, not the “returning-to-prairie”
areas that have brought the city notoriety. True, Detroit has more than its share of abandoned
ruins that negatively impact housing prices. But it also has many more homes that simply don‟t
generate the demand that higher quality housing would. That is a major contributor to the city‟s
abundance of very cheap housing.
3. A poor public realm. Detroit‟s streetscape is unbearable in many places. Major corridors
have long stretches of anonymous single-story commercial buildings, with few trees or other
landscaping. Signs, banners, awnings and decorative lighting are noticeably lacking. Overhead
electrical wires extend for miles, and streets have been rigidly engineered with road signs and
markings. The city‟s corridors are hardly pedestrian friendly. Again, images from Google Earth
can demonstrate this. Here is an area just blocks from where I grew up:

And another corridor a short distance away:

And yet another from the opposite side of town:

Even in a strong economic environment with fully occupied structures the visual appeal would
be jarring. But this is Detroit, a city that has lost so much of the income and tax base needed to
support the commercial areas and supporting infrastructure. That means empty buildings, broken
sidewalks, poor street conditions, and a continuing spiral of decline.
4. A downtown that was allowed to become weak. Detroit did not always have a relatively
weak downtown. The city‟s core was a strong retail and commercial center through much of the
20th century, with the advertising, legal and financial offices that supported the auto industry. At
some point, Detroit‟s downtown became secondary as an employment center to the factory
locations scattered throughout the city and metro area. Just like homeowners, offices began
relocating to the suburbs. By the „60s more and more people saw downtown as a retail center as
opposed to an office center, and one that could not compete with suburban malls.
5. Freeway expansion. This is something a little more familiar to planners when explaining the
decline of central cities, but it‟s acutely relevant in Detroit. I have no documentation to support
it, but I suspect Detroit has more freeway miles per land area than most cities in the nation. The
auto-dominated economy wanted a landscape that supported its values.
6. Lack of/loss of a transit network. Detroit had an elaborate streetcar network that was in
existence until the 1950‟s, but was largely replaced by buses. The auto industry took special
interest in the conversion of the streetcar network to buses. General Motors lobbied the city‟s
Department of Street Railways (DSR) throughout much of the „50s, stressing that diesel-fueled
buses were an effective lower-cost alternative to streetcars (no more rail maintenance costs!) and
could provide much greater flexibility to meet shifting travel demands. Coincidentally, GM
produced exactly the kind of buses that would easily facilitate the transition. By 1953, the DSR
began a three-year effort to convert streetcars to buses, and the last streetcar route was completed
in April 1956.
The kind of lobbying (coercion?) exhibited by GM happened in many other cities across the
country. However, Detroit had no other alternative in place, like subways and elevated systems,
in the way that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or Boston did. Also, Detroit had no history of
commuter rail reaching from the outer portions of the metro area to the downtown core, also like
the afore-mentioned cities. And lastly, as demonstrated earlier downtown Detroit was already
beginning its decline and was unable to be the kind of “pull” that would have supported
alternative transportation uses there.
7. Local government organization. Another unique, if indirectly related facet of Detroit is its
current local government organization. Like most major American cities of the late 19th century,
Detroit elected city council members from districts or wards across the city. And like most of
those cities, Detroit experienced its share of graft and corruption in the political arena. But the
Progressive Movement that pursued local government reform throughout the nation had perhaps
its greatest achievement in Detroit. In 1918, a new city charter was established that led to the
reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by
wards. This governance system has been in place ever since, but is slated to end with the
establishment of a new charter in 2013 that will now elect council members from seven districts
and two at-large spots.
This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the
possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents
and city government. I believe this led to two significant impacts. First, it allowed the influence
of the auto industry to travel unfettered within local government through the first two-thirds of
the 20th century, without the countervailing influence of local residents. Second, without
representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other
major cities. They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to
view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the
city.
The seven reasons outlined above would be enough to hurt the future development prospects of
most cities. However, the last two reasons I cite, which look at land use actions and policy
decisions from more than 100 years ago, are what distinguishes Detroit from any other city in
America.
8. An industrial landscape that constrained the city’s core. A unique aspect of land use in
Detroit that‟s often discussed but rarely explored fully is the huge amount of industrial and
manufacturing land in the city. It‟s not surprising, really, since the city did give itself over to the
industrial gods. Detroit was not only the home of the auto industry, but all the suppliers that
made assembly there viable – producing everything from windshields to exhaust pipes.
Most cities across the nation, even most other Rust Belt cities, concentrated industrial lands in
certain districts or corridors, often in just one part of a city. Usually the industrial lands followed
waterfronts or rail corridors and connected with downtowns, and other parts of the city were
spared the negative externalities of industrial use. But Detroit circa 1905 was faced with a critical
decision – how could the city expand its industrial lands to capitalize on its emerging role as the
Automobile Capital of the World?
To see how Detroit arrived at its solution one must understand the primary transportation system
for manufacturing at the time – the railroads. By 1900 a dense network of rail lines had
developed around Detroit. The principal lines that moved products in and out of Detroit, the
Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western, entered the city from the southwest and exited to
the northeast, all just beyond the growing city‟s limits. While numerous other lines existed
throughout the city, the MC and Grand Trunk lines were critical because they connected Detroit
with the rest of the nation. An article I found from the Railway Age Gazette, from June 1914,
stated that:
The unusually rapid growth in the number and size of industrial plants along the main lines of
the railways entering the city has caused serious congestion in practically all of the area within
the city limits suitable for such development. (M)any railway and business men who had given
the subject careful consideration were of the opinion that the only permanent relief was to be
secured by building a complete outer belt line outside of the city limits.
This is pretty well illustrated in the map below, with the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk
Western lines highlighted in red. The city‟s boundaries prior to 1915 are highlighted in green
(please forgive my simple graphics):