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Regeneration Schemes in Detroit Michigan

As a result of increased mobility, cities are constantly changing. People move in from towns and rural areas and become concentrated in urban ones and then the pattern reverses and the move is from the urban to the rural, creating semi-cities. This growth of the suburbs has seen the decline of the urban core. As a result, the urban dynamic is no longer one of expansion, but of shrinkage. An example of the suburban movement can be seen in the Shrinking Cities in the USA where the suburban population increased by 12% in the period from 1970 to 1977 whereas the central city population decreased by 4.6% (Holcomb and Beauregard, 1981). This has lead to a change in the cities, where the suburbs of the middle-class and jobs (factories/offices) are key elements and the inner cities have been abandoned (Sassen, 1991). The drastic changes in cities caused by shrinking presents not only an economic and social, but also a cultural challenge. Shrinking cities oppose the image of the boomtown- a big city characterised by constant economic and demographic growth. The American Dream of prosperity for all meant that cities like Detroit and New Orleans grew to be vibrant, bustling cities but as a result of two totally different issues- one economic and one a natural disaster- they became shrinking cities which have had to find ways of regenerating.

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Detroit, Michigan developed from 1900 as the centre of the global auto industry. In 1930, it was the fourth largest city in the United States and grew to a population of 1.8 million by 1950. Its fortunes turned after World War II and by the end of 1950’s, the movement to the suburbs had already begun. From 1950 to 2000, Detroit’s population plummeted, as factory after factory closed and its economic condition steadily worsened. As white-collar employment moved to the suburbs along with large parts of the city’s middle class, office buildings, retail corridors in downtown and elsewhere were neglected and abandoned. The remaining population was poorer, and more highly dependent on public services that the city could no longer afford to provide. One of the main reasons for shrinkage is the de-industrialisation process where factories move to other destinations where production costs are cheaper and/or global economic factors that have a devastating effect on one industry i.e. the car industry. The exodus of mainly white inhabitants into the suburbs was a cause of the decay of Detroit’s inner city. Next the automotive factories and shopping malls began to follow the people beyond the city’s administrative borders.

Detroit has become a byword for economic decline and urban decay. By 2000, the city had shrunk to 950,000 residents, while the surrounding suburban population grew to nearly 4 million. Today, Detroit’s population is around 800,000, less than half its 1950 population. Over 40 square miles is made up of vacant land, and between 30,000 and 50,000 buildings sit empty. Almost one-third of the land is empty or unused and nearly 80,000 homes are vacant.

Unemployment in Detroit stands at 28 % and compared against USA’s 100 largest metropolitan regions, Detroit finishes last. The image above is an aerial view of a mostly vacant neighborhood in downtown Detroit. It illustrates the loss of social fabric and the consequent issue of safety associated with an abandoned neighborhood. When a population shrinks, the decline is not evenly spread across the city, causing more problems- Detroit’s tagline is Murder City of the World.

‘Without sufficient concentrations of people, not only is the provision of normal municipal services extremely expensive, but urban life itself begins to break down. There are not enough customers to support the neighborhood stores and services, or even to provide a sense of community. Empty streets become unsafe and abandoned buildings become haunts for drug dealers and other criminals.’ (Rybeczynski 1995 pp36-44)

Whilst Detroit shrank as a result of economic forces, New Orleans’ contraction was caused almost entirely by Hurricane Katrina. In August 2005 80% of the city was flooded, with some parts under 15 feet (4.5m) of water. More than half of its residents left the city as a result of the storm. Most of the major roads travelling into and out of the city were damaged. As of October 2006, the population of New Orleans had dropped by almost 60% from 455,000 people pre-storm to 187,500 post-storm. Hurricane Katrina hit the most underprivileged members of society who inhabited the most susceptible areas-these areas were populated by poor African Americans. (Griffith M. 2006). The storm and its aftermath devastated tens of thousands of already struggling people. But three years later it is growing rapidly and has become one of the country’s fastest growing cities. Its population is up 8.2% in the 12 months that ended July 1, 2008, gaining 23,740 people to 311,853, according to the US Census Bureau, 2008.

So how has New Orleans managed to overcome its devastating problems and turn itself into a modern day ‘boom town’? Why has it taken Detroit so much longer to come to terms with its problems? ‘Urban shrinkage is a fairly normal global phenomenon’ (Oswalt quoted in Detroit is Not Alone, Dec. 10, 2003 Collins L.). Oswalt does not see shrinkage as a harmful thing. In reality, he sees the shrunken city as an empty canvas for planners, architects and artists to develop innovative and improved ways of living. ‘Detroit is not better or worse than other places’, says Oswalt. ‘It’s just different.’

The question is not whether Detroit is a shrinking city or a city in decline. The fact is that it will be a far smaller city, in terms of population, than in the past. If Detroit could manage to boost its economy, there is still a fundamental issue -it is just too big for itself. Detroit has to change because it simply can’t manage as it is. The city grew to accommodate two million people, not the 800,000 that live there today. Can a smaller Detroit become a stronger, healthier, and more sustainable Detroit? Detroit has far more land than it needs to accommodate its people. It needs to look at its land uses to create smaller, better functioning, more sustainable and interconnected liveable communities (AIA Report 2008). A new compact development pattern based on an urban core and a network of urban villages linked by roads and roadways will not only allow for more efficient and cost effective delivery of public services, but will encourage public transportation, provide opportunities for diverse, mixed income communities, and create long term environmental benefit by reducing vehicle use and fostering transit and land use efficiency. In other words it needs to ‘right size’.

Schematic representation of future urban form concept for Detroit

(AIA’s R/UDAT (Regional and Urban Design Assistance Team)

Katz and Bradley writing in the New Republic 2009 suggest that ‘the new Detroit might be a patchwork of newly dense neighborhoods, large and small urban gardens, art installations, and old factories transformed into adventure parks.’ The Detroit River waterfront area is already being restored and a land bank has been established where the authorities commission vacant and derelict properties and start clearing the land. They can then decide what to do with it- a small park, handing it over to a resident or community group for tending, redevelopment or just green space. Detroit already has hundreds of community gardens and a growing number of small agricultural operations.

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‘When the centre depopulates, nature enters the city and replaces the people. This combination of natural and artificial ecology gave me the idea of Urban Ecology……a city is an organism rather than a machine.’ (Park K. 2005).

These urban agriculture schemes will employ thousands of residents, as well as improve their health. By increasing consumption of locally produced food the City’s carbon footprint is reduced and existing food processors and distributors in Detroit gain additional business opportunities. Detroit needs to fill the ‘jobs gap’ by educating and empowering all the diverse groups. It needs to create jobs that all residents can access-these urban farms would help.

New Orleans started its regeneration in full view of the world. The disaster affected the locals but the nation, as a whole, were ‘on trial’ to get the rebuilding programme right .The city received help from Federal and State governments as well as thousands of volunteers who wanted to see the city emerge stronger and better. Approximately $109 billion was allocated towards the recovery, with housing a priority-without housing for returning families, workers, and new temporary workers then businesses would close and the economy would worsen. The Regional Transport Authority provided free transport. There was a worldwide thrust to get New Orleans city quickly rebuilt. It worked, as was stated earlier; it has become one of the country’s fastest growing cities. The storm was devastating but it didn’t destroy the city’s strong musical heart: musicians returned and the music scene- essential to New Orleans’ identity- is on the road to recovery. Relief efforts started to help New Orleans musicians after the storm. The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic began a Foundation to help musicians replace their instruments and return to their homes. After the initial crisis passed, its efforts centred on giving musical instruments to schools for the next generation of musicians. In fact the Sweet Home New Orleans Foundation raised more than $2 million to help musicians. The American dream was once again awoken in New Orleans- working together to achieve a better, richer, and happier city for its people.

Race is an issue in both cities-both have a highly segregated community living in a concentrated area. Detroit needs to create a sustainable community where all the community value the land, work towards finding economic opportunities that are environmentally responsible and socially just, and create viable, healthy communities that are shared by all people, of all economic levels and racial or ethnic backgrounds.

In 1955, during its famous period of being ‘the Motor City’, the car company, General Motors, arrogantly influenced the city’ governing body to have the city’s tramlines torn up. Their logic was that the workers earned enough to buy cars and enough money to use them to travel. Today, there is hardly any local public transport-this has to be a priority.

The people of Detroit want their city to be ‘alive’ again. Many initiatives and projects have started and new investment has begun to flow into the centre of downtown and there are signs of a slow recovery. Initiatives include: Back a Bike- encouraging and enthusing the young to use cycles for transport and leisure, Cass Corridor Neighbourhood Development Corporation where community partnerships work together to acquire abandoned buildings and renovate them. The Earthworks Urban Farm uses volunteers to educate Detroit school children in science, nutrition and biodiversity through organic farming. Detroit Summer is another highly successful scheme where students from the University of Michigan and volunteers from both inside and outside of Detroit work on rejuvenating parks, designing art works, poetry workshops and progressive hip hop events- the sounds of Motown returning! There is a Motown Museum in the original Hitsville USA studio on West Grand Boulevard, but the city hasn’t really built on its famous musical past. The Denver Film Centre is one of many groups that offer regular filmmaking classes and workshops-Detroit itself has been used many times as a location for Hollywood films.

Maybe if Detroit had been savaged by a hurricane and submerged by a voracious flood then maybe the rest of the USA and the world would help and support it? Can it ever return to being a city once the living proof of the American dreams? Compared to New Orleans, Detroit has received minimal government aid-$18.4 billion. The local government continues to argue over its fate and there is no cohesive policy that unites all. To date the energy and financial commitment needed to help grasp any vision of urbanity is sorely lacking. The city is fragmented and if it’s allowed to ‘die’, then it would be an American nightmare.


  • AIA’s R/UDAT (Regional and Urban Design Assistance Team) 2008
  • Collins L., Detroit is Not Alone http://www.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=5718
  • Griffith M., Hurricane Katrina: The Catastrophe that Uncovered America’s Race and Class Issues, Tulane University Graduate Paper, 2006
  • Holcomb and Beauregarde, Revitalising Cities, Washington, DC: Association of American Geographers, 1981
  • Katz B., Bradley J., The Detroit Project, A plan for solving America’s greatest urban disaster, 2009
  • Liu, Fellowes, Mabanta, Katrina Index: Tracking Variables of Post-Katrina Recovery, Washington Brookings Institution. 2006.
  • Oswalt P. et al, The Shrinking City Volume 2,Hatje Cantz Publishers 2006
  • Oswalt P. et al, The Shrinking City Volume 2,Hatje Cantz Publishers 2006
  • Park K. et al Urban Ecology: Detroit and Beyond MAP Book Publishers 2005
  • Richardson J. What’s Needed for Post-Hurricane Recovery, Washington: The Financial Services Roundtable, 2006
  • Rybezynzski W. Downsizing To Make Cities Work Better, Make Smaller, The Atlantic Monthly (October 1995 Washington DC) pp36-40
  • Rybezynski W. City Life Diane Publishing Company 1995
  • Sassen S. The Global City Princeton University Press 1991
  • US Census Bureau www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/013960.html –

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